Research Radar – Jim MacPherson

Dr Jim MacPherson is a cultural historian of Modern Britain at the University of the Highlands and Islands, focusing on migration, empire, sport, and the Highlands. His PhD focused on women’s contribution to the debate on Irish identity at the beginning of the twentieth century through print and associational culture. His publications include Women and Irish Diaspora Identities (2016, co-editor with Mary J. Hickman), Women and the Irish Nation: Gender, Culture and Irish Identity (2012), and the forthcoming Macpherson the Historian: Historiography, Nation-building and Identity in James Macpherson’s Historical Works (co-authored with Kristin Lindfield-Ott). You can follow Jim through his blog, The Empire at Home, and his Twitter feed.

Who is your favourite academic? / Who (academic or not) has shaped your critical thinking the most and why? 

Goodness! That’s a question and a half. There are so many academics who have had a profound, foundational impact on how I think about the world, from my PhD supervisor, Joanna Bourke, to colleagues and friends like Matt Houlbrook. In writing my latest book, I’ve been guided in particular by two amazing academics: J. G. A. Pocock’s work on Edward Gibbon and Enlightenment historiography; and Priya Satia’s brilliant book on empire and history writing, Time’s Monster (2020). In thinking about legacies of empire in the Highlands, I’m constantly inspired by Corinne Fowler – her ‘Colonial Countryside’ project is a great model of how to do community-led research.

What are you reading for work and/or for leisure these days?

I often struggle to separate work reading from leisure reading – it’s one of the curses of academic life that we do something that we fundamentally love and just want to read more and more about. It can often be hard to draw firm barriers around these things. So, for example, I’ve just finished reading William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2007), which is a brilliant close study of the experience of Delhi and its people during the Indian Uprising of 1857. It’s a great example of popular history: engaging, well-written but also rooted in impressive archival research. Ostensibly, I was reading this for some research that I’ve been doing recently on representations of the Uprising in Scottish museums, connected with my work at the Clan Macpherson Museum, but it was also a really good read! I’ve just started reading Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black, which is more firmly for leisure. I love the way she talks about growing veg as a way to empower communities – inspiring stuff!

What podcast(s) do you recommend?

I’m not a huge podcast fan – I find concentrating just on the spoken word quite hard, which is why I never really got into things like listening to Radio Four. When I do listen to one, it’s usually connected with work in some way. When I was teaching my module ‘Fight the Power: the music and politics of Black America’ last year, I really enjoyed Tricia Rose and Cornel West’s ‘The Tight Rope’ – two brilliant intellectuals, with a wonderful ability to relate their academic work to popular culture.

What is your favourite archive or library? / What is your fondest research memory?

I’m a big fan of the main reading room at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin – it’s always been a lovely, calm space in which to do research. I have a more perverse fondness for the old British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale. It was always a bit of an adventure heading up the Northern Line on the Tube, but it was a great place to lose yourself in old newspapers.

What book or movie changed your life?

I read Judith Walkowitz’s City of Dreadful Delight (1992) while doing my MA at Birkbeck, and it blew my mind! An astonishing book that made me think in a totally different way about how to write about the past. More recently, Robin D. G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams has had a profound effect on how I think about colonialism and racial capitalism – every page fizzes with ideas about how we can change the world.

Do you play music while you work?  If so, what?

I’ve recently been doing a lot of writing and I find that listening to music just makes it even harder than it already is. Pre-pandemic, when we used to be in the office most of the time, I would listen to all kinds of music as an accompaniment to admin tasks. I’d go through phases of listening to recordings of Wagner’s Ring cycle (I love Boulez’s from the 1970s) or loads of Bach around Easter. For a number of years, I had a class on a Friday that finished at 5pm, and I’d return to the office to finish off writing some emails and I always used to listen to Nirvana’s performance at the 1992 Reading Festival. I fear it used to drive my colleagues bats…

What is your favourite way to de-stress? / What habits or hobbies support your research practice and/or allow you to destress?

Walking the dogs, looking after our chickens and ducks, and doing garden work are all great ways of getting away from it all. We’re very lucky to have a wee smallholding, where we grow free food for our local community and I’m fortunate that every day I can get out in the garden to do stuff. We also have an amazing golf course just down the road, and it’s a great privilege to be able to head out first thing, play a few holes on the links, take the dogs for a nice walk by the sea, and then get on with the day.

What are your essential research tools/supplies and why?
Tea, Zotero, two ancient MacBooks, cake, cats (Penny and Cedric)

Is there a research initiative you would like to use this platform to highlight?

Corinne Fowler’s ‘Colonial Countryside’ project is amazing. The way that they’ve worked with kids and got them thinking about links between the English countryside, National Trust properties and colonialism is great.

How has the pandemic affected your research practice?

Oddly not. I’ve recently been working on finishing a book with my partner, Mairi, all about James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson and history writing. It’s meant that our research materials have largely been eighteenth-century printed texts, so the wonders of modern technology mean that we can access digital copies fairly easily.

Favourite form of procrastination?

I’m a big fan of procrasti-baking (I’m eating a slice of delicious clementine cake right now).

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning of your career/degree?

Research and write about what you want, not what other people think you should be doing. It’s taken me a long time not to try and second-guess this and to focus on what I really want to do. And think about how your research can help others and change the world, in whatever way. The great bell hooks was spot on when she talked about how her work focused on challenging the ‘imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy’ – and that’s a fine path to follow.

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