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November-December 2010: Stephanie Barczewski

Stephanie Barczewski
Professor of History, Clemson University

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

My interest in British history can be pinpointed to a very specific moment: January 1989, when I was beginning my second semester as a junior at Columbia University. I was actually an English major as an undergraduate, but my inflexibly empirical brain had increasing difficulty coping with literary theory as I moved into upper-level classes. In search of something more suited to my tastes and abilities, I took several American history classes, but nothing really grabbed my fancy. But as a second-semester junior, I needed a fifth class to fill out my schedule, and tried a number of options – ranging from American presidential politics to Japanese film – before I wandered into David Cannadine’s British history since 1832 class. I was enthralled from the minute I sat down – Professor Cannadine was the most amazing lecturer I have ever experienced, and he provided a brilliant introduction to the subject. I’ll never forget when I took the first half of the class (1688-1832) the following semester, and he ended it with a beautiful recitation from Prospero’s farewell speech from The Tempest that had everyone sniffling and tearing up! In my senior year, David graciously agreed, in spite of his already lofty reputation, to supervise an independent study project for a lowly undergraduate who wasn’t even a history major. He spent hours patiently and enthusiastically discussing and improving my work, and from that point onwards I was well and truly hooked.

So that’s the where and when. The question of why I love British history is more difficult to answer. I try to avoid blatant Anglophilia or the development of an affected mid-Atlantic accent, but there is something about the British that I truly love. I think it’s their ironic-but-silly sense of humor, their self-effacing charm and their grace under pressure, all things that I try to emulate in my own life. Plus the opening up of the new imperial history and postcolonial studies has really reinvigorated the subject relative to other European histories, because it allows us to explore so many questions that are relevant to our global world. It’s an exciting time to be a British historian. We’ve recovered from the doom-and-gloom that pervaded all of European history a decade ago and feel far more optimistic about our ability to maintain our relevance and intellectual dynamism.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

I’ve already answered a significant part of this question above. David Cannadine introduced me to the subject and continued to provide insight, support and inspiration not only for the rest of my time as an undergraduate, but throughout my years at Yale as a doctoral student. But an equal measure of credit goes to my graduate advisor, Linda Colley, who was in every way exemplary in that role. Linda taught me to not be afraid to explore my own ideas and to learn to be an independent scholar. (She pays the price for this every time I take issue with her arguments about British national identity in my own work!) She wanted to produce independent scholars, not acolytes. Plus you can’t help but gain so much from being around someone who is such a brilliant historian and who has been perhaps more influential than anyone in reshaping the field of British history in recent years. So I was incredibly fortunate to be a product – one of the few, I think – of the combined talents of the Colley/Cannadine marriage. What adds a little humor to that is my husband, the British imperial and Irish historian Michael Silvestri, was a Ph.D. student of David Cannadine’s at Columbia, though we met on our own without any matchmaking assistance from Linda and David.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

At the time I was deciding on my career trajectory, I probably would have been a journalist. I seriously considered going to Northwestern as a undergraduate to pursue that goal. But from the perspective of fifteen years later, if I could be anything else in the world besides what I am, it would be an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company. I would love to serve as the historical consultant for the relevant aspects of their theme parks. I think it’s so interesting to wrestle with the issues of presenting meaningful history to a mass audience that’s just trying to have fun, and without offending anyone’s personal and political beliefs. But most of all I love Disney World! Other career options would include working for the State Department in some sort of consultative capacity, helping to educate diplomats and other government officials on the things about various national histories that they need to know to do their jobs better. Or perhaps serving as organizer of serious, historical tours of various global locales, because I love to travel and explore new places.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

Like many scholars, I’d have to say whichever one I’m working on at the moment. I’m such a laser-beam focused type of person that I’m very intently committed to what I’m doing at any given time. I think you learn things about the research and publication process and the nature of books with each new endeavor. My first book, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, was very much the outgrowth of my dissertation, so it was pretty academic in tone and directed at a specialist audience. I’m proud of the way it raised important questions about the nature of British identity in the nineteenth century, and I’m still wrestling with those issues in my current work. My second book, Titanic: A Night Remembered, was intended for more of a mass audience, so it was another, very different learning process. And then most recently, Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Antarctic Heroism tried to look at how the fluctuating reputations of the two most prominent British Antarctic explorers reveal changes in British conceptions of heroism. I worked hard to try and make this book relevant to and enjoyable for both an academic and non-academic audience, and was generally happy with the results.

