RHS News

RHS Programme 2017


Friday 22 September, 6 pm, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL
Professor Chris Marsh (QUB)
‘Woman to the Plow and Man to the Hen-Roost:
Wives, Husbands, & Best-Selling Ballads in Seventeenth-Century England’


Thursday 26th October, Museum of London
Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture for the Public Understanding of History

Professor Mary Beard (Cambridge)
‘How to spot a Roman emperor’


Friday 24 November, 6pm, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL
2017 Presidential Address

Professor Margot Finn (UCL)
‘Material Turns in British History I: Loot’

 

RHS Annual Newsletter 2016

The RHS annual newsletter for 2016 is available here, and includes:

  • Articles by our outgoing President Peter Mandler and incoming President Margot Finn.
  • Updates on education policy by outgoing Vice-President for Education Arthur Burns.
  • Dr Olivette Otele on challenges and opportunities for black history.
  • Vice-President Suzanne Bardgett on her work with Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships at the Imperial War Museum.
  • Vice-President Mary Vincent on progress for the RHS’ widely-cited report on gender equality for historians.

 

‘Educating the Nation’

Over the past four years, RHS President Professor Peter Mandler has presented a series of Presidential Addresses on ‘Educating the Nation’, charting the impact of mass education on Britain since the Second World War.

I: Schools (video, text)

II: Universities (video, text)

III: Social Mobility (video, text)

IV: Subject Choice (video)

 

RHS Letter Regarding the EU Referendum

Dear Fellows and Members,

The recent EU referendum has brought the issue of how international exchange and collaboration enrich history as a discipline to the forefront of the profession’s attention.

Whatever our position on the outcome of the referendum, I’m sure that as historians we want to ensure that our discipline remains outward looking and global in perspective. Only 13% of historians in UK university departments study the non-Western world;  the equivalent proportion in Canada is 20% and in the US 27% (see the revealing study by Luke Clossey and Nick Guyatt in AHA Perspectives, May 2013).  Surely we must want in the coming years to become more comprehensive in our understanding of all the world’s peoples and their histories, rather than less.

The Royal Historical Society is committed to this goal and to keeping our discipline as diverse and capacious as possible, both in terms of academic employment and in terms of the scholarship that we support. We are particularly conscious at this moment of the precarious situation in which citizens of EU nations who are working as historians in the UK find themselves, and are keen to gather information about their situation that would allow us to support them in any way we can.  We also wish to facilitate collaboration between UK-based historians and others abroad, both in the EU and in the wider world.  If you have any information about or experience of threats to employment or collaboration, please do write to us at info@royalhistsoc.org.

Council will keep these international issues at the head of its agenda and I hope to be able to report to you in the autumn on further developments, both the challenges that we are encountering and the opportunities that we hope to open up.

With best wishes,

Peter Mandler

President

 

 

 

 

 

2016 RHS Prizes, Awards and Fellowships

Alexander Prize 2016

For the best published scholarly journal article or an essay in a collective volume based upon original historical research.

Awarded to Mary Cox for her article ‘Hunger Games: Or How the Allied Blockade in World War I Deprived German Children of Nutrition, and Allied Food Subsequently Saved Them’, Economic History Review, 68: 2, (2015), 600-31.

Judges’ citation: This important article examines the fact and the effect of the hunger blockade, examining a large body of data to determine conclusively that children’s growth was directly affected by Allied action. Paradoxically, this same alliance provided the capacity to alleviate the effects of the blockade, as the article again demonstrates by looking at the changes to children’s bodies. Cox takes a highly technical method and applies it rigorously, in a way that illustrates a new and significant source base, allowing it to be analysed in a succinct and highly convincing way. Her findings are important in methodological as a well as historical terms and the judges were particularly impressed by the way in which a scholar at this stage in her career has made such an authoritative contribution to this important debate.

proxime accessit

Tom Johnson for his article ‘Medieval Law and Materiality: Shipwreck, Finders, and Property on the Suffolk Coast, ca. 1380-1410’, American Historical Review, 120:2 (April 2015), 406-32.

