British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.