Now, I’m working on a book about country houses and empire that will, I hope, be a significant contribution to the debate over the role of empire in British metropolitan culture. After publishing three books in less than a decade, I’m taking a bit more time with this one, and returning somewhat to the mode of dissertation-writing where you have the time and opportunity to really think about things and explore ideas, as well as conduct the actual research. I’m also swinging a bit back towards a more academic style of writing. I’m lucky at Clemson because we happen to have a cadre of very talented scholars who are engaged significantly with British history, so I have plenty of guinea pigs to bounce ideas off of. I’m very much enjoying the creativity and ideas that come from letting it gestate, plus I get to visit a plethora of country houses, which is terrific! I’m about to be off to Ireland for three weeks of exploring how Irish houses differ from their counterparts in the rest of the British Isles in terms of their engagement with empire.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

I don’t see the current emphasis on empire dissipating in the near future. It’s simply too relevant to our global world, and, more pragmatically, too desirable from a hiring standpoint, since smaller departments can get someone who does Britain and India or Africa or the Caribbean in one slot. I’m hoping we can get past the current bifurcation between more traditional imperial historians and postcolonial studies and begin to move towards a more synthetic approach that incorporates elements of both. I think there’s plenty of work remaining to be done in terms of contextualizing the important issues raised by postcolonial scholars: some of their more sweeping theoretical claims simply can’t accommodate the differences between seventeenth-century America and nineteenth-century Africa. In addition, I think we’ve made many claims in recent years about British history being global because of the empire, but haven’t truly dealt with what that means. There is a dangerous divide in British culture at present between those who see Britain’s increasing (mostly urban) multiculturalism and diversity as a good thing and those who see it as eradicating a purer (and therefore superior) form of Britishness (or Englishness, Scottishness or Welshness). Britain hasn’t really resolved whether it wants to be a melting pot a la the United States (in theory, anyway), or a patchwork quilt a la Canada, or neither. I think historians will be important in providing the information necessary to understand the nation’s true historical evolution as it relates to these issues.

I also think that Britain’s relations with Europe will become increasingly important in both present-day and historiographical terms. The EU was forged in a surge of optimism that has largely gone unchallenged over the last two decades because the economic benefits have been manifest and consistent, but the current situation with Greece (and possibly Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Belgium…) will test the members’ resolve. Will the members of the EU maintain their commitment to a unified Europe or will they begin to pull away? Because of the decision to stay out of the single currency, Britain’s role in all of this is very complex, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially under the new Conservative leadership. And lurking in the background is the “special relationship” with America, which is very much in flux after the virtual lovefests between Thatcher and Reagan and (more oddly) Bush and Blair. British historians will play a major role, I think, in helping us to understand all of these things, not just in recent years, but in terms of how their roots stretch far into the past.

Finally, I think the nonexistent but nonetheless extremely important British constitution merits further attention – its evolution didn’t stop with the Third Reform Act! The evisceration of the House of Lords has been little studied by historians, and the modern monarchy remains under-explored as well. When Charles finally comes to the throne it may open up some of the periodic questions about the monarchy’s continued existence once again, but it’s more the monarchy’s cultural and symbolic role that I’m thinking of. What does it mean for a modern, increasingly multicultural Britain? And finally, the electoral questions regarding the role of alternative parties that have arisen in this recent election hold out the possibility of major change for the House of Commons as well. Will the British political system move more towards a European-style multi-party assembly, or will it continue to be an American-style two-party body as it has been throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

You obviously can’t work on something just because it seems timely or relevant. You have to love what you do – writing books takes too long for it to be any other way, and if sitting down and writing becomes torture rather than the thing you most want to do in the world, then you’ll never bring a project to completion. But right now you would be crazy to not think at least a little about the realities of the publishing and job market. They are both worse than they have ever been for young academics. You have to think about where the field is, where it’s going and what might be attractive to a prospective employer/publisher. Every department wants to hire the next big thing, and every publisher wants to sell books. So pay attention – to who’s getting hired (some people still are), to what’s getting published and to what people are excited about. Then think about your own interests and see if you can’t find something that fits both.

On a more practical level, get it done, and don’t push things down to the wire. Publishing a book takes longer and longer – years even after the manuscript is basically done. So don’t get yourself in tenure trouble because you aren’t being realistic about that, and if you’re out there adjuncting and trying to land a permanent job, get things in print as quickly as you can. Go to conferences and network – contacts in this profession are worth their weight in gold in all sorts of ways – but use conference papers as a means towards an end – a book or an article – don’t give papers on things you don’t intend to publish. For those a little further along, remember that the second book is in some ways more difficult than the first. Even though most of us were pretty poor in graduate school, the one thing we did have was lots of time to work on our research. But when you get out there in the “real world,” suddenly you’re teaching a bunch of classes, performing all sorts of committee work and other service tasks, advising students, and probably dealing with a variety of family responsibilities. And your network of brilliant colleagues who are all at the same point in their career as you, who are working on topics in the same field as you and who are eager to discuss their work all the time is gone. Now you’re the only British historian in town. This is a major adjustment, which is why such a large percentage of academics never publish a second book. So make sure you’re aware of the realities, and keep moving forward rather than getting bogged down. Writing and publishing at any stage requires you to make it a priority – it’s often all too easy to let more “urgent” things get in the way, and before you know it years go by and you don’t produce a thing.

Stephanie Barczewski’s personal webpage can be found here:

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