I recently gave a conference paper about my project online in the Antipodes. I received some good feedback about the paper which will hopefully lead to some collaboration in the future. Anyway, I was a bit annoyed with myself as my responses during the Q and A were not up to my usual standard. I have always prided myself on my performance during the Q and A after giving presentations in the over 100 that I have given in my career so far.
Anyway, the reason I was not up to my usual standard was because with the 13 hour time difference the Q and A was taking place just before 9pm (UK time). And I had a long day (I had been up since 6am after getting quite a late night the previous night) and had also done my usual weekly volunteer shift at my local RSPCA Charity Shop earlier that afternoon where I was on my feet for four hours and I have a flat feet so it is quite exhausting…Also I have always been a morning person, i.e. I perform my best at the beginning of the day, and usually start to wind down at 5pm. So I really had to dig deep to give my paper after 8pm and then respond during the Q and A, while it was morning for most people attending the panel and so they were the opposite of me, bright eyed and bushy tailed…
There was a comment that one person made in particular that I wished I had been able to respond to better at the time. The person had an issue with me using ‘transnational’ and ‘identities’ in the title of my research project. To be honest I was a little surprised by the nature of the comment, as in my experience people usually ask questions or comments about the content of your paper rather than its title. But anyway the person thought I should just use ‘British imperial’ instead of ‘transnational’ and they seemed to suggest that it was vogue to include the term identities in anything these days. I tried to point out to them that Britishness was a transnational concept as it was an idea that crossed national boundaries. The person was not satisfied and even suggested that I was actually doing new British imperial history.
However, I think this does a British World approach to history or a British World framework of history a huge disservice. I have always viewed a history of the British World and British imperial history as two quite distinct things, although there is sometimes some overlap. The former generally focuses on the post-colonial history of predominantly (although not exclusively) British settler societies whereas the latter looks at the history of Britain and its colonies. The emphasis in the former is what was once considered the periphery and in the latter what was previously thought of as the metropole. In my own research I have actually explored the post-colonial history of Australia, Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, and South Africa. Approaching the histories of these nations through a British World approach or perspective takes nothing away from any of them. In fact I would argue it puts their individual histories in a broader context as you see links and connections between them in the context of the British World.
Although I consider myself an historian of the British World. I do not see myself as a British imperial historian, not that there is anything wrong with being the latter, far from it. There is an important difference though between the two. I am actually reminded of a story that my original Ph.D. supervisor, the late Neville Meaney told me once about a paper he gave on Australia and the British World at a seminar I believe in the UK. And a group of British imperial historians came up to him afterwards and expressed their pleasure that they had discovered that he was ‘one of them’. He smiled politely but left them soon afterwards as he did not see himself as a British imperial historian at all, but as an Australian historian. Similarly I do not consider myself a British imperial historian, but as an historian that focuses on Australia, Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, and South Africa.
I was not able to respond to the person’s apparent problem with me using the term ‘identities’ due to my tired state at the time but what I would have said is that all three of my main research questions explore identity in one way or another and so I was not using identities in the title of my research project to be in vogue, but because it encapsulated what I was actually focusing on. I would have been curious to know what term they would have me use instead…
So, something I learned from the whole experience is that I should definitely not agree to give conference papers in the late evening! But on the plus side it gave me an opportunity to outline how my research project fits into my broader approach to history 🙂 And I would add that I have recently co-edited a collection on Revisiting the British World: New Voices and Perspectives which will be published soon. The book showcases the cutting edge research that is taking place in the history of the British World. The wonderful chapters illustrate that the British World approach to history or British World framework is still very much useful.