Histories, Anniversaries and University Pasts (and Present)

This post has been contributed by Keith Vernon, Principal Lecturer in History at the University of Central Lancashire where he teaches on modern British history.  He has written on several topics in the history of technical and higher education in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially on the relationships between universities and the state, between universities and their local communities and the student experience. 

University institutions seem to be becoming more interested in their pasts.  One manifestation of the trend is the appearance of historic dates on websites or logos of which Manchester University was a pioneer.  When the (old Victoria) university finally joined with UMIST, origins could now be traced back to the formation of the Manchester Mechanics Institute out of which UMIST claimed its foundation.  Now ‘1824’ features boldly in the university’s branding, neatly pipping UCL’s presumption to be the oldest English institution of higher education after Oxbridge.  A more recent entrant is Queen’s University Belfast, which has taken to emblazoning ‘1845’ across its publicity as the year when the Queen’s Colleges were established.  Otherwise, institutional webpages sport time lines or historical introductions that establish lineages of suitable antiquity.  Some places have created impressive museums of their role and contributions as at De Montfort.  Although in one sense surprising for institutions more accustomed to trumpeting their cutting edges, it is not to be wondered at that universities also want to claim historic antecedents.  Status in higher education commonly follows the longest established.  As the field becomes ever more crowded, and with the danger of potentially dubious upstarts, demonstrating a weight of tradition adds valuable gravitas.

Previously, one of the few times that universities looked to their pasts was around anniversary years that afforded an opportunity for a commemorative volume.  A flurry of institutional histories marked the centenaries of the older civic universities, and a number of former polytechnics discovered their pasts on becoming universities.  Interestingly, the silver anniversary of the post-92s came and went without much recognition.

There are currently few obvious anniversaries in view, but why wait for the obvious?  My own institution, the University of Central Lancashire / UCLan, has this year decided to celebrate a 190 years since the formation of its ancestor, the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge, in 1828.  It seems an arbitrary choice, nor is it presented as much else by the current Vice-chancellor, whose initiative it is.  He is interested in history and heritage, wants to create an occasion (and some institutional re-branding) and accepts that he probably won’t be in post in ten years time to mark the 200th anniversary.  If we take the sound historical argument that round figures of years are rarely of greater significance than the years before or after, then why not the 190th?

Avenham Institute

The Avenham Institute, which opened in 1849 in Preston, was the first permanent home for the Institution of the Diffusion of Knowledge (which later developed into UCLan) 

As we know, anniversaries are a doubled-edged sword to historians of universities.  While they offer an occasion, and until recently, a rather rare occasion, when a university will make some consideration of its past, they are mired in the problems associated with this kind of study.  There is usually little desire for searching or critical investigation.  An anniversary account is seen as an opportunity to flourish achievements and steady progress.

The issue has become personal in that I have been asked / tasked with writing an updated history for UCLan 190.  An account covering the development of the institution from 1828 was produced in the early 1990s when the university was first created.  This latest version will just deal with the most recent phase of the university years.  The project raises many historical, methodological, indeed ethical issues, but returns to the key ones of P1000642commemorative history.  The task is not to write a searching critique, and there is no place for muck-raking, but nor would I wish to be overly critical.  In part, that is not the commission but, more than that, UCLan has been my career home for most of my life; I am committed to and have great affection for what it seeks to stand for (even if it often doesn’t succeed), its academic community, and its home city of Preston.  Is the entire undertaking, then, illegitimate in that any history written will, by my own admission, be more or less sanitised?

But should we be so sniffy about engaging with this form of university past?  While never a substitute for thorough historical scholarship, is there no place for accounts that are accessible but critical, offer a simplified version of the past, but still inform and raise deeper issues and questions?  At a time when universities and what they stand for are openly being questioned, it surely behoves us to take what opportunities we can to tell the story of what universities do, their importance and centrality to the modern world; not photo-shopped, but not necessarily warts and all either.



Securing an academic career: Past and present

This post is from Dr Cath Feely, a Lecturer in History at the University of Derby, after short early-career stints at Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. She was Co-Chair of History Lab Plus from 2014 to 2016.

Recently, a senior colleague told me that he thought History was perhaps the most argumentative (or ‘bitchy’) of academic disciplines. I started to protest but then remembered how I had felt in wake of some of the bad-tempered Twitter ‘debate’ prompted by Matthew Lyons’ History Today column on ‘the betrayal of early-career historians’ by established academic historians a year ago in late August 2015. Many historians, understandably including those facing unemployment and underemployment, retweeted Lyons’ piece approvingly. Others, myself included, were offended by the implication that simply by having an academic post they were complicit in harming the people that they cared about: their students; their colleagues; their friends. Emotions ran high. As then the co-chair of History Lab Plus, a national network for early career historians, for me the debate was confirmation that people felt the need for support in the post-PhD period but, at the same time, I was uncertain as to what such support should look like and whether it would ever be enough.

