Modern British Studies @ Birmingham Working Paper No. 2
This is the second working paper written by Modern British Studies at Birmingham. You can read it below or download it as a PDF document.
In 2014 we celebrated the 50 year anniversary of the establishment of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which was made all the more poignant by the passing of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. When thinking about Modern British Studies at Birmingham it is hard to ignore the influence of the Centre, in particular the role postgraduates played in its intellectual and organisational development.
The collaborative values of the CCCS were perhaps best demonstrated by the purchase of a reprographic ‘Gestetner’ machine to be used without Hall’s oversight for input by students, enabling them to mass-produce and distribute their work. CCCS students worked in a collaborative environment, in which their voices were heard, and mattered. They were able to work on co-authored pieces such as Gilroy, Amos and Parmer’s volume ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Furthermore the CCCS’ collaborative values included the incorporation of interdisciplinary methods, something which proved fundamental to their project.
The CCCS students were also committed to community politics, something which reflected their political engagement with the politics of the day. They engaged with theory and experimented with identity politics. They produced position papers and political pamphlets. Some set up a community centre in Handsworth, and many went on to careers as renowned academics without ever finishing their theses. This last point seems somewhat unlikely in academia today, but it serves to highlight the changing pressures that postgraduates face. Many of the practices of the CCCS are simply no longer practical for postgraduates. And yet, working in a new but equally challenging political and social environment, we strongly believe that the MBS should embody the values and practices, if not the political direction, of the CCCS. We may not have a ‘Gestetner’ printer but we do have the internet, blog posts, and social media, alongside traditional forms of academic output. The challenge is to bridge the gap between the academic and the public, and to have our voices considered in both arenas. Whilst working under the umbrella of the MBS is important to this, as postgraduates we must ensure that we are actively involved in shaping the direction of Modern British Studies at Birmingham.
This working paper begins to think about the challenges that confront postgraduates within academia, and wider society today. It is also a response to MBS Working Paper No. 1, and expands on some of the themes we feel should remain of central importance to the project, notably public engagement and interdisciplinarity.
The position of PGs in Academia Today
As postgraduates we understand the precariousness of the academic job market in which we compete. The supply of doctoral researchers is currently far outstripping any demand for them in the higher education sector. The ongoing shift to a market-based education system (which can be characterised as the neoliberalisation of the University) continues to re-imagine and re-construct the material conditions in which we work. Undergraduate students increasingly resemble consumers of services, rather than participatory learners. In this context, young academics setting out to write original and insightful PhD dissertations also appear to be the most obvious potential victims of job scarcity, declining research funding and pervasive long working hours.
It is inconceivable now to think that a postgraduate could embark upon a successful academic career without finishing their thesis. The doctorate is a barrier to entry, and it is expected to be completed by many in just three short years. As postgraduates we cannot all expect permanent, long-term academic positions, especially without experience of teaching, publishing, or being involved in community projects – all within this restrictive time frame. The three year window also ensures a high turnover of students within departments, with the result that postgraduate communities such as our own are fleeting and hard to maintain.
We anticipate that MBS will provide a space for students to develop their work in a less-pressured environment which facilitates the intellectual development of their projects, and to establish themselves in a competitive job market. One way that this could be achieved is through the provision of concrete training in some of the more pragmatic elements of academia, such as the interview process and how to write academic CVs or a cover letter, as well as subject specific elements such as post-doc and research grant application processes, oral history training and so forth. This could become an integral part of the MA programme, or be run as workshops for PGRs in order to better prepare us for academic History as a profession by equipping us with the tools and knowledge to navigate it. Another option would be the provision of one year early career fellowships which would enable students the time to work on funding bids, to undertake co-taught modules and to publish their work. In this way we can perhaps get on a more equal footing with our American counterparts.
