My role as HUK’s ECR representative

Dr Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter, and tweets as @simpep.
In this blog post, Simon sets out his views on how he sees this role and his plans for the coming year.


 

As another teaching term begins, I return to my busy calendar having actually been able to have some ‘downtime’ over the Christmas break, away from the usual teaching/marking/research pressures – albeit this being enforced downtime, due to developing a particularly nasty cold. Debate has raged (on Twitter, as it often does) over the hours that academics work, and whether you are ‘failing’ at academia if you either work on evenings/weekends or maintain a strict 9–5 working week. However, the point I wish to make here is simply that the ability to take some time off, safe in the knowledge that a job (and salary!) awaits our return, is for many of us not something we are able to enjoy during the summer months.

Having completed my History PhD at the University of Exeter in 2015, I have since remained here on short-term teaching contracts. While I have been, in many ways, fortunate that such opportunities were available, the pressures (both financial and psychological) of fractional temporary contracts and the inability to plan further than the short-term is something with which I have battled. An increasing amount of my time has been spent on job applications, chasing potential funding opportunities, and being unsure what the next academic year will look like until just weeks (or even days) before it begins.

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Prior to commencing my PhD, the one issue that I was repeatedly warned about was that it was a lonely existence; that the duration of my PhD years would be spent alone in empty libraries or dusty archives, only occasionally seeing others when we periodically emerged blinking into the light for a monthly research seminar or supervision meeting. Fortunately for me personally, the PhD experience was far from that, being a generally enjoyable period – with the usual intellectual/other challenges – and I consider many of those whom I met during those years to be among my closest friends.

However, I am aware that my positive PhD experience is not necessarily the case for others. I was reminded of my privileged position in this sense when reading Laura Sefton’s recent excellent comments on mental health and academic structures, demonstrating the often unacknowledged pressures of PhD study and the need for academia to become a more ‘accessible, inclusionary, and caring space’. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of the same pressures exist when transitioning into a more precarious ‘floating’ ECR position, when you might even have lost access to some of the support systems that previously existed.

Working Together Poster Edit

The History UK plenary and AGM in November 2017 focused on collaboration, and that is very much the spirit in which I see this ECR representative role. As I have previously noted in discussion of the ‘Academic Boot Camp’ event, it is all too easy to see academia as a competition against peers in the race to obtain a permanent job, and to consider yourself a ‘failure’ if one is not forthcoming. However, it is of vital importance that PhDs/ECRs/academics of all levels support each other where possible, and it is often through bodies such as History UK that such support can really make a difference. Indeed, in the last year, History UK has organised another instalment of the Academic Boot Camp to help equip PhDs/ECRs for the job market, further New to Teaching events have provided invaluable advice and support for those beginning or developing a university teaching profile, and other events and activities have supported historians at all stages of their careers.

It is in this vein that I hope to use my role to provide helpful advice and support for history PhDs/ECRs in the coming year. This will involve writing blogs and encouraging friends and colleagues to contribute posts and advice on a range of topics, such as balancing teaching and research, finishing the PhD, creating and obtaining a position on postdoc projects, the benefits of engaging with the public through research, and the many options available outside of academia. This is, of course, in addition to acting as a voice for PhDs/ECRs in History UK meetings and discussions – and I please encourage anyone to get in contact with any thoughts or suggestions. Due to a variety of factors, the pressures on academics at all levels are arguably higher than ever before – but, as always, the best way to get through them is with the help of support networks that can be provided by bodies such as this one.

Our Year

The co-conveners of History UK, Lucinda Matthews-Jones and Heather Shore, have put together the following summary of HUK activities in the last year (2016 – 2017). History UK is the independent national body promoting and monitoring History in UK Higher Education. It is funded by history departments or their equivalents and campaigns on issues of concern to academic historians and the broader history community, particularly in the following areas:

  • The profile of history in higher education and beyond
  • The state of the profession, particularly the recruitment and career development of undergraduates, postgraduates, researchers and staff
  • Research culture, including the research resources available to historians and the impact of the REF
  • Audit culture, to ensure that the demands of external audit and quality measurement are appropriate to the discipline and light in touch

For example, some of the events that we have organised in the last year include our Plenary and AGM last November, which brought together Professors’ Margot Finn and Rick Trainor reflecting on the role of the Research Exercise Framework; and Geoff Stoakes of the HEA who revealed his insights into the Teaching Excellence Framework; in March, our co-convenor Dr. Lucie Matthews-Jones worked on an event with the British Library Labs, to explore the BL’s digital collections; in May we ran our second academic job bootcamp, inviting both PhD students and ECR historians to take part; in September, our education officer, Peter D’Sena ran the second ‘New to Teaching Event’, exploring themes including digital history, small group teaching, curriculum design and career development. We also canvassed HUK members on the consultation on Stern, and submitted a response to the HEFCE.

