KCBH 2018 Bringing New Formats and Perspectives

As part of our ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ conference, we were able to award a number of postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is Amanda Hall (St Andrews) who discusses her thoughts on the day.

If you are organising a conference, consider this innovative format pioneered by Dr Maggie Scull and Professor David Edgerton at the King’s Contemporary British History conference. Instead of the traditional 20-minute paper format, panels were built around short introductions to an individual’s topic – such as my discussion of the how the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has shifted debate of the Agreement’s legacy on the issue of ‘peace’ in the region – with over an hour set aside for discussion between panellists and with the audience. Rather than potentially only having the opportunity to answer a question or two after delivering prepared remarks this structure provided the chance for in-depth back-and-forth. As a non-historian attending a history conference, this format helped me to realise connections between my own work and that of scholars from other disciplines in a way that otherwise would not have been possible.

The topic of the conference, ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’, was well-suited to this interdisciplinary success, as scholars across both disciplines and sub-fields concerned themselves with thinking about the history of the United Kingdom and how that may inform the near future (perhaps most obviously with Brexit). The broad theme, and its encouragement of diverse thinking and perspectives, was evident from the first panel I attended, ‘Empire, Nation, World and Decolonisation’, chaired by Dr Charlotte Riley, with presentations from Dr Michael Lambert, Dr John Wilson, and Professor David Edgerton. Using their 5-minute slots to their fullest extent, these presentations fitted together a narrative of empire-building and community-definition as an outward-facing process, even when such processes failed to bring about similar sentiments and support at home. The longer conversation between panellists and the audience contextualised the current moment in UK politics as part of a much longer historic narrative in the country, reframing the last seven decades as a period in which the current idea of ‘national identity’ was deliberately constructed, rather than organically developed.

After a short break, the second session of the conference included the panel on which I presented, ‘Post-Conflict Northern Ireland in the Transnational Lens’. Chaired by Dr Maggie Scull, I had the opportunity to contribute to the conference alongside presentations from Dr George Legg, Edwin Coomasaru, Alex Coupe, and Dr Katie Markham. My co-panellists presented on topics ranging from post-conflict issues of consociationalism; understanding Northern Ireland through the lens of pacifism, feminism, and queer studies; the role of the arts in generating cross-community space following 1998; and the role of the heritage sector in forwarding specific narratives of the conflict. I used my five minutes to discuss the question of whether the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland achieved ‘peace’ and what the definitional issues surrounding that label may be, particularly considering the development of a ‘culture war’ replacing active fighting. In my opinion, this fit into the larger conference theme through the uncertainty of the current moment in Northern Ireland and the issues regarding binary social division, a phenomenon seen in other contexts across the West today.

The success of the conference’s format was evident in the wide range of topics discussed by my fellow panellists, as well as the broad discussion with the audience that followed – both depth and breadth within a single panel that are unique among conferences I have attended in the past. The hour of discussion included topics ranging from the applicability of the lessons of Northern Ireland’s peace process to the Basque Country, the role of education in contact and division in Northern Ireland, counter-terrorism efforts, and the role of parades in drawing tourism. Despite coming from such varied academic backgrounds, the conversation allowed everyone in the room to contribute to the discussion – to the benefit of us all. I walked away from the panel with a new understanding of my own research and how it can be applied and communicated beyond the boundaries which I have previously considered. Being in the middle of my project, this helped me return to my fieldwork and notes with a wider-angle lens on the issue of the many forms of and actors in ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland, and my experience at KCBH 2018 will undoubtedly strengthen the final results of my doctoral research moving forward.

After speaking with others throughout the day, it was clear I was not the only one to walk away (after attending a final panel session on ‘Modes of Warfare’, keynote by Professor Guy Ortalano, and wine reception) with a new perspective not only on my own topic, but on the conference theme of ‘UK Through Comparative and Transnational Perspectives’ – particularly the ways that this view of the UK is relevant across contemporary scholarship, even that which is largely focused outside of the present day. Such a broad view was only apparent due to the candour and openness of the conference: a feeling encouraged by the discussion-based nature of the day. Such a broad conference theme could have felt disjointed, particularly with participants from across a wide range of topics and disciplines. Instead, due to the opportunity to directly engage with presentations and other audience members, it felt like the kind of day I imagined at the start of my PhD: the chance to discuss ‘big ideas’ with people who see things from other perspectives, while trying to see my own topic in another light. Overall, I cannot say enough positive things about the day, its content, and its structure, and highly encourage others to attend future events or adopt the format for their own conference!

Amanda Hall is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on ‘inter-referendum’ Northern Ireland, from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to the 2016 Brexit vote, and considers the quality of peace in the region during that time.

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