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July
15
2017

Interview with Susan Kingsley Kent

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An Interview with Susan Kingsley Kent, author of A New History of Britain Since 1688: Four Nations and an Empire. 

1) What prompted you to write this textbook? How does the process of writing a textbook differ from other forms of scholarly work?

There is nothing like writing a textbook for learning things. The process of building an outline alone compels one to think anew about familiar material and that can be exhilarating. Textbook writing is not like other scholarly writing.  Rather than presenting an overarching argument based on primary sources and original research, as one would in a monograph for example, the textbook writer offers an overarching perspective that enables her or him to organize vast amounts of information that other people have already produced.  Certainly the textbook writer is creating new knowledge, but is doing so by recasting material rather than discovering it anew.

2) The subject matter in a book like this, especially a text that incorporates both a “four nations” approach and the empire, is huge! What was your strategy for boiling down such a massive amount of history into one discrete volume?

As a wise friend once told me, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  The key is to focus on one chapter at a time. It’s not always possible, however, and when it isn’t things get gnarly. Then it’s time to go back to your outline, to recover your sense of the book as a whole in order to figure out how a particular chapter fits.

3) How did you decide on the basic organization and themes of the book?   

It didn’t start out this way, but very early on in the process the campaign for Scottish independence kicked into high gear, and that set the stage for how I saw the book.  I wanted to complicate the story of “Britishness” as set out by such scholars as Linda Colley, to present the relationship of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England as contested and challenging and then to bring in empire to complicate the narratives even further. 

4) What role do you envision your textbook serving in a Modern British History survey course? How can instructors best utilize a text like this in the classroom?

I hope Four Nations and an Empire will become a standard text for British survey and British empire courses. In order to include the empire and nations beyond England I had to leave out detailed coverage of many conventional topics. That leaves room for teachers to focus more tightly on topics, if they wish to do so. But those omissions, I think, also speak pointedly to the English-centric nature of most “British” history texts, and that is well worth exploring in classes.

5) How does this textbook set itself apart from other histories of Britain? 

The most obvious difference is the integration of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and empire into what has conventionally been English history masquerading as British history.  By taking those other nations and colonial territories seriously as important players, the history we thought we knew changes considerably.  I find it far more interesting, frankly.

6) This book was published relatively recently (February of 2016), but it feels like so much has happened since then! Do you intend to make a second edition and, if so, will Brexit affect your narrative in any way? On a more general level: how responsive should our textbooks be to recent events?

 I think it vital to produce a second edition that will take Brexit into account.  Everything will be different for Britons now, and all kinds of questions will arise—will Scotland become independent in the aftermath of Brexit?  What will happen to the Northern Ireland peace accord?  Is there any possibility that a united Ireland might emerge from the debacle of Brexit?  How will young people in all the four nations respond to what looks to me to be a shrinking of opportunities for them and for Britain in the world at large. 

On the more general question, I believe textbooks have to be attuned to recent events.  On the most practical level, they are what students know; they provide the backdrop to the way they view the world.  More philosophically, I don’t think it’s possible for any of us to produce scholarship that doesn’t reflect in some manner—perhaps in some deep dark recess of our minds—the world in which we walk around. 

7) What advice would you give to other scholars who are thinking about writing a textbook in their area of expertise?

Do it: you will learn a ton. Get a good editor: I had one of the best in Charles Cavaliere at OUP.  Be kind to yourself:  there will be moments when you tear your hair out.

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Edited by Stephen Jackson

Stephanie Barczewski, John Eglin, Stephen Heathorn, Michael Silvestri, and Michelle Tusan discuss the hard work involved in crafting an undergraduate level history textbook on Modern Britain.

1)   What was it that initially drew each of you to this project? How is the process of publishing a textbook collaboratively different than the typical experience of publishing a scholarly monograph?

