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Trump, Brexit, and a New Era for British Studies Scholars Part I: Research and Teaching

By: Stephen Jackson

This is Part I of a two part series on the changing political climate in the United States and Britain. Over the past year historians on the blogosphere have been writing about teaching and researching in the current political climate.[1] Numerous academic institutions, including the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS), have released statements regarding the Trump administration’s Executive Order (EO) on immigration. You can see the NACBS statement here. In light of these discussions, I sent out questions to the NACBS Council (and a few former Executive Council members) regarding how the events of the past year, particularly Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, are affecting the field of British Studies.[2] Part I will examine critical issues related to research and teaching.

Several of the participating scholars expressed a newfound sense of urgency in their own scholarship and work. Philippa Levine thinks that there will be major repercussions for British Studies since “some of the biggest (though by no means the only) upheavals of 2016 were in the Anglo-American sphere so it’s hard not to see Brexit and Trump especially as formative for our analyses going forward. I foresee that their looming presence will force a rethinking of earlier events and ideas, not in a teleological way but in posing questions about why we didn’t see this coming. 

On a more basic level, other respondents like Jason Kelly worry that “this political climate has let loose a storm of anti-intellectualism. The role of the expert, the importance of knowledge, the necessity of logic, and the quest for truth seem to have been thrown out the window- at least in public discourse.” Amy Harris echoed this sentiment, suggesting that “the need for historical consciousness and application of historical tools has been made stark by recent events. If my research and teaching contribute in the smallest way to have others be more considerate of how the past, present, and future impinge on one another, I’ll count that as a win.”

Each interviewee noted that restrictive immigration policies such as the recent EO will, in all likelihood, negatively affect scholarship moving forward. They raised concerns about fellowship opportunities, visiting speakers, funding prospects, long-term international research, and scholarly collaboration. “The ability to move freely undergirds the best impulses in education and research. I’m afraid this will have a chilling effect on all we do,” said Amy Harris.

Simon Devereaux, the Canadian-based president of the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies (PCCBS), noted that the forthcoming PCCBS conference scheduled for March 2017 in British Columbia is undersubscribed and likely to lose money. He wondered “how much of that is down to US-based historians of Britain who feel nervous about leaving their country, or even just passing through a major international airport in the USA, right at this moment, or simply too demoralized to contemplate ‘normal’ life for the moment. After all, what is the ‘new normal’ going to become over the next few weeks, months, and (God forbid) years?”

There is also a great deal of uncertainty regarding the fate of these restrictive policies, and an increasing likelihood that the policies will simply be re-written in the near future. Jason Kelly decried the uncertainty this is producing, which “in addition to restricting the movement of international scholars, could potentially lead to a backlash in which U.S.-based scholars and conferences are boycotted.”

The EO and the new political climate have also raised a number of questions regarding teaching. Only one respondent, Dane Kennedy, had a student directly affected by the ban. Kennedy, Jason Kelly, and Philippa Levine all reported that their universities had written statements in opposition to the ban, though Levine noted that the response at her institution was not as strong as she might have liked. Simon Devereaux comes from a Canadian university that, in his words, is a great place to teach British history but “not so much a center for multi-cultural politics.”

Five of the six respondents will be making changes to their courses in light of contemporary political events. Philippa Levine will be spending a week of her Twentieth-Century British history class on Brexit, especially with an eye towards emphasizing historical parallels to our contemporary world. Dane Kennedy has already introduced new assignments that have students examine the historical roots of contemporary political problems. Amy Harris is incorporating additional historical documents that echo contemporary debates. 

Jason Kelly and Sandra den Otter noted changes to their overall pedagogical approach. “More than ever, I’m emphasizing the value of nuance in analysis and argumentation. I’m also focusing on the ways that we establish facts: looking at the relationship between facts, interpretations, and opinions,” said Kelly. Sandra den Otter suggested that she wants to avoid focusing on partisan politics, but rather to “use these two events [Trump’s election and Brexit] in non-partisan ways to talk about the nation, identities, difference, and race with the aim of cultivating critical and nuanced perspectives and understanding historical contingency.” 

Simon Devereaux will not be making substantive alterations to his courses. He is “astonished at how flat many of my ‘Trump remarks’ often fall in classroom situations.” Ultimately, the problem might be that “people actually like him [Trump]: or at least endorse his proposition that the established way of doing things isn’t working, and thus attributing to him an authority, and even a capability(?) of which he is utterly undeserving. They conflate the message with the messenger.”

Have recent political events influenced your teaching and research in any ways? Please share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences in the comments section below.

Stephen Jackson is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Sioux Falls, and serves as the Media Director for the NACBS. If interested in writing a blog post, contact him at [email protected]

[1] For some examples of this, see: Tyler Anbinder on immigration; Denver Brunsman and John Donoghue or Mary Myung-Ok Lee on teaching; Sarah Fenton of the AHA on the limitations of expertise; Dane Kennedy, Philippa Levine, or Susan Pederson on Brexit; or Paul Kramer on the role of the historian.

[2] The responding scholars were: Simon Devereaux, University of Victoria; Amy Harris, Brigham Young University; Jason Kelly, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; Dane Kennedy, The George Washington University; Philippa Levine, University of Texas at Austin; Sandra den Otter, Queen’s University.

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