I just gave an inaugeral. The most terrifying and life affirming thing I’ve ever done at work. It was a room full of amazing people – I was blessed to have four generations of my family there and loved the opportunity to make my 89 year old mum and my 7 year old grandson all swear in unison.
There’s a recording coming at some point, but there are some things that I really want to share, in a written form, for those who might not be interested in the main body of the talk itself, but might be facing similar questions in their negotiation with the academic structures around us.
How the fuck are we going to get through this shitstorm, intact, together, and without throwing each other under the bus? Who has got our back? and what can we learn from those who have negotiated the faultlines of the shitstorm before us?
So What is Collaborative History?
Ok, I will get to that, but I thought I’d start by thinking about what an inaugural is in the first place, and what a collaborative inaugural might look like.
What have I done by bringing you collectively here, whilst I as an individual stand at the front and talk AT you about working WITH you?
In some ways this is the ultimate bring your friends and family to work day. Not just to show you what it is I actually do, but because you are all always a part of my thinking, my values, and the lessons that I have learnt. I will come back to that in a minute.
In someways this is a public and institutional forum, to showcase the university, and try and look good in front of our management team.
In someways an inaugural is where I justify my promotion, upstart that I am. Where I try and explain that I actually didn’t get made a professor to even up the gender ratio. I am not an equalities intervention. I got made a professor, because this is what I do…
In someways an inaugural is where the footnotes happen, where I get to thank those who have supported me on the way, as if this is where any of us knew we are going
This is a space to thank all the people who have helped me, my time at Sussex has always been about teams
from Sussexualities, Translate Trauma, Young People and Protest, and Morality and the Representation of suffering, or musicdoc11, Observing 80s, Jersey Heritage, Santandar funded work with Laura Cofield, Queerama family, Post punk and post rave students, DIT digital project with TEL, and Our Place for the Brighton Festival, Intellectuals unite with Vivienne Westwood, Cindy sacha and Lisa Mckenzie
But also in its structures, the contemporary British history editorial board, the research staff office, My SMT and Natalie James, my Department, the HAHP school office team, my Union and colleagues on the picket line.
The Subcultures Network have given me space to think and work in new ways, and are comrades indeed. Like so many significant things it started as a conversation in the pub, has become an international network, and I’m very proud of the series that we do-edit with Palgrave, getting brave new work published. We have a code of practice I’m proud of, particularly the line that sometimes you just need to get out of the way.
I suppose the biggest team I work in is the Sisterhood and its acknowledged allies – all of you, Bugle aunties, oxford besties, the county clare fam, Park crescent community, my history and hahp sisters, Claire and Hester. This ones for you x
I hope that you will find the traces of yourself in what follows.
It was disingenuous when I suggested in the abstract for this talk that I have learnt most from Taylor Swift or One direction fans, Some key individuals have gone so far beyond the call of duty that I will never be able to pay it forward.
They all taught me HOW we work matters. We don’t just inherit methodological approaches and schools of thought. Our inheritances are in how and why we do what we do. The people who have made me a historian, modelled ways of Being as much as ways of Thinking. Some of them are no longer here and some of them are very much with us.
First my late dad, Derek Robinson, and economist, whose intellect, ethical beacon, and commitment to education I hope to have inherited at least some of, The other, who is very much here, is my mother Jean, a twentieth century suffragette, medical ethicist, tireless campaigner for equalities, and fairness. Both steeped in the trade union and labour movement, both armed with the power of self driven education. From whom I have inherited the unwavering belief that we have a responsibility to deserve our place in the world by trying to make it better. And my brother Toby, who has always backed me and my girls, even when I make decisions that he wouldn’t, he has taught me a lot about unconditional support.
Of the other key people, some of whom are no longer with us. My friend Mathew Fletcher taught me that I was clever. Alun Howkins, my phd supervisor and mentor, and Alan Sinfield whose work inspired me to move myself and my daughter to sussex so that I could get nearer to his brain.
And others who are very much with us, Andy Medhurst, whose teaching and scholarship opened new doors for me, and continues to do so for my students, and for historians to understand popular culture, why comedy matters and why Telly matters. (We recently celebrated his contribution at a brilliant event Medfest)
And Chris Warne, if anyone demonstrates the faultlines of me standing here as an individual talking to you collectively about working collaboratively, it is Chris. – the right side of my brain, my other half-HOD, who pushes my wheelchair, carries my bag, and makes all of my work much better than it would be without him.
My more recent work has been woven around fandoms, feminisms, and girls, with Daisy Asquith, Laura Cofield, Rachel Thomson and Pam Thurschwell. And inspired by my amazing grrrrls Stevie Robinson, and Vegas Honey Proudfoot, (and Izzy England) who really are excellent at being fangrrrls.
