News and Views

History UK statement on the closure of History at the University of Sunderland

It was with a feeling of dismay that History UK learnt of the decision of the University of Sunderland to close programmes in History.

We will not comment on the factors that may have led to Sunderland’s failure to recruit sufficient students for 2020 entry, when regional applications to study history have risen. Our sympathies are with the staff – staff who helped the subject climb seven places in the most recent Good University Guide league table, and who contributed to one of Sunderland’s best performances in the 2014 REF. Our sympathies are also with the department’s current students, whose studies will be harmed by this decision, and potential future students, from predominantly disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, who will be denied the opportunity to study history at their local institution.

The decision is all the more disappointing as it comes at a time when the study of history has never been more important for the health of our civic culture, and our sense of national self-understanding. Whether it is negotiating our new post-Brexit place in the world, evaluating our colonial legacies, or comprehending and contextualising contemporary social movements (from the #MeToo movement to populism, and from the climate emergency to a resurgence of anti-semitism), an historically-informed public debate is vital for our future. History departments and historians need to be part of that debate and both ought to be core to the activities of any university deserving the name.

This makes it imperative that History UK challenge and refute the central justification given by the University of Sunderland for their decision: that the discipline of History is not sufficiently ‘career-focused’. In making this argument, and deploying their Vice-Chancellor David Bell, to repeat it in the national media, the closure of Sunderland’s history department represents an attack on the entire discipline.

Arguments for the value of studying the humanities in general, and history in particular, have been made many times in the past, and the following represent a selection of key points worth emphasising:

  • The best potential employees in a modern dynamic economy are not, as all good employers know, those taught to perform a narrow and specific task, but confident, well-rounded, flexible, and, above all, thinking individuals.
  • History students gain a range of skills in information gathering, analysis, and communication that are relevant to almost all employment areas.
  • The best guarantor of employability, as a joint CBI-UUK report from 2009 argued, lies in developing precisely the ‘soft’, transferable, and person-centred skills which history degrees excel in providing.
  • As well as supplying a pipeline of skilled, creative, and dynamic graduates, history contributes directly to the economy through the heritage sector. A recent report from Historic England on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum showed that for England alone Heritage provides a total GVA (gross value added) of £31 billion and over 464,000 jobs.

As historians, we are keenly aware that we ‘have been here before’. Back in 2003, the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke was alleged to have argued that history lacked a ‘clear usefulness’, while in 2018 Robert Halfon, the chair of the Education Select Committee, made a similar point. Both are wrong, and the continued popularity of history as a degree level subject shows that A-level students have a better understanding of its value than many MPs.

Our discipline faces many challenges, including threats to marginalise history teaching in secondary schools and the need to do more to attract BAME students to study our subject. Our task need not be made more difficult by those who seek to minimise their own role in the closure of a department by traducing the reputation of our discipline.

Karin Dannehl (Wolverhampton)

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores)

David Stack (Reading)

Elizabeth Tingle (De Montfort)

Jamie Wood (Lincoln)

History UK Research Impact Workshop 2019

Dr Neil Fleming, Principal Lecturer at the University of Worcester, has provided the following post on our last annual research event on impact, which was held at the IHR in September 2019.


What is research impact? The rapidly changing environment in UK higher education means that it is a question few of us can ignore. ‘Research impact’ has been around since the long lead up to REF2014. Yet, it is evident that many researchers, established and new, remain uncertain about what it means in practice. At the same time, there is increasing importance attached to research impact in academic appointments, job appraisals, and university rankings and league tables.

To shed some light on the matter, History UK organised a workshop at the Institute of Historical Research, held on 4 September 2019. Expert scholars, reflecting all career stages, including several former REF panellists, were invited to reflect on research impact:

  • Dr Chiara Beccalossi (Lincoln)
  • Professor Dinah Birch CBE (Liverpool)
  • Professor Nick Crowson (Birmingham)
  • Professor Anne Curry (Southampton)
  • Dr J.D. Hill (British Museum)
  • Dr Charlotte Wildman (Manchester).

Their various and wide-ranging contributions and responses to questions are summarised below.

 

What is Research Impact? 

At its broadest, research impact is about the public benefit created by historians. More precisely, it is when research does something for someone else. It must be a distinctive and material contribution, though it can be indirect and non-linear as long as there is a connection. It needs to make a difference and to support this with appropriate evidence. Indeed, REF panellists prefer the idea of ‘making a difference’ to the simplistic idea of measuring ‘impact’.

The best source of advice is the REF2021 website’s criteria for Impact Cast Studies, along with the high-scoring case studies submitted to REF2014.

