Confidence Games and/as Modern Times – Round table.

 

Our first event of the term at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History is upon us! All welcome and details are below.

 

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Abstracts:

 

The Confidence Game of the Chicago School

 

Prof Matt Houlbrook

(Birmingham)

 

It is easy to find the confidence trickster anywhere, if you are looking closely enough. The global networks of trade and empire along which people and goods moved from the sixteenth century, the expanding cities of the modern United States, and the turmoil of revolution and civil war in the new Soviet Union: in each of these contexts the trickster was identified as characteristic or archetypal. Mobility and anonymity provided opportunities for personal reinvention and social advancement. They also allowed fakes and frauds to flourish, created intense anxieties about the difficulties of trusting those one met, and ensured social interactions and commercial exchange were haunted by the possibility of deceit. Britain’s bogus honorable and Weimar Germany’s hochstapler; Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man; Al-Hasan al-Wazzan and Martin Guerre; Felix Krull and Ostap Bender; Netley Lucas. The paradox of the trickster was that they seemed both universal and exemplary of their time and place. What, then, should we do with these elusive figures as historians?

 

 

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Of Spongers, Sharpers, and Cannibal Eunuchs: Swindle Story Collections around the World

 

Prof. Christopher Rea

(University of British Columbia)

 

Why do collections of swindle stories appear at certain times and places? In China, for example, the swindle story has experienced bursts of popularity during the late Ming, the early Republican era, the early Mao era, and during the last 20 years. And comparable works exist around the world. What, for example, do Zhang Yingyu’s Book of Swindles (Ming China, 1617), Richard King’s The New Cheats of London Exposed (Georgian England, 1792), and P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World (Reconstruction-era United States, 1867) have in common—and how do they differ? Swindle stories, clearly, serve a double purpose: they teach techniques for navigating perilous social environments, and they entertain. But their authors tend to frame these narratives within a questionable claim: that ours is an age of unprecedented peril. Focusing on the example of China, this talk will highlight one thread running through literary history: connoisseurship of the swindler’s ingenuity.

 

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‘All That Is Solid Melts into Air’: Modernity and the proliferation of liminality.

Dr. Lucie Ryzova

(Birmingham)
Tricksters are creatures of liminality. I will first broaden our discussion by looking at the nexus of modernity and liminality. Modernity is a historical condition in which transition becomes permanentized. The acceleration of time, shrinking of space, mass-mediated popular culture and unprecedented social mobility all worked to normalize fluidity and bring about new configurations of personhood. ‘Becoming another’ became a reality for many, and a fantasy for many more. Novel cultural practices and forms emerged that allowed for a ritualised consumption of this permanent flux and where liminality and enchantment could be safely indulged. I will use as example the photographer’s studio, a place of modern magic where anyone could momentarily transform the self into another. Secondly, I will present some thoughts on whether late modernity, specifically the current crisis of capitalism, creates the conditions in which trickster figures proliferate. Here I will propose to understand late capitalism through another archetypal figure of liminality, notably that of a vampire.

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Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire 2

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. A post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Source: Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire

Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure, and Hospitality

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. A post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Source: Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure, and Hospitality

Accelerated Mobility, Travel, & the Culture of Everyday Empire

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. A post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Source: Accelerated Mobility, Travel, & the Culture of Everyday Empire

Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire 1

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. Another post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Source: Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire

Everyday Empires: Descriptive or Analytical Category?

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. A post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Everyday Empires

On May 25 and 26 2017 the Department of History at the University of Birmingham hosted Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective. Sponsored by Past & Present, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History, the purpose of the conference was three-fold. First, it set out to improve intellectual engagements between scholars working within particular historiographies of empire, with the goal of promoting greater cross-fertilization of methods and ideas. The second goal was to encourage perspectives that spanned career stages. Accordingly, each panel consisted of a Ph.D. student, an Early Career Researcher, and an established academic, with a view to generating an inclusive conversation that gave equal time to scholars’ research, no matter where they were on their career path. A series of blog posts for Past & Present, co-written by each of the panels…

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Summer Lecture 2017- Sheila Fitzpatrick (Sydney): The Tramp’s Tale: A Story of Internal Soviet Travel and Border Crossing After the Second World War

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Abstract: Anastasia Egorova was a one-legged Russian tramp whose wanderings took her all over the Soviet Union in the 1920s-1940s. At the end of the Second World War, she decided to see the world, and successfully crossed the Western border in 1945, claiming to be Polish. Travelling on to Italy, she found refuge in a psychiatric hospital and stayed there for four years, until Soviet officials looking for repatriation prospects came by and offered her free passage home.  She accepted, and was duly repatriated and returned to her native village in 1950. The paper examines this microhistory from the Soviet archives.

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Bio: Sheila Fitzpatrick is primarily a historian of modern Russia, especially the Stalin period, but has recently added a transnational dimension with her research on displaced persons (DPs) after the Second World War. She received a Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award in 2002 and the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2012. She is past President of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (formerly AAASS) and a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Having worked for most of her career in the United States, she moved back to Australia in 2012.

