The Here and Now

(This is the fifth and final post I have written about the Modern British Studies Conference in Birmingham in July. For an overview of the posts, see here:

This post deals with what may well be the most important aspect the challenging and exciting discussions at MBS2015, but it i most likely the one where I have the least useful things to say compared to the thought-provoking posts already up at the MBS2015 homepage. They are all, without exception, worth reading. Take the afternoon off and do it, or ration them for a treat over the next few days, if you have the self control to resist…

Of the many conferences I have been to, MBS is the one where the connections between scholarly practices and the here and now were most frequently invoked, debated, and explored.

I think that for many academics the idea that research and publications and teaching are all intimately bound up with contemporary real-world problems passes for something like common sense.

What I thought important at #MBS2015 was the refusal to let this common sense idea become banal.

I won’t discuss every possible aspect of this, and I would really love comments from any readers who think the big problems are different to how I see them.

One, in particular, I will not address here, although it is related to all of them: the ECR conundrum. There are recurring debates about contracts, casualization, professionalization, and systematic exclusions and biases that deserve careful and thoughtful discussion. A recent piece by Matt Lyons fired things up online, although not always in the most productive way. There were important responses from Catherine FletcherJessica Meyer, and William Whyte and it looks like History Lab Plus may yet publish more. As many of these posts suggest, there is broad agreement about what the problems are, less about causes and solutions.

Leaving this big topic kind of to one side, I want to talk about three aspects of how academic conferences themselves work and how MBS2015 dealt with this: the place of junior researchers, the place of minorities, and social media.

I have written about conference behaviour before out of a sense of frustration with an opinion piece that criticized conferences for being a waste of time, pompous, or petty, rather than addressing the big problems that can be masked by this kind of language: sexism, racism, institutionalized hierarchies between ‘senior’ and ‘junior’ scholars.

One thing that really impressed me about MBS2015 was the sustained work to make junior researchers central to the conference. Not ‘central’ as in the ones running around doing all of the organizing (although of course there were a lot of fantastic graduate students doing precisely this), but actually central to the intellectual work, leading panel discussions and responding to speakers.

Perhaps I am romanticizing what felt like an inclusive atmosphere, since others have already written about the problems facing people who want to join the discussions (see Nathalie Thomlinson here for instance), but I felt this was a conference where graduate students could and did lead discussions and questions (and here I am echoing what Sam Caslin has written about the conference).

When it comes to issues of racial diversity at the conference and in higher education more broadly, the news is frankly bad.

I’m not the first to note that, despite many calls for inclusiveness, #MBS2015 remained noticeably ‘pale’ (Nathalie Thomlinson again). What can historians and academics do about this? The problems are deep and complex, but I do think that the first step is obviously to recognize that this IS is a very real problem. I don’t have the solutions, but many people are thinking about these issues. I think there are (for instance) productive discussions happening around the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ campaign launched from UCL.

The final issue I want to discuss (at slightly greater length) is social media, and while I can’t pretend to have any more solutions to this either, I do have strong feelings about it.

I like social media, but I feel bad about it.

I feel bad about the etiquette of tweeting and sharing at conferences, because I don’t think anyone has worked out what is OK yet. I like live tweeting talks, but to other people this can look like I’m not paying attention. Am I paying attention if I live tweet? What about discussions that organically bloom online during live talks? Sometimes these are incredibly powerful. But aren’t they also disrespectful to speakers?

I like blogging, I like tweeting. But the warm and fuzzies mask real problems with the idea that these spaces are sites of emancipation. Part of me worries (not least since the message is bombarded through the media) that social media are narcissistic, an all-you-can-eat ego buffet, not to mention a ‘waste of time’, procrastination, a distraction from what ‘really’ matters.

As it happens, I don’t think that’s true, although perhaps I can leave the defence to Matt Houlbrook’s eloquent post. Twitter and blogging – or more precisely the people I encounter through them – have given me help with translations (thanks @skatemaxwell!) uncountable suggestions for books and articles to read, and awesome conversations about history and history-writing, of a similar quality to getting together at a conference, or in a pub, or cafe with The Best. Historians. In. The. World.

But it is true that not everyone has access to Twitter on a computer or tablet or smartphone, or the leisure to read things online. Some people who do history or who’d like to do not have the time to write blogs, interact on Twitter, because they are too busy working for their living in other ways.

These are valid objections, and ones that hold especially true, I think, from the point of view of unpaid labour. How many early-career researchers do social media work? At what point could it become impossible to land a job if you can’t provide evidence that your blog is popular?

(I don’t think we are anywhere near there yet, for what it’s worth. My impression is that most academics could not care less if a candidate blogs and tweets.)

I do think that it has become more and more accepted that as part of a job young academics should blog and Tweet, publicising the research project they are working on, or maybe even reaching out to potential students who could study at their institutions. (Think on that for a bit: could your job in the future depend on your personal ability to attract students?)

So there are problems here. The Republic of 140 Characters is not the utopia it is sometimes imagined to be.

I do, however, think many of the solutions to unpaid Twitter labour are top-down.

I applaud The History Workshop Journal for providing fellowships in social media for early-career researchers  but I think it would be even better to see jobs being offered in this sector. Being effective on social media is a skill lots of academics want to develop, and positions like the HWJ one demand not only tech savvy, but discipline-specific knowledge.

If journals and institutions want this, they should pay for it.

I have a tendency to roll my eyes whenever a discussion of social media becomes apocalyptic. We are all losing our ability to interact politely! The trolls are winning!

My experience of social media has been surprisingly troll-free, and I recognise that puts me in a very fortunate position. I’ve had discussions on Twitter about anti-vaxx, anti-semitism, gender and sexuality, and very rarely found myself caught up in discussions I thought unproductive. Most of the things Twitter has got me involved in are actively stimulating: conferences, blog festivals/series, even a virtual book club. I heard about the Modern British Studies conference through Twitter.

So I still don’t know what to think about the collective paroxysm over ECR issues over the last 10 days. Maybe I’m being naive and the groups I have been interacting with online have been through several of these kinds of episodes. Maybe I wasn’t too involved in any previous ones (I’m thinking of the History Manifesto). Or maybe I have read enough articles about online shaming to think we need to take a bit more care in this area… As with many of the other topics from #MBS2015, when it comes to the problems of social media, I am left with more questions than answers.

Should I stop communicating in these exciting new ways, which have massively invigorated my scholarship?

Doesn’t Twitter offer opportunities to be both political AND personal, to mix work and life? There are live issues here with the problems raised by the #acadowntime hashtag.

How can communities of academics, bloggers, and historians on social media work to include more voices, from diverse backgrounds?

I think that’s an appropriate final question for these posts. Thanks to all of the people involved in the conference, especially the organisers, but also all the participants.

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