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December
1
2017

My NACBS: Our new series dedicated to building community and collaborations.

Posted by rdaily under MyNACBS | Tags: Interview | 0 Comments

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This is the first post in our new series designed to introduce and connect NACBS members. Taking our lead from the American Historical Association’s member spotlight posts, we hope to deepen our sense of community through short posts that delve into who we are and what we value. For more information on this new series, contact Blog editor Stephen Jackson at Stephen.Jackson@usiouxfalls.edu.

Name and title: Kathrin Levitan, Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary


What are your fields of interest?

I work on nineteenth-century Britain and the British Empire. I usually call myself a social and cultural historian but my work really includes political and intellectual history as well. The research projects I have done, while covering very different topics, have all addressed nineteenth-century debates about empire, gender, class, and political power.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a project on letter-writing and the Post Office in nineteenth-century Britain and the British Empire. I am interested in letter-writing as a social practice during the era of industrialization, when more people had access to letters than ever before. Nineteenth-century discussions about postal infrastructure and letters speak to all kinds of important issues, including gender, migration, class, nation-building and empire-building, and literary genre.

Do you have a favorite archive, digital or physical? What about it draws you in? 

I love working at the National Archives in Kew. This was the first archive that I really worked at, and although I have worked at many others since then it still draws me back. I love how open and accessible it is, how easy it is to use, and how it draws all kinds of people from school children to academics to people researching their own families.

Have you ever experienced a “break-through” moment while researching? What was it like?

I had an interesting experience recently while working on my letter-writing project.  While working in the Post Office archive in London, I began to look at Post Office appointment books, which for centuries listed the names and salaries of postal officials across the country. I realized that women who ran rural, colonial, and sometimes major urban post offices in Britain were in some cases making very high salaries and supervising large numbers of employees, at a time when almost no other government jobs were available to women. This made me realize that postmistresses and their circumstances were worth studying in their own right. What made this somewhat of a “break-through” moment for me was the fact that it drew me away from my initial purpose and into a side project of sorts, which was in fact very different from the primary project from which it arose. My interest in postmistresses has compelled me to look at a number of archival sources that are more obscure and specific than the more public sources I had been looking at about postal reform and theories of letter-writing. They have allowed me to reconstruct historical details about particular women who have not been part of the historical narrative about the Post Office. 

What attracted you to this work? Why British studies?

I have always been interested in European history, and my teaching and research interests remain transnational now. I may have been attracted specifically to studying Britain partly through reading nineteenth-century British novels. In college I double-majored in English and History and I continue to do interdisciplinary work. 

Have your academic interests transformed over time?

In some ways my interests have changed and in other ways they have remained remarkably consistent.  When I finished my book about the British census and began doing research on letter-writing and the Post Office I was surprised to find how much overlap the topics had. While I thought that I was making a shift to thinking much more about everyday life through the social practice of letter-writing, I found that in fact both the census and postal reform were government projects that were billed as democratizers and national unifiers, that were supported by Whigs and that provoked suspicion among Tories, and that forced me to investigate the connection between government documents, newspapers, and more personal and sometimes literary sources.

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary?

I am currently working on a project about a communication revolution of sorts – the moment when letter-writing became accessible to large numbers of people, and in some cases began to take over large segments of people’s everyday lives. This clearly has relevance to current discussions about communication. Like many people in our own time, nineteenth-century observers were interested in the question of whether faster, cheaper, and more regular communication fundamentally changed people’s relationships and ways of thinking about their own geographic mobility.

How do you engage students in British studies?

 I try to engage students by exposing them to a wide variety of texts as well as musical and artistic productions from the past. In some cases, students may already be familiar with a particular text or other source, but they may not have read it or interpreted it through the lens of British history. As one example, I sometimes show a clip from the movie Mary Poppins that allows us to discuss gender norms and Empire in the Edwardian period. While most students are already familiar with the film, they are often surprised to see that it has relevance to the history that we are studying in class.

Do you have a favorite text to teach?

I have so many favorite texts to teach! A few of my favorites in British Studies include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s France, An Ode, Mary Prince’s A History of Mary Prince, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a government investigative document called “Women Miners in the English Coal Pits,” Joseph Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress,” and Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island.

Do you have a book, museum, television series or film you would recommend to our readers?

Two televisions series that are relevant to either my teaching or my research are Foyle’s War (about Britain during World War II, and particularly the social effects of war) and Lark Rise to Candleford (about a country post office and its postmistress in the late nineteenth century). A film that I sometimes teach and that I would recommend in general is The Wind that Shakes the Barley, about the war for Irish independence. Regarding museums and books, there are too many good ones to list!

 

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