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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

If not in the academy, then where?

I have been thinking a lot about the comment left on the post before last, essentially saying - if I understand it correctly - that we need to face up to the 'fact' that, if students don't want to take medieval history in the current fees regime, medieval history and other 'unpopular' areas of history will have to cease being studied 'in the academy'.  In the free market, competition and choice are king.  

But, as we all know, as in pretty much every other sphere, it isn't actually a free market.  The reason most students want modern history is that school history is overwhelmingly modern history, and that predisposes them, with £27k at stake, to be risk averse about other areas they feel less at home in.  As I alluded to last time, other reasons have been advanced for the current crisis of medieval history at Poppleton (in my own case the fact that I have been on sabbatical and students have always been wary of tutors they don't know), but they are, in my view, exacerbated by the new regime and not sufficient in themselves.  After all, when I came back from my Leverhulme my courses still recruited.  I can't discuss the other supposed factors but suffice it to say that they never played such a dramatic part before.  

So the fees regime makes the student less intellectually curious, more risk-averse (as I said), and more concerned to get the courses s/he wants, and the NSS predisposes universities to treat the student as a customer who is always right, but that is not the same as assuming that 'free choice' is what is at stake.  If most students solidly took early modern history (or medieval) between the ages of 13 and 18, with a little twentieth-century history before the age of 8, modern history would face the same issues.  And if no student were ever exposed to non-British history between primary school and university, all those of us who teach non-British history would be up against it.  So, no - this is not about free choice in a competitive market.  That is not to say that vested interests within universities and departments won't spin it that way for all the reasons of petty departmental politics and local advantage.

Think, too, about where you might get that expertise back again if 'choice' shifted again.  Suppose everyone became heartily sick and tired of the twentieth century  (a moment which may come sooner than some people think; I already have a sense that everything important that can be said about Hitler and Stalin has been said).  It is one thing to lop off a department or a section of a department if it fails to recruit; it is something entirely different to grow one back again if the 'landscape' changes back.  Where are the staff going to come from?  What cost restocking the library?  Universities gaily cutting language departments or (in other places) other types of department (not just in the arts and humanities) need to remember that.

But, what concerns me is the idea that we could all be sanguine about areas of scholarly endeavour 'leaving the academy'.  And going where exactly?  Into the private sector?  There are essentially two types of medieval historical research carried on outside the academy.  One is carried out by 'independent scholars', who are mostly academically-trained scholars who either were unable to get an academic post, or who didn't want to take their career in that direction after their PhD, or who cut their losses and got out.  These people (cp. Mark Handley) produce good work, but remember they have been trained in universities and done their early research there.  That form of work would be impossible in an academy without medieval history.  The second category is - for want of a better word - 'amateur' history.  I have wide experience of this, from my work on Arthur and post-imperial Britain, from participation in wargaming discussion-groups and fora, and similar areas.  And my experience is that, with some notable exceptions, it is overwhelmingly very bad indeed.  Source criticism is pretty much absent, awareness of recent scholarly research minimal, knowledge of scholarly research outside the UK, or not in English, almost non-existent.  In terms of thought and analysis it is very poor.  Now, it must be said that even some of the perpetrators of this history have BAs in history.  With no university-level medieval history, much of this work would be even worse.  Let's be clear, if research in certain areas of history was forced out of the academy in the UK, it would to all intents and purposes be forced out of the UK in general.

Those of you who have read Middlemarch will remember the figure of Edward Casaubon, the English clergyman wearing himself out on his life's work, a 'Key to All Mythologies'.  And yet, as Will Ladislaw points out to Dorothea, Casaubon is wasting his time because he is entirely unaware of the 'modern' (in 1830) academic scholarship in Germany that is condemning his work to obsolescence even before it is finished.  Applying a cut-throat (and nonsensical) 'market principle' to UKHE threatens to leave us a nation of Casaubons.


  1. I can't speak for everyone (I'm not even going to try) but all I will say is this. Students are still intellectually curious! Granted I am the example you set out where apart from a small part of year 8 in secondary all my history was either Classical, Medieval or Early Modern to use rough categories. I didn't think I'd enjoy modern history but that did not make me less inclined to be curious about it while doing Citizens, Comrades and Consumers in first year (It just makes me useless at actually discussing anything post c.1550).
    £9,000 a year is a lot of money, £3000 is a lot of money a year but I did not base my topic choices on what my fees cost and I don't think that this is the issue that first spings to other student's minds when it comes to course choice either. I could be wrong, I don't pay the £9,000 after all but I will (probably) be paying for an MA and I can still say that I will be choosing my topics on what piques my interest not because its my strong point and I'm paying £X for it.

  2. "The second category is - for want of a better word - 'amateur' history. I have wide experience of this, from my work on Arthur and post-imperial Britain, from participation in wargaming discussion-groups and fora, and similar areas. And my experience is that, with some notable exceptions, it is overwhelmingly very bad indeed. "

    Yes, I agree. I am myself an amateur, because I read history for pleasure, my student days are long gone. I try to read a range of different historians and keep assessing what I read critically but it is difficult when you aren't exposed to everything that is available and aren't able to keep up with what is happening in academic circles.

    My main interest is Late Antiquity and the later Roman empire (until 1204) and I simply don't have the time or resources to read as widely as I'd like.

    It is a concern of mine that the public perception of History is being framed by the likes of Dan Snow and in terms of a Whiggish narrative to warm the cockles of Michael Gove's heart. Much as I have enjoyed a lot of the recent stuff BBC4 has put out, particularly Mary Beard and Catharine Edwards, I doubt that most people are watching BBC4. I worry that the study of History in the UK will continue to be a minority interest and that mainstream History will carry on serving the interests of our ruling elite.

  3. I'd just like to add that as an amateur with a passion for the late antiquity/ early medieval and Roman periods who has decided to go back to university part time to get a proper, rigorous academic framework that without a university department, these courses for mature students could not exist. The continuing education side may also give another route to funding early medieval faculties- a passion for learning does to only exist in your twenties. And mature education can give a route to study a passion which may not have been available to many people in their earlier life- so broadening education away from the more privileged.

  4. I should like to respond if I may to the post above. I am in favour of universities (and their history departments) offering as wide a range of courses as possible. Clearly, courses on the history of classical antiquity, on post-Roman, medieval and early modern history fall into this category as indeed do courses in Asian, African, American history and the other areas of world history. But not all universities have the capacity or the resources to do so. Administrators and practitioners of other disciplines compete for resources and may well be willing to press for undersubscribed history courses to be axed. I do think that academic historians need to start thinking about how high-level teaching and research can be conducted outside the academy using the resources of the internet - archival, audio-visual, electronic and more - to enable their areas of interest to survive at the most advanced levels possible. We have already seen podcasts being used, inter-university conferences being broadcast live on the internet, conference and seminar videos being made available. My concern is that the preparatory thinking for such changes - I am not talking about 'amateur' history here - has not been undertaken on an adequate scale yet. My view is that it should be done now. Of course, universities are vital in the training of undergraduate and postgraduate historians but too many good historians are lost after theses are completed. It would be in the wider interest of the discipline to help them maintain their interests and their contacts and their willingness to go on carrying out advanced research and writing now.


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