As the self-proclaimed ‘Glastonbury of conferences’, the Modern British Studies (MBS) conference promised to showcase cutting-edge research, and it certainly did not disappoint. Quite apart from opening proceedings with an early-career researcher panel on precarity in MBS, one of the first plenaries was on ‘Teaching Modern Britain: inclusive pedagogies’. In the academic conference scene, it is rare to find any explicit reference to teaching practice, let alone in a ‘prime time’ spot like a plenary.
What is even rarer is the approach that the panellists took to the discussion. This was not an abstract debate about the curriculum or new classroom technologies (although these topics did come up); this was a discussion from the standpoint of four academic presenters about their own unique experiences, and how to represent, accommodate and translate these diverse perspectives into critical teaching practice. The panel, chaired by Matthew Francis, was composed of Mo Moulton, who spoke as a trans academic, Christienna Fryar as an historian and woman of colour, Lucy Robinson as an academic with an invisible disability and Susan D. Amussen as professor who taught disadvantaged students.
Each presenter foregrounded the radical potential of inclusive pedagogy. Teaching was not seen as a disruptive sideline to the main priority of research, but as the first place that historians have an impact on the present.
Each presenter also spoke to the tension between their subject position and their position as tutors and lecturers. Moulton in particular dealt with the issues of declaring your gender and sexuality in the classroom. Originally, Moulton saw their gender and sexuality as a private concern. Although they had never ‘hidden’ their identity, they had not explicitly engaged with it in the classroom. However, over time, Moulton became aware that students did not know their position, and that trans students felt isolated at the University as they had no authority figures at the institution with whom they could identify. Lucy Robinson foregrounded similar issues as an academic with invisible disabilities, while Fryar had the opposite experience, as she visibly embodied her identity as a woman of colour.
Each panellist portrayed their experience as one of many, and there was explicit recognition that these perspectives often intersected in students’ and academics’ lives. Although different, there were several issues that ran through the papers. The first was the importance of each academic stating their subject position and the conditions of their labour to their students. It was hoped that this would create a transparent, open environment for students to engage with these perspectives, and that it would encourage a dialogue amongst the students about their own experiences.
The second theme was representing diversity in history. This included using diverse historical source material so that students could encounter a variety of historical actors, but also shaping the parameters of debate. Far from academics being the fount of all knowledge, in this panel, they were cast as mediators who facilitated a critical discussion about the past and helped students to think through what history would have looked like from different perspectives.
Language was the third major hurdle to achieving inclusive pedagogy that the speakers discussed. How to navigate historical language that is now viewed as a slur, for example, is an almost inescapable part of teaching, yet one that students and academics alike are not trained to deal with in the classroom. Identifying language as offensive today while also situating it in its historical context was described as a productive way forward, yet still a fraught one (as one cannot predict how students will approach these sensitive topics in discussion).
Given the range, breadth and depth of this panel that examined inclusive pedagogy, I was surprised that the program was not equally inclusive when it came to gender and sexuality. There was a clear segregation between panels that focussed on gender and sexuality, and those that looked at race and Empire. While the occasional gender and sexuality paper might touch on race, it was largely absent from the panels that I attended.
This was problematic on a number of levels. Through this lack of engagement with race, gender and sexuality papers normalised ‘whiteness’. This is ahistorical, as Critical Whiteness Studies among others have demonstrated that white racial identity is culturally constructed and has changed over space and time.
This separation also enhanced the racialisation of Empire. Given the conference scheduling, one could be mistaken for believing that race was something that did not exist in ‘Britain’ per se. It existed in diasporic communities, or in the colonies, but not the nation. While race was dealt with at MBS, it only existed in specific, defined spaces.
On the whole, the MBS conference was an arena where progressive, academic issues were placed at the forefront of historical discussion. This separation of race from panels on gender and sexuality stood in stark contrast to the general, intersectional tenor of the conference. However, the fact of this separation remains, and leads me to question what this can tell us about the field of MBS, and how race features in histories of gender and sexuality alike.
Alistair Bonnett, White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives (Harlow/New York: Prentice Hall, 2000).
Leigh Boucher, Jane Carey and Katherine Ellinghaus (eds.), Historicising Whiteness: transnational perspectives on the construction of an identity (Melbourne: RMIT Press, 2007).
Aileen Moreton-Robinson (ed.), Whitening Race (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004).
Ruth Frankenberg (ed.), Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Sydney: Pluto Press, 1998).
Belinda McKay (ed.), Unmasking Whiteness: Race Relations and Reconciliation (Brisbane: The Queensland Studies Centre, Griffith University, 1999).
Aileen Moreton-Robinson (ed.), Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004).
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage: Random House, 1992).
Meleisa Ono-George, ‘Beyond Diversity: anti-racist pedagogy in British History departments’, Women’s History Review vol. 28, no. 3 (2019), pp. 500-507.
David Roediger, ‘Critical Studies of Whiteness, USA: Origins and Arguments’, Theoria (December 2001): 74-76.
David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London/New York: Verso, 1991).
Matt Wray, Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006).