The View from the Chair

During his first year in office as Chair of the Faculty Board, Martin Conway reflects on the changes in the Faculty and his aims as Chair.

Change is what historians are supposed to understand: radical and revolutionary change, incremental almost imperceptible evolutions, or even the simple absence of any discernible change, these all form part of the bread and butter of historical analysis from the undergraduate essay to the scholarly article and the finished monograph. But change is not solely something that affects those we study; it also happens to us. In terms of Oxford History, some of those external drivers of change are rather wearily familiar. Government makes the weather, if not all of the policies within which British academic institutions operate; through alterations to fee structures, the funding provision for research, and the ever more dense regulations imposed on all publicly-funded institutions. But change also comes from the outside in other ways: through the funding provided by the institutions of the EU for research, through the need for universities such as Oxford to compete for the best students – undergraduate and postgraduate – in what is now a much more international academic world, and through the manifold ways in which the academic study of History is influenced by wider political and social forces. However, not all forms of change come from outside; they are also generated from within, through shifts in student (not consumer!) expectations, in the composition of our own ranks, and, most profoundly, in the way we think about History as a discipline.

Since I took over last September from Jane Humphries, after her three very successful years, as Chair of the Board of the History Faculty, I have been made intensely aware of the ways in which these forms of change are having a profound influence on what must inevitably seem to many to be a rather immobile institution. In terms of the various forces pressing in on us from outside, none is more tangible than the ways in which state funding of graduate study has declined over recent years. If, say, twenty years ago, Oxford History could reasonably expect that most of its best British and European students would get some form of public financing, that is absolutely not the case now. The funding that comes to Oxford for graduate studentships from the government via the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has declined substantially and is set to decline further in the coming years. We can bemoan this, and we often do, including lobbying the government for a reversal of some of the most painful cuts. But the reality is that History in Oxford, in common with all of the other major British universities, will also have to find its own salvation. We are not the most vulnerable: Oxford has a substantial structure of its own scholarships, some historic, and some more recent. But we clearly have to do more to make reliable funding for graduate work at both the Masters and doctoral level affordable for all of our best students, regardless of their social or national background. This is what the History Faculty Board has now decided to do. You will find a form about an alumni-led campaign for graduate scholarships in this magazine, and I fear that you will hear more from us on this subject. The ambition is to create graduate scholarships in History, based on the giving of our former students, both graduate and undergraduate, and tied, where the donors wish, to a college.

However, much of the change taking place in the History Faculty is more internal than external. At the heart of it is a substantial revision of the undergraduate syllabus, undoubtedly the most important one undertaken for twenty years or so. It has been some years in gestation, involving working parties, alternative models, and then finally at the end of last Trinity Term, a vote – perhaps we should call it a referendum – which has resulted in a series of decisions. These are to renovate the outline papers in British and European and World History, and supplement them with Theme papers that will cut across borders both geographical and chronological. Another is to introduce a requirement in the course rubric that during their three-year course students in single-honours History should study at least one paper of non-British and non-European history. And, finally, the examination of British History in Finals will be done by a take-away essay examination written over ten days at the end of the second year, rather than a conventional three-hour paper in Schools.

The students studying History come now from a much greater variety of backgrounds than ever was formerly the case, partly because of the considerable efforts that Oxford Historians have expended across the collegiate university on various initiatives to address issues of access, but also partly because History now appeals to different students in different ways.  The mythical days when student historians arrived in Oxford with a shared understanding of historical events and methodologies have now emphatically gone. Today’s students have had their enthusiasm for the subject kindled by much more diverse and often bitty curricula that have introduced them to a wide range of areas of historical study, including the development of research skills that were formerly largely absent in schools. We as a Faculty need to respond to these wider changes. That means looking wider afield, both conceptually and geographically, but also approaching the familiar with new questions. The recent controversy about Rhodes has had many negative aspects, most notably the opportunity it has provided for Oxford to be typecast once again as an institution rooted in the past. But, more positively, it provides an opportunity for the History Faculty to think about the questions of colonial and imperial legacies which it raises, and to prompt our students to address them in their necessary complexity. Our students of today are going to build their subsequent lives in a much more inter-related and more mobile world, where they will take for granted the ability to communicate instantly across the world. But they will also be confronted by enormous problems of economic and social conflict, global inequality and conflicting ideological world views. In thinking about what we teach, we should not simply seek to address those issues, but give students the resources to engage with it and to understand it.

None of this, of course, means that the core values of History are being swept away. Undergraduate tutorials, essay writing, and the debating of historical problems all remain central to what we do. But we are also doing new and more varied things, including the very successful undergraduate thesis, which is now some twenty-years old. Students at the undergraduate and Masters level also spend more time in classes, presenting and discussing their ideas, and that will continue to develop if and when we move, as we hope we eventually shall, to the new building that the University intends to build for the Humanities faculties on the former Radcliffe Infirmary site. The shift to a take-away examination in British History is also intended to address one of the most obstinate problems of recent decades: the modest but significant gap in the performance of male and female students in History Finals. Quite why this discrepancy has come into existence has been the subject of much research and debate, but one of its central elements seems to be the reliance on three-hour examinations on outline papers of British and European and World History. By changing one of these into a take-away examination, we hope that we shall begin to see the disappearance of the underperformance of women in History Finals.

The introduction of these changes also, of course reflects the changing shape of the Faculty. We are, and remain, by some distance the largest institution in the world for study and research in History, with around 100 permanent staff, but now supplemented by a larger community of short-term and research appointments, some of whom are intended to meet teaching needs while others are working on the externally-funded research projects which the History Faculty has developed so successfully over recent years. But, as a consequence, History is no longer a virtual community of college tutors, who come together periodically to decide admissions and examinations. It has become a much more integrated teaching and research institution, and one which has now developed a more tangible sense of its collective identity. This was brought home to us in January by the sudden death of Hubert Stadler, our Graduate Officer, whom Ian Archer writes about in the following pages. His death was a significant loss which we all feel deeply, and which serves to underline our sense of community. We do not, you will not be surprised to hear, always agree, either on issues of historical scholarship or on questions such as the shape of the curriculum or the methods of examination. But it is through such healthy debate and the different forums in which they take place that we do of course develop a stronger sense of who we are. And, measured in that way, Oxford History is both a very healthy and an evolving institution.

 

- Martin Conway

Chair of the Faculty Board

 

 

List of site pages