For understandable reasons, it is incorrectly assumed by some that research impact can be demonstrated through giving public talks and media presentations. First, it is the impact of research that matters and not necessarily the presence of an academic in some activity. Second, such activities on their own do not amount to research impact. They can, however, become ‘routes to establishing research impact’ if it is possible to calculate and supply evidence of the difference made.

 

Evidence

To measure research impact it is important to capture evidence. This needs to happen at the outset, so that data can be compared before and after.

The need for evidence can cause problems. Providing evidence for research impact on government policy is very hard to demonstrate. The same applies to the general public. This explains why viable and successful impact case studies tend to involve working with organisations.

Working with organisations still presents potential difficulties. There is the need to make participants aware that researchers will be collecting data on research impact. This may require building up a relationship over time. Hesitancy or even opposition are possible reactions, especially if there is already wariness about academic researchers getting involved in the work of non-academic groups.

The need to initiate and develop relationships with external groups and organisations means that preparing impact case studies for the REF that follows REF2021 should begin now.

 

Rising Expectations

The introduction of research impact in REF2014 meant that some leeway was then given to impact case studies. The expectation in REF2021 is that examples of best practice now exist on the REF2014 website, and so Unit of Assessment (UoA) panels will be tougher when it comes to the standards of measuring and assessing research impact in REF2021.

There is the additional factor of public policy. Scholars in the Arts and Humanities are under ever increasing pressure to demonstrate the public worth of their research. REF2014 provided an opportunity to do so, and so can REF2021.

 

Tips for Finding Case Studies

  • Local branch of Heritage Lottery Fund useful for information on available community projects
  • Utilising ‘citizenship’ teaching can help to engage local primary schools
  • Working with youth groups more straightforward as school curriculum and teachers too busy
  • Write a teacher guide to teaching an understudied subject
  • Stimulate the public to do their own research, especially groups that would not be otherwise reached
  • More permissive scope in REF201 for research impact in HE. However, avoid focusing on only one institution as this would not demonstrate the reach and significance necessary to obtain high scores

 

Impact Cast Studies: Things to Avoid 

  • Impact case studies should be interesting: avoid repetition, provide a strong narrative, and do not let an administrator write it!
  • Concentrate less on the pathway and more on the impact made, e.g., is reaching 2,000 children a lot, given normal and typical activities?
  • Avoid relying on the production of websites with lots of information: focus on the impact of the research
  • UoA panel members only have time to look at what is in front of them so avoid relying on inserted weblinks

 

Impact Case Studies: Top Tips

  • Would the group you claim has benefitted be able to understand what you have written?
  • Send case studies for informal feedback to appropriate ‘users’, i.e., colleagues in the community, cultural, museum sectors, etc.
  • All references in case studies do not need to be to 2* publications – as long as the research itself is at least 2* quality
  • UoA panel does not assess quality of the research after it meets the 2* threshold, it assesses the quality of the research impact
  • Research funding does not matter as long as the research that underlies the case study meets the 2* threshold
  • UoA panel tends not to read outputs associated with case studies unless there is a particular reason to do so
  • Avoid testimonials based on purely personal relationships; these should supply substantial and tangible evidence of impact on them/their organisation
  • Those giving testimonials may require guidance on what is supportive
  • Testimonials demonstrating research impact in a public debate should appear in the main body (and using footnotes) through selective quotations from media etc. (making clear that there is a fuller body of evidence that can be referred to)
  • Continued case studies from previous REF are eligible providing that they meet the criteria
  • Do not worry about any overlap with the ‘KEF’ as it is still in development

Neil Fleming (University of Worcester) is a former Research Officer (2017-19) and Steering Committee Member (2015-19), History UK.

Report – Teaching American History: Secondary School Teachers Panel at the 2019 BrANCH Annual Conference

We are delighted to share a report from the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH), who received some funding from History UK to run an event at their conference this autumn:

Building relationships with secondary schools has long been an aspiration of the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH). Thanks to History UK, we have now made an important first step towards realising that goal.  This October, funding from History UK enabled teachers from local secondary schools to attend the 2019 Annual BrANCH Conference at the University of Edinburgh to participate in the association’s first Teaching American History Panel.

Katie Hunter from St Thomas Aquinas Secondary School Edinburgh opened the session with an overview of American history curriculum currently on offer at Scottish schools, complete with reading lists and exam questions. The following panellists included academics who each proposed ways to translate the latest developments in the field of U.S. history into the classroom. Professor Robert Cook summarised the last half century of Civil War historiography before highlighting several “active debates” to engage students’ interest, including ongoing disputes over the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in the United States. Dr Elizabeth Clapp then suggested ways to incorporate women into Civil War history lesson plans, from the activities of female abolitionists to concepts of gender in wartime propaganda.

