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Constructing a Menu of the British Empire

Posted by rdaily under pedagogy | 0 Comments


Bridget Keown is a PhD candidate at Northeastern University, USA

In the summer of 2016, I taught an undergraduate summer history class on the history of the British Empire.  Summer courses at my institution are concentrated, 8-week semesters that attract students from a large number of personal and academic backgrounds.  As a result the potential for class discussions, personal experiences, and diversity of learning experiences rises exponentially.  This was especially true in this class.  What became apparent to me quickly was that most of my students were entering the class with a very broad idea of empire.  Their comments and questions focused on global economics, on international trade, world wars and treaties.  And while these elements were all important to our study, my goal was to get students to see these broad concepts from the inside out, and to understand the lived experience of empire.  Thus, my challenge was to make empire real by engaging their imaginations, their emotions, and their senses.

I began by emphasizing personal details and sensory descriptions into my lectures, focusing on small details even in discussions of large-scale issues.  Our talks about  trade and immigration included discussions about the taste of spices and coffee, and what the realities of living in crowded, poorly ventilated conditions meant for those trying to survive in poverty.  We talked about structures of power by analyzing familial and community relationships--for example, the way colonial schools and forced inoculations altered the relationship between the native people and the colonial government, as well as between parents and children.  The empathy that these discussions promoted helped students engage with the history they were studying in a personal, emotional, and sensory way.

It was in this context that the idea for a Menu of the British Empire was formed.  At the time I was developing this course, the firestorm of criticism over the “British Colonial Co” restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, was filling my social media pages.  The restaurant, which opened in 2016 and closed in 2017, initially stated on its website that it was “Inspired by the stylish days of the empirical push into the developing cultures of the world, with the promise of adventure and modern refinement in a safari setting.”[1]  Though this wording would later be changed, critics rightly pointed out how such a restaurant went beyond white-washing history to glorifying genocide.  Not long before this, the “Saffron Colonial Restaurant” in Portland, Oregon made headlines for willfully ignoring the dark realities of empire.[2]  But, as I argued to the class, in addition to the extremely dangerous amnesia that such eateries display regarding the violence, cruelty, and exploitative policies of empire, they also show a colossal lack of appreciation for the rich and detailed history that could be found in a study of food of the British Empire.

Students were offered a chance to prove this with “The Food Assignment,” a 2-3 page paper that focused on any one dish or drink that was or is native to a location once part of the British Empire. The assignment was to include:

1)    Name and origin of the dish

2)    How it is prepared, generally (a recipe wasn’t required, but a description of the ingredients used, and how they were assembled was)

3)    Its history in relation to the British Empire

4)    An argument for why it should be included in a historically representative menu of the British Empire.

When these papers were all turned in, I compiled them into a single “menu” that was then handed out to the class for consideration and discussion.

The assignment turned out to be an enormous success, both in terms of student’s engagement and the resultant work they produced--and, surprisingly, there were no overlapping dishes.  Though curry was discussed several times, the historical context provided was unique in each paper, which further emphasized the potential of accessing imperial history through a study of food.  In their papers, students used individual dishes to consider large-scale issues, such as diet, consumption, economics, and structural systems of power; however, they also used these dishes to access lived experiences of empire, considering issues of hunger and taste, as well as how food had the potential to unite communities, or drive them apart.  For example, one student used his paper on Ugali, a Kenyan/East African porridge made of maize, to consider how the British institution of cash-cropping fundamentally changed the diet of the tribespeople in these areas, and how the artificial borders imposed on the land altered inter-tribal relationships.  Another student wrote their paper on how ‘pap’, a  corn-based porridge consumed in South Africa,  exemplified class and racial prejudices in the area: maize that was not used for livestock was sold to Black South Africans, an action that was justified by claiming the grain was a “traditional” food, rather than another example of systemic power imbalances.  Another student wrote about the problematic ways in which the British Empire has been remembered through a consideration of chutney. This paper traced the popularity of chutney in the British Army, specifically, and considered how it returned to the metropole, first as a delicacy before becoming “refined” to a point where it is unrecognizable compared to its origin.  It was this condiment that was claimed by the British as “traditional” chutney, erasing the native history of the food entirely.  One student shared his own experience of the legacy of imperialism through the rice and beans he enjoyed in his hometown in Belize.   From his evocative memories of the dish, he explained that as British economic and commercial influence grew in the area over the course of the 19th century, imported British crops and products, like rice and beans, became staples in the diets around Belize, fostering the development of a unique cultural identity that remains even after the end of empire in the area.

