What is to be done? Seven practical steps for historians

Brodie Waddell

MI0000444321I’m very grateful to all of you who’ve already offered your thoughts on how we can improve the history profession. I agree with most of the comments on my previous posts on academic employment and practical responses – in fact some of the suggestions below are borrowed from those comments. However, I promised that I would offer my own tuppence so here I’ll try to set out some steps that we can take individually or collectively. Most of these are quite minor, but hopefully they are a good start. They aren’t in order of priority, but the first four are generally about gathering and publishing information and the rest are about more direct action.

1) Publicising ‘official’ information about the academic job market for potential doctoral students. As has been said several times already, all potential PhD supervisors need to have a frank conversation with anyone who applies to study with them. I’ve tried to have this conversion myself, but didn’t feel like I had enough solid information to provide an accurate picture, which is partly why I researched and wrote these posts. However, these posts are not especially rigorous or official. What I really want is that the RHS or IHR to put together a webpage that sets out the situation clearly, to which we could direct applicants. This would have two uses. First, it would inform potential supervisors, some of whom are not aware of the current job market, especially those who are furthest from the market themselves. Second, it would inform potential applicants, who could then make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

2) Annually collecting and publicising ‘official’ data on the state of history in universities. This is of course related to the previous point, but goes beyond and serves other purposes. The IHR already has a ‘Facts & Figures’ page which was invaluable for my own posts, but most of it is almost 10 years out of date and it is not especially clear or easy to use. Instead, I would recommend producing an annual report (which could be disseminated via RHS and IHR newsletters, blogs, etc.), which would track (at least) the following figures:

  • Students studying history, including new/total, full/part-time, under/post-grad, UK/overseas, etc. (from HESA reports, which seem to be published in January)
  • PhDs granted (from HESA)
  • Theses in history (from IHR)
  • Teachers of history (from IHR)
  • perhaps publications (from Bibliography of British and Irish History)

Gathering this data for previous years would be time-consuming (though I’ve already done this for some of the categories), but I don’t think it would be difficult at all to do this on an annual basis. In fact, I would guess that it would only take a couple hours per year. This data would be valuable for several reasons. It would, for example, provide the numbers needed to keep the job market information described above up-to-date. However, it would also be an important resource for those making decisions about funding, hiring, admissions, etc. It would be invaluable for those of us who want to understand the history of historical education, whether as interested amateurs (such as myself) or professionals (such as Peter Mandler and William Whyte). It is strange that we – as historians specifically and scholars generally – are so under-informed about our own profession.

3) Investigating and publishing data on casualisation. This is again related to the above, but more specific. As I discovered when writing these posts, we have essentially no data on the current or previous ‘quality’ of employment in history (or even in broader categories such as ‘humanities’). Even the HESA numbers for academic employment as a whole are not especially enlightening. If we hope to make academia more equitable (and, I believe, stronger), we need to know the scale of ‘casualisation’. This means we need to find out the numbers and proportions of historians employed on full/part-time and short/long/permanent contracts. To my mind, there are two main sources for this information: job listings and university departments.

  • Job listings: From what I can tell, jobs.ac.uk lists virtually all adverts for new hirings in history in the UK. Ideally, we would convince them to share their listings directly, especially as this would be the only way to get information on previous years. Alternatively, it would be possible to simply record all new listings on a weekly basis (anyone can sign up for a weekly job alert email), which could then be collated at the end of the academic year. I think the key information to record would be FT/PT, length of contract, and wages. It would also be interesting to record location and subfield, but not vital. If the IHR/RHS are not able to devote resources to this, perhaps it could be ‘crowdsourced’, by asking historians to volunteer to record the listings for various weeks.
  • Departmental surveys: Gathering information on current historians is just as important as new hires. It would, I think, not be difficult for a department to provide an annual anonymous ‘census’ of its history staff. This would need to include FT/PT, temp/perm (and gender?) at least, but could also include subfields. This would be much, much more useful than the HESA data and should take only a few minutes of a department’s time each year. Again, it would be useful to have previous years, but it may not be possible. (Would this raise data protection issues?)

4) Publicise information about alternatives to academia. The unbalance between PhDs and academic jobs in history means that many (if not most) new PhDs will not end up as permanent lecturers. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed more directly and earlier in doctoral studies. The RHS currently has a ‘Careers’ page for ECRs that includes a few paragraphs on ‘Do you really want to be an academic?’. This is helpful, but unless I’m mistaken this is the sum total of ‘official’ advice (from the RHS, IHR, etc.) on alternatives to academic employment. There are also many snippets of ‘unofficial’ advice elsewhere, but there needs to be much more information centrally available. Perhaps the RHS could join with the AHA which is developing a major new resource for alt-ac routes (‘Career Diversity for Historians’) to provide a British equivalent.

