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Jesus College, University of Cambridge

History of the Keywords Project

The Keywords Project, a collaboration between the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pittsburgh and Jesus College Cambridge, where Raymond Williams was a Fellow, brought together from 2007 to 2017 scholars and students inspired by Williams’s Keywords (1976, 2nd edition 1983). The impetus for this project came from conferences held in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Exeter, organized by Colin MacCabe, and at the University of Sheffield, organized by Sylvia Adamson. These gatherings analyzed and debated the standing of Keywords three decades after its first appearance, and they led to essays that appeared in Critical Quarterly, from 2006 to 2008, by Adamson, MacCabe, Kathryn Allan, Alan Durant, Philip Durkin, and Stephen Heath. From 2007 on, these scholars, together with half a dozen others, collaborated to update Williams’s classic work for a new world, as more fully explained in the introduction to Keywords for Today. The Keywords Project for more than a decade grew from face-to-face interaction, enhanced by all current forms of mediated communication. The financial support necessary to bring the members together and to coordinate continuing exchange came from the University of Pittsburgh, above all the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences led by Dean N. John Cooper, and including the Humanities Center and the Hillman Library; Jesus College; and Critical Quarterly.

The book, Keywords for Today, represents the group’s final product in print, although in the future there will be a companion volume published by OUP Exploring Keywords which looks at much fewer words in more detail, and there is also this ongoing website, hosted by the Hillman Library of the University of Pittsburgh and curated by the Humanities Center. In addition, Critical Quarterly has published further contributions from the Project, and in January, 2018, the Modern Language Association at its convention in New York featured a panel in the Forum on Language and Society, with members of the Project discussing the book.

Like all scholarly undertakings, the Keywords Project required much solitary individual labor, yet its distinctive character arises from the ongoing active collaboration by which we have collectively produced the book and this website. The Project formally began at a 2007 summer workshop at Jesus College, hosted by Stephen Heath, as were the ten that followed. A small group, including the six named above plus Jonathan Arac, Kellie Robertson, and Arjuna Parakrama, met to review Williams’s Keywords, with each proposing ten words that might be added to Williams’s 131, in light of decades having passed, and also proposing ten words that might be dropped. The meeting proved intellectually electrifying, the group cohered, and the Project began. Each following summer the group, often with the assistance of one or two guests, met at Jesus to present work in progress on proposed new entries (roughly one entry per member per meeting) and to discuss larger issues affecting research into the history of how complexly contested words function in society.

Starting in 2009 the Project added a second annual meeting, held at the University of Pittsburgh in January. At this point we began working with the Hillman Library to develop the website. The Pittsburgh meetings took advantage of the university’s being in session, and in contrast to the closed Jesus workshops, these meetings featured public sessions, in which a larger community could learn from and contribute to the ongoing work. The first phase of the Project culminated in January, 2011, as the website went live and the Project presented a Special Session at the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles making the group’s work known to a wider scholarly world.

With the website established (although requiring continual updating), attention could focus for the next phase of work on finding the path that led to the volume and also on developing for a new generation of scholars the analytic practices required for the study of keywords. In fall 2012, with the cooperation of the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Jonathan Arac offered a trial graduate seminar in Keywords, and that year also Terry Smith (Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art Criticism and Theory) developed a Keywords component in his graduate seminar. Students from these seminars presented their work at the January, 2013, Pittsburgh meeting; and Holly Yanacek became a member of the Project.

To help complete the Project, Jonathan Arac and Colin MacCabe jointly directed a graduate seminar at Pittsburgh in spring term, 2016. This aimed to make the research to date a resource for advanced humanities students and also to use a younger set of researchers to generate the final words for the Project. The first five weeks studied the books that Williams had been writing when he began drafting Keywords. The most directly important of these was Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958). Keywords comprised the archive from which he had written Culture and Society, and he had originally wished to include it as an appendix to that book. Williams also considered both his novel Border Country (1960) and The Long Revolution (1961) as forming a trilogy with Culture and Society and we considered all three books in some depth. Williams’s novel, written in Britain in the 1950s, strongly held the attention of American graduate students seven decades later, and the students felt astonished that The Long Revolution was not better known. It took effort to explain to students that the humanism and historicism of The Long Revolution meant that the generation, dominant in the later twentieth century, who had taken Althusser as their model of Marxism had not really engaged with Williams’s socialist vision. Further detail of the seminar may be found in Critical Quarterly (2016), along with a sample of the students’ work; some others appear as part of the book, and yet others appear on the website.

These are the students and the words they worked on: Samuel Allen, Public; Amanda Awanjo, Trans; Sagnika Chanda, Man; Evan Chen, Gentrification; Max Ginsberg, Authority; Joshua Graber, Social; Sylvia Grove, Artificial; Treviene Harris, Privilege; Kaitlyn Haynal, Access; Adam Hebert, Occupy; Artan Hoxha, Fundamental; Nicholas Marsellas, Respect; Sarah Mejia, Digital; Alexandra Ouyang, Security; Lauren Posey, Gender; Leonardo Solano, Diaspora; Sarah Schaefer, Love; Tetyana Shlikar, Network; Nicholas Stefanski, Future; Marina Tyquiengco, Appropriation.

As the Keywords Project concludes, the membership list includes some who have left the Project and others who joined while work was already underway, but all have contributed to the substance of the book and of the website:

Sylvia Adamson, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and Literary History, School of English, University of Sheffield
Kathryn Allan, Senior Lecturer in the History of English, University College London
Susan Z. Andrade, Associate Professor of English, University of Pittsburgh
Jonathan Arac, Director of the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh
Jennifer Davis, Faculty of Law and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge
Alan Durant, Professor of Communication in the School of Law, Middlesex University, London
Philip Durkin, Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary
Matthew Eagleton-Pierce, Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy, SOAS, University of London
Stephen Heath, Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and Keeper of the Old Library
Colin MacCabe, Distinguished Professor of English and Film, University of Pittsburgh
Seth Mehl, Research Associate, School of English, University of Sheffield
Arjuna Parakrama, Senior Professor of English, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
Kellie Robertson, Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland
Holly Yanacek, Assistant Professor of German, James Madison University


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