Samantha Shave, ‘History for below’

[This is the ninth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Samantha Shave is a research associate at the University of Cambridge, working on the project ‘Inheritance, Families and the Market in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Britain’. She has recently published on paupers’ lives and poor law reform in the early nineteenth century.]

Historians of welfare and poverty have seemingly now found the sources which, in the words of Tim Hitchcock, provide a more ‘democratic’ history from below (Down and Out, p. 239). The voices of the poor are being found in court records, ballads, threatening letters and petitions for poor relief, to name just a few sources, and we are putting them at the centre of our analyses. The word ‘democratic’ here has always struck me though; it makes me wonder whether, whilst we have been busying ourselves with this task, history itself has – as a discipline – become less democratic? I asked the workshop at Birkbeck to think about whether there is a ‘history for below’. Indeed, the central contradiction here is that we produce histories of those who have either been silenced or marginalised or ignored, that we strive to re-create social worlds from, ‘enforced narratives’ (Carolyn Steedman, Feminism and Autobiography, p. 25), but those people in similar positions today are being increasingly denied the opportunity to study and write history at university.

We need to consider how people decide to study history, and how recent changes to the curriculum could leave a generation uninspired to take the subject further. Those who are not put off by ‘fact and date’ history may attempt to study the subject at university. That’s if they want to get into a phenomenal amount of debt. There are small reductions to fees for those with household incomes below £25,000 per annum, and a few charity-like pockets of money issued by universities, but the overall debt for any student who started university in 2012 from a working household will be huge. With fees at an average of £8,770 a year, the average student could graduate with over £50,000 of debt over the course of their degree. The immediate consequences of the fee rise can be seen in application figures. UK applicants to university were down 8.7% in 2012, and a further 6.5% for admission this year. Worryingly, last year applications from people aged over 19 years old declined by 11.8%.

It has been well reported that the number of applications in 2012 to the arts, humanities and social science subjects fell the most of any subject area (13.7%). Some argue that this drop in interest is a response to the economic climate and appeal of the more vocational qualifications, even though studies have shown that an arts and humanities degree gives students ample skills to use in the workplace. Yet others, including former ceramics student Johnny Vegas, have been direct – that higher fees disproportionately put off students from poorer social-economic groups from studying in this subject area at university. Fees have perpetuated the perception that the arts are an ‘‘unnecessary thing that belongs to rich people who have too much time on their hands’’. Of course, other forces have been doing their bit to shape our subjects into exclusive – even luxurious – products, such as the recent founding of businesses, such as the New College for the Humanities, whose fees are £18,000 per year.

Who can study history may depend largely on who can afford to. But those who seek a career writing history face further challenges. We should beware of the changing politics of securing PhD funding and the precarious post-doc stage in the historian’s early career, of short term, even six month contracts, in cities and towns far away from loved ones. Indeed, a report by the Institute for Historical Research’s History Lab Plus undertaken in 2011-2 showed that stress and depression, associated with financial insecurity and relationship meltdowns, were all part and parcel of the post-PhD, post-doc experience. We should also not forget about the long-standing issues of the poor treatment of women in academia and stigmatisation of first generation university attendees. Indeed, for decades we have acknowledged that academia reproduces certain class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and age ‘norms’ that manifest themselves in particular academic behaviours and customs, which frequently alienate and upset. In particular I thought about the resonance of Working-Class Women in the Academy, a collection of essays about the marginalisation of women in the US university system published two decades ago. It is hard to see progress when so many similar negative experiences repeat on us over and over again. I need not remind us of the views of one vice chancellor and the current Mayor of London, and of the contents of the online ‘lads mag’ Uni Lad, stuff that forms just the tip of the objectification-of-women-on-campus iceberg.

Ruskin College archiveWhilst who can study and write history is concerning, I think we should also turn our attention to the lack of dialogue between university managers and academics, and how this impacts on what our universities are or will become. In the recent frenzy of money-saving, university services are being privatised and university resources are being abandoned. The long-term consequences of this on the future of a ‘history from below’ has not become clear yet, except in one obvious way: the removal of documents about working class culture and women from our campuses. The Mass Observation archive, for instance, is leaving the University of Sussex, where it has been since the 1970s, and soon will be housed with other collections including county records in a new purpose-built archive. There are other examples of this process available – there’s the sell-off and merge option and, worse still, the destruction option. The holding of these collections, separately and completely, on university campuses represented much more than just their contents – they symbolised the desire within the academy to research, to know, and to support the history of our everyday lives, experiences and struggles.

