‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’. 

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave). 

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline. 

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’. 

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

Opening the roundtable: teaching the Yugoslav wars two decades on, in polarised times

These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.

I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.

It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.

Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’. 

That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that. 

I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.

In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know? 

We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.

British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood. 

In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?

This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).

As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.) 

Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’. 

Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)

I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.  

What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?

We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.

South-East European studies in the ‘House of International Relations’

This post originally appeared at the Forum Transregionale Studien (TRAFO) blog on 14 September 2016.

Six years after I finished my doctoral research at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, two years after I had briefly returned to SSEES as a teaching fellow leading Masters modules about nationalism and ethnic conflict, students at UCL launched a campaign against Eurocentric and institutionally racist structures of thought within the curriculum that they termed ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’.

The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’).

The ‘House of IR’

The subtle dynamics of reproducing whiteness through the hierarchies of authority that teachers construct when suggesting the centres and margins of their field are illustrated by Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling’s evocative metaphor, well-known to decolonial, postcolonial, feminist and queer scholars in International Relations, of the ‘House of IR’. Agathangelou and Ling consciously model their illustration on a colonial home: the intimate exclusions within/outwith the domestic compounds of Dutch-colonised Indonesia and French-colonised Indochina that the global historian Ann Laura Stoler has detailed in her own work.

The House thus has its founding fathers (individualist, masculinist realism), its good liberal mothers and daughters, its rebel critical-theorist sons, its fallen daughters (postmodernists and queers), its acknowledged and unacknowledged descendants inside and out, and its downstairs, where the ‘servants’ – IR’s ‘non-Western, nonwhite sources of knowledge, traditions, or worlds’ – ‘live, work, and produce for the House of IR’ (Agathangelou and Ling 2004: 27, 30).

Anticipating the #RhodesMustFall protests of 2015–16 about the unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and slavery on elite campuses in South Africa and Britain, and the ongoing struggles at US universities to confront the material and symbolic legacies of slave-owning benefactors, the UCL ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ group also drew attention to the presence of the colonial past of their specific institutional setting: the commemoration of Francis Galton, who founded eugenics as a scientific field at UCL, in the 21st-century university’s public culture.

The ‘House of South-East European Studies’

If I had still been teaching at SSEES in 2014–15, how would I have answered the question ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ when looking at my own modules, or connected the history of an east European studies institute (founded in WW1 by scholars who were lobbying the British government to support Slav national liberation movements’ struggle against Austria-Hungary, later part of Britain’s Cold War infrastructure of knowledge, intelligence and research) to the colonial legacies of the university that SSEES had joined in 1999? What texts would someone need to add in order to bring race into the centre of the discipline’s debates, alongside its central paradigms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ – or even to integrate histories of people of colour in central and south-east Europe into the core narrative of the region that an undergraduate historian would take away?

Did this subset of area studies, about a region of Europe which had been repeatedly occupied and which had never been the metropole of an overseas empire itself, need to reckon with whiteness and the global history of ‘race’ to the same extent as the history of Britain or America, the Netherlands or France?

Yet at the same time the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ – especially the interdisciplinary south-east European cultural studies/history/anthropology in which I positioned my doctoral work – would give critical inquiry based on postcolonial thought much more space upstairs than its equivalent ‘House of IR’. Since the early 1990s, a research agenda translating the premises of Edward Said’s Orientalism to south-east Europe, first developed by Milica Bakić-Hayden (with Robert Hayden and alone) and Maria Todorova, has suggested that the politics of differentiating a civilised and urban ‘Europe’ from a backward ‘Balkans’, a fundamental identity-making project both outside and within the region, depend on symbolic hierarchies similar to, or perhaps part of the same structures as, orientalising oppositions between ‘Europe’ and ‘the East’.

Questions of essentialisation, othering, stereotyping, exotification and mis/representation are inescapable in the study of post-socialist identities – with immediate opportunities, in the majority white and Anglophone classrooms where I teach, for reflecting on similar (perhaps connected; perhaps, too, not automatically identical) dynamics of othering and periphery-making directed towards the Middle East, Africa, South or East Asia, Latin America, Islam, or even Ireland.

For me, however, the construct of the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ I’ve postulated is a retrofitted house. The disciplinary conversations I was part of during my PhD were parallel to, but largely separate from, those taking place in other fields that grounded their knowledge in specific languages and regions.

(That sentence avoids the term ‘area studies’ deliberately: in 2010, at an applied linguistics conference where I was to talk about my postdoctoral research on language intermediaries and peacekeeping in Bosnia, I told a Brazilian colleague in the audience of a panel that I had done my PhD at SSEES, an ‘area studies’ department. For all the postcoloniality that my doctoral research had started to train me in – and SSEES itself is more engaged in rethinking ‘area studies in the 21st century’ than it was 10 years ago – I had still failed to appreciate how much more heavily the ‘area studies’ of a white English-speaking woman from and educated in London would ring to her ears as an extractive, colonising term.)

Situating South-East Europe in Global Dynamics of ‘Race’

Unlike contributors to this forum for transregional research who have positioned themselves in International Relations throughout their careers, I began engaging with IR (to which I had first been drawn as an undergraduate via the possibilities it offered for studying women and war, even if it meant reading against the grain of an intro syllabus largely devoted to explaining the English School) first because its critical and feminist studies of peacekeeping offered a conceptual language for connecting south-east Europe as a site of international intervention with the rest of the world, then because its emerging and hard-fought aesthetic, experiential and queer turns helped to explain why many of my interests in cultural politics had run together.

While it has taken extensive struggle by postcolonial and decolonial scholars to make race and racism a theoretical lens within IR, my own re-entry to IR – giving me a mental map where the margins of Agathangelou and Ling’s House look more like a centre – is what persuaded me, once the Why Is My Curriculum White? group posed the question, that situating south-east Europe in a global International Relations or a global history of anything else must involve situating the region in global dynamics of ‘race’ – a concept which, in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘postcolonialism’, is more isolated from the central conversation in the first discipline to which I belonged.

