Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.