There are, of course, many avenues in which people could study and write history beyond university. These could be by visiting heritages sites, libraries and museums, researching local and family histories, or watching history documentaries such as Who Do You Think You Are? To conclude though, I believe we must critically reflect on the ways in which we as academics engage in the wider dissemination of the ‘history from below’ thesis. For several years I worked as a researcher on a project which involved the large-scale digitalisation and analysis of thousands of British family household budgets in the early twentieth century. It was only with this significant amount of funding that we were able to also engage with school teachers who are now developing lesson plans about poverty and everyday life in Britain, which all teachers, whether they attended our course or not, will soon be able to download and present. There are many other similar and successful projects. Going beyond the institution with our ‘history from below’ research may not only counteract the perception that history is an exclusive subject, but also reach audiences who hitherto did not know that there is a thriving history of everyday life. But what can we do, or do more of, as early career historians, without this significant amount of financial backing? We could collaborate individually and collectively with these other avenues of history, or we could join a history discussion group which is open to all. We could teach at institutions which support later-life learning, such as Birkbeck, the Worker’s Education Association and The Open University, to name just a few. Or lecture for free at one of the many free universities being established throughout cities in the UK and US at the moment (e.g. Free University Brighton).

To me, therefore, the future of a ‘history from below’ rests not only on our ability to craft our academic debate, but also on our ability to make history in and from the academy accessible. This is a call to trash the fee hikes, and to dismantle the myth that history is a luxury. I don’t want to teach just rich, young students, and those who have either been fortunate enough to have the social capital or nouse to see it is an essential subject. I want to teach everyone. As historians ‘of below’ we can and do much about this, by engaging with people and institutions outside of the academy. Many long-term inequalities, those which prevent people from writing history in the academy, are long overdue for some debate. I want to be assessed in the workplace by others according to my academic knowledge and skills alone, nothing else. And ultimately, I want to be a historian in an environment where the working-classes are not sold-off and shut out.

12 thoughts on “Samantha Shave, ‘History for below’

  1. Pingback: The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. You’ve raised a host of vitally important issues here. I agree that turning our attention from purely research concerns to the wider need for democracy within the discipline is essential. In fact, I’m going to be offering a few thoughts on this in my post on Monday.

    For now, however, I’ll just pass along a piece of news directly related to issue of preserving the documents themselves. You mentioned the cases of the Mass Observation archive at Sussex, the Woman’s Library at LSE, and the Ruskin College archives. I’ll add one more.

    As of July 20th, ‘One of the oldest, extant, dedicated photographic archives in the world, the Barnardo’s photographic archive, currently housed in Barkingside, East London is under threat. Following its digitisation the archive will be transferred to another organisation or will be destroyed.’ The photos are primarily of ‘waifs and strays’ from 1875 onwards, a wonderful source for those of us interested in social history. Thankfully it seems that since then Barnardos, perhaps in response to the outcry against the destruction of this archive, has said that they are ‘confident that the collection would be relocated’ rather than destroyed.

    I think this little tale says a few things that are relevant to this larger discussion. First, it is a reminder that digitisation is not always a force for democratising history. In this case, the threat to the collection was caused by the fact that it was being digitised and thus the originals were seen to be no longer valuable. Second, it suggests that raising a ruckus (in this case via a petition, etc.) may actually be an effective way to push people to maintain key parts of the heritage of ‘history from below’.

  3. Pingback: Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’ | the many-headed monster

  4. Thanks for this Sam, lots of crucially important points made. It makes me reflect on how fortunate I was to be at the right age to enter university at a time when access was opening up but before fees became prohibitive. Vegas is dead right – if I was thinking about starting university now it would have seemed absurd to me and my family to take on debts of that nature. Even if repayment comes out of earnings, and is not needed up front, many working class kids and their families will baulk at these figures. Faced with the choice now, I’m sure I would have opted out, and certainly wouldn’t have pursued a career as a historian.

    On a different point, I wanted to draw attention to this interview from the guardian with Exeter VC Steve Smith:

    Smith himself was a first-generation university-goer, and the interview suggests that ‘by inclination he is politically to the left’, but then offers this telling account of how he balances this with implementing government policies that are restricting access: ‘Whatever Smith may or may not personally think of the increasing marketisation of higher education and the knock-on selection implications for the most socio-economically disadvantaged students at the top universities, he tries to deal with the matter in hand. He can’t reverse government policy; all he can do is work with it to make sure Exeter is in the best place possible to ensure its survival.’

    This to me captures a widespread mentality that has paved the way for so many of the detrimental changes in higher education – despite the fact that the ranks of management at most universities are populated by (ex-)academics who are ‘inclined’ to the left, they offer little or no resistance to government policy, instead simply dealing with the ‘matter in hand’ and actually being remarkably effective at introducing and adhering to new policies.