Another issue which we feel particularly affects postgraduates is the drive towards increasing specialisation of the historical profession. As Working Paper No. 1 discussed, the study of cultural, social, political and economic change in modern Britain has fragmented. Pursuing research in this context has rendered the experience of conducting a PhD a seemingly limiting, isolated and insular experience. Postgraduate study too often involves working on projects which consist of ever-more technical and specialized topics, with narrower timescales which have the tendency to lose sight of the big picture. Many projects fall short when it comes to answering wider questions concerning the interaction between society, culture and politics. They fail to make connections between specific topics and their importance for developing our understanding of mass democracy and mass culture.
Symbolic of the fractured nature of History at present, is the temptation to see the histories of the 19th and 20th centuries as discreet. However 1900, 1914, 1918, 1945, 1989 – none of these were moments of declension. It is better to avoid seeing big global events, like the First and Second World Wars, or significant domestic junctures (Thatcherism) as moments of rupture or change. When exploring intertwined historical strands it is useful to see these big events in parentheses – as minor, compared to the deeper socio-cultural and economic schematic shifts. This change of approach allows us to bridge artificially constructed chronological and thematic chasms, enabling access to wider narratives such as gender, imperialism, medicine and racial science. Indeed gender histories, and histories of women, reveal that women laboured under many of the same prejudices in the twentieth century as in the late Victorian period, as phenomena such as widening suffrage and mass democracy were less influential than misogynist narratives, interpersonal relations, and an often discriminatory judicial system.
Whilst we are wary of the salience afforded to the longue durée and ‘big data’ in Armitage and Guldi’s The History Manifesto, we think the production of broader, unifying histories could prove an ideal tonic to the process of ‘fracture’ that causes potentially valuable research to drown in specificity and increasingly lose touch with more public debates and concerns. Yet, rather than ‘big history’ or ‘big data’ we place importance on getting at the ‘big picture’. Broader, unifying histories can be one way of doing this but shorter, local, more qualitative histories should not be rejected. It is the types of questions which we seek to answer which should be big, not necessarily the chronological or geographical scope of our work.
For postgraduate students, then, Modern British Studies should be about reconnecting with big historiographical and historical questions. By providing an intellectual framework students can engage with a project which expands the boundaries of their work, and encourages them to consider new methodologies. Moreover MBS is well-placed to offer them the time and space to do so. Here, the importance of ‘Studies’ rather than ‘History’ becomes pertinent, as another way to achieve this is the provision of an interdisciplinary setting which would expose students to a variety of methodologies and theoretical approaches to research.
Different kinds of knowledge are required to answer different kinds of questions. However, this does not necessitate the afore-mentioned specialisation and fragmentation, but instead can encourage us to draw on different traditions, different disciplines and theoretical stances. Students should be encouraged to embrace the eclecticism that has grown out of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s – there is now more scope than ever for topics to be seen as legitimate areas of study, and for students to find ways of having conversations across gaps in methodologies and disciplinary traditions. As a new generation, relatively unscarred by the politically and methodologically high-stakes debates fought over by our senior colleagues, we are well-positioned to make the most of these opportunities and to find ways of putting social concerns into post-modern histories.
Working Paper No. 1 briefly mentions interdisciplinarity. This blurring of academic boundaries is something which we feel strongly about. As Susan Pedersen and others have suggested, the sophisticated understanding that we now have of the political realm was not arrived at by one school of thought alone. There is a notable convergence between the findings of both high political historians and new political historians that has been arrived at all too independently from one another. This we believe should serve as a general lesson to us all, it resonates throughout the discipline of history. Our post-Marxist understanding of the political realm has benefitted from developments in cultural studies, gender history and the linguistic turn, allowing us to eschew economic determinism.
