An interesting format, but needs some further thought

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 PhD student Sean Male (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of this unique conference format.

I would first like to thank the organisers for both making this conference free, and for offering a generous travel bursary to postgrad students. This has enabled new researchers to take part in the conference, which of course allows for some exciting and fresh scholarship to be shared. And it appeared that many PG students took advantage of the offer, which was great to see.

It is inevitable that this one-day conference will be compared to the two well attended Modern British Studies conferences held at the University of Birmingham in 2015 and 2017. MBS2015 worked on the assumption that the field of modern British history was fractured and in crisis, and sought to forge new narratives and explanatory frameworks. At the end of MBS2015, the field, it turned out, was healthier than thought.

Similarly, KCBHnow returns to the idea that the field of modern British history needs reassessing, with the grand narratives and ‘big books’ of the past thirty years revisited. Calum Brown and Sally Alexander were in attendance to look back at their work, and long-established narratives and concepts such as ‘consensus’, ‘Thatcherism’, and ‘permissiveness’ were debated. If KCBH wanted to create a new year zero in the field of modern British history, looking to reassess the grand narratives would seem like a logical place to start.

If there were some parallels to be drawn in the premise of the conference, then the format promised something new. Papers were to be kept to five minutes, all addressing a ‘big book’ or grand narrative, followed by a discussion. The initial response to this format among the delegates was overwhelmingly positive, and the format certainly sparked some lively discussion.

Where I thought the format worked best was on the discussion of ‘consensus’. Fascinating mini-papers by Dr Ceci Flinn on post-war city planning, and Dr Chris Smith using a gender framework to assess the wartime role of Bletchley Park, both proved a great launching pad for debate. The audience were engaged, and the chair, Dr Helen McCarthy, kept the discussion flowing. The result of the panel, I am glad to report, is that there was no consensus on the concept of consensus.

I do, however, think the format could do with some extra thought elsewhere, especially when making authors the moderators of discussion on their own work. I think this practice has the potential to stifle discussion where the panel are in awe of the author, or where the panel are in complete disagreement with the work under discussion. For the most part, the discussions I attended avoided this. Professor Sally Alexander presided over a discussion which was both productive and allowed for critical discussion of her work. The discussion of Professor Calum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain, too, was for the most part lively. However, I think the points raised by Rev Dr David Goodhew’s on BAME church attendance figures, and Ruth Lindley’s case study of spirituality within the women’s liberation movement, could potentially have been given more time for discussion. Brown, nonetheless, provided a memorable session.

Despite my reservations, it was a format that was well worth exploring. The discussion format was helpful, I thought, in exploding some of the grand narratives – or at least in complicating them. And as with the two Modern British Studies conferences, KCBHnow has shown a discipline that is healthy and still willing to question some of the narratives which dominate our field.

Sean Male is a second year PGR at the University of Birmingham. He is researching the response to post-war immigration within the children’s homes system in England and Wales.

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