KCBH Conference: A Rewarding Experiment

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is recently submitted PhD student Michelle Gordon (Royal Holloway) who offers her insights on the conference.

It is always interesting to attend a conference that tries to do things a bit different and this was certainly the case at the KCBH ‘Contemporary British History Now’ event. Each presenter was given five minutes for their position papers, which allowed for a wide range of arguments to be presented and gave an insight into the diverse range of research that is currently taking place in the field of British history: from women’s cricket to British emigration, to the role of colonial troops in World War I to Declinism and decolonisation as well as the many ‘ways’ of British warfare – it will certainly take me a while to process all that I heard and learnt! Debates and the repercussions on Brexit loomed large throughout the day, particularly on the key debates that continue regarding ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and of particular interest and very worryingly, it seems there is something to be said for the argument that imperial nostalgia played a key role in the referendum result. With these debates in mind, Professor Patrick Wright’s keynote on ‘The English Fix: Perspectives on Brexit’ was certainly a fitting end to a fascinating day.

An aspect of the experimental format that was particularly effective was the few minutes’ discussion amongst ourselves before the debate began; this method took me back to being a student! This approach both allowed for time to reflect on the variety of perspectives we had just heard and prevented those dreaded first few awkward moments at the end of paper in which no one wants to speak first. Furthermore, the strict timeframe was a great way to hear a range of arguments and research in a very short space of time, and I feel that the format encouraged greater audience participation than the standard twenty-minute paper followed by a ten-minute Q&A. I have never witnessed such successful timekeeping by academics before!

While I felt that overall the experiment was a success, I think that a few keywords on the conference programme may have been useful to indicate the focus of individual papers, thereby allowing an informed choice on which session to attend and I feel that this may have better prepared the audience for the sheer variety of perspectives. However, I think that the format encouraged debate and the conference had a warm and friendly atmosphere in which to hash out our differences. The range of topics and opinions demonstrates not only a thriving field, but also the cross roads at which Britain currently finds itself: our understanding of British history and perceptions of that history are more important than ever: perceptions of Britain’s relationship with violence, decolonisation and declinism are all integral to this ongoing discussion, and events such as ‘Contemporary British History Now’  are essential in keeping an open dialogue.

Michelle Gordon has recently completed her PhD on ‘British Colonial Violence in Perak, Sierra Leone and Sierra Leone’ at Royal Holloway, University of London. Michelle’s work explores extreme violence in British colonial warfare and also examines British colonial violence within a wider framework of both European genocidal violence in twentieth-century European warfare and the Holocaust. 

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