History, Employment and Generational


James Vemon

(University of Manchester)

There has be= much talk of 'the crisis of History' in Britain during recent yew. And yet, the vast majority of historians in Britain have remained remarkably untroubled by debates about the status of historical knowledge after the postmodern turn which have slowly begun to infuse their scholarly journals and conferences. With the patronizing and complacent air that only the British can affect, then debates are invariably dismissed as the products of Others - the French, North American feminists and postcolonial critics (a very familiar triumvirate in narratives of the British nation). Instead 'the crisis of History' is more generally perceived to be at root a technical, not an epistemological, problem. Technical in the sense of relating to the changing mechanisms of funding higher education and their effects not only on the nature of historical research and teaching but most importantly, on patterns of employment and the lack of generational renewal.

As there has been no systematic study of the changing stage of the historical profession in Britain in the post-war period. it is difficult to provide anything other than an impressionistic survey of this perceived' crisis of History' in Britain. However, one might usefully start by comparing two widely publicized and discussed =counts of thew changes by David Cannadine: the first published in 1987 as Cannadine left Cambridge for the USA and Columbia, the second delivered on his return to UK this year in his Inaugural Lecture as Director of the Institute of Historical Research in London

In 1987 Cannadinc contrasted the rapid expansion of the profession in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, and its fragmentation into a plethora of sub-disciplines, with its effective loss of a public audience beyond the academy. The failure of historians to provide a grand narrative of the nation's past had, he argued, allowed them to become easy targets for the savage cuts in higher education instigated by the first Thatcher govermnent in 1981. The prognosis was grim: although the need for new synoptic grand narratives was urgent it would be irresponsible to encourage students to pursue graduate work for a professional ear= in a discipline in terminal decline. "Year by yew, as more jobs are frozen and almost no new appointments are made, the age profile of our profession becomes ever more top-heavy, and departments ever more stagnant, fossilized and gerontocratic, as vie all grow old together. In ten years' time, if present trends continue. there will be almost no professional his~ in the country below the age of forty, a perfect recipe for intellectual stagnation ... the almost total cessation of recruitment means that young lectures have already become things of the past, and a whole generation of scholars has been lost to the profession." This May, just over ten years later, Cannadine returned to his theme of terminal decline. Lamenting "the proletarianisation of British academic life" he suggested that not only had the chronic underfunding of the 1980s continued unabated, but that a new scourge of Kafkaesque bureaucracy. had left the academy in general, and the discipline of history in particular, internationally uncompetitive. thorn of confidence. creativity or imagination.

Despite the unflattering nature of Cannadine's analyses they have struck a powerful chord among his beleaguered colleagues in Britain. For almost two decades the profession has been gripped by a sense of its own deepening crisis. The History Universities Defence Group. estabilished in 1994 to provide a more effective voice for professional protests against financial cuts and the marginalisation of History within the proposed National Curriculum for schools, has in~ proved a continual source of pessimism: chronicling the downsizing of History Departments, the declining numbers of undergraduate and postgraduate applications but the rise in admissions, and so on. Despite numerous discussions. working groups and conferences, there is now a wide~ sense of defeatism, that the trends of downsizing and casualization of staff, massification of students and dumbing down of degrees can not be bucked, that the halcyon days of the 1970s are gone forever.

And yet, worse still. as cannadine's recent broadside indicates, during the 1990s the traditional practices of historical teaching and research have come under attack from the new management ethos of accountability and the auditing of public finances. In 1992 the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) was undertaken to monitor the quantity andquality of academic research. an exercise m~ in 1996 and soon to be undertaken again in 2001. Historians' research 'output' was now measured for the first time and Departments ranked on a sliding scale of 1 - 5 Research was no longer the private affair of individuals, it was publicly scrutinized and had to be produced every four yew. Similarly, the government agencies which funded postgraduate began to tighten up their procedures monitoring and penalizing those Departaments which failed to ensure its doctoral students completed within 3 years. laying down guidelines on the type of research training, Departments should provide in an attempt to move decisively away from the old master-apprentice model of graduate supervision to more collective forms of graduate teaching Undergraduate teaching too was scrutinized with History being one of the first disciplines to be subjected to the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) in 1993?, with each Department's undergraduate provision assessed and ranked. Such was the furore over the assumed imposition of external 'generic' standards of good teaching practice, that the TQA has recently been replaced by a new new Quality Assurance Agency which has allowed disciplines to set their own benchmark standards of good practice. Again, History has been one of the first disciplines to be involved in this exercise with the History Universities Defence Group providing a statement on the purpose nature and utility of an undergraduate degree in History against which the provision of all Departments

will be assessed.

