News and Views

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 (https://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: https://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

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.

Academic Boot Camp 2017

Simon Peplow is the new ECR representative on the History UK Steering Committee. His AHRC funded PhD was on the 1980/81 disturbances in England, examining the perception and role of public inquiries and local Defence Committees. He is currently Lecturer in History (Education and Scholarship) at the University of Exeter. Simon tweets as @simpep.


In May 2017, History UK ran the second instalment of their ‘academic boot camp’, which provided valuable interview experience for PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). A number of academics had kindly donated their Saturday so that around twenty of us, who had been shortlisted for an imaginary lectureship and subsequently travelled various distances to the Institute of Historical Research, could participate in and observe interviews and presentations, receiving detailed feedback and advice.

Charlotte Faucher detailed the first event of this type last year, including the range of questions she was asked, and some advice given on how to respond. My experience of this aspect of the workshop wasn’t hugely different, other than facing questions regarding how I might contribute an impact case study – emphasising the importance of effectively demonstrating the public significance of research. So, rather than simply repeating her thoughts, I will focus more on the presentation aspect – both of participants, and Dr Sara Wolfson’s ‘10 tips for getting an academic job’.

Participants were asked to produce a short presentation on ‘How Does your Research inform your Teaching Practices’? This type of question is standard for job interviews, inviting introductions to research, what applicants can offer in terms of teaching, and what form such teaching might take. Unfortunately, due to suffering from a cold, my own presentation could have gone better…but learning to adapt to things outside your control is itself an important lesson! Academics and other participants provided written feedback for each presentation, with recurrent themes appearing to be regarding structure, relation to the question posed, and ensuring that historians of other periods/topics can appreciate what is significant about your work.

After the traditional academic coffee break, interviews and presentations were followed by Sara Wolfson’s tips for securing an academic job, which included targeting conferences to increase your profile, obtaining funding to organise conferences/workshops, and the benefits (and potential risks!) of an active twitter profile. Having provided advice articles for jobs.ac.uk, Sara was also awarded the Times Higher Education’s ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year’ 2016, and her presentation included the importance of maintaining high-quality teaching; refreshing for those of us uncomfortable with advice obtained elsewhere essentially suggesting ‘putting the least amount of effort possible into teaching and focus on building your CV’. Whilst implementation of the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) has been at best controversial, universities should certainly consider teaching ability more so than they have in some previous cases.

Sara’s presentation was followed by discussions where other academics also provided suggestions and answered questions, and both sessions were extremely helpful. The main takeaway from these discussions was that there are many different pathways to obtaining jobs, both inside and outside of academia, and you must follow whichever you believe best. As Charlotte concluded about last year’s event, the knowledge that there are many different paths to success is indeed a reassuring reminder and key value of this workshop.

A subsequent pub trip and meal for those who could make it was only slightly ruined by my having to rush off mid-food to catch a train. This ‘networking’ (a word I personally hate) aspect was just as useful as the rest of the day in reminding that, whilst at times it may feel like you are the only one struggling with the difficulties of late/post-PhD life, this is most definitely not the case. Whilst we are conditioned to believe that ECRs are in constant competition for jobs, academia has been criticised for its tendency to ‘eat our young’ – and we shouldn’t be adding to that.

The value of this workshop has been echoed by those who attended it, variously described as ‘super useful’, ‘a great day’, and ‘very helpful’. It personally helped me to obtain a number of interviews this summer, as well as preparing me for what to expect when it came to actually arriving at various different university campuses on interview days!

Dion Georgiou described the value of the 2016 academic boot camp event.
Dion Georgiou described the value of the 2016 academic boot camp event.

 

The main training required by post-PhDs appears to be the ability to ‘hang on in there’. It is all too easy to be disheartened by a lack of success in job applications, particularly in the early days whilst often receiving the standard response that your application hasn’t been taken further and, ‘due to the high number of applications received’, no feedback will be provided. Ben Mechen recently explored the precarious nature of PGRs/ECRs, considering how such a position could affect the kinds of history we write. The lack of job security is one of the main reasons for more-than-qualified colleagues to move outside of academia, and will undoubtedly continue to be the case in a world where there are far too many excellent applicants for the jobs available.

For those determined to obtain an academic job; whilst it may appear to be a particularly bad time to be coming out of a PhD, it is important events such as this Boot Camp – and the confidence and relationships that can be obtained through attending – that, to continue the military theme, prepares PhDs/ECRs for the battles to come.