Doing history in the mainstream: challenging the neo-liberal university

For the second successive year I have spent a late February weekend at the International Sports and Leisure History Colloquium at Manchester Metropolitan University. What’s more, I have been again as a civilian and relished the pleasure of soaking up exciting new research without the looming dread of having to do a presentation of my own (although learning the multitasking skill of paying attention and live tweeting has challenged my middle aged sensibility).

This year’s symposium took in a wide array of topics, from the aestheticisation of weaponry at the 1851 Great Exhibition (Janice Li) to canine performance sports in post-Communist Poland (Justyna Wlodarczyk), from women swimming the Thames (Caitlin Davies) to the challenges and opportunities of working in new areas in transnational sports history (Paul Newsome), from Edwardians swimming in Dawlish (Geoff Swallow) to Dude Ranch apparel (Alison Goodrum), from nude dancers, women’s bodies and morals (Hans Henrik Appel) to football stories in British boy’s papers in the early parts of the Great War (Alex Jackson) and from leisure and everyday identities in Mass Observation’s Worktown (Bob Snape) to a revisionist history of regional divides in English tennis (Rob Lake) – and that’s without considering transatlantic leisure cultures (Bob Nicholson), sport and social hygiene in interwar Europe (Daphne Bolz), sport during Ireland’s Great Famine (Brian Griffin) or women workers in Victorian public baths (Dave Day). Despite this diversity, the two day symposium held together well, in part because of the openness of participants who took an inclusive view of sport and leisure histories, in part because so many of the papers were just so interesting, and in part because of the skill, knowledge and enthusiasm of the presenters – all of which added up to make it an excellent example of a dynamic area of social and cultural history at work (and dare I say play).

This range of subjects, of approaches and of styles of doing history reminded me again that our field – sport and leisure history – is both diverse and inclusive. It also brought home to me that thing I know, that there is danger in limiting ourselves to only sport or only leisure: the dialogue between and across these two aspects of our work was rich and productive, and seemed at times to involve much jotting down of ideas, references or hints (it was never entirely clear) involving concentration and facial expressions indicating interest and gratitude (I suspect in some of my discussion that was actually polite perplexity). There was also a maturity about the dialogue – this isn’t a comment on the respect and professionalism of the participants (both traits were in abundance), but on the conceptual sophistication of many of the discussions; this was a mature and confident field of scholarly work.

No longer did it seem as if we were cowering on the margins of History the discipline; even more so given the workplaces of the participants – sport science/studies programmes, university history departments, as historians in other university departments (apparel, business and so forth), national historical research centres and elsewhere. Only once did I hear the term ‘mainstream history’ – and when I did, it really jarred. It was used as a form of shorthand, to refer to those ‘out there’ doing other kinds of history, and certainly did not imply the apologetic self-deprecation it once evoked – but it still jarred.

The power inference of references to ‘the mainstream’ is the thing that really irks me – the suggestion that those ‘real’ scholars over there doing ‘real history’ are the apotheosis of the discipline. I can’t hear the term without thinking that the ‘mainstream’ is ‘proper’ economic, social and political history while the rest of us – Rakaia River NZ aerial braidedworking in such marginal areas as women’s history, sport and leisure history, labour and working class history, popular culture and other things that might just be both ephemeral and fun – are in the eddies on the edges of the stream. The image of a single powerful river stream of ‘proper’ history with the rest of us bobbing around the banks really must be replaced by an image of the discipline as a metaphorical braided river, with multiple streams in a single river bed, overlapping, running into and cross each other. It is not just we historians who have played this game – the ‘mainstream’ also irked when I was an anthropology undergraduate (back in the last millennium), where in that case it seemed to be marked detailed kinship maps and religious understandings based on years of participant observation in some ‘native’ village somewhere by a chap with a pith helmet and Bombay bloomers.

So, it is refreshing that we’re less obsequiously relating to History-the-discipline, but remains deeply frustrating that so few of us are publishing outside our subject area’s journals (mea culpa), justifying in some respects those ‘mainstream’ critics who see us as hobbyists, fans flirting with the grown up world of academia as we fall back on the security of submission to the journals and publishers we know, risking the mediocrity of self-congratulation. It is refreshing to see sport and leisure topics being taken up in non-specialist academic outlets (although far too often in ‘special issues’ of journals, often seen as not having the same credibility or cachet of a ‘general’ issue).

I worry that many of the extremely good papers I heard this week are destined, once finished and written up, for our specialism’s outlets; some of them should be there – they have local or specific appeal unlikely to resonate much beyond our field: we need those. Others, however, should be used to project sport and leisure history to other parts of the discipline area. If we don’t do that, even though many of us have abandoned the language of the ‘mainstream’, the discipline-defining tweedy elements (no Bombay bloomers here) of our world are likely to continue to view us with a haughty glare across the top of reading glasses – those half-lens ones with a chord so they’re not lost when not in use, but hang around the neck – as obsessed by muddied oafs.

I am far from the first to lament in this way and fear that I am also far from the last to do so, but if we don’t review and revise our publication strategies, if we don’t risk the extra labour of multiple iterations of a paper to get it to standard of the big hitting journals we’re in trouble. Brian Stoddart writes eloquently in his collection Sport, Culture and History: Region, Nation and Globe of being asked several times by the editors of Comparative Studies in Society and History to rework his piece ‘Sport, Cultural Imperialism & Colonial Response in the British Empire’ before its 1988 publication: it remains for me one of the defining pieces of imperial sports history and of imperial cultural politics.

Many of us, at least in the English-speaking world, work in the academic context of privatising, individualising neo-liberal universities that are becoming increasingly technocratic: for many of us in sport science/studies departments the humanities and social sciences are becoming increasingly marginalised. The inclusive approach to sport and leisure history at MMU’s international colloquium is an important political strategy in combating that marginalisation, but so too is rethinking our approaches to publication. That approach needs to start from the position that we’re already in the mainstream.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is also University Lead for Research Ethics and Integrity. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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