In short, the discourses of academic management have demanded radical transformations in the culture of historical research and teaching. For arguably the first time in its history the discipline of History has had to become self-reflexive justifying to external assessors when why and how they do what they do. It has bean an agonizing process that an aging profession has perceived as a threat, further erosion of their traditional status and practices.

And Yet, while then mechanisms have undoubtedly entailed an enormous increase in the administrative burden of British academic life, they have also provided a greater fluidity in the job market. No doubt this is partly because many newly defined as 'reseach Inactive' were pushed (or jumped) towards early retirement However, competition between institutions for higher ratings also led to the poaching of internationally acclaimed researchers, and therefore replacement posts by younger, cheaper staff. Although there is no hard and fast evidence for this, it is generally agreed that the logjam of frozen posts turned to a trickle of replacement posts in the early 1 M a trickle that has escalated every four years as a fresh RAE approached. My own Department at Manchester provides anecdotal evidence of this. Having made no new appointments since 198 1, two were made in 1993, and one a year between 1995 and 1999 as others retired or left to chairs elsewhere. A Depa~ent with no one under the age of 40 in the late 1980s (and only two women out of 3 1), slowly acquired colleagues in the late 20s or early 30s (although only two new women). Broadly similar pat~ were repeated elsewhere.

Those hired in the 1990s had no conception of a professional life before RAEs and TQAs, they had often been trained under the new dispensation of graduate teaching, and had faced enormous competition for the few (invariably temporary) jobs they had secured. Unlike their colleagues who looked back to the fall from a golden age, they faced a future that by their colleagues' standards would become progressively bleaker. And yet it was a future that had been denied a generation of students during the 1980s. 11 was a future whose working conditions demanded a radical overhaul of curricula and teaching practices so largely in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a future that locked not to the discipline of History as a fortress to be protected against the excursions of others, but which recognized the vitality and importance of historical research and teaching across a range of other disciplines - disciplines such as cultural studies that had flourished as History had 'declined'. It was a future where one perhaps did not have to aspire to be published by Past and Present or English Historical Review but could look to a proliferating number of journals with increasing interdisciplinary accents without feeling professionally challenged (but tolerating the sneers of many of one's colleagues).

However, it was a future that was not free from the rhetoric of crisis. Yet far from seeing the crisis of History as a technical, institutional one, the new generation of scholars were as likely to perceive the crisis as an epistemological one. The genealogy of this epistemological crisis has been well documented and 1 do not want to rehearse those histories here. What I do want to emphasize however is that this questioning of the established methodologies and epistemologies of History were not confined in any simple sense to the new generation of scholars hired in the 1990s. It came from disparate sites and fields under the influence of feminism and the cultural turn in disciplines such as anthropology. sociology, literary and cultural studies and geography. Many of these influences had a greater impact in the polytechnics and new universities where the disciplinary boundaries so marked in the older universities were less marked (and were women were more likely to be employed). In recent years it has been noticeable that many of the older universities have been concerned to keep abreast of these developments - while posts still tend to be advertised in terms of the history of nation states in particular chronological periods, there has been a growing number of posts advertised in areas such as gender or cultural history.

Indeed, the amorphous field of cultural history has grown rapidly. It is almost impossible now to attend conferences or read journals without the language of cultural history - of discourses, cultural practices. appropriation and contestation, imagined communities, identities, subjectivities - being freely and liberally deployed. Significantly, much of this is done without any substantial theoretical engagement so that terms and concepts which once carried important critical freight have now become blandly appropriated to the conventional methodologies of say political or social histories. These days it seems we am all eager to be cultural historians - it has become a vehicle of employment, and the winning of research grants. Many of those young scholars finishing doctorates, seeking employment and contracts for monographs. tread a careful path between speaking the fashionable language of cultural history while distancing themselves from its critical edges. There is a sense in these developments of History once moire covering its back, defusing the critique of its epistemologies behind estabilished methodologies, and redirecting ~on to the discipline's perceived institutional crisis.

I want to end by suggesting that it may be fruitful to explore the relationship between the perceived institutional and epistemological 'arise of History' in Britain. It may be that the increasingly hegemonic discourses of management of accountability and public auditing British higher education helped create an environment that necessitated a more critical and self-reflexive rethinking of History and the epistemologies upon which its traditional practices of research and teaching were founded. It may he that the widespread antipathy towards these management discourses amongst British historians typified by Cannadine's recent Inaugural Lecture signify in part a point of resistance to the rethinking of History and its epistemologies and practices. It may he that the increasing routinization of a once critical cultural history is becoming the basis upon which generational renewal can occur with a rhetoric of novelty and innovation but without significantly challenging the traditional practices of historical research and teaching.