Stephanie Barczewski: This all started because Eve Setch from Routledge was on a tour of southern American universities and came to visit Clemson.  She asked me what I thought British history was lacking, and I replied (not for the first time to a publisher) that I did not think that there was a British history textbook that covered the period from 1688 to the present, which is the standard modern survey at most American colleges and universities, in a relatively compact single volume and in the way that most British historians today conceive of and teach the subject.  She asked if I was interested in writing one.  After thinking “yike!,” I said I would consider it, and I ultimately decided that it was hypocritical to complain about the lack of a good textbook if I wasn’t willing to take a stab at it.  Plus, the idea of trying to define and shape what British history is all about these days was appealing, if also daunting.  At that point, I already had two other book projects under contract, so I really couldn’t take on the entire thing single-handedly, plus I thought it would be better to recruit specialists in the relevant periods.  So I rounded up a few colleagues and off we went.  I had no experience of writing a textbook and no idea how different it is from writing a monograph.  It is a much more systematic process.  Instead of writing the entire manuscript before anyone sees it, textbooks are written in sections that go out to a massive panel of readers as you go along.  We sometimes got more words back in criticism and comments than we had written!

Michelle Tusan: When Stephanie approached me about doing the textbook as a team project I thought it sounded really appealing. We historians are not used to working collaboratively and this seemed to me a perfect opportunity to engage a different writing and research muscle. I, too, was dissatisfied with the textbook I was using and thought that this was the perfect opportunity to have a hand in creating a book that better spoke to my own research interests and those of my students. For example, it was important to me to have sections on informal empire in the Middle East which is relevant both to current scholarly concerns and how I teach British history in the classroom. 

John Eglin: The opportunity to write a British history textbook aimed specifically at American undergraduates was particularly appealing to me. There are actually lots of textbooks out there, but they tend to be written for UK and Commonwealth students, and thus assume a great deal of prior knowledge about culture and institutions and so forth. It is significant that most of us teach at large public institutions in the US, and are correspondingly aware of the need to explain thoroughly but without condescension aspects of a history and culture that is terra incognita for so many of our students. That sense of shared responsibility also drew me in. As for collaborating with four other co-authors, to be honest, I initially feared that it was a disaster in the making. In the end, however, largely due to the heroic efforts of Stephanie and Michael, it wasn't. 

Stephen Heathorn: The challenge of having so many peer reviewers was particularly daunting.  It explains why textbooks are rarely radically revisionist.  One of the consequences for us, however, was actually a harmonization of the content/viewpoint in a positive way.


2)   From the earliest point in the process there must have been tough organizational choices to be made. How did you determine the narrative structure of the book and strike the right balance between the types of history to be included (political, cultural, social, economic, etc…)? 

Stephanie: We knew from the beginning that we wanted the textbook to be up-to-date but not too radical a departure so as not to confuse undergraduate students.  So we knew that we would need to retain a fair bit of traditional political history but also incorporate newer approaches.  For us, the latter meant two things primarily.  First, a global focus that looked closely at both the British Empire and Britain’s place in the world more broadly, and secondly, the inclusion of all four parts of the United Kingdom and the avoidance of Anglocentrism.  It was interesting, though, that we really resisted a “core narrative” until we offered a round table at the NACBS in Portland in November 2013.  We were pleasantly surprised by how many eminent historians from both sides of the Atlantic attended, and by the liveliness of the discussion.  The attendees really pushed us to develop our themes into a stronger central narrative, and I’m very glad they did, because it made the book, I think, much better.  I’m pleased that every scholar who has taken a look at it so far has concurred that, as Sir David Cannadine put it, “It’s very clear what it’s about.”

Michelle: There were some concerns at the beginning about structure. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel yet we also wanted the narrative to be both familiar and clear. In the end, history is more than facts and dates but those facts and dates really do matter. This meant situating recent theoretical debates in the field into the larger narrative in a way that was both sophisticated and straightforward.

John: I will admit to pursuing an agenda here, as the lone early modernist among the co-authors. The eighteenth century often doesn't fare well in textbooks, sandwiched as it is between the tumults of the seventeenth century "crisis" and the industry- and empire-building of the nineteenth, making it seem like an insubstantial intermission during which nothing of any real significance occurred. Fortunately, the very serious pains everyone took to take an archepelagic and global perspective, and to go beyond political narrative, made it impossible to slight the earlier periods. It turns out that you can only ignore the eighteenth century if you look only at England, and only from the top down.