5) Provide training, support and experience in alternatives to academia. PhD students and ECRs need more than information: they also need opportunities to actually learn the skills and make the connections that would make a career outside of academia more obtainable. Some of this would be courses and workshops but – thinking more ambitiously – it could also involve placements in non-academic workplaces and other direct experience. This is something that is presumably beyond the limits of the RHS, but the IHR already has some potentially useful courses and I know that some departments have at least a few optional events designed to, for example, introduce doctoral students to ‘public history’. There needs to be more of these and they need to be more widespread (rather than concentrated in London). Departments, universities, institutes and perhaps the AHRC doctoral training partnerships need to make this more of a priority.

6) Pressure departments to hire responsibly. The RHS and History Lab Plus have taken an excellent first step towards this with their ‘Code of Good Practice’ for employing temporary teaching staff. The good practices they suggest are virtually costless and ought to be implemented immediately. However, it not enough to just be nice: we actually need to make temporary work less materially exploitative. As John Arnold said in one of the comments, this means hiring on (at least) year-long full-time lectureships instead of nine-month teaching fellowships. Although there are always going to be a few last-minute fractional posts needed due to the nature of departmental needs, it is absolutely essential that we do not allow this to become a standard practice or before long we will be faced with the sort of situation now found in the United States where most university teaching is done by adjuncts who are insecure and underpaid. As individual academics (and administrators) we need to speak up when these hiring decisions come up. And, perhaps even more importantly, we need to act collectively to push back against such exploitative employment.

7) Organise. We are stronger when we act collectively, so find a group or organisation you can believe in and join up. The UCU has all sorts of problems, but it remains a potentially powerful force pushing for a more equitable academic community through, for example, their campaign against casualisation. Likewise, groups like FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education), the IHR’s History Lab for PhDs and History Lab Plus for ECRs, and even the august Royal Historical Society are all valuable as support networks and could be important for lobbying for practical changes.

* * *

Nearly all of the suggestions above relate directly or indirectly to work, but I believe that they are about more than merely improving the employment prospects and working conditions of a few hundred aspiring historians. As previous commenters have noted, the history profession also must address problems such as paywalls preventing open access to scholarly research, the gender imbalance at the top ranks, the lack of racial diversity among both students and staff, the challenges faced by disabled scholars, and the rising cost of higher education at all levels. None of my suggestions will solve these problems, yet I hope that a wider push towards better data-gathering, transparency, training and collective organisation could help advance progress on these other fronts as well.

The current system is not only damaging to doctoral researchers and early career historians, it can also lead to dysfunctional departments, jaded students and a credulous public. Everyone will benefit if we can push the historical profession to become more transparent, more equitable, more diverse and more inclusive.

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28 thoughts on “What is to be done? Seven practical steps for historians

  1. Thank you Brodie for an insightful and informative post outlining constructive recommendations which I support whole-heartedly.

    Last year Manchester Metropolitan University ran Creating Our Future Histories (https://www.futurehistories.mmu.ac.uk/), a practice-based training programme, funded by the AHRC. Postgraduate students and Early Career Researchers worked in partnership with seven community groups on activities and events linking the community’s past experience and future aspirations. Over the 9 month programme, workshops at the People’s History Museum, introduced participants from the community groups and academic researchers to doing collaborative public history, emphasising partnership and skills-sharing. The programme’s evaluation report highlighted the many successes of this approach to participative community history as well as some of the challenges in delivering this kind of training. It would be worth contacting the organisers – Melanie Tebbut and Berthold Schoene – to see if they could share some of their findings.

    • Thanks for the link to that programme, Helen. It sounds like an excellent initiative and I get the impression that there are similar programmes at some other institutions, but they are not exactly widespread. I think we need more of these, and they need to be provided in a more systematic, joined up, national way.

  2. This is a very interesting set of ideas. I do understand how important it is to gain a clearer idea of the opportunities open to postgraduates studying for doctoral degrees and to those with recently completed Ph.D.s or D.Phil.s. It is equally sensible to illuminate the issue of ‘casualisation’ and of temporary posts leading to a dead-end in career terms. No one could possibly object to encouraging interest in other careers for those unable to find academic work. However, I do have a sense of unease about the shape of these proposals. They are too focused on bureaucratic issues in my opinion and some important matters have not been addressed. Why is the issue of academic patronage not covered in this list? It is clear that working in some universities – dare I mention Cambridge here? – or under some supervisors or in areas of fashionable interest improves the chances of securing a full-time post. Similarly, there are clear advantages to effective networking for postgraduates and early career researchers. Look at Twitter, for example, for figures like John Gallagher who is both an inspired communicator and someone conducting very interesting research. But I am less convinced by the idea of creating a better collective apparatus to bargain or make representations on behalf of postgraduates and ECRs: the more bureaucratic the structures that may flow from this discussion, the less likely they are to achieve the desired objectives. It is important too not to forget that history is an open discipline with large numbers of interested people outside the academic apparatus of history departments in universities and historical societies. Politicians have to be persuaded that this is a constituency whose needs stretch beyond administrative and teaching duties and whose intellectual contribution enriches the life of the entire nation. This is a good start but its agenda needs to reach further and to be bolder.

