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Should British Studies Survive?

As long as I have worked in the USA British history has been in crisis.  The year before I began teaching at Berkeley in 2000 the NACBS released a gloomy report outlining how the field was suffering from shrinking undergraduate enrollments and a dwindling number of jobs.  When I arrived at Berkeley my colleague the historian of British India Thomas Metcalf, a keen proponent of the then “new imperial history,” asked me (with his characteristic bluntness) what I was going to teach now that British history was dead.  Those now seem like the golden years!


The restructuring of publicly funded higher education in the wake of the financial crash of 2007/8 only exacerbated the field’s crisis.  Since then across the humanities in the USA the job market has imploded,  majors have collapsed, and now, as Asheesh Siddique chronicles, research funding is disappearing.  While History as a discipline is not suffering alone,  European history, which includes British history in the US, has been hit particularly hard.

A black and white etching shows a group of scholars standing so close they are almost piled atop each other. The scholars stare off in bored disinterest as they listen to one deliver a lecture.
William Hogarth, "Scholars at a Lecture," 1736. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons as part of a project of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Britain, where the neoliberal transformation of higher education has been starving the system of funds for decades, the position of the humanities is a little different.  While undergraduate demand for the humanities has risen over the past decade, the numbers studying History have fallen.  As Glen O’Hara and Christienna Fryar will show in their powerful contributions to this forum, the vicissitudes of undergraduate demand and its uneven distribution across institutions, has helped propel a series of redundancies as departments and programs have been shrunk or closed. Those that are left in “permanent” jobs endure miserable working conditions, conditions that sadly would be welcomed by the third of staff workers who are on temporary contracts.


Across the world universities have been defunded by governments that see them (often wrongly) as the last bastions of forms of knowledge that resist instrumentalization around neoliberal logics.  The humanities, and History in particular, have in addition been targeted by the nativist and often authoritarian right for propagating critiques of gender and hetero-normativity, challenging white supremacy, and failing to uphold nationalist mythologies. 


Given the perilous position of History within the political economy of higher education, I am more sanguine than Siddique about the evaporation of funding for PhD research when there is little prospect of those being trained in the field finding jobs.  While doctoral training should not be limited to a small elite of private universities, the overproduction of PhDs  in both the US and the UK creates a reserve army of surplus labor that helps to sustain the forms of precarious and underpaid employment that are so endemic in the neoliberal academy.


Moreover, if we are serious about decolonizing the discipline, perhaps we should not mourn the absence of jobs in British history when historians of Asia, Africa, Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific world are so under-represented in many history departments.  The preponderance of British and Euro-American histories may worsen in post-Brexit Britain where immigration rules exclude non-nationals and the foreign language teaching of Britons has almost ceased.


The attempts to world British history or to foreground Black British history are not necessarily an answer to reinvigorating the field within this political economy of higher education. Far from decolonizing the field these strategies can restage imperial logics and create a trade in Black bodies that are exhausted in the work of representing diversity when the default whiteness of so much work in British history remains unquestioned.


As Kate Fullagar will observe in her contribution, Australia offers an alternative model of how to escape the parochialism that can beset the geographically defined and often intellectually conservative field of British history.   If we are to convince publics within and beyond the university that our field remains a vital site for teaching and research we will need to convince them that Britain’s imperial histories are essential to understanding the historical forces that will shape the twenty-first century.  The British Empire was ground zero to the forms of capitalism, migration, and environmental degradation that haunt our present and shape our futures.   If we can speak to those questions our field may again be of interest to historians working on other parts of the world in a way it has not been for decades.  


Luckily, despite all the gloomy sense of crisis in the field, a plethora of recent work is already allowing us to make that case.


While historians of Britain have yet to fully engage the new histories of capitalism Kojo Koram, Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire, Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson, Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and two exciting new books - Catherine Hall’s Lucky Valley: Edward Long and the History of Racial Capitalism and Tehila Sasson’s The Solidarity Economy: Non-Profits and the Making of Neoliberalism After Empire - will help us begin that conversation.


We have far more work that has already allowed us to understand the current migration crisis is part of a longer history of the vast movements of peoples unleashed by slavery and imperialism and policed by increasingly brutal immigration regimes.  There has been a remarkably rich number of studies just on the twentieth century in recent years including Marc Matera, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century,  Sanya Aiyar, Indians in Kenya: The Politics of Diaspora, Kennetta Hammond Perry London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race, Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire,  Ian Sanjay Patel, We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire , and Jean P. Smith, Settlers at the End of Empire: Race and the Politics of Migration in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Rhodesia.


And finally, the British Empire’s outsized footprint in the history of the Anthropocene has been put firmly on the agenda by William Beinart and Lotte Hughes, Environment and Empire, Alison Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics and Life on Earth, Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, Chris Otter, Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems, and World Ecology and Fredrik Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind, Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis.


What unites all this work is the recognition that the field of British history always included, and frequently exceeded, the geographical bounds of its Empire and that field is at its best when it is in conversation with scholars working in other fields and disciplines. 


Intellectual work alone will not save the field if we do not first save our universities.  If we do not continue to organize and resist the forms of public disinvestment, neoliberal logics, and the culture wars of the nativist right that devalue our labor and knowledge then all is lost. 


James Vernon has taught modern British history for 35 years at Manchester and Berkeley.  A new edition of his most recent book Modern Britain: 1750 to the Present (2017) will be out later this year. He co-chairs the closest thing faculty at Berkeley have to a union, and has long been interested in the neoliberal transformation of higher education and the humanities. 


The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the original author/s and do not necessarily represent the views of the North American Conference on British Studies. The NACBS welcomes civil and productive discussion in the comments below. Our blog represents a collegial and conversational forum, and the tone for all comments should align with this environment. Insulting or mean comments will not be tolerated and NACBS reserves the right to delete these remarks and revoke the commenter’s site membership.

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