As a historian of twentieth-century Russia, her earlier work focused mainly on Soviet social and cultural history in the Stalin period, particularly social mobility, social identity and everyday practice. Using some of the techniques of her “everyday” work, she recently published her first major study in political history: On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics, which came out with Princeton University Press in 2015. My Father’s Daughter, her memoir of her father, the radical historian Brian Fitzpatrick, and her childhood in Melbourne came out in 2010, and she published a memoir of life as a student in Cold War Moscow in the 1960s, A Spy in the Archives in 2012. She is currently co-CI (with Mark Edele) of an ARC-funded project entitled “War, Displacement and Resettlement” as well as working on a more personal DP study based on the correspondence of her late husband, the physicist Michael Danos, and his mother Olga when they were displaced persons in postwar Germany.

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Careering: Precarity & Solidarity in Higher Education

Many thanks to Dr Tom Cutterham for this report on the forum event we held on Wednesday 8th March 2017.

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It’s always been the case that the most precarious and vulnerable workers face the greatest barriers to organising their labour. In a career like academia that often seems to promote isolation, the challenge of precarity is all the greater—overshadowed as it is by competition for permanent positions. Those are the conditions faced by early career researchers (ECRs), be they graduate students, teaching fellows, research assistants, or newly-employed lecturers.

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How do those circumstances influence the teaching and research environments of the university? How can we—as institutions, individuals, and as a community—take action to overcome these barriers and transform exploitative structures? At the very least, what can ECRs share with each other, and how can we work together, to make things a little easier? Those were the questions under discussion at the first ECR forum held last week under the auspices of the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar series, and co-sponsored with the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.

Sharing their stories and ideas, early career historians at every level from MA students to new lecturers joined in the conversation. One lecturer recently hired at another Midlands university told us about the three phases that characterised the time between his PhD and first permanent job, emphasising the variety of experiences that can make up ECR life. One moment you’re unemployed and living at home, wondering if you can afford the train fare to take up a part-time job that might not pay you for months; the next you’re on a 95% teaching contract, expected to find time for your own publications while writing and teaching four new courses.

Indeed, the question of fractional contracts and their relationship to career expectations was a substantial part of our conversation. A Teaching Fellowship is supposed to be a stepping-stone to permanent academic jobs, but without paid time allocated for research and publications, such roles are hardly calibrated to develop good job candidates. Fractional contracts allow employers to fill teaching needs at minimal cost in salary—but the real costs are passed onto young academics. In turn, access to housing and transport can become a big issue, which means structural privilege comes into play too. When universities like ours pay out big bucks for some salaries, the situation for Teaching Fellows seems hard to justify.

But even where reliance on fractional teaching teaching staff is being reduced, there’s a question over who will take over their work. It seems likely part of the university’s solution lies in Postgraduate Teaching Assistants on zero-hours contracts. Graduate students who attended the forum agreed that teaching experience is valuable, and the money is useful too—but that comes with a fear that valuable research time can be sacrificed to departmental demands that are hard to turn down. They reported, too, that Birmingham’s “Worklink” system often leaves them unpaid for months at a time, increasing financial precarity and raising barriers to academic life.

These questions of pay and working time are often rendered invisible by the prevailing culture of polite silence. And so are some even more insidious problems, like the fact that non-EU citizens face draconian rules around personal mobility (like being told to report to central office whenever they leave Birmingham!) and prohibitive visa costs borne out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, we heard how the often-hidden emotional labour through which academic work is supported falls disproportionately on the female workers who already suffer structural disadvantages. Such unequal structures of surveillance and support help maintain the existing balance of power and privilege.

Working together, though, there are things we can do to improve the situation—and to fight worsening conditions. With the help of student allies, and a creative approach to publicity, Warwick University’s anti-casualisation group successfully fought off an attempt to outsource teaching to a spin-off company. Here at Birmingham, we can develop an agenda for change that both ECRs and senior colleagues can push for. That includes full-time, year-long contracts for Teaching Fellows, and perhaps representation for ECR workers on Departmental and College committees. On issues like visas and Work Link too, we’ll need the union to help us fight.

There are also ways we can help early career historians move through the phases of their career. By sharing CVs and cover letters, organising mock job interviews, and creating fairer, more transparent structures of support (perhaps including writing groups), we can build a better environment for young careers to flourish. Doing so would deepen our own professional community, too.

Creating spaces for open discussion, like this ECR forum, constitutes one small step towards building solidarity and collective initiative on the problems that face early career academics. In the next steps, we’d like to build that beyond the confines of History and Cultures, and start linking up with the rest of our university and with institutions across the West Midlands region. We have learned how difficult it is to resist the silo-effect of separate departments, colleges, and institutions. But we’ve also learned that inspiration can come from crossing those boundaries.

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