South-East Europe – like ‘central Europe’, ‘eastern Europe’ or ‘the former Soviet Union’, but also part of a transregional ‘post-Ottoman’ space – sits in an ambiguous position in the global history of race and imperialism. Ruled by the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian empires, cast into the periphery of ‘Eastern Europe’ during and after state socialism, and with the deepest colonial legacy in the region (that of the Ottoman empire) being left by a power that in northern/western frames of Europeanness was either on the margins of Europe or outside Europe altogether, it was never the metropole of an overseas empire.

Migrants from south-east Europe moving to postcolonial European countries or settler-colonial states have been subject to changing and conflicting frameworks of identifying with and ascribing race: having to ‘learn to become white’ (and to become complicit in whiteness, racism and settler colonialism) like other southern Europeans in early 20th-century North America, with access conditional on politics (not being a Communist or anarchist) as well as phenotype; being told ‘At least you’re the right colour’ by white neighbours offering – extremely conditional – acceptance to Bosnian refugees in late 20th-century Australia; being incorporated into the racialised category of ‘east Europeans’ in post-EU-enlargement Britain; and these are only three examples of the conjunctions between race, ethnicity, class, migration policy and history encountered by south-east European migrants and diasporas.

A common European antiziganism, inflected by distinct but comparable national identity discourses, marginalises Roma in south-east Europe and when they migrate to the West; while some Romanian migrants in western Europe deploy antiziganist constructions of Romanian nationhood in order to distance themselves from Roma in their host society’s racialising gaze.

The subaltern identification that adaptations of postcolonial theory has given south-east Europe can explain much about the region’s peripheral position but also sits uneasily with the investments in whiteness as well as Europeanness that postsocialist national identity projects have made, from widespread antiziganist media and everyday rhetoric, to occasional but unquestioned appearances of blackface performance on entertainment television, to the Slovenian and Croatian governments’ emphatic stance during the current refugee crisis that their states should be countries of managed transit – or no transit at all – not countries of settlement.

Anikó Imre, writing on whiteness and antiziganism in postsocialist eastern European media (including her 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: the Time of the Gypsies, the End of Race’, and more recently ‘Postcolonial Media Studies in Postcolonial Europe’), and Dušan Bjelić, in essays on Balkan involvement in the colonization of Palestine and on the identity discourses of Kristeva and Žižek, both argue that south-east Europe would not stand outside the dynamics of coloniality and race that Global IR can place at the centre of the discipline’s inquiry.

Research like Miglena Todorova’s PhD ‘Race Travels: Whiteness and Modernity Across National Borders’, on Bulgarian identity and global formations of race throughout the 20th century, completed in 2006 (the same year she published an article on National Geographic and the Balkans), exemplifies the questions about race I wanted to incorporate into my teaching about ethnicity and nationhood at SSEES in 2011–12 but did not have the architecture to properly build. Academic publishing’s economics of ‘market’ that render small nations and ‘niche’ topics supposedly uncommercial are part of a politics and technology of knowledge production that restrict the opportunities for innovative scholarship about and from peripheralised regions to be made widely available in book form, while unmarked methodological nationalism among readers, instructors and reviewers can produce an exceptionalism of its own. ‘Connected histories’ thus fail to be connected not even because connections are never made, but because connections are made, missed, remade, and liable to be missed again.

During a collaboration with Jelena Obradović-Wochnik on ‘the nexus between peacebuilding and transitional justice’ – two fields where critical research asks similar questions about knowledge/accountability gaps, ‘liberal peace’ assumptions and the structural inequalities between international intervention agencies and local residents, yet which rarely seem to engage with each other – we had initially been surprised to find so little theoretical bridge-building between the fields when perspectives ‘from the ground up’ (knowledges based on everyday discourse, oral history, ethnography) made the shortcomings of peacebuilding and of transitional justice appear as two instances of the same problem. The theoretical connections we needed were already ‘there’, in the work of Chandra Lekha Sriram and Rama Mani; but neither had been extensively cited into the conversations about the liberal peace where we began.

Global IR– Not new, but a lens

Working transregionally in south-east European studies overlaps with, and may often be informed by, the ambitions of Global IR. As a researcher located at and educated in a centre of knowledge production ‘about’ the rest of the world which has that status as a legacy of colonial-era higher education and research, however, I do not wish to suggest it is a ‘new’ lens, far less to impose another hierarchy of progress and temporality in suggesting that in some way the field ought to ‘catch up’.

Instead, it is a lens that the centre of the field has failed to see through to the same extent as it has seen through lenses of ethnonationalism or even postcoloniality – and a lens that can permit old as well as new histories and solidarities to come into view.

‘Ours to claim?’: lesbian history, gender variance and identification with the past

Historians of sexuality on my Twitter timeline today have been discussing this post at Notches on the ‘Gay American History @ 40′ conference earlier this month, which Rachel Hope Cleves writes was marked by ‘passionate, and often painful, disagreement’ around the question of – and the implications of asking – how historians define the category of ‘lesbian’.

Cleves summarises the unease that she felt this question provoke as follows:

That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.

I was on the other side of the ocean from the conference and have never worked on the history of sexuality in the USA. I have, on the other hand, had to think about my own historical practice and the approaches I’d give to others through a number of projects recently, including editing a volume on gender history in 20th-century eastern Europe and the USSR (which has gone into production now!) and carrying out some pilot research on student perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusivity in their teaching (this was the background to it – I now need to write up the report).