Stephen: Getting a good balance among the types of history was always a goal but was very difficult to achieve.  The session we had at the Portland NACBS certainly helped in this regard, as did having Stephanie edit the entire manuscript.  Not only did she smooth out the narrative voice, she ensured that we were indeed balancing the types of material.  Still, personally, I’d have liked at least another 50,000 words to do justice to all that we covered too quickly – but that was not feasible with the publisher, nor likely what our intended audience wanted!

 

3) What distinguishes your narrative from previous textbooks, and how do you think the work will benefit instructors teaching a Modern Britain survey course?

Stephanie: The global and imperial focus and the inclusion of more material on Scotland, Wales and Ireland are, I think, real strengths.  We have also incorporated more historiography, not always by referring to specific historians by name, though there is some of that, but by ensuring that students are aware that many things in history are the subjects of scholarly debate and contention, and that history is not just about memorizing facts.  Also, there is a very nifty website with documents, detailed descriptions of the events on our timeline and all kinds of links to excellent websites and documentaries.  The website is not just an add-on – we put lots of time into preparing something that we will find useful in our own teaching, and I think others will too.

Michelle: This book is very much of the moment. By that I mean that it was written from the perspective of a cohort of scholars who came of age in a period when British history was no longer a core course in the curriculum. Many of us have had to make the case why British history matters to their students and sometimes their universities. Our book reminds readers why in an era of devolution the story of the British Isles and the Empire maintains its relevance. The four nations and imperial themes are real strengths of the book as they demonstrate how contemporary debates about the nation and democracy remain embedded in the British story.

Michael Silvestri: We set out to write—and I believe we have been successful in writing—a textbook which presented British history rather than simply English history writ large.  And by that I mean a history which pays attention not only to the histories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England, but to the “British world” beyond the United Kingdom.  Equally important, I believe that we’ve achieved a good balance between coverage of the different centuries.  One of the fastest-expanding fields of British history is the post-1945 era, and we believed that it was important to give in-depth coverage not only to Britain’s experience in the world wars, but Britain’s history in the subsequent decades.  To give an example from my own field, the history of decolonization is being reinterpreted and rewritten as new sources such as the “Migrated Archives” become available, and it is important not to glide quickly over Britain’s disengagement from empire, thus giving the impression that this was somehow an effortless process and also that empire had come to a definitive “end,” rather than having multiple legacies in Britain today.  The goal instead is to encourage students to reflect on the nature of the decolonization process, and the ways in which Britain sought to preserve its empire as well as divest itself of territories.

Stephen: The narrative does try to be more geographically inclusive than previous texts.  We’ve attempted to think about Britain in a global context.  Hopefully it will be more accessible for a North American audience with little or no prior knowledge of British history (or indeed of British institutions).  There is a concerted effort to make relevant connections to American (and Canadian) events, people and themes.  Personally, I think a real strength of this text is that cultural and gender historiography is woven into the political and social narrative and is not just an ‘add on’ or in separate sections.  Our text could not cover everything we wanted it to – but I think it is a good starting point for students; it provides adequate context and preparation and hopefully will stimulate them to investigate British history more thoroughly.

 

4)   How did you balance the individual histories of the four nations of Britain (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) with the need to provide a straightforward and accessible narrative for a mostly undergraduate and non-specialist audience?  How did the British Empire fit in with the larger narrative?