Our plenary and AGM this November focused on collaboration, particularly touching on the areas of public engagement and impact. Speakers included Professor Pamela Cox (Essex) who spoke about the importance of working with government and other organisations; Dr. Angela McShane (Wellcome) and Professor Chris Whitehead (Newcastle), who discussed collaboration with heritage organisations; and Dr. Sara Wolfson (Canterbury Christchurch, and HUK member) who talked about collaborating with external organisations in teaching, and the work which led to her THES Innovative Teacher of the Year Award in 2016.

These are just a taster of the sort of events that our executive officers and steering committee have been involved with. Our twitter feed (@history_uk) and website (http://www.history-uk.ac.uk) both publicise these events, but also act as a forum for members to feedback and even blog on their experiences of our events or on other important HE issues.

We have also continued to develop close working ties with a number of organisations. For example, we have run combined events with the Royal Historical Society, History Lab and History Lab Plus, and HUK representatives attend meetings of these bodies. Through our education officer, and other steering committee members, we have close links with the HEA and Historical Association. We are also members of the Arts and Humanities Alliance.

We hope this goes some way to demonstrating what your support of History UK enables us to do. Ultimately we work for our members, and you have a say through your representative on the steering committee, or (if you do not currently have a representative) by directly contacting the co-convenors, Dr. Lucie Matthews- Jones or Professor Heather Shore.

 

Summary of Plenary Paper ‘Working Together: collaborating in research and teaching’ (4th November 2017) – Professor Chris Whitehead

 

Professor Chris Whitehead (University of Newcastle) came to working with museums and sites after a first degree in art history, which took him to museum studies and into collaborations both at national and international level. These fields, as he pointed out, rarely have clearly defined boundaries. His talk took shape around his experience over many years of working together with museums, and around giving an honest account of the challenges that such work presents. This summary of Chris’ talk is based on the features that surprised or resonated with someone who has to date only very limited experience of working with museums. 

Challenges of bringing the world of academe and of museum practitioners together

Collaborators on all sides need to be aware of the often conflicting interests – those of the academic keen to ‘collaborate’, the home HE institution of the academic and the museum/heritage sector institution, and often there are sub-groups with important agendas within each partner group. Thus: time scales, audiences that are hard to reach, conservation issues, existing/tried and tested and hence efficient ways of working, audience requirements, media interest, annual report to the trustees for the museum sector, whereas for HEIs it is REF outputs and targets, different time scales of working/research time, academic integrity (e.g. critical stance to a museum; freedom to express an unpopular view)… along with factors such as admin support for academic leads, and harvesting insights over a longer term. 

Often both sides realise that there are benefits to collaborating but especially for the museum sector, previous experiences of getting bad publicity as a result of having been made the focus of academic study or lack of buy-in from some of the museum staff may make future collaborations very difficult. 

Challenges of working ‘internationally’

Deadlines for funding applications are often tight and information routinely demanded (e.g. about the collaborative partner institution) is potentially difficult to establish, or difficult to ascertain. Thus local government spokespersons may not ultimately be the people who have to be involved in the work itself. Hierarchies and other divisions and work practices (potentially at odds with accepted UK standards) may not be evident until the grant permits further visits. 

Chris’ talk highlighted the many levels of challenges, such as communication, local historic conflicts between ethnic groups, bureaucracy and linguistic, encountered when working on a large project based in Istanbul. The reality of what he and his co-workers encountered once in situ made it expedient to treat research plans flexibly; at the same time opportunities materialised that had not been foreseeable whilst at the drafting stages for the funding application. 

Depending on where in the world the collaboration takes place, some grants may involve development assistance to countries that might be called ‘developing world’ – or grants may be treated as such by local authorities. 

Challenges of making the work count 

Since the objectives are often very different (e.g. a new exhibition room, an exhibition for the museum, which have to fit into rigid time scales, and a book/publication or ‘impact’ for the academic collaborator, equally rigid but working to a different cycle) it struck this observer that the full realisation of all and any of the potential benefits may be difficult to manage. Short-term contacts for research staff supporting a large-scale project will mean that they disappear and will be busy with the next short-term project, unable to contribute to post-project legacy analysis. 

Conclusion

Whilst the over-riding impression was of how challenging collaborative work with the museum sector can be, it was also clear that these do not outweigh the rewards for all parties concerned. The work had been life-changing for all concerned in at least some of the projects; quite possibly because everybody had been forced to go outside their comfort zone to make it happen in the end. 

