On academic ambivalence towards public history

I was prompted to write this post by a storm that blew up on Twitter a few days ago. In case you missed it, here is a short summary: A Guardian interview with Rebecca Rideal about her new book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire gave the impression that Rideal claimed some historiographical novelty for her approach; some academic historians on Twitter commented that it did not appear particularly novel. The ensuing (and often bad-tempered) discussion took in a wide range of issues from the propriety of senior academics using Twitter to criticise a PhD student’s work, to news values in the reporting of research, to the question of whether the title ‘historian’ should be accorded to someone without a doctorate.

The issue that struck me most, however, was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics. As someone who works in academia but who also does (and teaches about doing) public history, I am interested in understanding why this happens and how we might deal with it. I should say that my observations here are not based solely on the Twitter row, which I have no desire to re-open, but on many conversations over the twelve years since I began my PhD.

First, I am not surprised that academics in the humanities feel defensive. (I think this is often not understood by outsiders, who think our salaries and relative professional autonomy are actually a pretty good deal.) Our work is subsidised by taxpayers: the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) had government funding of £103 million in 2015-16. But both within and outside universities, we have to fight hard to justify that level of spending and to make the case for humanities research more broadly. The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast had to apologise earlier this year after suggesting sixth-century history wasn’t relevant to 21-year-olds. In Australia, the Treasurer (Finance Minister) recently suggested academic projects seeking public funding should have to pass a ‘pub test’, implying many are too obscure.

But of course it’s often this ‘obscure’, publicly-funded research that is later synthesised into more popular histories for wider consumption. Very few academics object to that, but I often hear complaints that work is insufficiently credited, which I think are understandable against the constant demands to justify our work. TV rarely credits at all, except for major consultancy roles or book adaptations; trade books credit in acknowledgements or endnotes but often not (for reasons of style) in the main text. Moreover, both TV and trade publishing rely on presenter/author ‘brand’ to pull in an audience: you are reading or watching Smith’s latest because it’s Smith, not because of the topic. That model does not lend itself to emphasising research as a collaborative process. Instead, a TV programme becomes the sole presenter’s exciting quest to uncover secrets of the past, while the Amazon algorithm tells you that as you bought Smith’s last book, you might like to buy her next one.

Moreover, in my experience, these workings of public history are not well understood, even by academics who value engagement with wide audiences. This is a problem because increasingly we (academics) have to supervise doctoral students who may want to consider these career options (and given how niche they are we can’t rely on the Careers Service here). We have to think about how our students might combine academic work and public historical practice. Thanks to the provision of Collaborative Doctoral Awards we’ve got better at doing this with museums and galleries, but the world of commercial history is still very alien to most. I don’t have all the answers, but we should have a discussion about what would be helpful, involving supervisors, students and former students.

We should also think about ‘gatekeeping’ and how we talk about professionalism and authority. Again, the question of money – and public money – is pertinent to some of the anxieties I detect in academia. If one doesn’t need a PhD to be a historian, and can do history quite well without one, ought taxpayers really to be funding so many humanities PhDs? After all, the majority of History PhDs will not go on to an academic job. Personally I think it is possible to be a historian without a professional qualification, but I also think the PhD is worth having, and that it is more difficult to be a good historian without that apprenticeship. I could not have written the books I have without the time my (publicly funded) doctoral and postdoctoral research gave me to explore archives and think and talk about history. But I doubt that’s very obvious to the average person who buys them in a bookshop. We should talk more about how to communicate the value of the PhD – which in turn would help those PhDs who go on to work outside academia in a world that often doesn’t understand the point of the qualification.

Finally, I think academics who are unhappy about aspects of public historical discourse should discuss whether there are things that might be done to tackle the problems. A couple of years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a scientist about this. He and his colleagues were frustrated that TV’s go-to expert in their field was someone with a poor reputation among his peers on ethical issues. They got together and worked with a media officer to promote alternative voices, and now the coverage, in their view, is much improved, the one problematic individual no longer dominates and overall their field has a better relationship with the media. Could historians do likewise? We should at least talk about it.

 

 

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Have ‘young academics’ been betrayed?