Stephanie:  The United Kingdom is a unique country in that even the terminology that you use to describe it and its constituent nations is fraught with all kinds of political and cultural meaning.  There are times when you can describe all four nations as a whole, but many, many others when you have to recognize their distinctiveness.  Though I was obviously aware of that before, writing this book made me realize it so much more.  For example, you don’t realize just how Anglocentric the standard way of teaching the Great Reform Act is.  It has a completely different effect in Scotland, and in particular in Ireland, than it does in England and Wales.  (Wales presents its own challenges as a subject because unlike Scotland and Ireland it didn’t have separate laws.)  The Empire is obviously essential.  It’s been the dominant paradigm in British history for over a decade now, and that shows little sign of abating.  But with it, too, you have to make sure you’re being sufficiently comprehensive: historians tend to focus on India, and to forget about the settlement colonies, which were crucial to how British people thought about the Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Michelle: There is a lot of empire in this book. It is both integrated into the text and has its own separate treatment in distinct chapters. The story of Ireland, too, gets extensive treatment. I think this integrative approach mirrors what is happening in both the scholarly and teaching worlds in our discipline. 

Michael: I don’t believe that the two things -- presenting the histories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England and providing a straightforward and accessible narrative -- are incompatible.  In order to achieve both of those things, we decided that the stories as much as possible needed to be integrated; chapters which simply narrated a discrete story of the “Celtic Fringe” had the effect not of highlighting but of isolating and marginalizing these histories.  An emphasis on telling the histories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland with those of England is important for students in terms of their understanding of Britain and the United Kingdom historically but of Britain and Ireland today, such as the prominence of the Welsh language or the division among Scots about whether or not to advocate independence or remain within the Union.  I believe that such an approach can give students a richer picture of shared experiences such as industrialization or war.  Britain was and is, however, a diverse place and the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland also highlight the contrasts in the historical experience of different parts of the United Kingdom.  For example, in discussing the Great Famine, Ireland was not the only place within the Union where the potato blight took place, and exploring the issue of crop failures in the Highland and islands of Scotland helped illustrate why Famine took place in Ireland but not within Britain.

The British Empire was a natural subject to approach in this fashion.  In addition to the British World of the settlement colonies, as many historians have recently explored, British Empire very much a product of not only of English, but as many historians have emphasized, Scottish, Irish and Welsh efforts as well.  While we decided that the Empire was such a historically important subject that it needed to be dealt with mainly within separate chapters, although in some cases empire appears in conjunction with domestic events in Britain.  Empire is undoubtedly a complicated subject and we strove not simply to make it a catalogue of dates and places (either those being added to the empire or those breaking free of its control) but of the dynamics of imperial expansion, rule and decolonization.  In doing so, we put an emphasis not merely on the experiences of the colonized as well as the colonizers, but of the impact of empire on Britain: economic, cultural and social.

John: It is easier, I think, in the early part of the period to write from a "four nations" perspective, because of the much clearer political separations among three of the four. Nevertheless, one has to fight the tendency to treat the history of the other nations of the British Isles only to the extent that developments in Scotland, Ireland, or Wales impact the English. Many textbook writers just throw up their hands; I know of one case where authors tell their readers that "Scotland and Ireland and Wales were just less important, and we just have to accept that." The empire, of course, necessitates taking an archipelagic perspective, given that diasporan communities from the "Celtic Fringe" were important components particularly of the Atlantic and Antipodean empires. Nationality and empire are thorny and complex issues that have to be tackled in a text like this one, as are religion, gender, sexuality, class, and so forth.

 

5)   All five of you have different historical specialties, stylistic tendencies, and, I’m sure, strong opinions on what the finished product should look like. Throughout the process of writing this textbook, how did you ensure consistency in the overall narrative, in tone, and in style?

Stephanie: Actually, we were all remarkably in tune with what we wanted the book to emphasize and include – there was very little disagreement or argument about thematic issues or subject matter.  But consistency of tone and style was a real challenge.  The main theme of the responses to the first batches of chapters that went out to the readers’ panel was “the book needs more of a single voice and not five different ones.”  Though I am not listed as the editor, I eventually realized that as the person who had instigated the project I was going to have to deal with that issue, and so I took on the job of smoothing everything out to make it sound consistent.  I’m pleased that the group of eminent scholars from whom we solicited blurbs felt that the book was now in a single “voice” and that there was no longer a problem with multiple ones.