Judges’ citation: This article makes an original and imaginative contribution to scholarship by viewing medieval law through the lens of scholarship on materiality. An extensive discussion of various critical theories, drawn from studies across both periods and disciplines, as well as of the legal background, provides a framework for the illuminating case study that follows, namely an analysis of terms ‘found’ on the shore registered in court rolls from Suffolk. Clearly structured and written throughout, the article not only reveals much about social structure and dynamics in later medieval coastal communities in England, but compels us to think about objects, agency, and how these are expressed in legal terms. The combination of conceptual sophistication, broad contextualization, grasp of legal history and empirical depth is impressive, and the judges have no hesitation in recommending that the article be selected as proxime accessit.

David Berry Prize 2016

For the best published scholarly journal article or essay on a subject dealing with Scottish History.

Awarded to Karin Bowie for her essay ‘Public, People and Nation in Early Modern Scotland’.

Judges’ citation: In a neatly structured and carefully argued essay that is deeply and widely researched, Karin Bowie considers the development of a ‘textual public’ in early modern Scotland. While acknowledging that print provided an important context through which early modern public opinion was formulated and expressed, Bowie argues that the debates, discussions, petitions and addresses engendered by the religious differences and constitutional experiences of seventeenth-century Scotland fostered the development and expression of popular and national political opinion. Acknowledged by contemporary Scottish politicians as expressions of the ‘inclinations’, ‘genius’ or ‘mind’ of ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’, these extra-parliamentary and often oppositional forms of direct engagement not only encouraged the development of political opinion among, especially, increasing numbers of Lowland Scots, but also serve as a reminder of the subtle and multi-faceted contributions and developments which led to the birth of modern public opinion.

Gladstone Prize 2016

For a first solely-written book on a historical subject not primarily related to British History published in the UK.

Awarded to Emma Hunter for Political Thought and the Public Sphere in Tanzania (Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Judges’ citation: This sophisticated book is surely at the vanguard of a new way of writing intellectual history. It builds a history of ideas ‘from below’ by working from Swahili language newspapers and other texts in circulation in Tanganyika and from archives in Tanzania and elsewhere. Tanzanians become political thinkers and agents in the transformation of key mid-twentieth century concepts such as freedom, progress, democracy, representation and citizenship. The changing senses of a ‘word in motion’ gesture to the changing possibilities open to Hunter’s agents as decolonization took root. Hunter takes seriously prior forms of political organisation and so never sees Africa as pre-political, nor does she see the rise of single-partyism as a straight story. Instead she places Africa at the heart of the widest canvas of international and world history. The way Hunter’s focus moves between the microscopic conditions of localities far from any metropolis to the biggest questions of the twentieth century history, such as the theory and practice of democracy , is deeply admirable.

Rees Davies Prize 2016

For the best dissertation submitted as part of a one-year full-time (or two-year part-time) postgraduate Master’s degree in any United Kingdom institution of Higher Education.

Awarded to Megan Johnston (Durham University) for ‘Doing Neighbourhood: Practising Neighbourliness in the Diocese of Durham, 1624-31′.

Judges’ citation: This is a dissertation which grabs the reader’s attention from the very first page and never lets it go thereafter. It is a learned and scholarly piece of work, but it is also lively, arresting and very well-written. Ms Johnston has drawn on a vast corpus of original documents in order to throw popular attitudes towards neighbours, ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘neighbourliness’ in the early Stuart diocese of Durham into sharp relief, and her work contains a wealth of fascinating – and sometimes rather surprising – narratives culled from local consistory court records. The judges thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘Doing Neighbourhood’, and they have no doubt at all that the themes which Ms Johnston addresses would appeal to a much broader audience, too. She is clearly a historian of great promise who possesses a genuine flair for her subject. The judges were delighted to recommend that this well-researched, thoughtful and thought-provoking dissertation should be awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Rees Davies Prize for 2016.

Whitfield Prize 2016

For a first solely-written book on a subject within a field of British history published in the UK.

Awarded to Aysha Pollnitz for Princely Education in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Judges’ citation: This highly original and beautifully written book explores the liberal education received by royal children in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Drawing attention to the specificities of nation and context, Princely Education draws on an impressive range of Latin sources, and is yet highly readable and accessible in style. It succeeds admirably in demonstrating the wider significance of princes’ education by drawing connections between childhood learning and royal policies in later life during a stormy and eventful period. This rich and deeply-textured book is certain to provoke interest and debate for many years to come.