Reading the Notches post gave me some initial thoughts as a teacher and conference organiser, and some wider thoughts as someone who also faces the responsibility of writing about people in the past whose lives involved diverse sexual practices and gender non-conforming behaviour, for readers and students whose own time is marked by struggles over the same things. (Is it necessarily ‘aggressive’, for instance, to want to historicise a category of identity?)

(I should say first of all that I’m younger than many of the conference delegates would have been and didn’t suffer from the historical erasure of lesbian identities in the same way as many older women; I also have a much more ambivalent relationship with the label, which I’ll say a bit more about as I go on.)

*

One of my first thoughts, as it should have been for anyone who might organise a conference or session where this could come up, is: what would I have done if this had happened at my panel.

The summary of the conference alludes to a number of unpleasant incidents, including one where a cisgender (not trans) gay activist reopened a bitter disagreement he had had with the transgender studies in general and the trans historian Susan Stryker (the keynote speaker) in particular. (Stryker, as Cleves notes, describes the background in her essay ‘(De)Subjugated Knowledges‘, part of the Transgender Studies Reader she and Stephen Whittle assembled in 2006.)

What would another historian who was trans – a PhD student in the history of sexuality, say, knowing they would need to launch themselves into this subfield’s disciplinary community in order to gain an academic job or recognition – take away from the discussions they witnessed, the summaries they read, or the ‘tension directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people’ that Cleves describes as ‘palpable’ throughout the conference?

How did panel chairs respond when any of this happened? What expectations about the atmosphere of the conference had organisers set out at the beginning, or as the event unfolded, or even in a pre-conference code of conduct (a practice which is still much more common at technology or fandom conventions than academic events)? How far was the ‘possibility that [lesbian and trans] affinities might overlap’, as Cleves writes, able to be heard beyond the appeal that Jen Manion, a trans and lesbian-feminist historian of early America, made at the beginning of their presentation?

I can’t know the answers to any of those questions (and they aren’t questions which arise just from this one conference and its incidents). They will play on the minds of trans and non-binary scholars who might attend similar events, especially those whose position in the academy is most precarious. As organisers, we need to show through our actions that they’ll be welcome.

*

Cleves also tries to understand the atmosphere ‘within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault’ – even within the history of sexuality, which (perhaps especially in studies of the USA?) has been dominated by studies of gay men.

(Cheryl Morgan writes at more length here, in her own response to the conference report, on the trans-exclusionary narrative that trans men’s possibilities for expressing their own identities has put the future of a lesbian identity under threat.)

Perceiving that there has been an ‘aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians’, Cleves writes:

I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim.

Anyone whose teaching has systematically or even accidentally created opportunities for gay, lesbian, bi, trans students – or students subject to social inequalities in any other way – to find out more about a marginalised past should understand the power of connecting with a history that includes you after all, even if they haven’t had to search for such a past themselves. There’s more than one reason why the hit film about gay life and the miners’ strike in Thatcher’s Britain was called Pride.

The liberatory, thrilling effect of reading that in the past as well there really were people like you, when you’ve had to struggle just to be recognised and accepted like that in the present – breaking against you like a huge reshaping wave when you least expect it in the corner of a library, the middle of a lecture, or scrolling through seminar readings on a crowded train.

(Mine were during my Masters, mostly; balancing on a window-stool in the old ULU cafe, looking out at a street that went pitch-dark by 5 pm, listening on at least one occasion to a mix-tape of post-Milosevic Serbian pop-folk.)

Do we have to share identity labels with our historic predecessors to recognise ourselves in them, them in ourselves, and put our roots down in the present through a historical continuum that has contained both us and them?

*

Maybe I won’t change the mind of anyone for whom the category and identity of lesbian has been the word they’d never heard before, the secret until suddenly joyous word, that explained everything unreconcilable about who they are. It wasn’t, for me; in my own communities ‘everybody knew’ what a lesbian was in the early 1990s, and in fact ‘everybody’ probably knew more about what a lesbian was than ‘lesbians’ did, whoever they were, even as I went to ridiculous, painful and damaging lengths not to be one.

Once I’d made it quite undeniable that it did apply to me, I used it, mostly too explain a complex of inclinations and disinclinations that seemed to (I’d later understand they didn’t have to) go together. I might use it today as a clumsy approximation of the wriggle-room I find there is on both sides of the axis of desire (who I am; who I’m attracted to) that ‘lesbian’ today – for me – seems like it might fix tight.

But I’m more ambivalent to it now, compared to 20 years ago, because the language and concepts I had available then were based on there only being two genders (I didn’t even understand bisexuality then, and said some hurtful things to bi classmates at university before I did). That means I’d explain my own gender and sexuality differently now, compared to then. And that’s just changed even in my lifetime. Different categories I might or might not belong to are available, compared to 20 years ago; and even figuring out which ones don’t apply to me, once I know about them, gave me finer-grained ways to interpret my own identity.

I’m still not aware of a word that captures all the things I know now about how I relate to gender and how that relates to the genders and gender expressions of the people I’m attracted to, for the even more specific category I sometimes see reflected back at me. The best I can say (and how different even that feels to half a lifetime ago) is that at least I know, even if I can’t fully express, the combination of things there ought to be a word for.

This is a very different account of gender, sexuality, language and identity than would come from a woman for whom ‘lesbian’, from the moment she first heard it, always sounded unquestionably right. I don’t want to take her history of identity formation away through explaining more about mine.

Though both of us would be part of the same historical moment – this frustrating, contingent, still sometimes exuberant early 21st century that future historians of sexuality will try to piece together.

For a long time, including most of the time I was at university when I had the most opportunity to find historic predecessors, I did think ‘lesbian’ was the only category I could fit into. I was engaged in lesbian history-making then even if I wouldn’t say that I am now. But even when I thought that was the only feasible category there was to belong in, I remember looking for experiences like mine, or practices I might have shared, more than identities – hints and traces of the combination of characteristics that I was coming to understand had something to do with identity and desire as I experienced it. Some of those feelings of liberation, I’m not the only one who felt or did that, through reading historical writing came from books with, on the face of it, nothing to do with lesbians at all.

