Lecture: North American Conference on British Studies in Louisville, KY: “Collaborative Research, Technology, and the Future of British Studies” (8 November 2009, 11:00 a.m.)

North American Conference on British Studies in Louisville, KY: “Collaborative Research, Technology, and the Future of British Studies” (8 November 2009, 11:00 a.m.)
For more information, visit http://www.nacbs.org/conference.html.


British Studies, particularly British history, is dominated by solitary scholars working diligently on their research.  If they run into problems, they may write an email to a colleague or address a question to listservs such as H-Albion.  A few times a year, they emerge from their archives and offices to share their thoughts at conferences such as the NACBS.  While scholars may get feedback on their research at NACBS or on H-Albion, these events are sporadic exchanges dominated by longer periods of isolation.  They may be collaborations, but they are discreet events and lack the sense of sustained interaction that one sees in the hard sciences many other social sciences.  Because of this, British Studies (and the humanities more generally) has unintentionally created a hegemonic model of research activity – one in which collaborative projects are often dismissed when assessing a candidate’s applicability for promotion and tenure.

This paper challenges the standard research model in British Studies, arguing that 21st-century technology not only allows but it necessitates collaborative research projects.  Collaboration encourages scholars to pose more creative research problems, generate multiple perspectives within a research project, share resources, create more robust solutions to problems, and rely on an expanded knowledge base – to name just a few benefits.  And, while a few years ago, technology limited collaborative research to regional projects, recent innovations have transformed the scholarly landscape.  While I present my argument, I will “go live,” demonstrating a collaborative research model that integrates widely available (and largely free) technologies including live chatting and blogging, video streaming, Adobe Acrobat Connect, googledocs, and google motion charts.

The Crisis of British Studies

We are in the final day of the 2009 NACBS.  Most of us have sat down at least once with our colleagues to fret about the future of British Studies and more specifically, British history.  There are fewer jobs – down two-thirds since the 1990s – less funding, a dearth of interested undergraduates, and a dwindling pool of academic publishers willing to publish our work.  Yes, 2009 was a bleak year for British history we told ourselves this weekend, and this refrain was followed, no doubt, by, “and it doesn’t look like it will be any better next year.”  And today, our perennial and collective lamentation about the state of British Studies is coming to an end – only to be pronounced again at the Victorian Studies Conference, the Anglo-American Conference, and, of course, NACBS 2010.

Mourning the fate of British history is our collective hobbyhorse.  And, I imagine that it is the same in many other fields.  It’s interesting to listen to people speak of the rise and fall of British history, particularly in the North American context.  It’s a story of a post-WWII golden age of mass employment and overflowing department coffers – an age when even “Lucky Jim Dixon” stood a chance of obtaining a faculty position.  What I find interesting, however, is that since at least the 1920s, historians of Britain have voiced concerns about the decline of British history.  Take the case of John Franklin Jameson for example.  He was at one time or another, a co-founder of the American Historical Association, Chair of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and editor of the American Historical Review.  He lived in an age when historical scholarship was flowering into a full-blown profession – certainly a golden age.  But, no.  Franklin, or “the Dean” as his friends knew him, complained of a crisis in British history as early as the 1920s.  In fact, reflecting on the first Anglo-American conference in 1921, he wrote in the AHR that American graduate students lacked the breadth of experience and cosmopolitanism of their British counterparts.  Meanwhile the British universities lacked the resources offered by universities in the United States.[1]

A similar tone of crisis could be heard in the early 1950s.  Despite the massive influx of GIs into post-secondary education in the 1940s, Walter Arnstein’s advisor at Columbia told him not to pursue British history because “there was no future in it.”[2] In the 1980s, David Cannadine termed Walter Arnstein’s formative years as the “Golden Age of British History” while the 1980s was a decade of a two-fold assault on British history.[3] On the one hand was the Thatcherite attack on the public university.[4] On the other hand was the “Ph.D. mentality” of scholars who were content to ignore their roles as “public teacher[s].”[5] By 1999, the NACBS commissioned a study to analyze the “decline of British Studies,” widely known as the Stansky Report.[6] To some extent, the report was resigned to the fact that British history’s golden age was long since past:

Whatever prospects exist for British history in this environment are less likely to be realized if its advocates insist on Britain’s traditional place of privilege in the discipline than if they demonstrate that it remains a vital field of study that offers insights and connections that benefit students and colleagues in other areas.[7]

For the most part, scholars throughout the field continue to echo the sentiment of generalized malaise in articles, conference papers, and conversations.  In fact, we’ve established what we might call a “crisis” or “decline-and-fall” literature that has had recurrent themes since the 1920s.  While I do not have time to detail each of them, these crises are ones of

  1. Periodization
  2. Publication
  3. Hiring
  4. Courses and enrollments
  5. Funding
  6. Public relations
  7. Standing among other historical fields
  8. The question of “what is British History?”

The jeremiads of the crisis literature also include a set of common solutions to the decline and fall of British history.  Several themes are particularly pervasive:

  1. Better marketing
  2. Utilizing technology
  3. Forging stronger links among scholars of Britain though collaboration

Arguments for better marketing include a variety of ideas, from making courses and books more relevant to engaging people beyond academia in our role as public scholars.  Of course, historians have been using technology and engaging public audiences for years.  And, international conferences and interdisciplinary collaborations have brought scholars together since the IHR held its first Anglo-American conference in 1921.  However, the age of the internet has opened up new avenues and possibilities that most scholars barely recognize.

I want to spend the remainder of my paper arguing for the potential of technology and collaborative research to transform the future of British Studies.  I do not plan to argue about what British Studies is, what it should be, or its proper boundaries.  There are important debates that continue to take place about the nature of the field, and these are not necessarily separate from my interest in digital technology and collaborative research.[8] However, I do not have time to go into detail about these issues.   Nor will this be a theoretical discussion or demonstration of obscure computer coding.  Rather, I plan to give practical suggestions to help reinvigorate the field.  I want to be clear that what I am suggesting is not a utopian scheme to save British Studies.  About whether British Studies can retain a primary place in the field of history (especially in North America) I am doubtful.  However, I will argue that British historians have the potential to be leaders in the discipline of history through creating a model of professionalization that has relevance to 21st-century academia.

Problems and Potentials

Digital technology helps to solve a number of problems noted in the crisis literature. First, it provides a cost-effective model to revive abandoned publication projects and begin new journals.  Take, for example, a journal at my institution, Indiana University.  Jason Baird Jackson, a professor of anthropology, was the editor of the journal, Museum Anthropology.[9] He created the online journal Museum Anthropology Review as an experiment in 2007.[10] Relying on the peer-review model of Museum Anthropology, the online journal uses Open Journal Systems, an open access journal management and publishing system.[11] There is an economic cost-benefit on two levels when comparing the paper to the digital journal.  The traditional journal costs consumers $56 per year for two issues, and, of course, the online journal is free.  On the consumer side, this means that while there are hundreds of subscribers to the paper journal, the online journal has about 20,000 users each year.[12] On the production side, after the startup costs, which entailed university library and IT support, the digital journal costs “about $20” each year to run.[13] While I wonder whether copyediting costs have been factored into this total, the argument is compelling.

The benefits go beyond economics.  The creation and maintenance of open access journal projects using software such as Open Journal Systems or ContentDM is something that any faculty member can learn to do with minimal training.  And, it allows users to do full-text searches of individual journals and groups of journals since the open source journal software uses standardized cataloguing protocols.  Take, for example, a completely new resource that I have created with my library through the ContentDM.  We have taken all back-issues of the British Studies Intelligencer, scanned them, inserted relevant metadata, and provided them free to the public.  These items, which might have disappeared into the trash bin, are now publicly accessible, open records contributing to the history of 40 years of British Studies.

Thus, the problem of engaging independent scholars and the public-at-large is mitigated by the open nature of a free journal.  Combined with discussion forums, online peer-reviewed journals can be dynamic tools for engaging with a wider public.

Members of the British Studies community should be particularly excited about the possibilities of open access publications.  As many of the NACBS’s older members no doubt remember, the NACBS and its affiliates had a particularly vibrant history in publishing.  In addition to the Journal of British Studies, the NACBS community once published The British Studies Intelligencer, a newsletter; Studies in British History and Culture, an annual monograph series; Archives in British History and Culture, an annual devoted to publishing primary documents; Current Research in British Studies, a series of quadrennial historiographical surveys; the British Studies Biography Series, a set of biographical monographs; Albion and The British Studies Momitor, journals devoted to British history; and a sponsored series of essays, compiled in Changing Views on British History and Recent Views on British History.  The potential of technology to reinvigorate a robust publishing atmosphere in British Studies is a very real possibility should the British Studies community decide to take the opportunity.