    • I see what you mean, Christopher, and partly agree. You’re right that these suggestions are mostly ‘bureaucratic’ and certainly not radical, but this was intentional. There are certainly much more radical measures that one might propose to address fairness in the higher education system. Just today, for example, Selina Todd has published a piece advocating the abolition of selection criteria for admissions to Oxbridge . Eliminating tuition fees, building a wave of new universities, abolishing REF, establishing minimum quotas for minority students (or staff) – all of these would be more radical responses to the iniquities of the current system. As you say, finding a way to suppress patronage would also be a valuable goal, though I’m not quite sure how it could be done.

      However, here I’ve tried to explicitly address the question raised by Peter Mandler and Adam Smith of the RHS: What are some concrete, achievable measures we can take right now? I believe that the suggestions I’ve set out fit this criteria, though I’m very open to criticism on this. I also think that ‘creating a better collective apparatus to bargain or make representations on behalf of postgraduates and ECRs’ would be do more good than ill, though I can see why you’d worry about the possibility of more bureaucracy. That’s one of the reasons why I emphasised the range of different organisations (UCU, IHR HistoryLab/Plus, RHS, FACE, etc.), because I wouldn’t want us to put all of our efforts into trying to create a ‘perfect’ professional body. An ecosystem is stronger when it is diverse. Finally, I think that pursing some of the measures I set out here would in fact directly address your last point about making the discipline less academically focused. By enabling more history PhDs to find success outside the academy, we will end up with more historians out in the ‘real world’, who can be spokespeople engaging with the wider public on a daily basis.

  3. The central problem is that, as long as there are far more historians with doctorates or in the very early stages of their careers than there are academic posts available to fill, the advantage is bound to lie with their prospective employers. An improved collective apparatus for bargaining purposes or with the aim of making representations on behalf of postgraduates and early career researchers would not change that situation, alas. That is one major reason for my reservations about the suggestion. It fits too neatly into the thinking of official bodies too. But there are other possibilities too. I worked for many years in Westminster and (a little) in Whitehall as well as having some acquaintance with policy institutes (a.k.a. ‘think tanks’). All the analytical and compositional skills of historians were directly applicable in these areas. There are plenty of research opportunities in the commercial and legal worlds too. But how well informed about such options are historians and how good are their links with such bodies? Is it possible to combine work in such fields with further historical research and writing? I suspect it is. If the balance between academic employers and aspiring teachers and researchers remains as it is, then progress is going to be difficult to achieve. What is certainly needed now is the creation of a wider employment market in which many more bodies, formal or informal, are active and which offers better opportunities to holders of advanced degrees. It is in areas such as these that the Royal Historical Society in particular and learned historical societies in general should be taking the lead. If ‘The Many-Headed Monster’ prompts them to start the process of thinking outside the box, so much the better.

    • Regarding the issue of academic jobs, that’s a much more materialist conclusion than I expected from you, Christopher! I can understand you’re worry about problem of supply and demand – nonetheless, I still think that historians acting collectively are more likely to be able to push for less exploitative employment than historians acting individually. After all, most of the details of hiring decisions are made by fellow historians in the form of heads of departments and hiring committees, so there is no reason that they cannot be pushed to hire more fairly.

      Regarding the issue of historians working in Westminster or Whitehall, I completely agree. I know of some successes in this field too and think this should be one of post-PhD paths featured prominently in any effort to publicise alternatives to academia (see my point 4 above).

  4. Just a thought, but could it be that the bottleneck might ease off soon? The current funding system, for all its many faults, has forced universities into active recruitment campaigns for the arts and humanities. This appears to be increasing the cohort rather substantially in most universities. If this continues, departments will be able to, and will have to, expand resulting in many more positions. How many, it’s too early to say. But if the growth over the last few years is anything to go by, it could be a great many before too long.

    • That’s certainly a possibility. Unfortunately, the data I’ve seen so far suggests that previously recruitment drives by universities led to more undergraduates but even more PhDs. Unless this ratio changes in the future, the imbalance will continue. Only time will tell.

