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The End of a Seminar, the Birth of a New Field of Study

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The following is a guest post by Dane Kennedy, director of the National History Center, a project of the American Historical Association.

It is with a mixture of anticipation and regret that I await the start of the Tenth International Seminar on Decolonization, whose participants will gather at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress on Monday, July 6. Anticipation because it has always been such a stimulating event; regret because this will be the final year of the seminar. It has far surpassed my original expectations. Every year since 2006, the National History Center has brought fifteen early-career historians and other scholars to Washington D.C., where they have spent the month of July exploring the incomparable resources of the Library and other area research institutions, engaging in vigorous debates with faculty leaders and one another, and writing in-depth research papers that have laid the groundwork for countless books, articles, and dissertations. Their efforts have helped to forge a new and vibrant field of study.

At its conclusion, the seminar will be able to claim 150 alumni. They have come from all around the world: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, Singapore, as well as the U.S. They have given the seminar a genuinely international character. Each of the participants has brought a unique perspective and body of knowledge to our inquiries.

So what happens when such a diverse and talented group of young scholars who share a common interest are brought together to conduct research, exchange ideas, and circulate drafts of written work? Skills are honed, perspectives are broadened, insights are gained, friendships are forged, collaborations are created, and an intellectual cohort is brought into being. It is a cohort that extends beyond the bonds formed from year to year: alumni of successive seminars make connections through a variety of personal and professional networks. They have established the H-Net listserv H-Decol. They have developed new courses on decolonization at their home institutions. They have organized panels at meetings of the American Historical Association, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the North American Conference of British Studies, and other learned societies. And, of course, they have published books and become prominent scholars in their own right.

Let me offer some examples, highlighting a few of our non-American alumni’s accomplishments. Daniel Branch (2006) has become a professor at Warwick University and written two books, “Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya,” and “Kenya: Between Hope and Despair.” Miguel Bandeira Jeronimo (2009) now holds a research position at the University of Lisbon and he has published a number of books, including two just this year: “The Ends of European Colonial Empires” and “The ‘Civilizing Mission’ of Portuguese Colonialism.” Author of the prize-winning “The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, Yasmin Khan (2006) holds a faculty position at Oxford University. Fabian Klose (2009) is at the Leibnitz Institute for European History in Mainz, Germany, and he has written “Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence.” I could go on, but you get the point.

The seminar has been led by Wm. Roger Louis, the Kerr Chair of English History at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading historian of the British Empire. Louis has been the seminar’s director from the start, setting its demanding expectations while maintaining its supportive, stimulating environment. I have had the privilege to be a member of the seminar faculty from the beginning. The other faculty veterans are Philippa Levine (University of Texas Austin), Jason Parker (Texas A & M University), Pillarisetti Sudhir (American Historical Association), and Marilyn Young (New York University). In addition, the seminar has had guest faculty over the years, including John Darwin (Oxford University), Jennifer Foray (Purdue University), and Lori Watt (Washington University at St. Louis). It also has brought in prominent scholars every year to give public lectures, which the Kluge Center has graciously co-sponsored. This year’s public lectures will be given by Todd Shepard (Johns Hopkins) on “Decolonization and the Sexual Revolution” (July 15) and Jordanna Bailkin (University of Washington) on “Refugee Camps in Britain from the Suez Crisis to Idi Amin” (July 22).

The seminar’s operations and activities wouldn’t have been possible without the generous financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The seminar also requires a host for its activities, and we could not have asked for a better one than The John W. Kluge Center inside the Library of Congress, the greatest library in the world. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to both institutions.

When the decolonization seminar comes to a close on July 31, I will say farewell to what has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

Dane Kennedy is the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University, Director of the National History Center, and a member of the faculty group that leads the decolonization seminar.

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