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The question of how historians write about people who might come down through the sources as ‘gender non-conforming women’ but who might have described their identities as transmasculine or non-binary if they’d had access to the language and worldview of early 21st century English-speaking queer movements has been confronting gender historians and historians of sexuality for some time.

I’m thinking particularly here of the more complex cases where evidence about a person’s life is ambiguous or scarce. When even sources in a subject’s own time were already representing him as male, as can sometimes be the case, it seems clear to me that writing him into history as a lesbian would erase what the evidence itself tells us about his past.

Nan Alamilla Boyd’s 1999 essay ‘The Materiality of Gender’ (also reprinted in the first Transgender Studies Reader) observed that (p. 74):

Both lesbian and transgender communities look to the past to recuperate individuals who proudly or cleverly lived outlaw sexualities or genders. However, because of the slippage between sexuality and gender, lesbian and transgender communities often spin usable histories around the same figures.

Boyd suggested that lesbian history-making in her own field, late 19th/early 20th American history, had based its understanding of who could or could not have been a lesbian on ‘birth bodies’, incorporating people with extensive histories of self-presentation as men while implying that trans women would never be able to fall into the category of lesbian.

Applied with this assumption (I don’t want to suggest that it always is or has been), even as ‘lesbian’ creates identification with the past for some readers, for readers who already know they are not women yet have had to struggle against a woman’s identity being imposed on them, the same category cuts off their access to the same thrill of connectivity with the past that lesbian history, hard-won, has offered many of its other readers.

Indeed, for a trans male or non-binary reader, ‘lesbian’ in his or hir own history of identity formation has often been a category that invalidates, when unwillingly applied to him or hir and to others like himself or hirself.

The same identity term that emancipates a woman for whom it means love and solidarity can be and has been, within another set of power relationships, an instrument of violence when it removes rather than sustains someone’s autonomy.  The difference is in who claims which identity through language and who takes whose away.

What can historians do, then, about historical subjects whose gender they find hard to determine?

Judith/Jack Halberstam’s essay ‘Unlosing Brandon‘, critiquing accounts of trans men’s lives including Brandon Teena and the jazz musician Billy Tipton, framed the interpretive problem (p. 48) around a principle that has something to offer historians even if they disagree with Halberstam’s interpretation of the evidence around those men’s particular lives:

I will be asking here what kind of truths about gender we demand from the lives of people who pass, cross-dress, or simply refuse normative gender categories. None of the transgender subjects whom I examine here can be definitively identified as transsexual, and none can be read as lesbian; all must be read and remembered according to the narratives they meticulously circulated about themselves when they were alive.

What I take from this passage, held in tension with my puzzlement over why it might be hard to identify Teena or Tipton definitively as transsexual given the evidence historians do have about their lives, is its emphasis at the end on the work of historical interpretation: what is historians’ knowledge, derived from a collection of evidence, actually based on?

If this is ‘aggressive historicism’ when we ask it about the category of ‘lesbian’, I’m guilty of it – but from the point of view that any category is a container that humans have come together to construct, and we ought to be able to understand and historicise what holds it together.

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I started writing about gender and sexuality in the first place in order to get at how those social identities intersected with my first specialism, identities of ethnicity and nationhood (which, like gender-and-sexuality, are two linked but still distinct categories themselves).

My question when teaching and then writing about a past more distant then the 1990s, where ethnicity and nationality – in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere – were publicly understood as categories and identities, has always been: how do we know someone’s ethnic identity in the past, and how do we know whether ethnicity meant the same thing to them as it would now?

South-east European history is one of many fields where population movements, historic religious conversions, and multi-ethnic everyday forms of belonging have left regions, territory, heritage and people open to being claimed by competing national movements, each with historical narratives that could seem to back them up.

Even for the late 20th century, some scholars (like Chip Gagnon or Dubravka Zarkov) suggest that ethnicity started being made to matter in late Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav society more than it had done – a precondition for the Yugoslav wars to have mass participation and support – because of how revisionist intellectuals, Slobodan Milosevic and others in reaction hardened ethnic boundaries through the media by emphasising ethnopolitical division and fear.

Even when we can determine a person’s cultural and linguistic affiliation accurately – if we have ample evidence of what language they chose to write in – this wasn’t necessarily the same kind of attachment to a political entity and to dominant accounts of that country’s values as it would more likely be today – if only because of the very historically specific relationships between religious collective identities, rulers and societies earlier in European history.

How do I know whether an individual in 16th-century Dalmatia – let’s say, in the spirit of this post, one I never encountered in the literature but could have done, in the image of Anne Hathaway as Viola in Twelfth Night – saw themselves as a Croat, an Italian, a Venetian, a citizen of the republic of letters, or anything else?

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A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Croatian nation would have one approach. A historian writing in support of the long continuity of the Italian nation might ascribe a different ethnic identity to our Dalmatian while still agreeing with their Croatian counterpart about how far historians can trace ethnicity back.

A deconstructionist historian – like John Fine, who called his last book When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans – would write with less certainty altogether.

My own approach to ethnicity and nationalism is firmly anti-essentialist – which informed how I planned and organised the introduction to the Yugoslav Wars I published last year. My final chapter shows how scholars of culture and language have ‘denationalized’ south-east European cultural histories, but in doing so meets an ethical tension that runs throughout the book: 

[A]utomatically choosing a specific nation as one’s unit of analysis could obscure developments that are difficult to study through a single national lens […] How far, however, could the project of ‘denationalizing’ history go when writing about the Yugoslav wars, when people were killed, tortured and forced from their homes because of what ethno-national group they belonged or were assigned to?

