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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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Dane_Kennedy.jpgAn interview with Dane Kennedy by Stephen Jackson [1]  

Dane Kennedy is Elmer Louis Keyser Professor of History at The George Washington University. He has published extensively on the history and historiography of the British Empire, and recently served as President of the NACBS. He agreed to an interview with the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer to discuss recent trends in the field of British Imperial History. 

 

1) You recently suggested that contemporary events have dramatically shaped both scholarly and public conversations on the history of the British Empire.[2] What responsibility do professional historians have to utilize our specialized forms of knowledge to inform the public understanding of empire?

The questions we ask about the past invariably echo our current concerns.  In this respect professional historians are engaged for better or for worse in public conversations that involve moral and political issues.  For worse if that engagement leads to categorical pronouncements about the ‘lessons of history’.  But for better when we challenge unexamined assumptions about the past’s relationship to the present and provide a deeper, richer understanding of that relationship.  What I tried to suggest in my JBS essay is (1) that the renewed interest in British imperial history since the 1980s has been spurred by contemporaneous forces and events that have preoccupied the public at large; (2) that these preoccupations have both been informed by Britain’s imperial past and have themselves informed how that past is viewed and its meaning interpreted; and (3) that those of us who are professional historians of the British empire need to be sensitive to this dialogue between the past and the present, contribute to it responsibly, and challenge deceptive claims about the past.  How do we do this?  By doing what historians do best: analyze evidence, contextualize it, expose its complexities and nuances, and, at the same time, seek out the distinguishing patterns and processes that help to explain change over time.  Let me stress that I’m not suggesting we can provide objective ‘truth’ about the past.  But we do possess a shared set of disciplinary tools and critical skills that allow us to distinguish legitimate claims about the past from those that are deliberately distorted to advance current agendas.

 

2) Elsewhere in the article, you called on professional historians to be more aware of how their own subjectivities shape their work.  In what ways has this awareness affected your own understanding of the British Empire? How would the field look differently if historians approached their research in this way?

It so happens these are questions that Antoinette Burton and I have asked ourselves, along with fifteen other historians who work on various aspects of British imperial history, for a forthcoming volume we’ve co-edited, How Empire Shaped Us (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2016).  We invited the contributors to reflect on the ways their personal, professional, and public lives intersected with and were informed by empire — and, in turn, the ways their experiences shaped their historical preoccupations.  I’ve found it fascinating to learn how historians whose work I admire were drawn to their subjects and what made those subjects meaningful to them.

As for myself, I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I realize in retrospect that I turned to British imperial history at least in part to make sense of that war, to frame and clarify my moral and political objections to it.  The time I spent conducting research in Rhodesia, which was then in its death throes as a colonial society, also had an important impact on my development as a historian.  The British imperial past has continued to intrude on the world I inhabit in various ways, most recently and urgently when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Will greater awareness by historians of their own subjectivity make any difference in how they write history?  Honestly, I don’t know, but it sure can’t hurt. 

 

3) Over the past two decades you have written extensively on the inclusion of new historical perspectives that challenged more traditional understandings of imperial history.[3] Do you believe that imperial historians have effectively incorporated these new perspectives into a more holistic understanding of the British Empire, or do we now simply have even more contending understandings of the meaning, substance, importance, and perhaps even the definition of imperialism?

I don’t think it’s possible to achieve a ‘holist’ understanding of the British empire—or any other historical subject, for that matter.  I do think our understanding of the empire has been immensely enriched by the new approaches that have been introduced over the past few decades under the banners of postcolonial studies, the new imperial history, Subaltern Studies, the ‘British World’ project, settler colonial studies, and more.  But each of these approaches has its own agenda, and I don’t see much chance of pulling them together into a grand meta-narrative.  Just read the essays by John MacKenzie and Bill Schwarz in the latest issue of The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History and you’ll see that the relationship between different schools of imperial historians remains as testy and polarized as ever.  These debates are signs of the continued vitality of the field, so I’d hate to see some bland consensus take their place.  What’s changed, however, is that the new approaches to imperial history have become far more pervasive and institutionally entrenched than they were, say, a decade ago, and their influence is felt even among historians who work on ostensibly ‘traditional’ subjects.


4) What new directions do you see emerging in the historiography of the British Empire? What are the major topics or research questions that you think will drive the scholarly conversation over the next decade? 

The nice thing about being a historian is that you get to interpret the past rather than predict the future.  At this point in my career I’m probably the last person to recognize the next big thing in British imperial historiography.  I will simply say that we’ve begun to see some innovative work in those aspects of imperial history that got left behind by the cultural turn, such as economic, political, legal/constitutional, and military history.  There’s also some great history being written about other empires, as evidenced by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s brilliant synthesis.  The most exciting book I’ve read recently happens to be about the Russian empire — --Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution (Cornell UP, 2014).  Finally, we should acknowledge the growing influence of transnational and global histories.  They raise the possibility that British imperial history will lose its identity as a distinct field and become submerged in these larger projects.


5) Would you reflect on your time as President of the NACBS, and how it has influenced your understanding of the wider field of British Studies?

What I learned from being president of the NACBS is how much the organization depends on the generosity of its members, who devote a great deal of time and effort to its operations.  It’s pretty remarkable that a scholarly society as large and active as the NACBS relies entirely on volunteers.  This includes its administrative officers, its governing council, its various prize and fellowship committees, its program committee, its webmaster, the local arrangements team that organizes the annual conference, and many others.  This speaks, I think, to the intellectual and professional value these volunteers attach to the NACBS.

We can be proud of what the NACBS manages to do with our limited resources. We host an annual conference that has a well-deserved reputation for its quality, congeniality, and reach, attracting large numbers of British and other overseas participants.  We also have remarkably vibrant regional organizations, each with its own annual conference.  Our JBS is quite simply the best journal in the field, its reputation the result of the hard work done by a long line of superb editors — again, each of them volunteers.  We have taken care to honor British studies scholarship with our book and article prizes.  And we work to nurture the next generation of scholars with graduate fellowships and other forms of financial aid, including stipends to attend our conference, as well as the essay prizes we give to undergraduates.  We have an increasingly active web presence, as this Intelligencer blog demonstrates.

The challenges we face come from the broader forces at work in higher education.  The corporatization of colleges and universities is causing the erosion of history and other humanities disciplines.  Fewer students, fewer faculty, and fewer financial resources for those faculty who remain, especially those who struggle as adjuncts, don’t bode well for the NACBS.  Our membership is shrinking, and it’s hard to see this trend reversing so long as the marginalization of the humanities within higher education continues.  At least in the near term, however, the NACBS has the financial resources and the allegiance of members to weather the storm.     

 


 

[1] In the interests of acknowledging my own subjectivity, I was a graduate student of Dane’s at The George Washington University from 2007-2013.

[2] Dane Kennedy, “The Imperial History Wars,” Journal of British Studies Vol. 54, Issue 1, Jan. 2015, 5-22.

[3] Dane Kennedy, “Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24, No. 3 (1996): 345-63; Dane Kennedy, “Postcolonialism and History,” in The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies, ed. Graham Huggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 467-88.  


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