Linda Colley: Why Constitutions Matter

July 10, 2016

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1999.

You have been based in America for quite some time now. You were at Yale University between 1982 and 1998, and have been at Princeton University since 2003; in between, you were at the London School of Economics. Are there significant differences in how history is studied on the other side of the Atlantic? Is there an American way of doing history?

I don’t think that there is a monolithic American way of doing history. I do think – and I’m not sure British-based historians of Britain always fully understand this (why should they?) – that if you do British Studies in the United States, it is a rather different discipline, because you are teaching it as a foreign subject. So, if you are a British historian in the United States, you have got to work out how to make the subject comprehensible, attractive and pertinent to an audience that is becoming more and more diverse. I have many more Asian, Chicano and African American students now in 2016 than I did when I first started teaching at Yale in 1982, because of demographic shifts in the US and because the university system there has become, quite rightly, more variegated. So I tend to talk about the British past in wider contexts – not just European contexts, but imperial and global contexts – as a way of making the subject buzz a bit more.

Read the full interview at the British Academy Review.