Sheffield Hallam University

History Postgraduate Research Students’ Annual Conference 2016

22 May 2016 reported by Julia Podziewska

Photo Group

from left to right Rachel Franklin, Steven Burke, Adam Gilbert, Karen Porter, Alan Malpass, Richard Taylor, Geoff Eley, Michael O’Donnell, Bruce Collins, Robbie Aitken.

Leading academics and PhD research students from History and English Literature gathered at the Stoddard building early on Saturday 14 May for the latest in SHU History Department’s annual PhD researchers’ conference.   The event was organized and convened by Reader in History, Dr Robbie Aitken, and we all appreciated the presence and contributions of other senior departmental scholars, Professor Bruce Collins and Dr Alison Twells.

Robbie welcomed everyone before introducing the first speaker, the eminent Professor Geoff Eley, Karl Pohrt Distinguished Professor of Contemporary History, University of Michigan and Visiting Professor at SHU. Geoff’s talk, ‘The Politics of the Past: Is All History Contemporary History?’, addressed the issue of what it means today–especially for those deciding to take a degree in History–to pose the question ‘How and why do societies change or not?’

This was explored against the backdrop of the changing currents of critical approach that have shaped historiographical thinking in recent decades.  Geoff identified this as moving from social history, through the often micro-history-orientated ‘cultural turn’ and back, of late, to a broader history of society; this was placed within the shiftings of the broader socio-political configuration,

The key text in the  presentation was Carolyn Steedman’s 1986 Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives , a volume which, like Geoff’s own  A Crooked Line (2005), employs the story of  the historian’s own formation to explore how shifting class and gender formations of the post-war period have shaped the craft of historical scholarship and its social engagement.

The matters touched on in this opening session sparked questions and discussion that re-surfaced throughout the day in lunch, coffee-time and post-sessional pub talk. This was the second of three talks Geoff is giving whilst at SHU.  The first, a public lecture,  ‘Empire, Ideology and the East: Thoughts on Nazism’s Spatial Imaginary’ was held on Thursday 2 May, and the third, a faculty event, ‘Eric Hobsbawm, History, Politics: Brushing History with the Grain’ took place on Wednesday 18 May.


Richard Taylor’s ‘James Staats Forbes – fragments of a life’ introduced us as much to his skills as a professional archivist as to the figure of the Victorian businessman of the title. Richard explained how, focused on Forbes, he had set out to understand Victorian business culture. He rehearsed the analytical models available and employed so far to constitute this field and comprehend the culture. These include social network theories and Bourdieusian models that employ notions of parallel circulation streams of cultural, social and economic capital.  Richard pointed out the challenges he faced, including erroneous entries in standard reference works, and the hazards of replying on shareholder meeting minutes in the absence of personal documents such as letters and diaries; he also revealed the rewards of time consuming archival searches.


Steven Burke’s  beautifully illustrated presentation, ‘Hagiography and Horror: narrating the demise of Charles MacCarthy’,  illuminated the role played by narrative and representation in nineteenth-century British military culture and showed them shaping notions of masculinity and nationhood. His focus was on the military memoir and how two proto-ethnographic  examples of this genre disseminated a sense British colonial military endeavour in Britain, the heroism and  benevolence of the British contrasted with the savagery of native practices. Steven’s nuanced exploration of  a story about the chief of the Ashantis making a trophy drinking cup out of his rival’s skull, Charles McCarthy, nicely paralleled the theme of a later paper concerned with the manacling of POWS during WWII.


Adam Gilbert spoke on ‘British Imperialism and the Hong Kong Post Office’ detailing how the passage of letters between the home country and China’s treaty ports and Shanghai brought into play conflict between jurisdictions.   Despite the imperative of an efficient postal service for the smooth running of Britain’s trading ventures it took some time for one to be established.  Even once a British post office system had been set up in the treaty ports, the consular service continued to handle post; London ran the post office not the colonial powers.  Further tension between London and Hong Kong was created by the matter of who should finance the service.  Matters were rectified once it was noted that the German and French postal services posed a threat to the British, as they were cheaper; British prices fell and responsibilities were soon clarified.


Karen Porter discussed ‘Jewish perceptions of Life under German Occupation as seen through Diaries of the Warsaw and Lodz Ghettos’.  Karen’s interest is in how everyday life was represented  by those living within the two ghettos in contrast to post-war accounts of ghetto life.  Her study will range across various aspects of life: class, gender, age, religiosity etc.  Her conference presentation focused on class divisions within the Lodz ghetto.  The hopes, fears and experiences  of  the well-heeled daughter of an American mother and local art-dealer father were compared with the communist sympathies of Dawid Sierakowiak, whose diaries remain the best-known account of ghetto life.


Alan Malpass‘s talk,  ‘Not the right way to retaliate”: British attitudes to the manacling of prisoners of war 1942-3 ‘, demonstrated how publicity around behavior towards and treatment of POWs built a profile of a particular British identity.  When Germany threatened to manacle their British captives in response to a report that German POWs had been chained, the British public voiced anxiety about such retaliation.  ‘Decent’ treatment of the enemy was precisely what distinguished Britain from Nazi Germany according to a range of voices: Orwell, C of E vicars and local POW support organizations.


Michael O’Donnell’s account of  ‘Contested Citizenship: Bilingual education in Arizona, 1960-1988’ introduced us to the notion of ‘cultural citizenship’ and the part language plays within it.  A clear manifestation of this, he pointed out, is the conflict over the terms Mexican American, Ethnic Mexican, Chicano, and Hispanic each of which is variously inflected and thereby  positions the Spanish speaker in a different relationship with both the English speaker and with state authorities. The huge growth of the Spanish speaking population in the US has led to state intervention in the classroom. The origins of this can be traced to legislation enacted in 1968, which permitted states to  decide which language(s) would be permitted for classroom instruction.  In Arizona this has led to English being prioritized and Spanish treated as a ‘handicap’.

Each of the papers gave rise to a number of questions, which the researchers responded to with consummate skill and erudition.  Speaking to our researchers’ website after the event, convener Robbie Aitken said, ‘I thought it was a super day and that the papers were all of a very high quality.  It was great to see the progress that our postgraduate students are making’.

Animated by the issues the day had sparked, we all trundled off to the local pub where lively discussion continued for some time after.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: