Review: The US and Us: American History in Britain in the Twenty-First Century

The US and Us: American History in Britain in the Twenty-First Century, University of Leicester, 15-16 September 2016

The site of both royal discoveries and unprecedented sporting success, Leicester recently hosted an equally special phenomenon: an academic workshop focused on the research and teaching of American history in the UK. Organised by Andrew Johnstone (University of Leicester) and sponsored by the British Academy, the two-day event explored the current state of American history as a discipline from an early career perspective. Studying American history in the UK poses a number of challenges for scholars – not least in terms of accessing primary sources. More than this, the workshop provided a space for early career researchers to discuss and identify the problems they face at this stage in their career, as well as the opportunities they have to shape the nature of US history in UK Higher Education.

Across the five sessions – structured around issues such as Impact, Publishing, and Digital Resources – a number of themes became clear. For me, there was a welcome sense of optimism throughout the workshop. Of course, whenever you gather together early career researchers – many on short-term, part-time or hourly-waged contracts entering a restricted job market – it is perhaps no surprise that some pessimism creeps into proceedings, particularly when you add to the mix extensive discussion of the REF and TEF. However, American history in the UK is in very good health, not least because of the innovative and interdisciplinary research that postgraduate and early career researchers are doing to reshape the field. Organisations such as BAAS, BRANCH and HOTCUS continue to strengthen the networks that have made UK scholars of the United States internationally respected. While frustrations were evident when discussing the REF, Brian Ward (University of Northumbria) shared his experience on the Area Studies sub-panel for REF2014 to shed light on the procedures involved.

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Tied into this, admittedly cautious, optimism was a sense of opportunity for ECRs, including from Michael Cullinane (University of Northumbria) and Deborah Toner (University of Leicester) in their discussion of research grants. Among the good advice offered was the importance of considering and being realistic about what impacts, outputs and public engagement you expect to accomplish when applying for grants. Promising a 1000-page magnum opus, an international stadium lecture tour and an HBO documentary directed by Ken Burns (executive producer, Steven Spielberg, naturally), might be tempting but it pays to offer more feasible goals. For example, Brian Ward (University of Northumbria) noted that for small grants you might consider including applying for larger research grants as an output, as this will demonstrate the wider scope and impact of your project in the long-term. It also vital to consider and respond to the specific requirements of the funder and be as precise as possible in your calculations. And as many an academic has discovered, the financial procedures of institutions and funders can be slow so be prepared for things to take much longer than you expect. The good news is that there are a range of funding opportunities available for early career researchers – British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants, British Academy Rising Star Engagement Awards, AHRC Leadership Fellows Scheme, Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship – and while extremely competitive, these do have a higher success rate than non-ECR specific awards.

Another theme of the workshop was the increasing emphasis on collaboration within academia. Two areas where this was most apparent were in the question of Impact (with a capital ‘I’) and the future of publishing. More than simply public engagement, Impact should have a sustained and deep effect on how people think about a specific issue. For many academics, historians and Americanists alike, it can sometimes be difficult to identify opportunities for meaningful Impact stemming from our research. This can, for example, be particularly acute for somebody working on colonial America when compared with someone else’s research on the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. However, the REF Impact Database details all the case studies that were submitted in the 2014 round, a useful resource when looking for inspiration as to how one might generate Impact. It is also worth pointing out that while Impact accounted for 15% of the REF in 2014 (research outputs covered 65%; research environment was 20%), it is not ‘portable.’ That is to say, for an institution to submit an Impact case study the underpinning research needs to have been completed at the same institution. For ECRs whose first major research will be conducted at the institution where they completed their PhD and who often move around various universities on various teaching contracts for a number of years, the question of Impact is simply less likely to apply. Moreover, as Brian Ward pointed out, Impact should flow directly from research – not the other way around.

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Even so, in job applications and interviews it is worth factoring in how you would approach the issue of Impact in the future by pointing to previous experience or potential outcomes of your planned research. A good example of how historians can use their research for Impact was provided by George Lewis (University of Leicester) when discussing the outreach day, Remembering Rosa Parks: Understanding the US Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the activities on the day, which included empowering and inclusive tasks designed to challenge both students  and researchers about their own perspectives regarding history and civil rights, particular attention was given to how to measure Impact. For example, the use of Generic Learning Outcomes forms allowed the organisers to get a clearer sense of how the day affected the students’ thinking.

As for the future of publishing in American history, one of the key opportunities identified by Bevan Sewell (Editor of Journal of American Studies; University of Nottingham) was increasing collaboration. While the classic image of the historian may be one of a diligent scholar working in isolation, presumably in a dusty library somewhere, Sewell noted that working with others can produce research that challenges thematic, temporal and spatial constraints. Historians working on comparatively disparate interests can collaborate and broaden research, allowing for greater scope and innovation. Similarly, the use of digital technologies can be seen as an opportunity for scholars to produce material that moves beyond the traditional journal article format. Southern Spaces is an excellent example of how rigorous scholarship can be presented in new ways in order to transform our understanding of issues, such as urban growth and migration politics. In terms of teaching, incorporating digital sources such as Life Magazine and BoB (Box of Broadcasts) can give students a new way of approaching primary source analysis. Innovative teaching is also a useful means of obtaining postgraduate teaching qualifications and HEA accreditation, both of which are valued highly by modern universities.

Overall then, the workshop was an unquestionable success, skilfully organised by Andrew Johnstone which brought together a range of historians of the United States to discuss important issues relevant to early career researchers, as well as more established academics. Hopefully, the networks that have been established here will allow conversations on the current state and future of American history in the UK to continue through the follow up meeting in January and beyond.

About Ben Offiler

Ben completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham and is currently Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University. His current research examines the role of philanthropic NGOs in US foreign relations, focusing on the Near East Foundation's education and disease control programmes in Iran during the Cold War. His first book - US Foreign Policy and the Modernization of Iran: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and the Shah - was published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan.
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