Ultimately, it was truly gratifying to see how excited students were to discuss their menu.  The document served as a marker for their progress over the semester, charting how broad and how deep their understanding of the history of the British Empire had become.  This project allowed them to utilize their knowledge and developing research skills, as well as their imaginations and empathy, to consider the British Empire from multiple perspectives, from the grand scale to the individual, human experiences of hunger and satiation. 

[1] For more information on this incident, see Rebecca Sullivan, “Queensland restaurant British Colonial Co accused of ‘gross racism’”:, Accessed April 15, 2018

[2] For more information, see Mattie John Bamman, “Controversial Colonial-Themed Restaurant Sparks Multiple Protests”:, Accessed April 18, 2018

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Trump, Brexit, and a New Era for British Studies Scholars Part II: What do we do now?

By: Stephen Jackson

This is Part II of our series on the changing political climate in the United States and Britain. You can read Part I here. 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 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 II examines a question many of us are asking right now: what role do we have in this new political atmosphere? 

A recent AHA panel and subsequent blog post discussed the role of historians in public life. In particular, they responded to the argument of Stanley Fish, who said in a New York Times article that “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.”[3] I asked our respondents to address this question: how can and should historians engage in the contemporary political climate?

All of the respondents rejected Fish’s argument. Amy Harris put it most succinctly: “Is he for real!?!?”  But while Philippa Levine disagreed strongly with Fish’s argument, she was skeptical of the impact historians can have. “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we really think that statements and teach-ins and the rest will affect how Bannon and his thugs go about things. To me, it’s sheer hubris to imagine we have any effect there, and it’s this sort of attitude that lies at the base of a lot of anti-intellectual hostility in the current climate.” Despite this bleak assessment, she continued by noting that “what we can do, however, is to model civil exchange, historical accuracy, and honesty in our classes and our scholarship. We can be part of a larger protest voice. But I think we need to be very careful not to consider ourselves special or better qualified than others to lead, comment, and advise. A lack of humility is part of how we got where we are.” 

Simon Devereaux argued that historians can and should have an important role in public discourse, but have all too frequently abdicated this responsibility in recent years. In fact, he suggested, academics are in part to blame for the current anti-intellectual trends. “I’m with the late great Tony Judt in wondering how real the adherence of many of us academics to active and meaningful left-wing values really has been since the 1980s. Remember when most of us professed to believe that this was one of government’s main jobs: to restrain the excesses of capitalism, rather than facilitate them?” Moving forward, Deveraux suggested that scholars need to develop “our own capacity to express outrage in a productive fashion,” which must “build real bridges of common identity back towards people of whom we have, in practical terms, thought relatively little of for a long time now. Building that bridge will, I think, mean devising a common identity that is far larger than the one which ‘identity politics’ currently has to offer. Historians can do so much to advance that cause, by helping us to recover our lost legacies of radicalism. Will we do so? Or will we remain content inside our Ivory Towers, standing upon ever-shrinking islands of civility and security?”

Amy Harris and Jason Kelly contended that historians provide critical context and quality information for educators and the general public. Harris suggested that a pivotal role for historians is working with public school teachers. “They are on the frontlines of educating about the past in ways that make for better, less divisive citizens. They need the best we can give them and they need us to advocate along with them at the local and state level.” Jason Kelly argued simply that “we should do what we do best: provide context — show how every statement and every action exists within a historical context. One of the recurring themes that I have seen this past six months is a denial of history — a pretense that everything exists in the present. That is why politicians can say one thing on Tuesday and completely contradict themselves on Wednesday. This ahistorical stance allows them to pretend that the ‘dog whistle’ phrases they utter don’t actually have or racist or xenophobic connotations. We can do this in many forms, but the key is to reach beyond where we feel the most comfortable and engage with other communities.” 

Dane Kennedy suggests that historians should respond “in the same way any responsible citizen who respects facts and evidence and justice should respond: protest, resist, obstruct, critique, etc…” Though Amy Harris also questioned the extent to which historians could make a difference, she said that “we must continue to argue for history’s importance to society. We need to push back about the crucial necessity of history and the liberal arts more generally to create well-informed, thoughtful citizens able to live in a multi-cultural and tolerant society.” 

What do you think should be the primary role and responsibility of historians in the Age of Trump? Please let us know 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 you’d like to contribute 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.

[3] Stanley Fish, “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump,” New York Times, July 15, 2016. 

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