Moreover, the environmental costs of open access journals and publications significantly reduces greenhouse emissions and protects environmental resources.  Consider the fact that each of the 1000 subscribers to the Journal of British Studies receives over 2000 pages of paper a year – 2 million pages of paper total – and that each of the journal issues rely upon fossil fuels for national and international distribution.  Even if each of the subscribers to a journal were to print a few articles per year, the savings in environmental resources is outstanding.

In summary then, I am suggesting that British historians have the potential to be leaders in creating a new model of professionalization – one that breaks away from the commercial model of print publication, but retains the structure of peer review and high quality work.  Other disciplines have forged a path, but historians have been slow to respond.  If the members of NACBS were to seize the moment, they could help write a new future for British Studies specifically and history more generally despite the current state of shrinking budgets.  It is a model of professionalization that could engage independent scholars and the public in innovative ways.  After all, we could create journals with video, music, three-dimensional modeling, and full-color artworks.  We could have journals in which readers were not simply consumers, but one in which they were producers – adding notes, links, comments, and tags to authors’ work.  Moreover, the choice is a responsible one from an environmental perspective.

But it is not enough that the technology be available.  There are clearly potent arguments against what I have just explained.  On the one hand, there are those who argue – quite reasonably I think – that more information, more journals, etc. is not necessarily a good thing.  There is a difference between more information and intelligent information.  Likewise, there must be easy ways to search the open access data.  My response would be that academic digital content using the tools that I have just outlined is created using international standards that allow metadata to be internationally uniform and thus easily compiled into searchable databases.[14] The second argument is that digital publication, database creation, etc. is simply not as valued as traditional print media.  In the U.S., this is deeply felt by younger scholars hoping to attain tenure.  Despite the quality of an online resource, most would prefer to publish in traditional media.  In the UK, scholars recognize a bias against innovation because of the RAE, or Research Assessment Exercise.  Whether real or perceived – or both – the RAE has led many British historians to avoid pursuing digital publication.  Thus, it is necessary that British historians change their attitude towards creating and using new technologies by familiarizing themselves with it and by developing an infrastructure that values new media.

In the final section of this paper, I want to introduce briefly the potentials to use technology in a collaborative way.  I will argue that technology not only makes possible, but that it necessitates we create and value collaborative research ventures.  Rather than presenting a futurist vision of what technology will look like, I want to show what is available now and how British Studies scholars can use it to create a new model for our field’s future.

The Collaborative Venture

Collaborative research is nothing new.  We do it all the time. H-Albion is perhaps the most noticeable collaborative research venture in British history, with a membership of nearly 3000 scholars from around the world.  Still, we can’t shake the myth of the solitary scholar composing in his or her office.  Yet, each of us collaborate every day using our computers, telephones, text messaging, and research assistants.  We have so internalized the myth of the solitary scholar that we rarely pursue collaborative publications.  In a bibliometric survey of the Journal of British Studies, the English Historical Review, the Historical Journal, and the Scottish Historical Review, this is what I found:

Journal Publishing Chart

What this means is that only 3.2% of total articles in these journals this decade were multiauthored works.  This low percentage is representative of humanities in general.[15] This does not have to be the case however.  Oxford University Press’s journal Literary and Linguistic Computing had nearly a 50% rate of multiauthored articles between 2004 and 2008.[16] While research into the bibliometrics of collaborative research is limited for the humanities,[17] evidence suggests that among multiauthored works there are higher rates of acceptance in peer-reviewed journals as well as qualitatively better research in both the sciences and social sciences.[18] Thus, there is evidence that should encourage British Studies scholars to participate in more collaborative ventures.  And, there is technology that makes collaborative research increasingly easier.