Michelle: This project made me see how broad the training in British studies is in the academy.  As a team, we had to find a center and stick to it in order to offer a coherent story that was useful to North American students.

Michael: I would certainly second Stephanie’s comment about the need for a single editor, and that was something which was important in terms of finding a common voice.  In my own experience, I found that as my writing progressed, my writing shifting away from what you might term a more “academic” style of writing (or perhaps more precisely one most suited to academic monographs) to a style more appropriate to presenting broader developments in history to a wider audience.  As historians, we tend to be cautious –and rightly so-- about the statements we make about the past as it relates to our specializations, and wary --as we should be-- of crude and sweeping generalizations.  We did not try to “dumb down” material, or present a simplistic or uncomplicated vision of the past, but rather one that challenges students and provokes thought and reflection.  In doing so, one has to be aware of things that might be of interest to specialists in the field as opposed to undergraduates, or things that might confuse or clutter the narrative rather than illuminate.  For example, while our text gives great attention to Irish history within the context of British past, I was conscious that we were not writing an Irish history textbook and even less so a book for specialists in Irish history.  Thus while we sought to portray ways in which Ireland variously upheld and opposed the Empire, as was pointed out in the editing process, I did not have to point about every single figure in British history who was Anglo-Irish!

John: I, for one, cheerfully submitted to Stephanie's blue pencil.

Stephen:  A lot of the credit for smoothing out the stylistic and tone issues must go to Stephanie for her editing prowess and to Michael for his judicious insertion of imperial perspectives.  There are still some subtle variations in prose style in different parts of the book, but I don’t think most readers will notice them.

 

6)   How has creating this book impacted your development as scholars, teachers, and informed intellectuals? What advice would you give to other scholars thinking about writing a textbook in their area of expertise? 

Stephanie:  For me, because I not only wrote my own chapters but edited the entire text, it very much increased both the breadth and depth of my knowledge.  Most scholars probably think about writing a textbook as being a somewhat superficial approach to history relative to their monographs, but in fact you have to read very deeply about the individual subjects in order to distill them into 500- or 1000-word explanations.  By the time the book was finished, I was really excited about teaching the survey again, which I’m doing this fall, so I’ll get to put all that I’ve learned into action.  I had just finished a very heavily archival project on country houses and the British Empire, and this was obviously very different in terms of the writing process.  It was fun to have them juxtaposed against each other.  I’m not sure that you write a textbook in your “area of expertise.” Mostly you find out what you don’t know, which is the most valuable part of the experience!

Michelle: Stephanie worked very hard to bring us together as a group. It was challenging at times but the process went relatively smoothly. I enjoyed engaging fellow historians in the audience and my co-authors at the NACBS and realized that writing a textbook is necessarily a group project broadly defined. After all, these books are only given life when they are read by students and taught by our peers.

Michael: In terms of advice, I would advise scholars to prepare for a lot of hard, but rewarding, work.   Be prepared to go beyond your field of scholarly expertise, and if you don’t like that idea, don’t write a textbook!  The reward is not simply in the finished product, but in how the experience of writing history for a broader audience broadens one’s own understanding your field of specialty.

John: I confess I have always disliked teaching nineteenth century Britain, and detested teaching the twentieth century. Now, however, armed with a first-rate, spanking new textbook, I feel equal to the challenge for the first time. As for the experience of writing a textbook, it is a marvelous way for scholars to take inventory of themselves: what do I really know and understand? What do I need to re-examine? And what are the best ways to convey this?

Stephen: I learned much about topics and issues that I thought I already knew quite a bit.   Michael inserted material on the Empire and Ireland that was particularly instructive to me.  I have already revised my own British survey in lieu of my own research for my sections of the book, and will now revise other parts of my survey due to the work of my co-authors.  As to advice: well don’t go into this as naïvely as I did!  I suspect most scholars think they could write a better text than the one they currently use.  After this experience I have much more respect for the accomplishments of the authors of existing textbooks, and a better sense of why texts don’t do everything you think they should.  You can’t do everything or please everybody all of the time.  But I do think our book is a very good alternative to the texts already out there.

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