Yet compared to my first book, on popular music and national identity in Croatia, I’ve still put something of a brake on how far I deconstruct ethnicity. I owe that to some of the Bosnian participants in the oral history project I went on to work for, who claimed space for ethnic labels in their narratives even when I hadn’t added them, and to reading trans theorists’ accounts of the disregard that deconstructions of gender and embodiment by and inspired by Judith Butler had had for the realities of trans lives.

(Talia Bettcher summarises those critiques, especially those of Jay Prosser and Vivian Namaste, here; as does Julia Serano, whose critique of deconstructionism influenced how I wrote about ethnicity and interviewing in a chapter I contributed to a volume on oral history and mass violence.)

The coincidence of reading trans feminist literature at the same time as reviewing these interviewing experiences challenged me to work an attention to marginalisation and imbalances of power more directly into how I approach the deconstruction of nationalism and ethnicity from then on.

Too much deconstruction, Cheryl Morgan writes, prevents trans people making the same connections with their past that gay, lesbian and queer historians have been able to seek and reclaim:

To start with, just because the word transsexual didn’t exist in ancient times that doesn’t mean that trans people didn’t exist. As the above (very incomplete) list of identities shows, people lived lives outside of the gender binary in most (if not all) cultures throughout history. Where we have no evidence it is probably because such people had to stay under the radar for fear of their lives.

Trans historians, like lesbian historians, fear pasts being deconstructed out of existence. Sometimes – in the case of trans men’s histories, often – the deconstructors have been lesbians.

What does this mean for historians who share an identity with others who have carried out an ‘aggressively’ historicist deconstruction?

*

Ethnicity and sexuality, or ethnicity and gender variance, don’t map directly on to each other as categories of identity. Ethnicity as a concept has not been marginalised throughout history in the same way as same-gender desire, even as people have been persecuted (the driving force behind much European history in the so-called ‘age of nations’) because of what ethnicity they have or what ethnicity was ascribed to them; being able to conceive of having an ethnic identity has very rarely been punishable.

But there are parallels. One is that, in both cases, anti-essentialism and deconstruction are analytical tools with the potential to emancipate but also the potential to oppress. Deconstruction can diversify historians’ understanding of the identities and practices of gender, embodiment and desire and it can limit them. Deconstruction in the face of verifiable historical evidence about the facts of an ethnic conflict can become, and appear to legitimise relativisation of war crimes.

Categorisation and deconstruction are tools; their human users apply ethics to them.

Another parallel emerges if we go back to the idea near the beginning of this post – that marginalised readers of history seek historical predecessors with their own identities to be able to access the same kind of continuity with the past that a straight or cisgender reader could already take for granted.

How far do we need historical subjects, like our hypothetical Dalmatian, to have had the same concepts of identity as ourselves in order to be able to identify with them?

With ethnicity and nationality, perhaps, not much. The meanings of ethnic identity, the importance of ethnic identity, and even the ethnic identities that people might have claimed could all be very different in past centuries compared to today. Are they so distant that it’s impossible to imagine people who held them as part of the same community, connected through time, as ourselves?

‘How do we label our subjects’ ethnicity and nationality most accurately?’ and ‘How do we most accurately describe our subjects’ gender, therefore their sexuality?’ would be at a fundamental level the same question, had the categories of ethnicity and sexuality not had different histories themselves.

And what do we do when we’re not sure? This question does touch them both.

An anti-essentialist historian of ethnicity might reject present-day place names for past territories, or construct sentences to refer to individuals or organisations rather than ethnic groups. The comparable moment of decision in writing about gender and sexuality takes in as basic a unit of language as the pronouns. How do we know which pronouns to use for our historical subjects?

A radical question if you have never had to think about which ones to use for yourself or someone else you know – but a question that turns the lens of ‘How do we know what we know?’ on to something that you previously took for granted.

(What if historians didn’t use pronouns, when they weren’t sure?)

*

Identifying with the past – in acquiring a collective ethno-national past, a lesbian past, a trans past, or anything else – means seeing past differences across categories that would complicate the identification. It always will.

A figure you might identify with in the past might have spoken different languages, likely practiced a religion, held very different values from yours in all kinds of ways – and yet something, across all the differences a historian could identify, still resonates to make them perceptible as someone who was like you, yours to claim.

Historical identification is – will always be – partial.

It’s an exciting and – at least in the concepts of identity that we have, today – necessary part of building up identities in the present, fighting back against marginalisation, and creating a space where you can imagine that you exist and others like you exist and there’s a continuity of that.

Yet it’s a strategic, selective kind of identification. And it always will be, because they  – whoever they were, whoever she or xe or he was – were in a different historical context from us.

To a lesbian in the peace movement, where might lesbians whose passion was for military adventure sit within her lesbian history?

To a religious lesbian, where might her lesbian history accommodate a lesbian who hated the Church?

Partially, problematically; but some space would be there.

As I was thinking about this piece this morning, I happened to read M. W. Bychowski’s essay on ‘Genres of Embodiment‘ and medieval transgender literature, prefaced by an account of a transphobic incident at another conference, the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.

Bychowski writes of medieval transgender lives as ‘relics that we have forgotten how to read’, embedded as the evidence about them is in such different notions of religion and the body, and seeks ways not to erase the category of gender but to use the knowledge that gender variance exists to reframe medievalists’ perception:

Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history.

The work of historical research is interpretation, holding past and present woorldviews in tension to make sense of evidence; acknowledging the limits of what we know, and the ambiguities of how we can know about it, but driven as well by whatever the historian perceives as their own responsibilities towards their present.

Feedback as a dialogue, or what is this module even supposed to be about?