Professor Tim Lockley (Warwick) introduced several databases, including Documenting the American South, which hold oral and written testimonies by former slaves in the American South. Dr David Silkenet (Edinburgh) finished with an overview of websites, including Essential Civil War Curriculum, which provide lesson plans created by historians that breakdown key topics in U.S. history into digestible segments to be utilised in classrooms.

The room then engaged in a lively plenary discussion regarding structural barriers which inhibit communication and collaboration between historians and teachers in the UK. Among these was a lack of institutional support – both financial and in terms of workload allocation –to enable teachers to participate in academic events. Another was the difficulty of encouraging exam boards to ensure that their questions reflect recent methodological and historiographical developments in the field of American history.

These are formidable challenges. Thanks to suggestions made by speakers and audience members during this panel, however, BrANCH has devised several initiatives to address them. For example, our members are currently creating teaching packs, including reading lists and source materials, which will be made available on the association’s website for the use of teachers at all levels of the education system. This December, moreover, the BrANCH committee will attend a follow-up workshop to discuss long-term collaborations with staff at the St Thomas Aquinas Secondary School. Finally, a Teachers’ Panel will be a regular fixture at BrANCH’s future conferences with a view to enabling the association to develop a network of relationships with secondary schools across the country.

Undoubtedly there is a vast gulf between how American history is studied within the academy, and how it is taught in secondary schools. This panel, however, revealed just how much enthusiasm there is among teachers and historians alike to close this gap. With the help of History UK, BrANCH has laid the foundation of what we anticipate will grow into a dynamic, mutually-beneficent relationship between our members and American history teachers throughout the UK.

 

Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – three of three

In my previous post, the second in this series, I showcased some research into how social media is used by emerging and established academics, and used my own experiences to highlight how it does, or could, enhance the accessibility, for PhD students with a mental health issue, of some typical research activities. In this final post I’ll explore the other side of this coin by asking: What are some of the obstacles to using social media for this purpose? I’ll also share my parting thoughts about what we might do, as active participants in the HE community, to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental illness. 

Barriers to Inclusivity 

Although my own experiences of using social media during my PhD have had largely positive impacts on my mental wellness, I have also encountered some barriers to inclusivity. The first involved a Twitter exchange, where I had asked if it would be possible to speak at a subject-specific PGR forum by video-link. On that occasion the group didn’t feel confident to accommodate the request, which highlights a barrier also referred to by several of the scholars I have drawn on in my previous posts.  

“We don’t know how to do that…” 

Nandez and Borrego, Rowlands, and Boté all point to skills being a barrier to social media use among academics. Rowlands et al in particular provide evidence that social media use is greatest among those who identify as being an ‘innovator’, or ‘early adopter’ of new technologies. As a self-professed geek I would certainly put myself into one of these two categories, which is why I felt confident to set up the live stream of my original conference paper on this topic. But I recognise that not everyone shares this confidence, and that, in the face of the range of social media available, the desire to develop skills may well be tempered by feelings of being overwhelmed.  

Rowlands’ study also shows, though, that academics tend to be selective in the platforms they use (with almost two-thirds using only one or two tools) – suggesting perhaps that we don’t need proficiency in all platforms, but rather an awareness of the ones which are (to borrow a phrase) ‘trending’. 

“We don’t feel comfortable doing that…” 

I’ve already touched on this in my earlier comments about Bennett and Folley’s work on managing a hybridised digital identity, and my own insecurities about sharing too much about works in progress online – even to would-be collaborators. But, again, Rowlands’ work is pertinent here in highlighting that a lack of clarity about the benefits of social media constitutes a barrier to employing it for research purposes, in some cases.  

Like me, Bennett and Folley self-censored their digital selves to ‘fit’ their ideas of how others perceived them. They too were anxious about revealing their weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge, and fearful of receiving a critical reception. This aligns with Pantic’s findings on social networking and mental health, which suggest that inaccurate perceptions of others online (part of what we might call ‘Imposter Syndrome’) can contribute to reduced self-esteem in those who are predisposed to psychiatric illness. 

“We don’t have time for that…” 

Time to acquire skills and build familiarity with tools, and time to integrate social media into the research workflow are both highlighted as issues in studies of social media use among academics. Nandez and Borrego’s work on Academia.edu in particular demonstrates that academics’ intended use of the platform was greater than their actual use; suggesting perhaps that it seemed like a good idea at the time but was demanding to put into practice. The comments on their survey confirmed that this was in part due to respondents being ‘time poor’.  

As I mentioned in my earlier post, juggling ‘work’ and ‘social’ uses of social media can also be seen as a challenge. This has also been linked with time management by Leon and Pigg, who observe that “[digital multitasking can] evoke strong affective responses”, including guilt and shame, among graduate students. Such feelings can, of course, be indicators of mental unwellness.  

What can we do? 

So, what can we do to move towards a more inclusive environment for emerging academics, in which digital technologies play a part? 

I think that what my experiences, and the research that I have presented in this blog series shows is that social media are not simply tools for socialising among digital natives’ or sharing photographs of one’s dinner. They impact upon a broader range of research practices than I had appreciated before I began reflecting on my experiences, and in more nuanced ways. Likewise, I hope that I’ve been able to show mental health in a more nuanced light – not only a “crisis” affecting PhD students and HE institutions, but also a way of life, day-to-day for a significant section of the research community, whose needs might (in some cases) be addressed simply, by subtle extensions to existing practice, and by seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as complementary bedfellows, rather than options to choose between. If I could offer any advice on what might be done to effect change then, it would, humbly, be this: 

  • Seek to understand the nuances of social media in heritage and other humanities PhD research; their potential, and their potential pitfalls 
  • Resist seeing social media and ‘traditional’ research practices as an either/or situation requiring a polarised choice; take an holistic view which values each for its own contribution to the academy 
  • Prioritise development of social media competencies and understanding around social media/mental health relationships (both positive and negative) within organisational strategy, in order to ensure that the mental health challenges of the present lead to a healthier, more inclusive research environment in the future. 

Above all though, I think that a lot can be achieved – in digital literacy and in mental health – by advocating for three things: 

Understanding the needs and potential for growth. 

Daring to talk. 

And challenging existing practices, to bring about change. 

Mental health and wellbeing in the history and heritage PhD community – two of three

Following on from my previous post, which summarised some of the scholarly work on the relationships between academia, social media, and mental health, in this post I’d like to look a little more at how emerging academics like myself might use social media in the research workflow. I’ll also use illustrative examples from my own experiences to highlight some of the pros and cons of social media to a PhD student with a mental illness, in order to address the questions: What are some of the challenges to inclusivity for PHD students with a mental illness? And how do social media intersect with this?  

Social media and research 

‘Social media are used at all points of the research cycle, from identifying research opportunities to disseminating research results.’ Nández and Borrego (2013)  

As the above quotation makes clear, social media are used broadly by researchers, at all stages of the research cycle. Here I’ll highlight six areas of the research workflow which tally most closely with my own experiences. 

Information seeking 

Accessibility of sources is obviously crucial to research. Studies on information seeking and libraries science suggest that this access is being increasingly strengthened as publishers invest in digital solutions. According to Tenopir et al, e-journals are now the most common source for reading articles – with “even 42% of historians” using them most days, according to one paper. The reader must interpret that quotation as they will! 

Likewise, the growth in digital archive collections (such as that of the International Bomber Command Centre), and in digitised object collections facilitated by 3D recording technologies (particularly where these are open-source) enhances accessibility of cultural heritage, and encourages a more inclusive mode of collaboration between those who study it.  

E-journals and digital archives – where the interaction can be one-way – might not be considered truly social media (whose defining feature is two-way communication between peers), but with e-reading platforms now facilitating mark-up directly through the publisher’s website, and learning technologies such as Talis Elevate encouraging collaboration with others at the point of reading sources, I think an argument can be made for interaction with e-content as a social media activity. 

Networking and collaboration 

Nandez and Borrego found in their 2013 study that researchers signing up to academic social media platform Academia.edu did so to connect with other researchers in 67% of cases. This is supported by Rowlands et al in relation to a broader range of social media platforms, the most popular of which were those to facilitate collaborative authoring, conferencing, and scheduling meetings – i.e. tools to allow researchers to connect with one another. 

But while Rowlands observes that “social media tools allow [researchers] to listen to ‘different voices’”, the drawbacks of having a limited social media presence, of working in a niche field, and the risks of operating in what we might call an academic echo chamber also need to be considered. Despite the statistics quoted in my previous post about the level of social media use among arts and humanities researchers, my impression of the PhD community on Twitter, at least, is that researchers engaged with that platform predominantly align with STEM subjects. As a history and heritage researcher, I sometimes feel in a minority.  

