The study of history in Britain is not in crisis. The numbers set out in my post last week show that the last few decades have been a period of massive expansion for the field. There are more people ‘doing history’ at all levels of higher education, from new undergraduates to doctoral students and teaching staff. What’s more, I’d argue that public interest in history has been growing as well, a point brought home to me by the extraordinary response to the ‘History from Below’ and ‘Voices of the People’ online workshops that we’ve hosted.
It would, however, be irresponsible for historians like myself – who enjoy secure academic positions – to overlook the very real problems that confront the history profession today. In my recent posts I’ve highlighted two specific issues: the rapid growth in the number of doctoral students who are unlikely to obtain a permanent university post and, relatedly, the substantial number of early career historians trapped in precarious ‘casual’ employment. One might also add the under-representation of women in the academic upper ranks, the collapse in part-time studies, and the rising debt burden imposed on our students, among other things.
My previous posts provoked a flurry of valuable responses including one from Peter Mandler and another from Adam Smith, respectively President and Honorary Secretary of the Royal Historical Society. I’m very grateful to both of them for their feedback, which not only augmented and corrected some of my own conclusions, but also invited me to think about what practical measures the RHS (or other bodies such as the IHR) could take in the future. What sort of data should they be collecting and how? What kind of advice or information should they be providing? Is there anything else they can be doing to help to counter-act these problems?
This presents an obvious chance for me to pretend to know everything there is to know about the historical profession in Britain and make some sagacious pronouncements about ‘what is to be done’. However, in the interests of continuing the conversation, rather than closing it off, I’m going to restrain myself, at least momentarily. Instead, I’d like you, whatever your position or career stage, to offer your thoughts in the comments below (or on twitter, tagging me, which I’ll post here). I will add my own ideas in the comments in the next day or so, some of which I hinted at in the conclusions of the previous post. But in the meantime, let’s find out what the rest of the historical community thinks.