The Royal Historical Society jointly with the Institute of Historical Research has awarded the following research Fellowships:

RHS Marshall Fellowship 2016

Awarded jointly to :

Samuel Drake, Royal Holloway, University of London, for research on “Cornwall and the Kingdom: Connectivity, Cohesion, and Integration, c. 1300-c.1420”.

and

Aashique Ahmed Iqbal, University of Oxford, for research on “Sovereign Skies: Aviation and the Indian State 1939-53”.

RHS Centenary Fellowship 2016

Awarded to Benjamin Savill, University of Oxford, for research on “Papal Privileges in Early Medieval England, c. 680-1073”.

The Institute of Historical Research has this year awarded the following prizes:

Pollard Prize 2016

For the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a research within one year of presenting the PhD.

Awarded jointly to: Anna Dorofeeva for her paper on ‘Miscellanies, Christian reform and early medieval encyclopaedism: a reconsideration of the pre-bestiary Physiologus manuscripts’ (Early Medieval Seminar)

and

Megan Webber for her paper on ‘Troubling Agency: Agency and Charity in Early Nineteenth-Century London’ (British History in the Long Eighteenth Century Seminar)

Runner Up: Sam Drake for his paper on ‘Since the time of King Arthur: gentry identity and the commonality of Cornwall c.1300-c.1420 (Late Medieval Seminar)

 

Response to Stern Review of the REF

Lord Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) issued a call for evidence in January 2016 (read the full call here). The review will have important implications for the scholarly community and for history as a discipline, dealing with the mechanisms for allocating QR (quality-related research funding) and the shape of future REF exercises.

The Royal Historical Society has provided a robust and thoughtful response to Stern’s call, challenging the notion that metrics can be used to measure research quality in the arts and humanities and pointing to the consequences of the present system for our discipline, whilst reflecting on the positive changes to research culture engendered by the REF. Read the Society’s full response below, or download a PDF version.

 

Response to Stern Review of the REF

 

  • What changes to existing processes could more efficiently or more accurately assess the outputs, impacts and contexts of research in order to allocate QR? Should the definition of impact be broadened or refined? Is there scope for more or different use of metrics in any areas?

It is essential that an exercise such as the REF commands wide support within the academic community and that its conclusions are respected.  This is currently a clear strength and would be compromised by wider use of metrics, which simply do not work across the board. A main finding of The Metric Tide is that, in contrast to peer review, academics are sceptical of metrics, which are particularly problematic when assessing outputs in the Arts and Humanities.  In terms of historical scholarship, there are no current measures which provide reliable data, and this is not likely to change given the broad range of types of publications in which scholars publish quality research, including book chapters, websites, and datasets.  History has no established rank order of periodicals and impact factors—as in Humanities more generally—mean very little e.g. http://guides.temple.edu/c.php?g=78121&p=509794

There are two additional difficulties.  The first is that, for historians, books are of primary importance in disseminating research.  This was demonstrated in REF2014 where ‘books and parts of books’ were most likely to receive scores of 4*. There is no way of evaluating this type of output other than through peer review.  In a discipline where so many outputs are submitted in book form, either as monographs or as chapters in edited volumes, metrics thus pose a particular problem.  Second, the download half-life of journal articles in History—and Humanities articles more generally—is very much longer than it is for the Sciences.  This is insufficiently recognized. The point is made in the British Academy report on Open Access which nevertheless severely underestimated this half-life as the report did not include downloads from heavily used archive sites such as JSTOR.  The RHS estimates that the true download half-life of a History article is at least 12 years.

The RHS would therefore argue strongly that the quality of scholarship in History, as in Humanities more generally, is not quantifiable by metrics and its full value and impact become apparent over a significantly longer term than a REF cycle.  Greater use of metrics in place of peer review would not only fail to capture the nature and quality of world-leading scholarship but is also likely to have a distorting effect on the methods by which historical scholarship is disseminated.  As peer review offers the flexibility to assess research in new, minority or unfashionable fields, any downgrading, or substitution by metrics, is also likely to distort subject matter by encouraging publications on well-worn or voguish topics.

The RHS thus remains strongly committed to peer review, which is widely and routinely used to assess research quality in, for example, employment, promotion and publication decisions.  It is, in fact, the only expert device we have to assess quality.  After consulting REF2014 panel members, the RHS is confident that the workload in terms of the peer review of outputs was manageable, and the process very conscientiously carried out.  Panel membership attracts outstanding academics who benefit from the opportunity to survey the field and in whom their peers have confidence. Maintaining this calibre, and this level of participation, is essential to the REF process.

