I completed my undergraduate and MA degrees at the University of Birmingham where I first recognised my interests in contemporary British history, feminism and historical method. My PhD thesis investigates pubic hair removal in twentieth and twenty first century British culture, as a way of exploring changing perceptions of body image and personal experiences of grooming/body modification.
I had reservations after the initial call to write a blogpost about the conference: ‘What if I don’t have any thoughts!?’ I panicked. I shouldn’t have worried. The lunchtime buffet (noted by many as an apposite homage to decades past) would singlehandedly produce much historical reflection. In a token gesture to the catering and to Alison Twells from the creative history panel, in which she described how she used great aunt’s list of ‘crushes’ in the back of her diary as chapters in her biography, I utilise the lunchtime buffet to introduce some of my initial thoughts on what was a deliciously manic and thought-inspiring conference. (Apologies to Alison in advance for an amateur attempt to appropriate her idea.)
Quiche, samosas, vol-au-vents and kebabs – what do we mean by ‘British’ anymore?When I first read the CFP for the ‘Reinventing Modern British Studies’ conference my immediate reaction was, ‘my research doesn’t fits into this’. Naively (in retrospect), I did not identify myself as working under the title of ‘British History’, preferring analytical labels such as ‘cultural’, and ‘gender’. I came to learn from the conference I wasn’t alone. The term ‘British’ in fact to me, has signified grand narratives of empire, generalising statements about political and economic elites, and topics focused on military history. I felt that my doctoral research expanded the geographical limitations of this little island. My research explores trends of body hair removal, particularly pubic hair removal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, even though many of the cultural ideas I am exploring do not originate from Britain (‘Brazilian’ waxing: the clues in the name), in essence I ask how these notions have been interpreted, appropriated and put into practice by British people. It only occurs to me now that the word ‘Britain’ even features in my provisional thesis title: apparently subconsciously I’d been doing British History all along. Post-conference I realise the eclecticism and breadth of the term; I feel more comfortable with labelling myself as someone who does ‘British History’, and actually admit I had a very old-fashioned view of what British History is, and who historians of Britain are.
Wraps are the new sandwiches – or new ways of reimagining the old (when really it’s just containment of meat in bread)To me it seemed the overriding focus of the majority of panels and plenaries over the three days centred on: emotions, bodies and selfhood within existing structures of power; an emphasis on the ‘ordinary’ and ‘everyday’ (involving much air quoting); and using small intimate stories to answer big questions. Particularly, in terms ‘cultures of democracy’ and empowerment, I enjoyed papers which encouraged me to think about how we might frame and interpret technical innovations and the role of ‘experts’ in histories of the moral, ethical, psychological, social and cultural. I’ve come away feeling particularly well-placed in historical academic study at this particular moment. It’s given me the confidence that my subject and methodology fit into the conversation happening right now, and there was some serious head-nodding on my part when Stephen Brooke suggested in the postgraduate panel that we ask ourselves, ‘how does politics work?’ in connecting personal life with academic work. On the other hand, it’s made me question what being part of the historical zeitgeist does and means. How much am I just part of a fashion, or trend in historical thinking towards what I will dub ‘emotional ordinariness’, and does that mean an inevitable limited longevity? Does this even matter? It seems that historical study, like fashions in food and clothing design, can’t escape the fluctuations of the marketplace, reinvention of old ideas and saturation after innovation. Like fashion designers, there seems to be constant need for forecasting trends, looking back at past work for inspiration, and as Lucy Delap suggested a search for new canonical texts to expand the old repertoire of Douglas, Foucault, and Freud. Maybe this is my naïvity talking and you’re reading this thinking, ‘of course this happens, this is nothing new, and already you’re worrying about it ending when we’ve barely scratched the surface ’. As a newbie to this all I’m asking is if/when the next phase in historical thinking turns away from emotional ordinariness, will I get left behind? How will this affect my employability? Will you find me languishing in the sale section in a few years’ time, or all that remains on day three of the buffet when all the fancier finger food is gone?