I’ve stepped back from blogging in the last few months during my research leave so that I can concentrate on setting up the groundwork for a new book project – but wanted to write a short post about student feedback after finding out last week that I’d won our student union’s ‘Best Feedback’ award.

I’m honoured to be nominated but all the more so after such rewarding experiences teaching my modules on ‘Music, Politics and Violence’ and ‘Nations and Nationalism’ last semester, as well as contributing to the ‘Practising Modern History’ module on our new Masters programmes (if you have ever wanted to design all your own assessment titles and find out how historians turn specialised research interests into big questions about the past and present then this might be the Masters for you…).

I didn’t see the nominations until last week’s ceremony but was thrilled to be described like this:

‘Dr Baker not only issues quality feedback to her students, allowing them to learn and improve, but she also asks for feedback from students in order to develop her own teaching skills. She encourages students to write down anything they did not understand in a lecture so she can see what needs to be focused on from within the module. Nominations highlighted her promptness in replying to e-mails, her quality insight, and her dedication to answering questions in depth while also recommending further reading.

‘”Catherine Baker is an outstanding staff member and a valuable asset, not only to the History department, but to the whole of the University… Her feedback is very clear and communicates to students their strengths, weaknesses and suggests how they can improve… Her feedback and attentiveness to students has inspired me to further study at the University of Hull.”‘

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I often don’t think of myself as doing anything particularly innovative in terms of feedback, compared to what today’s marking technologies make possible – I haven’t been using video/audio feedback, pre-set comment banks, feedback widgets like this one Claire Hardaker designed recently, or anything I couldn’t have done in the days of paper essays and multicoloured pens.

And our whole department is focused on ‘feed-forward’ – being clear about what someone can do next to improve their next piece of work (we redesigned our feedback cover-sheets recently so that every piece of feedback has a section all about this) – so our wider feedback culture’s being recognised here.

Where I do do innovative things with feedback they often don’t strike me as innovative any more, because they’ve been part of my teaching practice for so (relatively) long. One idea I’ve used ever since I read about it on a blog by the classics lecturer Liz Gloyn is to take a minute at the end of lectures for students to reflect on what one thing they found clearest in the lecture, what one thing they found least clear, and to write both of those down anonymously on an index card. Any ‘least clear’ topics that recur show me what I ought to go over at the beginning of the next lecture or pay extra attention to in seminars.

(The link is from 2012 but I was already using them in autumn 2011 after reading something else that Liz had written about them.)

I’ve done this in practically every solo module I’ve taught (except my Special Subject, which has a workshop format) since the year before I came to Hull, and this year it seems to have worked particularly well.

Beyond the immediate insight into what I need to go back over about the idea we’re currently working on to make sure students are grasping it before we go on to the next thing, over several years using this kind of activity I’ve realised it helps me do several other things in explaining the kind of learning environment I want to have.

Firstly, it makes it normal for things to feel unclear. Everyone will have a clearest thing and everyone will have a least clear thing about a lecture (and the clearest thing for one person might be the most difficult bit of all for someone else – in fact, more often than not that is the case). It’s not a weakness to admit that you didn’t understand something – and that’s an important thing to convey, especially as I start getting more senior myself and acquiring more intimidating-looking expertise.

(One day when I’m talking to a class about it being normal not to understand new ideas clearly I might bring along one of the books I’ve annotated in the margins with ????? or WHAT IS THIS BOOK EVEN ABOUT?. Those are both notes I’ve made in the past month. One of the books made sense a few days later while I was reading something else, and the other book… well. What was it even about.)

Secondly, I hope it suggests that students can start to recognise when they’re feeling unclear about something and that that’s the time to ask for feedback – which is just as important to someone’s path through a module as the lectures and seminars they follow.

Thirdly, sometimes it’s an opportunity for a student to feed back anonymously on something about the teaching that really didn’t work – an example I oversimplified in a lecture, or something that made them uncomfortable in a seminar discussion. Then I can try to fix it. I hope I’ve managed to.

Fourthly, sometimes a ‘thing that felt unclear’ is actually the beginning of someone forming an original question or interpretation of a problem. If none of the theories of national identity we covered in the lecture explain this case that you already know about, that might be the beginning of an outstanding essay… and when I go over what made it such a good question it helps to demonstrate that I’m not looking for assessments which just summarise the readings, I want to be reading insights of students’ own.

Sometimes I have no idea about the answer to a question on one of the cards either. And then I try to say so.

Fifthly, it shows that feedback isn’t just something that happens after submitting an assignment – it’s something that students and I should both be taking part in before they even start writing.

For the last year or two, I’ve been including a note about ‘what to expect from the teaching on this module’ in my module handbooks. This can explain why this module has the particular combination of assessments that it does, call attention to sensitive topics in the module and how we’re going to try to handle those, and emphasise that getting informal feedback on the ideas you’re developing is an everyday part of teaching and learning, not just something you wait to do until your dissertation – it doesn’t have to be about submitting an assignment cold and wondering if you ‘did it properly’.

So I see feedback as a process more than an event – but also as part of encouraging students to be able to express and explain their own interpretations of the topic, which they need to do in order to approach any assignment, but especially the ones that require more independence in deciding what they’re going to write about and connecting it into what they understand as the core of the module.

Getting informal feedback either through office hours or over email is just as much a part of this as group learning sessions, and I’ve been impressed by how many students have been seeking it out this year in particular.

And I genuinely want to know what students are interested in and thinking about within a module. I spend 3-4 hours a week in the classroom for each module, and more hours planning the lectures and activities, on top of setting up how all the topics ought to work together when I design the module for the first time; students all take the same structure of learning, combine that with other knowledge and interests inside and outside their degree, and end up with very different paths through the topic.

Seeing that happen while a module is in progress is one of the things that makes teaching so exciting – people are doing things with this thing that I designed! – even when it’s a module that has run for several years and I feel like I know it back to front. The students are different and where they take the module will be too.