    I’m sure that many of those in managerial positions within the higher education sector share a number of the concerns you express here _in principal_ and yet in practice are incredibly defeatist and passive when it comes to resisting such changes. I agree that a brighter future for history – from below or otherwise – needs to turn its attention to developing initiatives outside of the academy, but I also think there is a case to be made for trying to convince our senior colleagues within it to take more of a stand on their principals against the direction in which we are heading.

  5. Thanks for that Richard – interesting that Thrift also seems to see himself as ‘left’. A visionary of the left in his latest book, even:
    If the likes of Smith and Thrift are lefties, I can’t imagine what direction our universities would be heading in under the control of avowedly neo-liberal, ardent-capitalist VCs…

  6. I am gradually working my way through the various contributions on ‘History from Below’, and think this particular strand of thought is one of the most pertinent. Like Mark Hailwood, I was a lucky working-class lad who managed to get to University in the 60s when it was still affordable – though not even then the first choice for either me or my parents, as opposed to ‘getting a good job’. As it happened I still had to pursue a career with a less than brilliant degree and only returned to fulfil my former postgraduate ambitions close to retirement. There was then the pleasure of networking through various open-minded organisations like the LPSS and, above all, the Public History conferences at Ruskin organised by Hilda Kean, which introduced me to many of the themes that are in this HFB symposium of contributions.

    I was luckier still when I was given my own voice at one of these conferences and subsequently published, with thoughts not a million miles from Selina Todd’s contribution (see Absent Fathers, Present Histories in Ashton & Kean, ‘People and their Pasts’). There is a desperate need for academics to use their positions, as did Hilda, to open up opportunities for those of us outside the institutional ‘academy’ to find their public voice. Don’t ignore the family history societies and local history societies, including the various ‘radical history’ groups. In York we have our own ‘York’s Alternative History’ group that struggles along and is always pleased to host speakers like Krista Cowman, Katrina Navickas and Malcolm Chase, while aiming to be totally accessible through putting on free events. Many of us would love to attend and be part of the various symposia that you academics put on, but they too need to be accessible, physically and financially. So keep up the dialogues you have started and take steps to reach out.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Martin. As you can see, there is certainly an eagerness amongst a lot of early career social historians to try and branch out beyond the academy – and the success of this online symposium shows that there is an appetite on both sides.

      I agree that another important step would be to try and democratise academic conferences. The most difficult barrier here is cost – when running a conference (of which I’ve done quite a few now) there is often a considerable cost involved in hiring the venue. Most universities see hosting a conference as an important revenue stream: even their own academics are rarely allowed to use rooms (except perhaps very small ones) for free to hold a conference. This either means the organisers need to find funding to cover costs, or they have to charge a large registration fee which is prohibitive for those without an expenses account – which includes early career academics as well as those outside academia. It can be done though – I recently organised a conference at Warwick that cost £70 for a two-day conference, including lunches, dinner, breakfast, and overnight accommodation (and wine!) – and we attracted a number of delegates from outside of academia. So I would encourage my conference organising colleagues to try and find ways to keep costs down and thus make their events more accessible. We are always happy to advertise them on the blog.

      And finally, Martin, I’m sure a number of the participants in this symposium would happily take up an invite from York’s Alternative History group.

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments and suggestions too. It is wonderful to share our ideas and to think about where we can go with them.

    I’d like to mention that some of my thoughts came during conversations with academics during my postdoctoral positions and others with colleagues at the IHR, UK RSA, postgraduates and during my own thoughts as we’ve strived to make an independent living from being an academic, as a history from below perspective is being squeezed out of courses and as we’ve been witnessing the university becoming an exclusive space.

    Contradictions in the academy are disturbing and problematic, as Richard and Mark point out. The neoliberal agenda is being pursued at the detriment to the academy and our students. I felt my heart sink to the floor when I saw this video of a recent graduation ceremony for the University of Sussex, where the Vice Chancellor calls his students ‘units’ by accident. More than a slip of the tongue?
    This is outrageous.

    A book which has helped me to understand the reforms in academia post-White Paper and the rationale behind the fees increase and the increased powers of companies to award degree and therefore the opportunities to make money from academia is Andrew McGettigan’s book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education (2013). I quote from the conclusion: ‘Education is being re-engineered by stealth through a directed process of market construction, each move designed to protect the elite and expose the majority.’ (p. 185).

    On another note, I’ve talked to staff at Sussex recently about the coming together of The Keep, which is a partnership between East Sussex County Council, Brighton & Hove City Council and the University of Sussex, which will hold the Mass Observation records. This building will undoubtedly be a wonderful history and community resource, and one within which I’m really keen to get involved with. As Mark and Martin say resources, and time, are so important. Keeping conference costs to minimum and providing support for postgraduates and low income attendees is vital. If there are any further ideas on this, please do share them here!

  8. Pingback: Dead white men | the many-headed monster

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