However, in order to best contribute to the debate about systems of power, we cannot be complacent. As Pedersen suggests, we must be wary that having jettisoned ‘class-based but also more broadly social-structural explanations’ that we neglect the reach of institutional and state structures. In our own work, we have been simultaneously impressed by the reaches of non-state actors but aware that they are both influenced and constrained by the state and indeed other non-state actors. We do not wish to write histories solely concerned with the machinations of Westminster and Whitehall. We believe that power is ubiquitous, that politics is ordinary (Hilton, 2011), but the extent to which it can be effectively coordinated is another matter and one which is dependent upon a large number of factors. Indeed, so many factors are involved as to make their full appreciation impossible without a collective effort. The historian however hard she or he tries cannot be an expert in everything everywhere.
MBS, as suggested by its focus on British Studies rather than British History has the potential to provide an open forum for all schools of thought, specialisms and indeed all relevant disciplines. This will no doubt involve collaboration with other Centres at Birmingham such as the Centres for Modern and Contemporary History, War Studies, and West Midlands History. However this potential will only be fulfilled if MBS builds interdisciplinary into its structure by consistently seeking the engagement of non-historians. In order to do this, it must provide an active forum for those of us in the history department, and our counterparts in politics, English, economics and so forth. This is something that we, as a postgraduate community have made steps towards, through initiatives such as the History and Cultures Workshop, an interdisciplinary seminar series, and a new interdepartmental postgraduate reading group.
MBS’ potential to create a cohesive community by pooling together a broad array of expertise is, perhaps, most evident when considering the intention outlined in the first MBS working paper to treat Britain ‘as a nodal point in a broader global history’. Stuart Hall remarked that we should not treat the British Empire as a mere appendage of Britain’s history, but as intrinsic to British identity. Neither can the rest of the world be considered so; Britain should not be treated as if it operated within a vacuum. Nodes in communication networks are active not passive. Through international and transnational means, British citizens have done much to try to politically, economically and socially shape the global order, as it and people all over the world shaped them. In terms of both policy and thought, the international and the domestic are not just interrelated, they are interdependent. We trust that the centre will bring together experts of Britain at the level of the local, regional, national, international, supranational, transnational and global, as well as encourage the production of varied and fruitful comparative studies.
But MBS should also be about looking beyond academia, towards fostering well-rounded researchers who are able to make their work mean something, both amongst their peers and colleagues, and their wider communities.
Although we may not commit to the strong political direction of the CCCS, we are interested in systems of power and how they mediate the realms of political, social and economic relations. Furthermore, we believe that this interest is reflected in wider contemporary British society. The two recent referenda on the alternative vote system and Scottish independence, along with the threatened referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, are symptomatic of a popular and historic disquiet over the extent to which power is representatively distributed. One potential result could be that greater social justice will follow the redistribution of power (see Beer, 1982). The alternative could be a narrow introverted nationalism – removed from global political and economic realities – that would only worsen social inequalities.
We believe that the more informed our public debate is the less likely the latter outcome becomes, and that the former is possible. Given our intimate knowledge of the issues involved, Historians have a duty to be part of that debate. It is easy to dismiss the flawed arguments of the likes of Nigel Farage and Russell Brand when they proffer their respective solutions to more fairly redistribute power. However, we must also ask ourselves what can we do better? What can we offer in the way of informing the public as to why some actors are more successful at implementing ideas than others? In order to maintain our role, we need exciting, accessible histories that genuinely speak to the issues of today, but also speak to people outside of the academy. This is the critical issue of public engagement, flagged up by the first Working Paper but in need of more active and sustained efforts if it is to remain an integral part of this project.
The recent partnership between the MBS and the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage group is a step in the right direction, as it seeks to offer an avenue for engagement through initiatives such as ‘History in Public’ workshops which would be open to both students and members of the public. But we maintain that breaking down the boundaries and distinctions between academic and amateur history, and establishing links with local, regional and family history groups is of the utmost significance. Public engagement projects can and should act as an essential bridge between the work of historians both now and in the future and our wider communities.