As William Whyte argued, in an excellent blog that he wrote for us at History Lab Plus, Lyons’ piece was ‘fundamentally presentist’ in his demonstration of the problems facing early-career historians. These problems, and the emotional and practical impact they have on historians attempting to enter the profession are not at all new. This was starkly brought home to me when I was researching the history of the History Department of the University of Manchester, when I was myself between temporary contracts, in the summer of 2013. Manchester was a pioneer of postgraduate education in History and was among the very first institutions in the country to award PhDs in the subject. As I read though the correspondence of lecturers with their recently-graduated students in the 1920s and 1930s (all available in the John Rylands Library), it was hard not to relate their trials and tribulations on the job market to my own.

Indeed, sometimes their words seemed dangerously close to the kind of half-hopeful, half-resigned, sometimes desperate emails that I must have sent to my supervisor (luckily for my dignity, having switched institutions several times, I don’t think evidence of these survive for future historians to ponder). For instance, after several disastrous interviews, one couldn’t help sympathising with Dr Sophia Weitzman, who wrote to Manchester’s Professor T.F. Tout in May 1925:

Mr Barker said I should hear about the King’s College appointment by Tuesday next. I’m beginning to despair of ever getting anything on an interview. These jobs go to the tall, capable-looking women and I’m neither: College lecturers are a type and “insignificant me” doesn’t look the part. However, as I can’t alter that there’s no sense in being depressed about it.

However, one problem Weitzman had which was undoubtedly less of a problem for me was that she was a woman. That’s not, of course, to say that gender bias does not still affect academic careers in History. It undoubtedly does, as the 2015 Royal Historical Society Gender report made very clear. But it does seem to be more an issue of progression within the job rather than the explicit discrimination that the early Manchester women PhDs faced in entering the profession. However, it is incredibly important that the more invisible structural barriers and pressures that can exclude both men and women from a variety of backgrounds from pursuing an academic career are kept very firmly at the top of the early career agenda.

What is also clear from these letters is that very few of the students, and indeed their mentors, expected that they would end up in traditional academic careers (although, at that point the ‘academic career’ in History was actually still very new), even as they hoped that they might. They were a remarkably pragmatic bunch, taking up a range of what we would probably call ‘alt-ac’ jobs: as librarians, archivists, editors, university administrators, hall tutors, etc. As such, however, they were not seen as ‘giving up’ on History but rather contributing to it differently, and were very highly respected in the discipline. Indeed, early academic historians such as Alice Cooke, the first woman to graduate with a Masters’ degree at Manchester (before the advent of the PhD), had periods of lecturing punctuated by cataloguing some of the most important library collections in the country throughout her career. It was not out of the ordinary to swap back and forth in this manner and it remained so into well into the mid-twentieth century.

The introduction of the PhD was part of the professionalization of History as an academic subject, but as these letters and our own experiences suggest, that for most of its history there has been an underlying tension between the ‘apprentice’ model of the degree and the fact that a minority of its graduates have got academic jobs. The booms in the expansion of HE in the 1950s/60s and again in the 1990s/2000s masked this. So, is the PhD itself the problem? Has it always been the problem? Should less people be doing PhDs? Is the PhD simply setting people up for jobs that do not exist?

I am very torn on this, as I imagine many academics are, which is why many of us were so hurt by the shouts of betrayal in 2015. The fact is that I loved my PhD, even though it was damn hard and I did it part-time never expecting to get a job. I think the research I produced was valuable and important in and of itself, as I think the PhD research I now supervise is valuable and important in and of itself. And the fact is that I did (like most supervisors) get a job against the odds and, for all of the pressures of that job, it is an immense privilege to walk into a lecture theatre and debate and discuss the subject that I love with intelligent and passionate students. So while I feel very strongly that it is our duty as academics to be very, very clear to potential PhD students both about the realities of an academic career and the immense competition that there is in even getting entry-level positions, I also don’t think we should presume that this is the only value of doing a PhD. At the same time, neither do I want to lead people up the garden path and do think that, despite the million doom and gloom blog posts about the academic job market, a remarkably large number of PhDs seem unaware about the state of academia and who inevitably feel betrayed.

When I tie myself up in knots about this, I am reminded of the exasperated words of Professor George Unwin, also of Manchester, to his student Mabel Pythian (later Mabel Tylecote, who went on to play an important role in civic life and politics in Manchester) c. 1920. He was referring to women students, but I think it applies to all now:

‘I have given my best efforts to women students most of whom have not achieved what they set out to do. I don’t blame them & I go on hoping.’

I think that’s the real problem. We’re not really as bitchy as discipline as it first appears. Actually, often the problem is that we care too much: we care about the discipline and don’t want to discourage those who we think might be the future of it; we care about our students and we believe in them, so hope against hope that it will turn out alright; and we care about scholarship, and rigour and think that the production of a substantial piece of historical research should not be reduced to job training or ‘graduate attributes’.

Occasionally when I was Chair of History Lab Plus, I would see criticism that we were part of the problem. We were training people into how to enter ‘the system’ rather than questioning or overturning it. I understand that and, frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. My instinct is to be kind at in individual level: to pass on practical advice, to share ideas, encourage and, like Unwin, to ‘go on hoping’. But on a larger scale, maybe commitment to individual kindness is allowing harm.

These tensions have been around as long as the PhD. Maybe it can only take genuine reflection and debate about what the PhD is for, including discussion of its history and development, to take us any further.