The assessment of impact was new to REF2014 and here some doubt has been expressed, both over the volume of material to review and the fact that inevitably peer reviewers had less experience of evaluating impact.  Academic assessors are trained to assess intellectual quality rather than impact. There was also less time and information available for review.

This issue is likely to diminish as the accumulated experience of impact grows within the research community.  The RHS moreover believes that impact has benefitted the historical profession as it has underlined the deep public interest in History and the relevance of our research to various fields, including education, digitization, and policy.  Although the definition of impact for REF2014 excluded the kind of broad expertise of a historical field that is evident in much public engagement work—and which should be reflected in how the underpinning research is defined and understood—it is valued by many.

However, research undertaken by the RHS demonstrates that, in terms of authorship, ICSs, are not representative of the wider research community.  The ‘impact case study’ is an artificially constructed exercise, but the fact that 75% of identified PIs were men and just under 65% of PIs were professors is of real concern.  One simple way of making ICSs more representative of the historical profession would be to make impact portable.  There is an obvious logical inconsistency in having outputs transferable and impact not as both rest on underlying research usually undertaken over a number of years.  The RHS is clear that it is highly discriminatory against ECRs not to allow them to transfer impact from one institution to another, or to include that based on unpublished research in a PhD thesis. This makes it almost inevitable that institutions will rely on case studies contributed by people at mature stages in their careers.

A further consideration is how the requirement that departments submit one impact case study plus one other for up to 10 researchers has affected very small research clusters, for example, in universities where a department or school might only have 2 or 3 historians.  The RHS is concerned that various REF measures put this kind of unit at risk (see the remarks on environment below).

 

 

  • If REF is mainly a tool to allocate QR at institutional level, what is the benefit of organising an exercise over as many Units of Assessment as in REF 2014, or in having returns linking outputs to particular investigators? Would there be advantages in reporting on some dimensions of the REF (e.g. impact and/or environment) at a more aggregate or institutional level?

The benefits of organizing returns by unit of assessment are most apparent in the evaluation of outputs, where subject-specific specialists are clearly best placed to conduct peer reviews. History is represented within the great majority of universities as well as in other cultural institutions.  Large disciplines need their own UoA; the volume of outputs is substantial and the variety of expertise already contained within the discipline is broad.

In History, as more generally, REF owes its credibility as an assessment exercise to its expert review panels.  It is clear from our consultations that the History panel worked very effectively, with a shared understanding of criteria and quality.  In contrast, colleagues on panels that covered a range of disciplines found the task of assessment could be more difficult and even conflictive.  Departments within these broader panels, for example Languages, experienced more uncertainty preparing for REF.  REF ‘scores’ based on amalgamated disciplines may also be misleading in terms of individual departments or schools and we would certainly resist History’s incorporation into a wider UoA.  The international strength of historical research in the UK is reflected in the large number of high performing units, which has been confirmed in all previous REF exercises. We believe it is important to showcase this; any move to amalgamation would occlude the proportion of world-leading historical research for which British universities are responsible.

It is hard, if not impossible, to see how outputs could not be linked to individual researchers in History.   This means that, while allocated scores—at least in terms of QR—go to institutions—and so, in a sense, it is the headline institutional score that matters—it is not clear how this could be obtained without expert peer review, which has to take place at the level of the individual outputs or ICS.  There is also a further point, in that the granular detail of REF feeds into, for example, university guides, admissions league tables, and wider research rankings and here the disciplinary picture is crucial.  This a particular concern for small, strong units within less-research intensive universities; these are not uncommon in History.

In broad terms, the RHS believes that the current arrangement for outputs (four, with differentially weighted monographs), impact and environment is manageable and effective with outputs as the main weighting. There is some feeling that environment should not weigh more heavily in the process.  While, in a ‘bundling’ category such as environment, some form of metric evaluation is conceivable—research income and PGR numbers are two of the very few measures that can be aggregated across all subjects and both relate to environment—we see real difficulties with evaluating environment simply by metrics.  REF is designed to recognize and support essential research activities, including a rich academic culture represented by seminars, workshops, conferences etc, participation and leadership in learned societies, editorial work, peer review and collaboration across institutions.  Not to assess these vital academic functions would be to undermine them.