As part of the ongoing shift to a market-based education system research quality is measured by such yardsticks as ‘knowledge transfer’, commercialisation, and the all-powerful REF (which appears to many PhD students as an ominous and ill-defined spectre on the horizon). ‘Impact’ has also become one of the central focuses of the humanities and social sciences in recent years. When society values the results of ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ research, the place of the humanities can appear fragile, not least in the face of funding cuts in the arts. As such, the pressure is mounting on academics to prove the potential impact that their work might have. The application guide for AHRC funding requires individuals to answer questions regarding ‘who might benefit from the research?’ specifically amongst those who lie outside of the academic research community. For postgraduates, embarking on research that is necessarily limited in its scope, the possibility of fulfilling this requirement appears daunting.
Yet, given the fact that we are required to consider impact before even embarking on our theses, we are keenly aware from a very early stage of our careers about the importance of public engagement and are thus indispensable to this aspect of MBS. There is undoubtedly an enthusiastic and engaged cohort currently within the history department. Indeed, MBS can benefit from the activities already being pursued by postgraduates at Birmingham, who have been involved in a variety of undertakings, including the development of local and oral history projects, the creation of a seminar series, and a student-run journal. But this cohort will soon complete their dissertations and move on, and there is a danger that such initiatives may well disappear with them. This momentum must be sustained, and through its MA programme MBS has the potential to enthuse new generations of students to continue and extend further these projects.
The expansion of skills sets should be at the heart of postgraduate programmes, and MBS thus needs to consider how the historians of the next generation should be trained in the field of modern British history. Working under the umbrella of MBS should allow postgraduates to consider our research projects in new and imaginative ways. Outreach, public engagement, community histories, engaging youth, constructing networks that go beyond the university, and ultimately writing for new audiences via different media – whether blog posts or the 140 characters required by twitter – will contribute towards improving our skills and future employability, whether within academia or outside of higher education.
Furthermore, it is necessary for historians to not only consider the material left to us from past generations, but also to look forward and consider how we are curating the present for future ones. Digital humanities, especially, is a realm to which more attention should be paid; as an exciting route towards public engagement, as an underexploited source for research, and as an area which will only grow in significance given the nature of contemporary communication. There is little doubt that work on mass data in the ‘Communications Age’ has the potential to produce important and insightful histories now, and to shape the potential direction of history as a discipline in years to come. It is for this reason that we believe that digital skills should be a fundamental part of postgraduate training.
MBS for Postgraduates
Undertaking postgraduate study today is immensely challenging, both personally and professionally. The question therefore arises; what can Modern British Studies offer postgraduates in this difficult political and economic climate, and what do we as postgraduates want from it? Ultimately, what we want is for our work to matter. We want to think big. We want to engage with some of the major debates and issues confronting our society today.
We are setting out on academic careers at a time when popular belief in the civic purpose of higher education is waning. When Universities became subservient to market forces, they risk being hollowed out of their public responsibilities. Universities thus produce depoliticised students, restricted to specialised doctoral projects which do not necessarily resonate beyond a narrow field of like-minded experts. This is not to disparage the research projects and career choices of others. But it is through initiatives such as MBS that postgraduate historians can be part of a larger research agenda, which tackles the world around us.
For postgraduate students, then, Modern British Studies should be about reconnecting with a historiographical project which expands their intellectual horizons. It should also be about expanding skill sets, through providing the means for students to work in interdisciplinary settings, exposing them to different methodologies and theoretical approaches to research. Moreover, it should be about looking far beyond academia, to create well-rounded researchers who are able to make their research mean something, both amongst their peers and colleagues, and their communities.
In this spirit, we intend to harness MBS to participate in an exciting and collaborative project, and ultimately offer fresh and original accounts of democratic citizenship, public engagement, social activism, inequality, affluence, and power in modern Britain.
* This working paper was written collaboratively by postgraduates at MBS; Bob Brown, Amy Edwards, Andrew Jones, Saima Nasar, Daisy Payling, Jamie Perry, Laura Sefton, and Ellis Stacey. We would like to thank everyone who read or heard versions of the working paper and offered comments and feedback. Special thanks must go to Patrick Longson for his suggestions.