Introducing Kate Ballantyne

At the end of the last academic year, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology appointed Kate Ballantyne to a one-year Career Development Fellowship in Contemporary History. Alongside her research and teaching, one of Kate’s main responsibilities is to help with the organisation and coordination of CSMCH activities. So we could get to know her better, we asked her to write a short blog post about herself…

I’m thrilled to be joining the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History as the Career Development Fellow this year! I also hold a research fellowship with the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, and before coming to Edinburgh, I was a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham during the 2018-19 academic year. I completed PhD and MPhil degrees at the University of Cambridge, and my undergraduate studies in History and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.

I came by my love of history naturally.  My hometown is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, most famous as a ‘secret city’ created in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. This programme consisted of three sites across the country which produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

During World War II, Oak Ridge was a secret military facility complete with guard posts and checkpoints, where people from across the country came to work.  They knew they were participating in a secret part of the American war effort, but didn’t know what this entailed. After the war, the city was run by the Atomic Energy Commission, before becoming incorporated as its own city in 1959. Since then, the city has retained a national reputation for scientific research with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This complicated history, I’ve come to find through my work, has shaped me as a person and as a historian.  As a third generation Oak Ridger, history was everywhere from family stories to laboratory sirens that would test across the city every week. The city itself, set out by the Army Corps of Engineers, was laid out East to West with the streets running alphabetically in that direction. And many local restaurants that have popped up in the last couple of decades pay homage to the atomic history with menu items named after the lab or the bombs, such as the ‘Fat Man’ burger at one longstanding drugstore or the ‘atomic’ hot sauce at a Chinese diner (here again is that complicated history).

Moving to South Carolina as an undergrad, I discovered the Institute for Southern Studies almost by accident, and became fascinated by studying  southern culture, and most importantly, I would argue, what it means to identify as a southerner. Moving away from the South and teaching American history, much like William Faulkner’s character Quentin Compson, I’ve been forced to reckon with much of my regional history and culture.

What does it mean to love southern food and music while also acknowledging the complicated past of slavery, racial segregation, and disfranchisement? Personally, I don’t know that there is a clear answer to this. I can say, however, that despite my continually diminishing southern accent, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Appalachian apple stack cakes, and proper biscuits and milk gravy. On the other hand, I don’t much care for Civil War battlefields, am vehemently against Confederate war memorials, and dislike most depictions of southerners in popular culture (the films Steel Magnolias and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? are notable exceptions).

My research interests are, broadly, social movements and student activism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  While my doctoral research and first manuscript focuses on Tennessee and its history of student activism from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, my next project analyses conceptions of free speech and the role these have had in campus-based protests across the U.S. since the 1960s. Both projects probe issues concerning regionality, activism, and race.

I also lean on oral history in my research. I’ve conducted oral histories since my undergraduate dissertation research, and find the practice incredibly rewarding and important to studies which centre on individual experience. I look forward to discussing these areas of research with centre members and seminar attendees this coming year!

NB. Kate will be presenting some of her work to the Centre seminar in May 2020.