 

Wider use of metrics would also raise real issues of equity even at UoA level.  It is clear from the RHS’s analysis of REF2014 that research income and PGR numbers were crucial to success in terms of research environment. Every university in the top 22, bar one, graduated at least 1 PhD per FTE over the REF cycle and 10 more than 1.5; the best predictor of rank in research environment was the number of PhDs per staff FTE between 2008 and 2013.  Given the concentration of AHRC funding for doctoral study in a small number of consortia, in which Russell Group institutions predominate, this makes it almost impossible for small units in less-research intensive universities to do well in terms of environment no matter how strong their collective research endeavours.  The RHS views this with real concern.

 

 

  • What use is made of the information gathered through REF in decision making and strategic planning in your organisation? What information could be more useful? Does REF information duplicate or take priority over other management information?

This is not primarily a question for representative bodies such as learned societies.  Indeed, as REF information is provided at aggregate levels, and only every seven years or so, it is hard to see it as a significant source of management information.

The RHS believes that there is a useful purpose to having research, particularly research outputs, evaluated by independent external assessors.  However, if, as we believe and as is set out in question 2, REF is a tool to allocate QR then it should be used for this purpose.   It should not be for government to suggest or draw on other uses of REF by individual universities and the RHS would resist any move to embed REF as a performance management tool.

 

  • What data should REF collect to be of greater support to Government and research funders in driving research excellence and productivity?

The RHS is sceptical as to whether data in and of itself can be used to drive research excellence.  We are strongly committed to research excellence, and to research publication in all its various guises, but see academic freedom, research time, the availability of funding and an atmosphere of creativity and communication as being far more pertinent to those working in Humanities as guarantees of research excellence and productivity. However, there are areas where data gathering as part of REF would usefully highlight areas of concern, for example historical research conducted in other languages and linguistic skills that need developing and/or support.

It is also the case that the suggestion in the recent Green Paper that measures of casualisation might serve as a measure of teaching quality could equally be applied to REF.  The close link between teaching and research is one of the great strengths of the British university system. This is reflected in the high proportion of staff on full academic contracts, which should be protected.  Collecting such data would also provide a clear picture of the employment position and foreground an issue that is of particular importance to ECRs and the future shape of the profession.

 

  • How might the REF be further refined or used by Government to incentivise constructive and creative behaviours such as promoting interdisciplinary research, collaboration between universities, and/or collaboration between universities and other public or private sector bodies?

This is in some ways a curious question: how can REF be used in support collaboration between universities when by its very nature it makes them compete?  However, the RHS is confident that collaborative mechanisms—which are often informal—are strong and that historians collaborate with as much or more vigour as ever.  There are also examples of strong regional partnerships that encourage and fund research and doctoral studentship collaborations, for example the White Rose.  These are, however, not directly related to REF.

Interdisciplinary research is stimulating and valuable but it is also important to defend multi-disciplinary collaborations and the single-discipline scholarship on which these rest.  Promoting interdisciplinary research is not in itself a guarantee of improvements in research quality and the RHS would encourage the review to address this directly.

In terms of REF, impact has clearly encouraged collaborations with other private and public sector bodies and there may be scope to adjust output criteria to acknowledge this.  The arrangements for cross-referencing interdisciplinary work to other panels and interdisciplinary specialists appear to have worked effectively, another strength of the flexibility provided by peer review.

 

  • In your view how does the REF process influence, positively or negatively, the choices of individual researchers and / or higher education institutions? What are the reasons for this and what are the effects? How do such effects of the REF compare with effects of other drivers in the system (e.g. success for individuals in international career markets, or for universities in global rankings)? What suggestions would you have to restrict gaming the system?

There is widespread concern over the potential for departments to score highly in REF by only submitting a small proportion of their staff.  There is a division of opinion among historians as to whether this should be addressed through a 100% return of eligible staff, given that a possible response would be to increase the use of teaching contracts and so alter the proportion of staff employed on full academic contracts (see the response to Qu. 4 above).

However, there is a clear desire to prevent—or discourage—institutions from gaming the system.  Not only can this have detrimental consequences for those omitted for strategic reasons but it can also lead to bad management decisions, as the 2/3 borderline is by far the most difficult to predict in internal assessment exercises. The RHS would therefore strongly favour restoring the previous system of requiring UoAs to identify the proportion of staff submitted.