To relate this to my own experiences of inclusivity: The recently new phenomenon of the Twitter conference is one of the things that inspired me to investigate my life as an anxious, social media active researcher. As I find it challenging to attend large social events, particularly where they involve a lot of travelling, Twitter conferences like that organised in 2017 by Institute of Conservation member Pieta Greaves (search on Twitter for #IconTC, but also #PresTC and #PATC for other examples) allow me to engage specifically with scholars and research in my fields of interest at reduced anxiety levels, and reduced cost. The permanence of material means that I can re-visit it at a pace that suits my state of health, and I find that I feel more confident approaching people that I consider ‘experts’, or more senior researchers, online than I would in person. 

Similarly, efforts by organisations or groups (such as the University of Lincoln’s Doctoral School and most recently the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) to set up webinars, recordings, or live video streams of content such as conferences, CPD or professional forums, are valuable in enabling me to participate in development opportunities, or to be heard alongside my peers. 

Dissemination 

Although the traditional dissemination pathways of journals, conferences and so on remain valuable to academics, social media are expanding as complementary channels according to Rowlands et al. Rowlands and others, though, point to some implications and challenges arising from these alternative forms of dissemination, including the knock-on effects that might be felt by publishers or librarians from social media channels being arguably less formal and, for example, less easily archivable.  

From a personal point of view, though, I find that I want to share my work online, and I want to use that to invite feedback and collaboration, but also that I have some unanswered questions. If I chat with other researchers at a conference the interaction is transient; if I do so online there is a permanence, and a lack of control over how my words and ideas are archived or shared, which makes me uncomfortable about what – and to what level – I disseminate works in progress especially. I feel that I don’t understand issues of intellectual property enough, as they apply to social media, to have confidence in making my work more visible in the public sphere. 

Career Trajectory 

In sharing their own experiences of social media use as PhD students, Liz Bennett and Sue Folley have written that a student’s digital identity “is entwined with their potential to gain employment”. This is supported by Boté, in a recently published book on library practice for graduate students, and by Nandez and Borrego, who found that a “higher proportion of students [and] postdocs used the service [Academia.edu]” to disseminate their curriculum vitae, compared to established academics. 

Building and maintaining a digital reputation is seen as important in developing employability, and while Van Zyl points to the benefits of social networking in doing this (for example, public recognition and reward for contributions through likes and shares), Bennett and Folley highlight the hybridised nature of their digital identities – part student, part teaching professional / part novice, part expert – and how this left them feeling conflicted about what content to share online. As an Associate Lecturer in my subject area, as well as a PhD student, this heightened sense of having the ‘right’ digital identity is certainly something I can empathise with. 

Peer Support 

Even though they don’t focus on their mental wellbeing specifically, the work of Bennett and Folley is rich with key words relating to mental health issues – anxiety, stress, fear, imposter syndrome, and so onsuggesting that even where a mental health problem has not been diagnosed, the sensations can nevertheless be part of the PhD student experience. 

While psychiatrists are conflicted about whether social media use increases or decreases isolation, some recent studies have found that reaching out online leads to “feelings of group belonging” among those with mental illness. And Inger Mewburn, an authority on the research student experience, advocates for ‘troubles talk’ (communication exchanges “where one or more people gather to tell stories of situations that have caused some kind of discomfort or disruption”) as being effective in helping “PhD students to negotiate and manage the precarious process of ‘becoming academic’”.  

Likewise, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer – although writing in 2000, before the advent of many social media platforms – point to the most successful educational experiences arising from connecting with others socially, as well as cognitively. Although, according to Leon and Pigg (2011) students can “struggle with the tension” between using social media for ‘pleasure’ and ‘work’, this evidence perhaps suggests defining our boundaries more fluidly, and recognising the palliative value of talking about things other than our PhDs. Let’s be honest: how many of us start conversations at PGR networking events with “So what are you studying?” rather than “Have you travelled far today?” or even good old How do you do?”? Perhaps we should be more mindful. 

In my own experience, interacting with others on Twitter particularly (e.g. following and contributing to the hashtags #AcademicChatter and #PhDChat) has brought me into contact with others with whom to share my triumphant, and not-so-triumphant moments, and has allowed me to extend the reach of my profile as a researcher beyond the confines of the University. Something which is otherwise a challenge, given my mental health triggers and symptoms. 

 

While this post has focused on the potential for inclusivity afforded by social media, and the mostly positive impacts that I have felt from its role in my own PhD research, there are nevertheless barriers to using social media for enhanced inclusivity that must also be considered. My third, and final post will draw out a few of these, before suggesting what we might do to move towards a more inclusive environment for PhD students experiencing mental health difficulties.

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