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Interview with Susan Kingsley Kent

Published: July 15, 2017


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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