They have taught me that Fangrrls turn consumption into a radical analytical act. historical meaning of an image, text, or media object, is not imbued in its genesis of production, nor is historical meaning sitting waiting in an archive for us as historians to come along and uncover it. Historical meaning is accrued, invested, and experienced as texts move between contexts of production, through form and content, to audience, reception, use, to be reimagined and repurposed. The point is to take seriously the work that others have already done, even if it is not where you would expect to find it. In the latter parts of this talk, for example, I’m going to explore the work that pop magazines like Smash Hits and band like Bananarama did in helping a generation engage with the politics and cultures of the Northern Ireland conflict.
So I’m going to think briefly about what I think Collaborative History is and why it matters.
When we collectively, in the pub, thought about what title I would take as a professor, Collaborative History felt like a way to undermine the lone star model of scholarship.
It felt disruptive but, collaboration as a term is also at the heart of how we are quantified, marketed, , evaluated and calibrated.
This time around the Research Excellence Framework which scores the collective research outputs from each university department asks us explicitly to prove that we can work collaboratively. Our universities Strategic framework for 2025 includes collaboration as one of our five key values.
Collaboration has been embraced by the structures that frame my working practices, to be evaluated and quantified.
So what, if anything is left, to be disruptive with collaboration?
There are number of ways to think about what I call collaborative history.
As a process Collaborative history is about
- How we work together, as colleagues, as researchers, as students and teachers.
- How we work beyond the academy, in the much bigger discussion about what history can do and what history is for, in school, in music, the imagination or in the pub. We are just one part of what History can do.
- For me this means that when I work with groups outside universities, whether they are groups of activists, Falklands veterans, young women in a youth club, or a major heritage institution, I am not there to give them content. I am there to see how we can each work differently because we work together.
But collaboration is also an object of Study.
If, collective action is the driver of historical change, then understanding the ways in which we have, and can, collaborate in the past are imperative if we are to make a difference in the present.
The histories of people working together,
whether that’s the history of academics and students designing curricular at Sussex in the 1980s,
Falklands veterans campaigning for recognition,
or pop fans and riot grrrls building their own communities,
they teach us about the boundaries of structural power, the emotional cost of resistance, and the nuts and bolts work that goes into imagining a new world;
Collaborative history is a methodology
Collaborative history understands, that the analysis happens whether I am there or not. Learning from MOPs writers as both subjects of study and co-analysis, and the work of oral historians on the interview as a shared process, our analysis builds on the already accrued historical meaning. Collaborative history recognises the analytical labour that is in the layers of reception as much as in its production. I want to work with not on my sources.
All of this thinking is informed by the work of Alan Sinfield on cultural materialism, Andy Medhurst on text as context, the value of the popular and Alun Howkins, who taught me that I can work on whatever I want and that if something mattered to people then it should matter to historians too. But also from my own experience.
Collaboration as a way of being
If you have a baby at 17 years old with no further education qualifications, you very quickly learn the power of a collaborative, supportive in families of choice. In shared houses, in shared childcare, and in my own family. If you then have another baby 14 years later when you are about to finish your Phd, you learn from having someone by your side, holding you up when you fall, that careers and families are a collaboration.
If on top of that you have a particular genetic quirk that leaves you with a chronic invisible disability you really learn a lot about the relationship between the individual self and the structures around you, the line between your own body and the collective community around you.
Practically there is a team of people that literally keep my body going, some of you are here. And one of you more than anyone else has carried me when I cannot move by myself.
Sometimes you have no choice, I am saying, to collaborate. Its not a brand, it’s a way of being. And where that collaboration gets taken seriously, and where it does not is an acutely political issue. I am going to argue that where collaboration is remembered, celebrated, given a role in historical causation is acutely gendered. Not everyone who works together gets to matter. Not all types of collaboration can be catalogued, quantified and evaluated, and even when they top the league tables and hit the charts, they don’t always get to count.
So I want to think about how to be disruptive in marketised models of collaboration,
to think about how to work with and not on my sources,
I want to recognise the collaboration at the heart of the ways in which girls have worked, and continue to work together.
Alongside my inspiration from Alun Howkins, Sinfield, and Medhurst, I’m going to situate myself in the historical sisterhood, of feminist historical practice of reclaiming, and reremembering women’s forgotten lives. And take popular culture, humour, and what happens on telly, seriously.
Many thanks to VC Adam Tickell for his kind and welcoming introduction, AND THANKS TO MATT WORLEY WHOSE INCREDIBLE VOTE OF THANKS HAD US ALL IN TEARS