      Plus, as David Hitchcock notes below, it is entirely possible for departments to increase the number of students it teaches without increasing the number of full-time permanent academic posts, through casual contracts, etc. Although (as I noted in a previous post) I haven’t found any strong evidence that this has been increasing, it may well be (or soon become) a trend.

  5. godinhisname, I wish that were the case, but it’s actually quite possible to incentivise teaching large groups of students all the way through undergraduate progression using an increasing number of casual staff and PhD candidates, which is where universities are right now. Costs much less money than hiring a FT academic, but then, you also ‘get’ far less. I think ‘many more’ full time positions is an optimism that I want to share, but that I am pretty sure will not bear out in the near term.

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  7. I am not as experienced as the other posters in the intricacies of this subject. However, i take a keen interest in the future of the HE sector and in particular the Humanities. To my untutored eye, your proposals seem sensible and helpful to aspiring doctoral students like myself. My concern is that successive governments have devalued the humanities as academic subjects because of their suppposed lack of contribution to the GDP. Also, I imagine that many universities do not attach that much importance to the humanities, and only do so in so far as it continues to generate student tuition income to subsidise the natural sciences. So whilst i am 100% behind you. I’d be more interested to know what sort of direct action you intend to take? And, given the reported climate in the academe at the moment, will many historians in permanent lectureships join such an enterprise if it means potentially upsetting senior management?

    • Your concerns are well-founded, Mike.

      I do worry about the government’s attitude towards the Humanities. The only plausible response to this is for scholars to push back, by explaining and showing their value, both economic and non-economic. Given that our whole profession is built around making strong arguments, I suspect we’re better equipped than many group to do this effectively. We also have professional associations (such as the RHS) to help.

      I’m less sure about the attitudes of universities. There are certainly some that don’t appreciate the Humanities, but there are plenty of university managers that do, if only because they tend to bring in plenty of tuition income without the cost of lab equipment, etc.

      So, although you’re right that some of the suggestions above might not find much support from government or senior management, I still would like to believe that most academics can and would support them. Moreover, although government and senior management are the ones that determine the overall funding for hiring, at most universities it is the departments (i.e. academics themselves) who propose new posts and they should be able to push for fairer hiring.

      • Thanks very much for taking the time to reply to me. I was wondering if there was maybe a generational divide within the academy? That is, older academics in general are less likely to help doctoral students than younger academics who may have had to go on to one or two temporary contracts before finding a permanent lectureship?

      • Yes, I think there are some notable generational divides in the academy. There are certainly some exceptions, but my impression is that academics who have had an established post for, say, a couple decades are less aware of the true state of the academic job market and thus are less likely to understand the position that their doctoral students will probably find themselves in. On the other hand, older and more well-established academics are usually better able to support their doctoral students through the power of their reputations and professional networks, so perhaps that balances it out.

  8. One thing i would suggest, is replace the classification system with a GPA. Someone who achieves 61 for their undergraduate degree is not of the same calibre as someone with a 69. And yet, they end up with the same degree class.

    • I see your point and can promise you that this is an issue that comes up regularly in both formal and informal discussions about assessment in academic departments. Suffice to say opinions on this differ among academics.

      • Well, how about dividing it into good and very good? Like how the 1st class bracket is divided in to excellent and outstanding?

  9. One other thing, the rule that academic judgement is final is quaint. From my own experience, i have been told that a mark i received was a ‘mistake’, yet out of ego and pride, the marker upheld it on the grounds of ‘academic judgement’. Seems odd to have a system where the academic is right even when they admit their wrong.

    • I’m not sure there’s anything helpful I can suggest on that, except to say that all universities have some sort of formal appeal system in place if students decide to dispute their marks. At my institution, everything that counts towards the degree is double (or triple) marked anyway, so thankfully there is rarely any need for a third (or fourth) assessment.

      • Fair enough. I was not asking for a suggestion. Just making a general point. Again, this is where I think the American system is better. Students have a bit more power to challenge something that is clearly an error and thus impacts on a student’s degree classification and subsequent career.

      • As a product of the North American system, I prefer the UK one because here we have double and triple marking. That was not the case at my Canadian university.

      • Fair enough. As you said, it does differ from institutuion to instituion. I would only hasten to add that in my experience, and it is an extremely rare occurrence, the module convenor – whose decision on the mark is final regardless of whether it is double or triple marked – has the final say on the mark. Since i had an experience in which the module convenor told me they made a mistake with my mark, yet did not change it thus making the difference from one classification to another. I would like to see the formal process being tweaked a bit more in favour of the student. Since on those rare occassions when judgement has been mistaken, the formal process is not against the student.

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