It is hard to see how the other identified drivers affect historians or, indeed, most individual academics.  Only a handful of scholars operate strategically in ‘international career markets’ while ‘global rankings’ are of little relevance below institutional level and then only to a select group of universities.

 

  • In your view how does the REF process influence the development of academic disciplines or impact upon other areas of scholarly activity relative to other factors?  What changes would create or sustain positive influences in the future?

There is no doubt that REF has affected scholarly behaviour in History and that it will continue to do so.  The introduction of impact, discussed above, has encouraged the academic community to be more outward facing and has also diversified the understanding of academic merit. Promotion criteria, for example, now commonly reflect the importance of external engagement.  Less happily, the pressure for outputs has downgraded the status of the book in several disciplines—especially, but not exclusively, in the social sciences—where such publications used to be common.  The differential weighting of monographs has prevented this in History and other Humanities subjects, and the RHS sees this as essential both to prevent distorting the research process and to reflect the research and scholarship that goes into producing such a substantial piece of work.

There is some suggestion that triple or quadruple weighting of monographs, and other very substantial outputs, would be beneficial, removing what may be seen as a perverse incentive to produce lower-quality article-length outputs to meet the output requirement.  A single-authored 80-100,000-word monograph—the norm in our discipline—represents greater productivity than that required in other fields where team based research is the standard mode.  Against this is the point that book authors seldom write nothing else and the greater complication it would give to panel deliberations.  The RHS notes that the panel accepted 97% of double-weighting requests for REF2014, but this might change if the weighting rises.

One final concern is that REF pressure has downgraded the value of producing synthetic books and articles, which have an interpretative function and are primarily used for teaching purposes, including postgraduate teaching and training.  Though pedagogically important, these are unlikely to be included in TEF and so run a real risk of falling between two stools.  It would be helpful to have the value of these outputs recognised.

 

  • How can the REF better address the future plans of institutions and how they will utilise QR funding obtained through the exercise?

This is not a question that a learned society is well suited to answer but we are quite sure that our Fellows would resist adding bureaucratic requirements rather than taking them away.  There is also a concern that the ‘strategy’ sections of the environment and impact statements were the least valuable parts of all the submissions: they are brief, rhetorical, and impossible for the panel to check.

 

  • Are there additional issues you would like to bring to the attention of the Review?

The changes to the last REF were very profound and the RHS believes that there is a strong case for little or even minimal change to allow the present system to bed down, particularly in terms of the new emphasis on impact.  Institutions are already undertaking extensive planning for a future REF and there is no doubt that radical adjustment would be disruptive and costly.  As stated above, REF affects both individual and institutional choices; as research planning should look to the medium and long term, this is all the more reason not to keep moving the goalposts.

 

 

Interviews with Women Historians for International Women’s Day

To launch a new series of interviews, the RHS talks to three inspirational women about their careers as historians.

Just over a year ago the Royal Historical Society published its influential report, Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education, described by Dame Jinty Nelson as “an urgent summons to greater institutional engagement. The report was based on an RHS survey which received 707 responses from historians working in UK HE (21% of the sector). This data provided clear evidence that significant barriers to the advancement of women in the discipline still exist: the pay gap, variations in contract, challenges in returning to academic careers following parental leave, promotions, the limited number of female professors, and the persistence of unconscious bias. These issues remain live and pressing. However, many historians have since committed to tackling them within their departments. The RHS has been active in keeping gender equality high on the disciplinary agenda, while a significant number of departments are in the process of applying for the Athena Swan Charter Mark, coordinated by the Equality Challenge Unit. The RHS report was the subject of a THES article on International Women’s Day in 2015


Visible role models continue to inspire women, help them dream, and therefore achieve.” Dr Anindita Ghosh


International Women’s Day is just one day, but we need to appreciate the challenges women face in the Academy each and every day, and only by doing so can we bring about long term cultural change. Our report identified the importance of role models in inspiring all historians: 69% of respondents said someone in their department or faculty had served as a role model; 86% an individual in their field of history. Accordingly, the RHS will publish a series of inspirational interviews over the next twelve months. To launch the series we interviewed three distinguished senior historians – Margot Finn, Roberta ‘Bobby’ Anderson and Anindita Ghosh. We asked them about key moments in their careers; their attitudes to support (either the support they received or offer to others); and how life has changed during their careers. Margot Finn, RHS President-elect, had no one particular role model, but rather “a bricolage” of inspirational behaviour, drawn from observing the different ways historians conducted themselves and selecting what she found to be “admirable, efficacious and impressive”.  We offer these profiles in this spirit in the hope that you may draw inspiration from aspects of the experiences, insights and advice shared.