There’s been some frustration on Twitter with Mathew Lyons’ piece in History Today on ‘Young academics: the great betrayal‘. Commenters have taken exception, in particular, to the suggestions that many academics disdain teaching (which I agree is unfair) and that they don’t support early career colleagues. The temptation is, though, to point to structural problems as if academics bear no responsibility for those at all.

The fact is, however, that there have been possibilities to resist the structural change that has got us where we are. Twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at a Russell Group university, we had tutorial groups of six and from the first year my tutorials were run by permanent academic staff. Very occasionally they were delegated to a PhD student, but that was the exception. Now (outside Oxbridge) it’s rare to find tutorial groups of fewer than ten, and teaching by doctoral students is the norm at first-year level. I don’t have the data to hand to make that more than an anecdotal point but I doubt many people would argue with it.

So it’s reasonable to ask, I think, whether those in a position to resist that change did enough, and whether there’s more we might do now.

I’m sure that many of the objectors to Mathew’s argument were the person in the Departmental meeting who said – when it was announced the Department must take x% additional students with no additional staff – that this was unacceptable. Perhaps they went on demonstrations against tuition fees, or wrote to MPs, or lobbied within their universities. They may well have been the people, too, who went to their UCU branch meeting and said that we need a strategy to tackle the increasing dependence on casualised staff to deliver teaching. And it’s good that they did those things.

But I do think there is a case to be made – in general – that there’s been more throwing up of hands in horror at the incremental shifts towards increased precarity in higher education work than practical resistance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a serious industrial dispute in the university sector over job security for early career staff. UCU has raised the question regularly in the annual pay negotiation rounds, but the employers’ body UCEA refuses to negotiate on the topic, and, well, that’s been it.

Yet there are many practical things that might be done. Here’s one suggestion. A consortium of universities (such bodies already exist to deliver doctoral training and for various other purposes) might hire early career academics on the basis that they’ll be guaranteed permanent work in one of the partner institutions, even if it isn’t the one where they start out. That’s how many large companies operate – with the expectation that in the first few years of work you might switch base – and they seem to manage it perfectly well. Such a system would give departments some flexibility while allowing ECRs to plan their lives better than they can on a succession of nine-month teaching contracts. It would shift some of the risk away from the individual onto the institutional group. The practicalities would take some working out, and it’s certainly not all I’d wish for in the long term, but perhaps as well as lamenting our betrayal we should start talking about solutions and how we might campaign for them. After all, if we don’t fight, we can’t win.

Class, cuts, languages and academia

A couple of days ago on Twitter, Caroline Magennis asked the question ‘What are the challenges of being an academic from a less privileged background? Questions of ‘fitting in’ but also practical issues?’ Her tweet prompted numerous comments, which you can read on Storify.

I said that one big issue was access to language-learning, which got me thinking about the fact that my route to learning Italian as an adult has – in less than fifteen years – all but disappeared.

Back in 2001, when I first started thinking seriously about studying Italian history, I signed up for an Italian beginners class. It was held on Saturday mornings at a local further education college. Not any more. A quick look at the Lambeth College website shows that not only has that course disappeared, but also the GCSE and AS-Level courses I went on to take in subsequent years. The same is true of the vast majority of FE colleges, which now focus on what are supposedly more ‘vocational’ courses.

I could still go for the two-week language course I took in Rome in the summer of 2001. That comes in at €639.50 these days for lessons and accommodation, plus you need to add food and flights, so it’s likely to be a struggle for an indebted recent undergrad. (Fortunately I wasn’t particularly indebted, because I’m old enough to pre-date tuition fees… but that’s another story.) And besides, there’s only so much you can do with two weeks.

What really made the difference to my language skills was the overseas research allowance that used to be available alongside an AHRB/AHRC doctoral studentship. As a funded PhD student (I started in 2004), I was entitled to a grant for one overseas research trip of up to twelve months’ duration. The allowance for a year in Italy, which came on top of the standard PhD stipend, was £7,200. It sounds generous, and it was, but it served an important purpose of encouraging work in the humanities on non-Anglophone topics. It meant I could get on with research and not worry about money. I could afford twice-weekly one-to-one language lessons for the first six weeks, regular flights to visit my partner, the cost of storing my belongings in the UK, and lots of trips to archives around the country. And – not surprisingly after a year immersed in Italian – I came back to the UK with very good language skills that I’ve used in my academic work ever since.

