I’ve just got back from the most mind-blowing conference I’ve ever been to. Keep It Simple, Make It Fast, is a conference/music and literary festival/art show organised around DIY cultures, Spaces, Places. Events were held across various venues in Porto, bringing together academic presentations, some celebrity guests, live performances, exhibitions with daily book launches and a summer school. The event is convened by Paula Guerra and Andy Bennett with an incredible team of international volunteers. I went with my Subcultures Network army (Matt Worley, Petes Webb and Ward, David Wilkinson and stayed in a seminary with the Punk Scholars Network and Steve Ignorant from Crass).
On 19th November I stood in the Latest Music Bar Brighton and read out bits of my teenage diary from the year 1984-1985. The event, ‘Cringe at Mass Observation‘ was jointly organised by Cringe and Mass Observation as part of ‘Being Human: The Festival of Humanities’. London Cringe organise events where “Funny ‘grown-ups’ read aloud from their teenage diaries”. It’s a model that was picked up from New York and spread from there. Fiona Courage and Jessica Scantlebury from Mass Observation had been to one of the events and had immediately recognised Cringe’s resonance with Mass Observation writers who also share their private experiences and analysis for public consumption.
You can hear a bit more about Cringe, where it came from and the Brighton event on a podcast of an interview myself and Cringe organiser Ana McGloughlin did for Radio Reverb with Melita Dennett. (at about 22 minutes in)
You can now access the open version of the online resource I produced for the history department at Sussex, Reflexivity and History . You should be able to log on as a guest.
This post is about teaching reflexivity, and indeed teaching reflexively. However, in the way that messy discussions in history spill into one another this is also in many ways a continuation of my response to the Modern British Studies conference at Birmingham. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot are the implications of what happens when we put our personal into our political (or professional). I’ve warned about what I see as the dangers of over-investment, entitlement and exploitation in the last post. But I do need to have a word with myself. As a historian of identity I know that the self is a central part of my work, of all of our work. But I want to suggest that we should accord the role of the self, and the implications of that, the same careful thought as we do with the rest of our work. It is not enough to state our personal engagement, we need to think about what it means.
The course is in its second year and from the start, my co-tutor Chris Warne and myself, imagined it as an experiment in democratic teaching and learning. We use the growth of academic work around subcultures and youth culture since 1976 to explore bigger questions around what it means to be a contemporary historian today. This means that we look at local histories, archival practices, life history like memoirs, sound, image and moving images, and oral history alongside popular culture. Although there has been a determined growth in academic work on subcultures in history, sociology, criminology, English studies and beyond, PPB puts these alongside other forms of history work outside of the formal universities. We take the memories that people inherit, share and turn into stories as seriously as the academic theories around the politics of popular culture.
Doctoral researcher Laura Cofield and I have just returned from a research trip to New York in order to scope the Riot Grrrl Archive in the Fales Library. There are hundreds of different zines in the archive across 18 individual collections that cover the years 1974-2003. The trip was funded by the Santander Mobility Fund and set up by Simone Robinson, Tracey Wallace and Paul Roberts from the Doctoral School at Sussex.
Laura’s in the first year of her doctoral research looking at the c20th and c21st history of pubic hair removal as a way into women’s experience of their bodies and the relationship between pornography and feminism. Laura and I were totally inspired by our visit. Everyone was incredibly helpful, going out of their way to help us, from Anthony on the desk at Gem hotel Soho who filled us in on a quick history of the queer politics of Wonder Woman, to Campbell the security guard at Fales who not only recommended where we should get lunch, he rang ahead and made sure we would get in, to Marvin Taylor the Fales Archivist who shared his prize acquisition of a set of homoerotic photographs from 1905 with us. But to top it all off Steve Haugh was our Angel of New York and toured us round Manhattan in his beautiful Jag.
I’ve just parked up a chapter on Princess Diana that will eventually end up in my new book about the 1980s. I’ve been writing the chapter for a long time and I’m not sure I’ve finished it – but it is definitely not getting any better for now so I better leave it alone. I’ve read more books on Diana in the last couple of months than I ever dreamed likely. The more I worked through the pile of unauthorised biographies and memoirs, the more the lines between the two sorts of books began to blur. It became harder to tell when people were writing about Diana, and when they were writing about themselves. I should also add, the more I read the less of an idea of what she was ‘really like’ I had. Although to be honest that wasn’t what I was looking for and it isn’t really what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is how and why these books sell the idea of the Real Diana. Whilst academic approaches have tended to displace the Real Diana, by analysing what she signified and why people cared about her. Popular biographies and memoirs market their access to the ‘real woman’ underneath; who she was.