Professor Margot Finn is Chair in Modern British History at UCL.  Her work has covered a wide range of topics in British and imperial history from 1750 to 1914: Chartism, credit, legal culture and family networks. Some of her most pioneering research has brought together economic history and gender history, notably in her recent Leverhulme-funded project, The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, which has also engaged her in extensive public history work. She was formerly Head of Department, then Pro-Provost, at Warwick University and she served as a member of the REF History panel and a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Key moments:  Margot’s career to date has been an impressive success in all aspects of the academic role, but it has not always been easy. She started out as a historian with two formidable obstacles: her first degree was in science and then, just as she was making the transition to a new discipline and beginning archival research, her PhD supervisor died. Looking back, Margot recalled the two things that saved her. First, she was helped by several exceptionally kind and generous individuals, but second, she became very proactive in looking for opportunities for herself, which eventually led her to a two-year fellowship at the University of Chicago. There are several turning points in the career of a historian, Margot notes. “We still have incredible freedom to choose what we work on”, she emphasises, despite all the increasing pressures in academic life. “I especially love the exploratory stage, when you have finished one project and are thinking about what to do next.”  This is a wonderful moment, when you can decide to become a different kind of historian, meet new people, plan new research in new places.  As you progress through your career, you can help to shape a field, not just respond to it; you can create the dynamic of what people will do afterwards. And teaching can be immensely rewarding, an annual source of intellectual renewal, if you approach it in the right way.


Control what you can. It always helps to find out what’s available and plan ahead.


Support:  Margot focuses on the ways in which historians may support themselves and one another. She emphasises the importance of not isolating yourself: if you take the time to create networks, both formal and informal, at an early stage, they will sustain you throughout your career, as has the group of friends she made during her post-doc in Chicago. She has always been generous to junior colleagues, inspired by “the huge and disproportionate difference that even small acts of kindness can make”. She also values the opportunities in the discipline to push outside of our comfort zones, “whether that means going to a seminar outside your sub-specialism or forcing yourself to engage with the theoretically abstruse.”

How life has changed:  Margot again emphasises the importance of taking control as much as possible. You don’t have to be available 24/7; indeed, you should not be, otherwise you will be taken for granted.  For example, if you want to spend the afternoon researching in the British Library, don’t log in to their Wi-Fi, so you can’t check your email. Take decisions about when you’re off-line and put in place strategies that suit you to make it happen.


Devise your own strategies to work through constant noise or create silence. You don’t raise your market value by being constantly on the market”


roberta-andersonDr Roberta (Bobby) Anderson  is Senior Lecturer in History at Bath Spa University.  She works in the fields of early modern diplomatic and religious history and directs the university’s archive, which has developed from a collection of papers kept temporarily in the boot of her car to a permanent archive and repository.  After leaving school at 16 and working as a computer programmer—a role she has not yet managed to escape—she returned to education in 1992, converting from a BEd to a BA and going on to a PhD. She taught on a part-time, hourly paid basis for ten years, moving to a part-time and then a full-time contracted position.  In 2007, she was awarded the Higher Education Academy National Award for the Teaching of History in Higher Education.

Key moments: These often seemed accidental.  With children approaching secondary school and settled in a career, she wanted new challenges. She was tempted by an advert for an access course for local people that would lead to teacher training, but when her placement revealed she preferred academic work to working with children, she changed course, completing a BA and MA in her early forties.  A conversation with her undergraduate dissertation supervisor led her to apply successfully for a PhD place at Bath Spa University and she began teaching within six months of starting.  Historians know the importance of serendipity—the chance find in the archive—but this was also about taking opportunities as they arose and using them to strike out into new areas.


Historians know the importance of serendipity—the chance find in the archive—but this was also about taking opportunities as they arose and using them to strike out into new areas.”


Support:  At every career stage, the most important source of support has been other people, particularly colleagues who were also mentors and friends. She remained close to her undergraduate supervisor, who was a constant source of support and honest advice. Another close friend has provided research advice, reading drafts and giving honest feedback. These small acts have helped overcome the inevitable crises of confidence and the mutual support that these friendships provide has been invaluable. Institutional support has also been important, for example working with the Vice-Chancellor to establish a permanent university archive.