The way I approach written feedback on assessments isn’t all that different from how I approach peer-reviewing academic articles for publication: what does this piece want to argue, what’s holding the argument back from coming across, and how could it communicate its argument better?  Where else could this argument go?

These are the questions I have to ask myself as I work out where a piece of work would fit into our mark scheme, and most of the notes I make as I go will end up in the actual written feedback. (Which is probably why I still haven’t built myself an online comment bank – I may be giving essentially the same advice several times when I mark a set of assignments but I still need to type it as I’m thinking in order to understand what I want to say.)

It’s particularly rewarding to be able to do this with work where students are already developing independence as researchers – in fact some of my most rewarding teaching moments this year have come from seeing students start to be able to express questions that have motivated them, not just inside one module but across their whole degree programme, to find out more about something to do with the past.

But it all starts with the expectations we set before a module even begins…

How trans and non-binary inclusive was your teaching? Why I’m collecting student perceptions of what their curriculum was like

How often could people who have studied humanities or social sciences say their curriculum had integrated trans and non-binary people and their experiences into the teaching? And how often do educators make sure that students have the opportunity to read work by trans and non-binary authors?

I’m collecting perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusive teaching from people who studied (or are still studying) humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any point since 2005, in order to inform the teaching I help to develop at my own university and also to help demonstrate to other universities why it matters to have a trans and non-binary inclusive curriculum, and what things in particular people who responded to the survey have seen to work well – or think need to be improved.

The opportunity to do this came up when the last stage of a teaching qualification I’m working towards at Hull (the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) required us all to do an individual and independent research project. Although the first thing I have to write for the project is an interim report in order to get the PCAP qualification, I wanted to work towards something that could help me test some hypotheses I already had about student perceptions of trans- and non-binary-inclusive teaching, and which could inform work I want to do on helping to improve this in future.

I’m launching an online survey today which will be open until 31 October 2015 for people to respond if they’ve studied humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any time since 2005. Its focus is on what a trans- and non-binary-inclusive curriculum might be like in practice and how well UK higher education has been providing this so far (in the view of people who respond to the survey). It won’t ask you to identify your university, the subject you studied, or whether you are cis or trans. (And please don’t respond if you’re a current Hull student who I have assessment or pastoral responsibilities over in 2015-16.)

My starting point is that a trans and non-binary curriculum is important, both so that trans and non-binary students aren’t left feeling invalidated by their curriculum and also so that all students finish university better equipped to act in solidarity with trans and non-binary people.

As well as collecting accounts of how trans- and non-binary-inclusive the teaching that people remember might or might not have been – which will be the basis for making recommendations after the survey has finished – there are some more things that I hope the research will test:

  • The Equalities Act 2010 obliged universities and other public organisations not to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender reassignment (though much work against transphobia still needs to be done to eradicate the barriers that trans students face in accessing and progressing through UK higher education – see the work of the NUS LGBT campaign and the ongoing campaign for a full-time, paid NUS trans officer), and the government Equalities Challenge Unit recommended universities should make sure curricula did not reinforce transphobic stereotypes – but will there be any significant difference in perceptions from people who were in higher education before 2010 and people who were/are studying more recently?
  • Is updating the curriculum enough on its own to create teaching that students perceive as trans- and non-binary-inclusive – and if not, what else will respondents think needed to be done?
  • Even if teaching has become more trans-inclusive in general since 2005, what has coverage of non-binary identities and experiences been like?

(I recognise ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words that don’t in themselves change anything about where the power to include or exclude lies – but I’ve used them in the title of the survey so that what I’m asking about will make sense in a brief way)

The teaching curriculum is only part of a student’s experience at university (and if you take the survey you’ll have an opportunity to express how relatively important you think it is compared to other areas) – but it’s the one that academic staff have the most power to change, so I hope this will complement work against transphobia in other areas of higher education that I try to contribute to as a lecturer and as the current chair of my university’s LGBT network for staff.

After the survey closes, the first thing I’ll do is to write up the project report for my qualification (this will be based on the first 30 responses if the total is higher than that), but then I want to take more action based on what the findings turn out to be:

  • At my own university, I’ll discuss them with the Staff LGBT Network, the Hull University Union LGBT+ group and the University’s Equality and Diversity Office
  • I’ll write them up for a peer-reviewed article which I’ll submit to an academic journal in the field of higher education, to help support other academics and students who are advocating for trans and non-binary inclusivity in teaching (when academic citations can be useful backup sometimes). If it’s accepted, this will be available through the Hull digital repository and my own academia.edu page
  • I’ll liaise with some young people’s trans organisations and the NUS LGBT campaign on whether I can help work that they do, and what ways of presenting the recommendations would be most useful for them
  • I’ll use my position to approach academics who might not normally think about trans and non-binary issues, for instance by giving presentations in teaching and learning streams of my subject associations.

If you’d like to be kept informed about reports or articles that I write as a result of the survey, please email me at catherine.baker@hull.ac.uk (whether or not you’re also taking the survey) and I’ll update you as and when they happen.

The survey itself is available at https://hull.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/transandnonbinaryhss and will be open for responses until the end of 31 October 2015 (GMT). There’s more information for potential participants on the first page of the survey so please read it carefully before deciding whether you want to take part.

In case this post reaches people who don’t usually read this blog

I’m a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hull and I’m also currently the chair of the university’s staff LGBT network. Most of my research is on the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath, though I also have wider interests in the politics of popular culture and nationalism and in overcoming structural exclusions that make higher education less accessible that it should be. I’m not quite sure of the best way to describe my gender identity even though it deserves to be mentioned in a post like this (I don’t feel detached from female pronouns but I don’t like people feminising my name too much), but the most accurate way for me to describe the social position my gender gives me would be to say that I’m a cis woman. Most of the research articles I’ve published are available online and I also write about my research interests semi-regularly on this blog (including a collection of posts on feminism and gender). I’m also active on Twitter as @richmondbridge.