Technological Possibilities (live demonstration)

  1. Redefining publication
  2. Open access archives
  3. Networked research/teaching/conferences
  4. Cloud computing


I have only been able to touch upon the potentials for technology and collaborative research to enhance the field of British Studies.  However, I hope that I have been able to show that the tools are accessible to each of us.  We have the opportunity to chart a future for British Studies that can be a model for the profession in the twenty-first century.  Since there is much more that is being developed online, I am taking the opportunity of this conference paper to put some of my ideas into practice.  I have begun a blog on the future of British Studies.  On it, you can find this paper as well as short essays and links to other resources.  In fact, you can go online and add comments and links to my posts as you see fit.  The url is http://futurebrit.edublogs.org.  Please feel free to go online and make comments.  I welcome your input.

[ 1 ]John Franklin Jameson, “The Anglo-American Conference of Professors of History,” The American Historical Review 27, no. 1 (October 1921): 58-59.

[2] Interview with Walter Arnstein, 10 October 2009.

[3] David Cannadine, “British History: Past, Present — And Future?,” Past & Present, no. 116 (1987): 170.

[4] Cannadine, “British History,” 176-77.

[5] Cannadine, “British History,” 179.

[6] Peter Stansky et al., “NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies in North America (1999),” 1999, http://www.nacbs.org/documents/reportonfield1999.html.

[7] Peter Stansky et al., “NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies in North America (1999).”

[8] For example, the legacy of British imperialism continues to have a significant effect on the unequal distribution of resources around the world. Technological development in the humanities can both mitigate some of these effects, but they can also exaggerate inequalities. These are issues that must be dealt with by the British Studies community.

[9] http://www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=0892-8339

[10] http://museumanthropology.net/

[11] http://pkp.sfu.ca/?q=ojs

[12] Scott Jaschik, “Abandoning Print, Not Peer Review,” Inside Higher Ed, February 28, 2008, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/02/28/open.

[13] Jaschik, “Abandoning Print.”

[14] See, for example, http://dublincore.org/documents/usageguide/.

[15] Vincent Larivière, Yves Gingras, and Éric Archambault, “Canadian collaboration networks: A comparative analysis of the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities,” Scientometrics 68, no. 3 (December 26, 2006): 519-533.

[16] Lisa Spiro, “Collaborative Authorship in the Humanities,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, April 21, 2009, http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/collaborative-authorship-in-the-humanities/.

[17] Richard L. Hart, “Collaborative publication by university librarians: an exploratory study,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 26, no. 2 (March 2000): 94-99.

[18] Harriet Zuckerman, “Nobel Laureates in Science: Patterns of Productivity, Collaboration, and Authorship,” American Sociological Review 32, no. 3 (June 1967): 391-403; D. Beaver and R. Rosen, “Studies in scientific collaboration Part III. Professionalization and the natural history of modern scientific co-authorship,” Scientometrics 1, no. 3 (March 26, 1979): 231-245.

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Lecture: North American Conference on British Studies in Louisville, KY: “Collaborative Research, Technology, and the Future of British Studies” (8 November 2009, 11:00 a.m.) by Jason M. Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

4 thoughts on “Lecture: North American Conference on British Studies in Louisville, KY: “Collaborative Research, Technology, and the Future of British Studies” (8 November 2009, 11:00 a.m.)

  1. Pingback: Lecture: North American Conference on British Studies in Louisville, KY: “Collaborative Research, Technology, and the Future of British Studies” (8 November 2009, 11:00 a.m.) | Jason M. Kelly: Curriculum Vitae and Current Projects

  2. Illustrating the difficulty in shifting opinion toward a more favorable view of digital publication is an article by Joseph Raben for Digital Humanities Quarterly (http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/1/1/000006.html) and a study, quoted by Raben, by the MLA.

    The MLA surveyed English and Foreign Language departments and their publication requirements for tenure and promotion. The survey found that over 98% placed a value on refereed articles in published journals. At the same time over 40% claimed to have “no experience” in evaluating refereed articles in digital format. One could only assume that such a study would reveal equally sobering statistics about the status of digital publications in departments of history.

    The MLA study is detailed in the first few pages of the following (rather large) PDF:


  3. Pingback: NACBS 2009: Bringing our Discussion to the Web (part 1) | British Studies: Past, Present, and Future

  4. Pingback: NACBS 2009: Bringing our Discussion to the Web (part 2) | British Studies: Past, Present, and Future

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