Columbia University

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

New York – Cambridge Training Collaboration: Historian Susan G. Pedersen on Newly Founded British History Collaboration that Spans Both Sides of the Pond

An interview with Susan G. Pedersen

The New York – Cambridge Training Collaboration (NYCTC) brings together faculty and PhD students in twentieth-century British history from the University of Cambridge, Columbia University, and New York University. Launched in 2015 by Peter Mandler, Guy Ortolano, and Susan Pedersen the network now encompasses eight faculty members and almost twenty graduate students across the three institutions.  The following is a Q&A with Pedersen about the NYCTC, which just launched a new website:

How did the idea for the NYCTC emerge? What need is this collaborative meeting within the field of British History?

SP:  Modern British history is, in any American graduate program, a “small field.”  The Columbia History Department will admit at most one or two such graduate students each year.  Courses for PhD students are often, then, thematic or interdisciplinary, which allows for a critical mass.  Those courses are great, and we teach a lot of them at Columbia.  But students in specific fields like British history do also need to master – and really get inside – the rich scholarship and debates within their own field, and to interact with other graduate students working in this area.  The British historian at NYU, Guy Ortolano, and I thus began coordinating our teaching some years ago so that students at the two institutions could work with both of us; we then got more ambitious and approached Peter Mandler at Cambridge to ask whether he and his colleagues would like to build a collaboration among his students and ours.  We’ve now held three workshops – two in New York and one in Cambridge – at which graduate students present their work, discuss common challenges around research or teaching, and just get to know the different academic cultures of the US and the UK a bit better.  We’re also now running a common book group, in which some eight Cambridge faculty and students and eight New York faculty and students meet to discuss new works in the field through videoconferencing. 

What is the relationship between the NYCTC and the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS)?

SP:  NYCTC is just one of a number of really heartening developments in the British history field.  Another is that the NACBS – which is the big annual meeting for the whole field – has also become both more international (with lots of UK and other participants) and more committed to graduate students.  NACBS just started funding pre-dissertation research grants, and it now has two workshops for graduate students and early career scholars and an opening reception for graduate students at each conference.  When I first went to NACBS, decades ago, it was frankly a pretty stodgy conference:  it’s now much more interesting and open. 

How would you describe the range of research interests that NYCTC faculty and students are engaged in?

SP:  There’s quite a range, both among the faculty and the graduate students!  Some of us are political or international or imperial historians; some are social historians; some are working on gender or the history of emotions.  There are PhD projects on the National Health Service; on British financial policy and on the oil industry; on British ballet as a tool of cultural diplomacy; on gender relations in higher education; on the emergence of nutrition as a field of expertise; on cultural anxieties around urbanism; on the politics of the New Left; and a host of others.  You can see some of the projects here:  http://nyctc.history.columbia.edu/people/graduate-students/

What impact do you hope that the NYCTC will have on the British studies community at Columbia and on the wider community of scholars interested in 20th-Century British History?

SP:  We’ve been lucky to have a recent Berkeley PhD, Sam Wetherell, join the Columbia history department as Lecturer in Discipline and a member of this collaboration.  He’s already organized a discussion in the History department on Brexit, and is working with the Heyman Center on some other events.  We’ve also joined other departments or institutions for an event during each workshop:  at the first workshop, it was a discussion with English department faculty and graduate students about different ways to read and use diaries, letters, and other personal sources; at the last workshop, we got together with faculty and students from Rutgers and other institutions to talk about “the Victorians and the Moderns.”  We’re a small operation, but we hope to do more such things.

 

Susan Pedersen is Gouverneur Morris Professor of British History at Columbia University. Pedersen researches and writes about British, European, and international history and politics in the twentieth century, and is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. She is the author of Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945 (1993), Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (2004), and, most recently, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (2015), winner of the 2015 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. She is now working on a book about elite women in fin-de-siècle British politics as seen through the lives of the women of the Balfour and Lytton families.