Dr Timothy Cooper
I am a social historian of modern Britain. My scholarship seeks to understand the intersections of society and nature, particularly popular and everyday experiences of environmental change. I am particularly interested in environmental histories at the 'edges' of the British Isles, most especially in Cornwall where I live. Methodologically, my work makes significant use of personal testimonies as evidence, whether oral tellings, autobiography, or other forms of life writing which offer unique insights into the complex textures and paradoxical meanings of human encounters with the non-human. Testimony work also helps to challenge overly simplistic accounts of environmental change in the twentieth century, often derived from scientific and social-scientific methodologies, that inadequately account for nature as either a site of social struggle or of lived experience.
My scholarship explores the environmental history of modern Britain as lived experience. I am particularly interested in popular understandings of nature and of environmental change that stand outside the elite discourses and expert-driven scientific contexts that still dominate in many studies of environmental policy and politics even within environmental history itself. Much of my work uses oral history and/or personal testimonies to explore environmental change and activism 'from below'; perspectives which offer complex and contradictory accounts of changing natures and challenge us to rethink simplistically pessimistic accounts of environmental decay or excessively optimistic notions of a growth in environmental consciousness.
My current research follows two main intersecting pathways:
The first is centred on the marine environment and especially the histories of oil infrastructures, pollution, and toxicity in modern Britain, their relationship to everyday perceptions of environmental issues and how these have been lived with in modernity. I am presently working on an oral history of the Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 that explores popular memories of environmental disaster in the context of social change in modern Cornwall. I have also written about the Sea Empress disaster in 1996, using oral histories collected by the artist Abigail Sidebotham to write about the embodied and sensory experience of environmental disaster. I am also working on life stories of marine conservationists exploring the relations between social and scientific ways of understanding the changing maritime environment.
For an example of some of this work, see: 'A conversation with Abigail Sidebotham on the Sea Empress Oil Spill of 1996', White Horse Press Blog, 2022.
A larger, though perhaps more diffuse, project is a study of the environment and everyday life in modern Britain, which I am developing through a series of case studies, or 'micro-histories' of particular moments of change in popular perception of the natural world. I am also very interested in the 'socio-environmental' history or political ecology of Cornwall, a place that has been subject to repeated, radical environmental change over the centuries. For me, the intertwining of place and lived experience is a critical part of understanding the power or personal accounts in providing a more complex and nuance environmental history of modern Britain. Cornwall offers a particularly interesting case of this intertwining of environmental change with the politics of place and identity. I am currently collecting oral histories of marine conservationists exploring the intersection of science and politics in everyday environmental activism in Cornwall.
A good and accessible example of some of this work can be seen in my conference presentation:'Fear of Falling: Navigating Cornwall's Post-extractivist Landscape', Literary and Visual Landscapes Symposium, University of Bristol, 2021
I am always keen to discuss possible PhD or Master by Research supervisions across the broad field of modern social, cultural and environmental history. I have supervised students on topics ranging from creative writing and the archive to sociological studies of modern Cornish identity.
As a diverse group of scholars in literary and historical studies, the Department of Humanities at the Penryn Campus offers an outstanding interdisciplinary environment for postgraduate students in the humanities.
- Annabel Banks, Poetry and the Archive (completed 2016)
- Richard Harris, Civil Society in Cornwall (completed 2016)
- Matt Blewett (2018-) Cornwall and Democracy
- Lena Ferriday (SWWDTP, 2020-) Embodied Experience and Landscape in South West England
I teach modern British history mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I am particularly interested in social history and environmental history, though I also teach on the history of climate change from a global history and history of science perspective.
I am a strong believer in the value of 'workshop' and research-led approaches to teaching history. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I think it is less desirable to 'teach' history as opposed to offering students ways of encountering and making history for themselves. As someone with a terrible memory for things like dates, I think that what we discover for ourselves we are both more likely to remember and to find more relatable to our own experiences.
I was born in Cornwall and brought up in Camborne town. I am the son of two working-class Londoners from Tottenham and Stepney, from whom I first learned to think, and wonder, about the past. I was educated at Camborne School in the nineties which was then still part of the first-rate comprehensive school system and had incredibly dedicated teachers as well as an outstanding history programme. I went to university in 1997, studying first at the University of Oxford and completing doctoral studies at Cambridge. I have been trying to repair the damage ever since. I researched and taught briefly at the University of St Andrews - working with John Clark, an absolutely exemplary scholar and historian of science and environment - before joining the history programme at the University of Exeter's, then new, Penryn Campus. Here, I learned the enormous value of oral histories from working alongside the exceptional Anna Green. I have since tried to weave personal testimony, spoken and written, into all my empirical work, and have come to regard such tellings as the core of any social history of nature in the modern world.
My background has taught me to be suspiscious of institutions of higher learning that claim 'elite' status, and which often peddle ignorance as knowledge and prejudice as experience, all the while erasing the knowledges of the 'unlearned' that offer deeper than surface ways of understanding the cosmos. This informs both my teaching and my research where I have over the years relearned the importance of the kind of 'rescue' history first unconsciously taught me by listening to stories of my parents' early lives in working-class London. Listening is perhaps the most undervalued skill in historical practice (and more widely) and I am interested in excavating, and listening again, and carefully, to the wisdom inherent in everyday voices. I'm a strong believer that, while universities are important places where we seek to rediscover and understand the past, that academic historians, in Eric William's telling phrase, 'neither make nor guide history'. Rather, all people are historians of one kind or another and historical research something that should be available to everyone.