Small acts have helped overcome inevitable crises of confidence and the mutual support that these friendships provide has been invaluable.”


How has life changed?  Changes in employment law have improved conditions for hourly-paid staff, though they are still too widely used. She remembers the sense of ‘not having a home’ as particularly hard and regrets not asking sooner for a better contractual position. The position of women has, though, improved and the challenges facing early career historians are, she feels, largely the same for all.  She regrets the increasing paperwork and the tendency to homogenisation in teaching, the unintended consequences of quality assurance and ‘teacher training’.


Anindita GhoshDr Anindita Ghosh is Senior Lecturer in Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester. Her work focuses on colonial South Asia, looking at questions of culture, power and resistance, through a diverse range of topics: print culture in Bengal, the colonial city of Calcutta and how power operated in women’s daily lives.  All these themes coalesce around ideas of identity and resistance, illuminated by often-overlooked source material such as photographs, embroidery, songs and cheap print. She studied for a BA at the University of Calcutta and an MA at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi before moving to Cambridge to study for a doctorate with Polly O’Hanlon, (now Professor in Indian History and Culture in the Oriental faculty at Oxford University.)

Key moments:  Two stand out in her early career. Moving to JNU for her MA introduced her to an international academic environment, which she loved. She began to think about a PhD, having seen that women could excel in academic careers in India. She had no plans to move abroad, but was encouraged to apply for the Cambridge Nehru Scholarship by her father who sent her a paper cutting of the newspaper advertisement for it. The scholarship took her to Cambridge, where the research excitement she had first experienced at JNU deepened. Like many ECRs, she applied for anything going and was appointed to a Simon Fellowship in Manchester in 1999, assuming she would return to India in a few years. When an academic post in her field was advertised in Manchester, she excluded herself as having insufficient teaching experience and only applied after encouragement from her Head of Department. She got the job.


We can limit our ambitions unless they are pointed out to us.” 


Support:  The support and encouragement of those in senior positions has been crucial, and more important than formal mechanisms. As she says, “we can limit our ambitions unless they are pointed out to us”, which is just what her Head of Department did for her. A Vice-Dean, a senior female academic elsewhere in the Faculty, organised a one-off open meeting for women academics, which got a huge response. Sharing experiences was transformative, often in unexpected ways, not least when other women spoke of feeling intimidated by male colleagues or even some students.  But Anindita felt unaffected by this; as she came from a different culture, she ‘could not read the codes’.  So, while she has never felt her body space invaded or experienced direct sexism, this may be in part because she “may not have perceived sexist intent”. But, having been taught by women herself, she also had access to strong role models, notably the “supremely confident” and fiery women academics she saw at JNU. It is hard for women with familial responsibilities to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and one has to work doubly hard, but friends and colleagues make it possible and bearable.


We should encourage young women to be more assertive, to challenge unfairness and raise their voices. Young women should also be ambitious and push themselves forward.”


How has life changed?  Coming from a different academic culture made for a steep learning curve, particularly once she started teaching, but interaction with students was always very enjoyable. Academic life is now less formal; department meetings are no longer characterised by tweed jackets and addressing people by academic titles. This is important not only because younger members of staff found them intimidating but because young women, in particular, often moulded their presence and responses to fit in with the environment. We should encourage young women to be more assertive, to challenge unfairness and raise their voices. Young women should also be ambitious and push themselves forward. Often they are not very good at that. Mentorship has a really important role to play here; it would be great to see more ‘nurture groups’ for women across all levels and ages, not least as it is much easier to feel strong when you realise that it’s not just you.  This is particularly the case for women of colour. There are so few BME historians and even fewer women of colour in senior academic positions. It feels doubly hard for them to navigate the same obstacles and ‘being feisty’ does not suit everyone. But they need to make a difference; they need to be at the top.  A student of Bangladeshi origin asked Anindita recently “how did you get to be where you are?”  She then touchingly said: “I want to be like you”. Visible role models continue to inspire women, help them dream, and therefore achieve.


There are so few BME historians and even fewer women of colour in senior academic positions. It feels doubly hard for them to navigate the same obstacles and ‘being feisty’ does not suit everyone. But they need to make a difference; they need to be at the top.”