But that opportunity has gone now. The overseas research allowance was scrapped with the switch to block grant funding, and instead doctoral students compete for whatever their local university can afford in terms of travel funds. Only a handful of well-off universities can now sustain their PhD students for more than a couple of months abroad: extensive work in foreign archives is becoming the preserve of a few.

The fact that these routes to language acquisition have been abolished means it’s even harder for students who didn’t have the advantage of learning, say, Latin or multiple modern languages at school to get into those areas of history that need languages. The language problem is partly an issue of social class, for sure. But it’s been exacerbated by cuts to both further and higher education in the past decade that make it harder than ever for people who didn’t start with language skills to catch up.

Five cities, seven years: my life post-PhD

It’s seven years today since I was awarded my PhD, and it’s also my last official day in the office at my current job. That’ll be the seventh job in seven years, the fifth city and the second country. In Year One I had two part-time teaching jobs (OU, Birkbeck) and a part-time academic-related role for the Kent & Medway Lifelong Learning Network. In Year Two I was a fellow at the British School at Rome; in Year Three I was a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI, near Florence. In Year Four I had a temporary lectureship at Durham; since Year Five I’ve been at Sheffield. Later this summer I’m off to a new role as Associate Professor in History & Heritage at Swansea.

In the conventional terms of academic ‘success’ (problematic though those are) I’ve done pretty well. The point is that this career track would have been close to impossible for anyone with caring responsibilities, or whose wellbeing relied on stability and routine. Five cities in seven years? This is not a good way to run things. But you know that. The first years of academic life are more than ever characterised by insecurity.

There are plenty of big political points to be made here, and I might write about them in future. But here, for what it’s worth, is the more personal advice I’d give to anyone who has to navigate the ‘early career’ world.

1. Bad things will happen. They are not your fault. Don’t fall into thinking ‘if only I’d got X on my CV it would all have been different’.

2. Not all the advice you will get is right. Do listen to what people tell you, but remember there is always more than one opinion and make up your own mind. Several people were sceptical about me writing a trade book (i.e., one for a general, not just academic readership), but I did it anyway, and it opened up a whole new set of opportunities for me. In particular, bear in mind that…

3. Times change. What was good advice in 2005 may not be so good any more. It’s worth watching trends in the job market. I managed to make my way into the sub-discipline of public history as universities began to recruit to this specialism, based on a few things I’d done in previous jobs plus that trade book. I know several colleagues who’ve tweaked CVs and shifted from western to global history, or into digital humanities specialisms.

4. Work out your strengths and play to them. There are certain basics that academics need to deliver: research, teaching, willingness to do the necessary admin. But within that try and work out what you do best, and what you enjoy, and make that ‘your thing’. My thing has turned out to be the writing and media stuff. Every so often, someone asks me, ‘should I write a trade book?’ The answer is, I don’t know. But if you enjoy writing, and you’re good at it (good enough that people compliment you on your writing), then it might be worth considering.

5. Join your union and get involved. The vast majority of positive things that have been done for junior staff have been thanks to the efforts of union activists. Warwick UCU helped stop the systematisation of casual employment through TeachHigher. On a more modest but still important note, Sheffield UCU has just secured the introduction of a new redeployment system that should make it easier for colleagues whose contracts are ending to move to new jobs within the institution. If we’re going to make a difference, it will be like this. Your union can also help you assert your full legal employment rights should this become necessary (but don’t leave it to the last minute to join: there’s usually a qualifying period). You can join UCU here.

6. Remember, there is more to life. I started my PhD age 29, having done lots of other things already. I’ve found that outside perspective really helpful (did you know, there are jobs out there where people don’t work ridiculous overtime?!) There are lovely things about academia, and most of the time I enjoy my job. But I also know that the system could work oh, so much better.

City number six, here I come.