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When Emily West took an undergraduate module on 'race' in the US, little did she know this would spark an interest that would inform her life's research. Today, she is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of American slavery.

"I've always been interested in subaltern history, people who have been neglected in traditional historical analyses. Enslaved women are one such neglected group and, as a result, they didn't leave many sources. It's those hidden histories that fascinate me - slaveholders forbade enslaved people from reading and writing, so the majority of sources are from enslavers and therefore don't paint the whole picture. Slavery presents tough methodological challenges for research but can also be highly rewarding when I find evidence from enslaved women themselves."

“The duality of being enslaved and a woman interests me; how did these women negotiate issues such as marriage and children - which have affected all women across time and space - in such unforgiving circumstances?”

Slavery Female Runaways

Watch the video to find out more about Emily's research into fugitive and enslaved women.

Championing change

Emily actively attempts to engage the wider public with her research, through events such as 2016's 'Mothering Slaves: Motherhood, Childlessness, and the Care of Children from Slavery to Emancipation' conference:

"With so much ethnic and gender discrimination in the modern world, I feel it's important to learn from the past to help understand and tackle current issues of social justice and racism.

By informing people and by discussing these issues with students and how they manifested themselves through slavery, we can pave the way for change.

Thinking about and discussing these issues creates tolerant, more aware people - it's not always a 'measurable' impact, but it's incredibly important."

Research intertwined with teaching

Emily teaches a variety of modules at Reading and engages students with her research:

"All of my teaching is research-led. It spans from the American Revolution right through to the social protests of the 1960s in America."

"In higher education, teaching is a two-way process - we continuously learn from discussions with our students. History, at this level, is much more about examining past events as interpretation and exploring different viewpoints."

"I have worked with four students on the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP). I work closely with these students over the six-week placement, discussing and analysing our research together. Topics included enslaved wet nurses in the US South, the dual exploitation of enslaved mothers, enslaved women in the low country areas of South Carolina and Georgia, and women who laboured as slaves in Caribbean sugar mills. Some have co-published articles or digital exhibitions with me, and won UROP prizes for that research strand. One student went on to present her research at 'Posters in Parliament'.

I really enjoy working with students on my research, whether through seminars or the UROP scheme. Students at all levels - undergraduate, master's and doctoral - offer new insights into material, helping me to delve deeper into my research and contributing to the creation of knowledge."