Cheese and Pineapple on sticks – mixing the unconventional and interdisciplinarity
There was discussion right from the get-go at the Wednesday morning PG panel regarding the term ‘interdisciplinarity’. Both working papers which the Modern British Studies centre published stated the importance of more interdisciplinary study to halt the ‘fragmentation of sub-disciplines’, hence the use of ‘Studies’ rather than ‘History’ in the centre’s title. There was some debate as to whether the conference truly reflected this sentiment. Geoff Eley stated in the closing roundtable that the last three days had been driven predominantly by historians with a lack of input from other disciplines. This is responded to on twitter with the question ‘Has there really not been much interdisciplinarity? Or have people just not been consciously labelling as such?’ put forward by @sexhistorian. I return to Margot Finn’s response to the first working paper in which she asked ‘What does it actually mean to work across disciplines?’ Is it enough for historians to utilise or pick ‘n’ mix analytical tools from other disciplines, or should we be inviting them to physically participate? In some ways the existing set-up of conference organisation hinders interdisciplinary for the latter: limited by time and space for papers, and by who actually responds to the CFP in the first place. My own personal ‘interdisciplinarity’ was hindered by what panels I chose to attend: mostly focusing on anything to do with self-governance, emotions or bodies; avoiding anything that might be too economical or pre-1914. The desire to step out of my comfort zone and try something different was hampered by a greater desire to see some of my favourite historians talk about ideas that seemed more straightforwardly relevant to my interests and I probably wasn’t the only one. In the future I’d like to be part of working out how we might overcome some of these structural barriers: encouraging other disciplines to participate and maybe adapting the way conferences are organised to stop the physical ‘fragmentation’ of sub-disciplines which MBS has talked about. The use of live twitter updates from individuals attending different panels was helpful in some way to combatting this, although I think talk of the ‘digital’ more generally in expanding historical study and analysis was neglected at the conference almost entirely. I can’t say that I have any expertise in the area at all, in fact I think I have an allergy to digital coding (discovered after one very long workshop); but I do think if we are going to have conversations we had about ‘creative’ history, ‘public impact’ and ‘employability’, we cannot do so without acknowledgement of the work that is happening in the digital humanities along the lines of visualisation practices and web archiving, however alien it might seem to some, including myself.
Frazzle(d) brains and ‘wotsit’ all been about?As a previous undergraduate and Masters student of the Birmingham history department, I’ve attended a couple of previous Birmingham History conferences, namely the ‘New Times Revisited?’ and ‘BCCCS 50 years on’; I knew that the Rethinking Modern British Studies conference was going to be a personal game-changer from these experiences alone. These are what initially inspired my desire to be a historian, and I was so glad to see and speak to a number of MA and undergraduates at MBS, having previously been the only taught student in the room at times. As I said before, the conference has made me re-think how I see myself in the field, but it has also made me question the university system more generally. In the Sussex history department where I am now based, the value of collaborate work is readily acknowledged and I have found myself encouraged not just to work in partnership across disciplines but also with my supervisor on a piece of work we’ve created together. I really like that Birmingham conferences have always had postgraduate input into their organisation, but that this one in particular was a conscious blurring of those hierarchical boundaries, despite some moments of awkward fangirling from afar. Chris prompted me to think from the position of having been a student at Birmingham and now continuing elsewhere. In moving to another institution I have found myself part of a fantastically thought-provoking ‘Historrry’ sisterhood. But I do also feel a part of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies endeavour, and I don’t know if this is because I was there at the very cusp of inception, or just because I can see that my work fits into what they’re trying to do, maybe it’s both. I’m not certain to what extent I am allowed to feel part of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies centre and whether, if it was a club, I would be eligible for one of the matching smoking jackets or not. I guess what I’m asking is how much are other universities and independent researchers going to be allowed to participate in the Birmingham centre from this point onwards? Or should we be looking towards our own universities to ‘carry on the conversation’. I’m excited to find out how a collaborative network might take shape.
Sponge cakes for after(words)
To conclude and in the spirit of measuring impact, what I have learnt and will carry with me from the conference, at least for a few months until I need prompting again are:
- I am very lucky to have had the teachers and mentors I have had at Birmingham and now have at Sussex which makes me very very privileged to be doing what I am doing. I think at some points in the PhD process this is quite easy to forget, and why conferences like this are always good to re-energise your research and rejuvenate your enthusiasm to get involved in the community (whatever that word means to you).
- I know nothing about a lot of things, but I do know a bit about some things! Therefore although perplexed a lot of the time, I was very rarely entirely lost and this to me is definitely progress.
- I’ve also learnt some great new words which I’ve made a mental of to use such as ‘anodyne’, ‘lingua franca’, and ‘synthesis’. If nothing else, my mother would thank you for expanding my vocabulary after many years of having to proof read my written work.