Professor Whitehead’s slides are available on the History UK website (see below). Personally, his talk and those of the other plenary speakers highlighted to what extent successful collaboration can only grow out of longer term relationships between a HEI and a museum/heritage sector institution, to ensure that there is sufficient knowledge and understanding of what will work in practice. 

Event programme and additional information: http://www.history-uk.ac.uk/sample-page/2017-plenary-working-together-in-research-and-teaching/?subscribe=success#blog_subscription-2

‘Chris is the co-ordinator of the EU funded project CoHERE:  The EU-funded CoHERE project, a €2.5million Horizon 2020 study into European Heritages and Identities, working with 11 other organisations across Europe.’ 

Karin Dannehl, EHS co-opted member to History UK

Award winning teacher on HUK Steering Committee

Sara winning her award

Sara winning her award

In November 2016, Dr Sara Wolfson, a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History and member of the History UK Steering Committee was honoured by the Times Higher Education awards as the Most Innovative Teacher of the Year. This award was sponsored by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) who selected Dr Wolfson, as she “brings alive the past for students using workshops rather than traditional lectures on her courses in order to keep undergraduates engaged” (HEA). Key innovations within Dr Wolfson’s courses are the use of online debates for assessment; role-playing and re-enactments to understand key early modern trials and events; making use of the early modern environment of Canterbury Cathedral; and an embedded public facing poster exhibition for her second year course, Sex, Deviance and Death in early modern England. Dr Wolfson  brings her contacts and networks in the heritage and history sectors into the teaching space to not only develop students’ historical knowledge and skills development, but also to foster collaboration with external parties as a means of enhancing the undergraduate curriculum. In August 2017, Dr Wolfson was interviewed by Chris Parr, the Times Higher Education‘s Digital and Communities Editor on ‘What does good university teaching look like’.

Sara's students presenting their work

Sara’s students presenting their work

Sara's students in action

Sara’s students in action

Report on New to Teaching event, September 2017

Peter D'Sena

Peter D’Sena

A one day New to Teaching event for early career historians took place in early September at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London.  Peter D’Sena, Learning and Teaching Specialist at the University of Hertfordshire and a Senior Research Fellow at the IHR, ran several events of this kind when he was Discipline Lead for History at the Higher Education Academy (HEA). However, in 2014 the HEA relinquished its direct interest in supporting discipline-specific events of this kind and so Peter sought funding and support from the Royal Historical Society, History UK and the IHR to keep the event going. It’s become an annual event since then. Peter has provided a summary of the event, which follows:

“Over twenty people attended the event, and participated in a series of interactive workshops designed to develop their understanding of innovations in teaching and learning with a focus on curriculum design and authentic assessment, teaching seminar groups, using digital technology in the undergraduate classroom, quality assurance and preparing for the academic job market. Peter led with an interactive session about curriculum design. Historians at Indiana University, such as David Pace, Joan Middendorf and Leah Shopkow have been pioneering the work of decoding the disciplines in order to rethink the ways in which teaching and curriculum design can be more finely tuned to address the conceptual bottlenecks that hinder student progression. In a practical exercise, participants combined this pedagogic strategy with the more well-trodden approach of Constructive Alignment to improve one area of their teaching. Jamie Wood (University of Lincoln), then facilitated a session about small group/seminar work. Some of us may take for granted what a seminar is and what it can be for. By modelling several best practices, Jamie showed participants some of the ways in which seminars can be used to encourage small groups of students to deepen their historical understanding through hands-on and collaborative learning. James Baker (University of Sussex), carried on this theme in his session, though with a specific focus on improving student engagement with historical information and enquiry through the vehicle of the digital humanities. .

Not all of our students are so-called ‘digital natives’ and struggle to understand the ways in which technology can be used to both support their own learning and interrogate the past. Peter’s second session took on the thorny subject of job applications. As you would imagine, in the current climate, this was a session that grabbed participants’ attention. 

Finally, we were also fortunate, on this occasion, to have a session from Adele Nye (University of New England, Australia) about quality assurance and standards in history. Her work about recent changes in the ways in which undergraduate achievement is measured in Australian universities gave participants to compare their strategies and processes with the ways in which expectations for history in higher education in the UK have been set out by the most recent QAA benchmark statement (2014). Also present, supporting and prompting participants during these workshops, were Jakub Basista (Jagiellonian University, Poland) and Ken Fincham, chair of the RHS Education Policy Committee (University of Kent).”

All of the presentations from the event can be accessed here.