Copies of my book arrived in my post box this week! They came totally unannounced.
It is a strange experience: to have lived for so long with the promise of the thing and then suddenly for it to be there incarnate, in your hands. It’s also a bizarrely solitary one. How do you share the lonely labour of years? I did what we do now in the 2010s and invoked social media. Then I wrote to all those who feature in my acknowledgements, and now I thought I’d tell you too.
So here is my Preface. I sweated over it because it feels like this book is in many ways about me – but then perhaps that is true for all authors. I hope it says something about how and why I came to write the book, and maybe gives a little indication of what it might be about …
In many ways this book began more than fifteen years ago at the University of Adelaide, where I frequently spent undergraduate seminars gazing at the fading photographs of past history professors hanging on the wall. George Cockburn Henderson, Keith Hancock, G.V. Portus, and Hugh Stretton all stared down at me, and written after all their names were the letters M.A. (Oxon). I cannot have been anything but dimly aware of this at the time, and neither do I remember being especially conscious of the uniform image of the white, male scholar they presented. However, when some years later their path to Oxford was one that I too followed, I began to wonder.
Initially I wanted to write about ideas. I wanted to know what they meant to people, where they came from, and how they got made, particularly in the context of the British Empire. But aware of my own unlikely passage to Oxford, and with the Adelaide professors still staring down at me, it seemed impossible to do this without thinking about the people who made knowledge, and the institutional structures and contexts that made them. I realised that before I could write about ideas I needed to know a lot more about the worlds that produced them – and academia seemed an obvious place to begin.
This study focuses on the elite world of universities in the United Kingdom and the settler colonies, and on the white, middle-class men who inhabited them. As instruments of culture and expertise, these were institutions that helped extend colonial rule, and the knowledge produced by those who worked in them was dependent upon a host of situated relationships with local agents and actors whose participation has since been erased. My focus, however, is not on these expanding and expansionist aspects of imperial universities but rather on their internal practices, structures and organisation. Not all readers will be sympathetic to this endeavour, but I hope this book will encourage them to think in new ways about the history of subjects and institutions they know well.
This book is therefore about the origins of my own academic career. It is my attempt to understand the system of which I am part, the traces it has left upon me, and the disparities that continue to characterise it…
Empire of Scholars: universities, networks, and the British academic world, 1850-1939 is published by Manchester University Press and you can buy it through Amazon (a bit cheaper than MUP) or (cheapest of all thanks to free global postage) the Book Depository.