I was fortunate enough to attend a masterclass last week hosted by Dr Penny Edmonds at the University of Tasmania, starring Dr Zoe Laidlaw from the University of London. Months ago I wrote out this quote from Dr Laidlaw’s article “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds?” to keep me on track with my thesis:
“…recent works influenced by ‘new imperial history’ range far beyond dissections of metropolitan society and culture, focusing on interactions between widely separated colonial sites, juxtaposing micro and macro, and questioning the relationship between the remarkable and the everyday…exchanges within and between colonies are just as likely to take centre stage as the metropolis.”
The theme of the class was ‘Networks of Empire and Transnational History.’ Given the centrality of networks and connections to my work, I happily did a one-day round trip from Sydney to Hobart for the class. As the convenors hinted to us at the outset, whilst I learnt a lot from each of them over the course of the day, it was interactions with fellow participants during breaks that fired my imagination the most. This underscores the importance of networking – something I never particularly enjoyed in my previous life as an investment banking compliance officer, but which I am beginning to fully appreciate in my current guise as a graduate student. Talking about my work and thoughts for research topics for my possible (fingers crossed!) PhD led to some really interesting suggestions as to how to frame my work and what kind of events and sources I might pursue. I hope I managed to spark ideas for others as much as they did for me!
I was pleased to discover that I wasn’t the most inexperienced budding historian at the class, having met an honours student from Victoria with a fantastic thesis topic. I was also rather delighted to find myself in about the middle of the age range – whether that’s because it is the older grad students who have the time/money/inclination to travel, or whether that really reflects the demographic of the history post-grad student, I’m not sure.
The day began with introductions, most of which I unfortunately missed (thanks Virgin Australia). Then Zoe gave us a short lecture which traced her own research journey as a PhD student, She highlighted the importance of spending time in the archive, as well as the often-serendipitous nature of historical scholarship. In relation to networks, and her own work on colonial and settler-networks, she noted how pervasive colonial networks were, how assiduously people pursued them, and how the use of a particular connection or network changed over time. She encouraged us to seek ways of disrupting the boundaries of empire in our work, and to de-centre London—one way this can be achieved is by focusing on individual lives, and rethinking biography as a tool for crossing boundaries. In encouraging us to be aware of the work of scholars in areas outside our own, she discussed the legions of connections in the past which had little to do with the metropole, or even the Empire.
The class then discussed the pre-set readings – in addition to “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds,” we discussed Tracey Banivanua Mar’s “Imperial literacy and indigenous rights,” and a chapter from Clare Anderson’s Subaltern Lives. The class had a great discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of the methodologies adopted in these works. Banivanua Mar and Anderson’s work emphasised that in discussing the networks of those with little social capital in the empire, we should not be necessarily discouraged by the fact that we only know a little about some of the lives. The readings also demonstrated the fantastic work that can be achieved if a thoughtful balance is struck between individual lives and stories, and the broader themes they can illuminate.
Dr Kristyn Harman also talked us through the process of researching her fascinating PhD topic of indigenous convicts, and then how she converted it into a prize-winning book. The book is on top of my post-thesis reading list.
In sum, while networking may not be a comfortable experience for many people, making just a little effort to ask what others are working on, and then talking about your own work, can be hugely rewarding. Study in history can be such a solitary exercise that it is easy to forget how much we can learn from others.
Some useful references from the masterclass:
Clare Anderson, Subaltern Lives. Cambridge University Press, 2012. See also her current project: http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/
Tracey Banivanua Mar, “Imperial literacy and indigenous rights: Tracing transoceanic circuits of a modern discourse,” Aboriginal History 37 (2013).
Zoe Laidlaw, “Breaking Britannia’s Bounds? Law, Settlers, and Space in Britain’s Imperial Historiography,” The Historical Journal 55 (2012). See also her other publications: http://pure.rhul.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/zoe-laidlaw(ded6e354-f02a-41e0-a6e2-35f5459cc87b).html
Kristyn Harman, Aboriginal Convicts: Australia, Khoisan, and Maori Exiles. UNSW Press, 2012.