The Historian’s I: Autobiography, Memory and Practice

University of Essex, 14-15 June 2019

Keynote: Sheila Fitzpatrick (University of Sydney)

Confirmed participants: Sally Alexander, Caroline Bressey, Sarah Chaney, Norma Clarke, Joy Damousi, Graham Dawson, Matt Houlbrook, Annette Kuhn, Alison Light, Helen Parr, Terry Smyth, and Carolyn Steedman

What is the place of the ‘I’ in History? In the wake of the cultural turn, most historical practitioners acknowledge that objectivity is impossible, but hold too that relativism is not a viable philosophical, moral or political option. At the same time, over the past half-century an autobiographical turn within and outside History has affected both the discipline, and wider understandings of ‘the historical’. These developments raise urgent questions about how to acknowledge, understand and place the ‘I’ within History while maintaining evidential and analytic rigour.

This CHASE-funded conference will generate reflection on the personal past of the researcher, how it shapes historical pursuits and what happens when the personal past becomes the object of study. Many of the invitees are pioneers of the autobiographical mode that has become prevalent in History since the 1960s, and have published reflections on their lives and careers. New generations of historians, however, encounter their works as something like self-evident truths. This nexus of generational perspectives provides a clear impetus to revisit the place of the ‘I’ in History.

The actualities of the digital age suggest that we need to look to the future too. The current generation of university students have never known a world free of the constant exposure of self and other through technology. Social media encourages the confiding of personal experience as part of professional identities, while new models of publishing make it possible to reach audiences in ways unimagined at present. These shifts will shape how we view History, how we write about it, and how we present ourselves as historians. Now is the ideal moment to bring together different generations to assess and reflect on what such changes mean for our understanding of History, subjectivity, and the intersection of these realms.

Any such intergenerational exchange should include explicit attention to the challenges of explorations in autobiography, subjectivity and memory. Outside the discipline, History is still often viewed as the last bastion of the deliberately distanced observer. Within the discipline, the awareness that objectivity is impossible makes it difficult to reach consensus on how to negotiate the need for workable hypotheses that can be tested against evidence. Younger scholars, in the midst of developing their craft and aware of their own precariousness within the profession, can find it particularly difficult to negotiate the ‘I’ in their own histories and Histories.


The conference will include a panel of three CHASE-funded doctoral students. Papers will be 20 minutes long and commentary on the panel will be provided by Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick. If you would like to present at the conference, please submit a title and abstract of no more than 500 words to Dr Tracey Loughran ( by 3 June 2019.


The conference will include masterclasses for up to 25 CHASE-funded doctoral students (running as parallel sessions) by Professor Alison Light and Professor Carolyn Steedman. If you would like to participate in a masterclass, please contact Georgie Randall ( by 3 June 2019.

Masterclass descriptions:

Carolyn Steedman, ‘Where is the “I”?’

Having read some of my forthcoming book History and the Law. A Love Story and listened to each other read aloud from your own historical writing, we will discuss the following: Where is the ‘I’ in these pieces of writing? Is there an ‘I’ here anyway? Is this ‘I’ a historical ‘I’? What's the point of asking these questions?

Alison Light, ‘Can I Ever Historicise My Self?’

Alison Light will talk about the problems and pleasures of using her own memories, diaries, letters, photographs, and other ‘ego-documents’ in her work. Participants are encouraged to bring their own related projects and questions for discussion.

Speakers and masterclass participants will have the opportunity to attend a follow-up writing workshop in September 2019, and to publish papers on themes related to ‘the historian’s “I”’ in a special issue of Encounters.

Terms and conditions

*By registering below you are requesting a place on this training programme or selected sessions that form part of the programme. A member of the CHASE team or the workshop leader will contact you in due course to confirm that a place has been allocated to you. If you no longer require a place, please email as soon as possible so your name can be removed from the registration list.  

If you are allocated a place but can no longer attend, please email so that your place can be reallocated. CHASE training is free to attend and events are often oversubscribed with a waiting list. Failure to notify us of non-attendance in good time (ideally 5 days prior to the workshop/programme) means your place cannot be reallocated and may result in your access to future CHASE training being restricted.

The training is open to:

Please register here if you wish to attend the conference

Name *
I give permission for any photography or filming to be used for promotion of CHASE training and recruitment or for learning