Introducing the intro text: why I’ve written an introduction to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s

Since 2013 I’ve been working on a new kind of book project for me: an introductory text on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which I spent most of 2014 working on intensively and which is now due for publication later this year. (Indeed, it’s close enough that the publishers have been showing me options for the cover design; I’m happy with the one we’ve chosen, and am hoping it’ll be going public very soon.)

The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s will be very different to my previous two books (a research monograph on popular music and struggles over national identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia, and a co-authored monograph on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping during and after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Firstly, it’ll be going straight into paperback, meaning there’s a good chance more of its potential readers will actually read it.

Secondly, it puts me in a very different relationship to its subject matter; Sounds of the Borderland and Interpreting the Peace were both the result of multi-year research projects after which I was the only person (or with Interpreting the Peace part of the only team) to have been able to write those books that way. With this book, on the other hand, several dozen scholars would have the subject knowledge to be able to write a book fitting the general remit I had when I began the project: a 50,000-word book aimed at a reader who is new to the topic and which fits into a series that puts ‘a strong emphasis on the different perspectives from which familiar events can be seen’.

(And it’s the right time to be doing a book like this; despite the volume of new research that continues to be published about the wars and their consequences, it’s still hard to find an up-to-date book to recommend to a reader who is new to the subject that will help to open up all the other books for them.)

Why should I do this, then, rather than anyone else?

In a post last year I talked about some of the micro-level decisions I was having to make while I was writing the book – choices, for instance, about organising events into a narrative, imposing an order on events by breaking them up into chapters and periods, making sure the reader can understand what’s at stake in essentialist or anti-essentialist representations of nationalism and ethnicity, and trying to make visible what truth claims are based on. I hope some of those thought processes will still be visible in the text (I wish I could have worked meta-commentary on my own narrativisation into the book in a much more structured way, but just didn’t have the word count to do it).

I set myself three objectives at the beginning of the writing process, which I think I have fulfilled – though ultimately the people who read and (I hope) use the book will be the judges of that.

First of all, I wanted it to help the reader understand research that is happening right now. The last few years have seen a new wave of archival studies about the core history of the wars, such as Josip Glaurdić’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia or Robert Donia’s new biography of Radovan Karadžić, but also research that has been trying to expand the angles from which historians and other scholars might look at the wars (such as Bojan Bilić and Vesna Janković’s important edited volume, Resisting the Evil: (Post-)Yugoslav Anti-War Contention), not to mention work that takes a position on the longer-term human consequences of the wars and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism (for instance, Damir Arsenijević’s edited volume Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Fight for the Commons, which was published earlier this year in response to the Bosnian ‘plenum’ protests of 2014).

Another objective was for the writing to show the reader how scholars make interventions into fields of knowledge, by giving some examples of how authors have set out to reinterpret or reassess elements of the histories of the wars. And a third – which perhaps can’t be entirely disentangled from the second – is to make explicit to the reader that their own beliefs and values are going to form part of how they (or the authors of any of the books in the bibliography, or me) go about interpreting and evaluating the events.

The book has eight chapters, beginning with a chapter on the long-term historical background to the wars, then chapters that cover the ‘1980s crisis’ in Yugoslavia; the independence of Slovenia and Croatia; the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Kosovo War plus its implications for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Kosovo. (Already that’s slipping the boundaries of the 1990s – but then I’m a ‘lecturer in 20th century history’ whose research regularly ends up going into the 2010s…)

The last chapters (which are also informed by the teaching and research I’ve done in different disciplines) introduce ways in which the consequences of the conflicts have been researched and show how these research questions can feed back into understanding the 1990s: from debates over peacebuilding and reconciliation, through the prosecution of war crimes (an activity which has itself helped to shape historical knowledge about the recent past), into the cultural and linguistic legacies of the wars.

The long-term chapter was almost the most challenging part of the book to write, and the one that’s changed most dramatically since the first draft of the text (where it was twice as long, and much more detailed bibliographically – but when the full draft of the book started pushing 75,000 words in September, I had to accept that the first chapter couldn’t stay that way without pushing out another chapter later on).

I say ‘almost’ the most challenging part of the book because the most difficult – appropriately, perhaps – was the conclusion. Within 1,500 or so words – because the book length in this series just wouldn’t give me any space for war – I had both to sum up an account of the conflicts that I found most convincing and to show the reader the approach to historical narrative that the book had taken.

At times I wasn’t sure if I’d even improved on David Campbell’s classic review article ‘MetaBosnia‘ from 1998, which compared how ten works written in the mid-1990s had presented 32 political events that took place between 1990 and 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina; I hadn’t even been able to get into Campbell’s level of detail, or the level of detail that (with quite a different philosophy of knowledge) Sabrina Ramet was able to employ in her 2005 book about academic interpretations of the wars.

Moreover, as someone who aims to deconstruct notions of collective identity and narratives based on them, I need – like every other scholar in this area – to balance that against the responsibility of writing about real lives and deaths.

Ultimately, this needs to be a book which equips the reader to read more books, rather than being the first and last thing that anyone should read. This is not supposed to be even close to the final word on the Yugoslav wars, and indeed the format of the series precludes it from being that – which is one of the reasons I felt comfortable taking up the opportunity to write it at all. (It could however help open up discussion on how we teach, and how we might teach, the history of the wars from the point of view of two decades later – something that there’s a lot more scope to think about than I could cover here.) Mainly, it’s the book I’ve wanted to recommend as a starting point but which didn’t previously exist – which is usually a good reason to write anything…