Publication Date

September 2, 2014

How does a group of strangers become a scholarly community, particularly in a short time? Many of us involved with the National History Center’s Ninth International Seminar on Decolonization found ourselves mulling over that question this July.

Sponsored by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, and generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this year’s seminar brought 16 early career scholars to Washington, DC. Under the guidance of Wm. Roger Louis, seminar director and founding director of the National History Center; Dane Kennedy, current director of the National History Center; Philippa Levine of the University of Texas at Austin; Jason Parker of Texas A&ampM University; Pillarsetti Sudhir, former editor of Perspectives on History; and Marilyn Young of NYU, the participants devoted an intense month to research, writing, and discussion of the history of decolonization in the 20th century.

The seminar brought together scholars from Belgium, France, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As we learned in the introductions on the first day, however, citizenship alone told only part of the scholars’ and their families’ stories. Asked to speak about what prompted their interest in the history of decolonization, a number of the participants discussed how the breakup of European empires and related developments had touched their families. One participant told us about her Iraqi Jewish parents’ immigration to Israel. Another spoke of growing up in France with an American-born mother and an Algerian-born father. A third shared thoughts on being a Briton with Punjabi roots. One of the Euro-American scholars was born, he told us, in South Korea, where his father’s work had taken the family. A number of the scholars are leading lives as citizens of the world, such as the Irish participant who teaches in British Columbia and the Belgian participant who received his PhD from the European University Institute in Italy.

In addition, research has taken members of the seminar to Alaska, Sudan, Namibia, Vanuatu, and other points around the world. As their research destinations indicate, the people brought together by the seminar not only have diverse origins, but also specialize in different fields. The group included historians of the Middle East; the Pacific; South Asia; North, West, and Southern Africa; and the United States, with varied analytical frameworks including cultural, intellectual, and political history; gender; and race.

Within a short time, both faculty and participants commented, this motley group had become a community. Curious about how that transformation occurred, I asked the participants for their thoughts.

Social life, several noted, played an important role. The seminarians, to use the “Decol” term, participated in a number of social events as a group, but the time spent in smaller groups was especially important to the building of networks. Impromptu lunches, coffees, and drinks helped them get to know one another and eased the loneliness familiar to many historians on long research trips away from home. Exercise groups (no word on whether these were based on regional specialty, analytical approach, or athletic ability) relieved some of the stress the demanding schedule generated, and also helped the scholars bond. A Sunday outing to a Washington Nationals baseball game gave a number of scholars time to get to know one another and offered a couple of the foreign scholars an exciting introduction to the game when the Nats obligingly beat the Milwaukee Brewers with a walk-off double in the ninth inning.


Wm. Roger Louis

The summer of 2015 marks the tenth and final year of the National History Center’s International Seminars on Decolonization. The center is grateful to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, and the American Historical Association for their support and sponsorship. The center also thanks Wm. Roger Louis for his leadership of a very successful decade of seminars.


Participants in the Ninth International Seminar on Decolonization meet at the Library of Congress.

Besides the social aspects of their month together, the seminar participants cited what might be called occupational factors. Most were doing at least some research either at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland (known as Archives II), or at the Library of Congress, while a few worked at institutions such as the World Bank. A visit early in the month to the Office of the Historian at the State Department offered participants an invaluable chance to learn about unfamiliar resources and strategies for doing research in US archives. The morning shuttle bus ride out to College Park gave participants opportunities to talk about their daily research agendas and share tips about navigating the archives. Many of the scholars also swapped stories of research highs and lows, including serendipitous finds and frustrating dead ends. The most notable archival drama, however, involved not a document, but a butter knife: one seminarian found herself evicted from the Library of Congress for bringing the small utensil into a library building in her lunch bag.

Aside from the importance of the social and occupational dimensions of the seminar, intellectual factors, the seminarians agreed, were paramount to forging their community. A shared scholarly background in the history of decolonization gave participants, in spite of the range of regional specializations and methodological approaches, a common starting point for their exchange of ideas. Working together to lead discussions of reading assignments gave participants opportunities to bandy about ideas on other scholars’ works and segued into fruitful discussions, such as one evening-long conversation about the postcolonial legacies of particular late-colonial structures. The seminar’s mixture of ABDs and junior faculty, some also mentioned, struck them as unusual and unusually fulfilling intellectually. Absent the hierarchies that are typical in academic settings, seminarians found they were able to learn more from one another. Finally, the fact that the members of the group came from different fields, several noted, made the seminar particularly successful. Participants found the intellectual diversity both refreshing and especially stimulating.

This year’s seminar, like those of the past years, succeeded in fostering a sense of community among participants. But why does this achievement matter? As many historians have found, a scholarly community animates us intellectually, aids us professionally, and sustains us personally. For the National History Center’s Decolonization Seminar, fostering a sense of belonging in a circle that answers those needs among disparate groups of scholars has been a particular aim. The seminar’s goal is not only to foster research on the history of decolonization, but to seed a field. The strong bonds that the seminarians left Washington with promise a robust future for the investigation of the impact of the end of European empires on world history.

is the assistant director of the National History Center.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.