How it looks from the Faculty (2017/18)

Michaelmas Term 2017

Are anniversaries the enemy of good history? In an era when we uncertainly sense that the rules of the past no longer apply as they once did, the prominence of historical anniversaries continues to increase. Some of this of course is the work of a media and publishing industry which likes nothing more than to Google present and forthcoming anniversaries. But the more serious business of History too dances to the rhythms of anniversaries. Thus, this year we based our annual Alumni Lecture (given by Steve Smith) around the centenary of the Russian revolution, while also hosting a re-enactment of Martin Luther’s quin-centenary of posting the Ninety-Five Theses, an event which reached its peak this October. The role of historians at such commemorations is in part that of trouble-fêtes, pointing out that the more cherished stories, such as that of Luther hammering his theses to the church door, are in all probability retrospective inventions. But it also falls to historians to provide the means to comprehend the anniversaries thrown up by the dictates of modern western calendars. Some of these events lend themselves better than others to the anniversary game. The centenary of the First World War has provided multiple occasions for historians to reflect on the enormous scale of the conflict, notably in Oxford by trying to nudge attention away from the omnipresent Western front, and towards the parallel conflicts in Italy, Russia and the Middle East. The Luther commemoration, too, has provided occasions for societies in central Europe to reflect on their complex confessional pasts, even if in Britain it has often become intertwined with the noise of Brexit. But, perhaps more surprisingly, the centenary of the Russian revolution of 1917 has struggled to act as a stimulus to wider debate, either about the subsequent history of Russia or about the social and political upheavals of the post-1918 era of which it was the harbinger. The determination of the Bolsheviks to storm the future which for so long seemed to epitomise the mood of the European twentieth century does not seem to have the same relevance to our very different times.

If these anniversaries are to be more than commercial and media opportunities, they must provide the means for historians to convey something of the substantive content of the past. Most of the events we study were irredeemably messy, violent and complex. That truth does not lend itself to soundbites, nor still less to digestible lessons for the present day. But there is a great deal in current historical investigations of slavery and empire which has a broader if challenging relevance to the contemporary world. This is what underpins our initiative to develop teaching resources for GCSE History that Miles Larmer describes elsewhere in this issue. But much the same too is true of female emancipation and the much more contested history of concepts of gender equality across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all of which will undoubtedly be given new visibility by the forthcoming centenary of (partial) female suffrage in Britain in 1918. In all of this, it falls to institutions such as the History Faculty not simply to assert some facile relevance of History but its complex importance for the present. 

Hilary Term 2018

History changes shape, as the vantage-point from which one views it changes. This banale observation has seemed particularly apposite over the last few years. The combined impact of events from 9/11 to the financial crisis of 2008, and the Brexit referendum of 2016 and its still uncertain consequences, has emphatically demonstrated that the twentieth century has ended. And, with that, so have certain narratives. In Britain the narrative of transition from world power, to decolonisation, and participation in an integrated Europe that, for so long, seemed to structure our understanding of the contemporary present no longer seems relevant to a more internally divided and fissiparous United Kingdom. Nor, of course, are such changes of perspective specific to Britain. They are mirrored too in the uncertainties that surround the European Union, and the USA.

Those events change History too. The teaching of twentieth-century British History can no longer rest on the familiar progressive logics of expansion of the suffrage, world wars, welfarism, devolution, and membership of the European Union. Instead, the events of recent years have raised more awkward, and challenging, questions about Britain and Ireland, the realities and continuing legacies of colonialism, and the tensions within a multi-national Union.

It would be a little misleading to claim that the changes introduced in the History syllabus in Oxford over the last ten years pre-figured these wider events. We perhaps got there first with the turn from an Anglocentric history to a History of the British Isles, and the very successful course options on Modern Ireland and on the Troubles. But there remains much to do in terms of Scottish and Welsh history, as well as the multicultural history of Britain. And then there is empire. The Oxford History Faculty has good claim to have been at the fore in the transition from a history of empire (and its subsequent dismantlement) to a more complex history of imperial entanglements, integrated into wider dynamics of global networks, economic and cultural relations, and forms of globalisation. All of that is evident in the shift to a greater emphasis on global history in our syllabus, and the success of the Centre for Global History. But, as the recent controversies over Oxford’s imperial past demonstrate, some of these issues also have a more local relevance. Oxford is a twenty-first century global city, and that too prompts us to think anew about historical issues.

None of this is to be deplored. Indeed, it demonstrates the continuing relevance of our discipline, and how we study and teach it. That positive spirit of change was, for many of us symbolised by our colleague Mark Whittow, whose highly influential work took the history of the Byzantine world, and located it in a range of regional, Asian and global contexts. Mark’s tragic death in a car accident on 23 December 2017 has overshadowed the first months of 2018, and as a tribute to this most energetic, warm and humane of colleagues we republish in this issue of The Oxford Historian one of the tributes paid to Mark by our colleague William Whyte at his funeral in Oxford in February.

Trinity Term 2018

So many of the questions which preoccupy historians today are concerned not so much with events, and their rather constraining frameworks of causes and consequences, but with shape, experience, and scale. If works of History published, say, forty years ago tended to take an event and explore its gestation, dynamics, and after-effects, the work of many historians is now focused on mapping (sometimes literally) more amorphous processes, and rediscovering their meanings, viewed not so much from outside as from within. This helps to explain the simultaneous interest in longer chronologies and in specific moments of experience, be those ones shared across wide communities, or captured with particular intensity through individual lives.

The field of Global History well demonstrates those trends. The welcome success of Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads indicates the desire of a History-literate public to understand historical trends across new horizons; while other work in the field has focused on particular moments of encounter, between different worlds, encapsulated in the individual experiences of migration. The Annual Alumni Lecture given in May by Erica Charters, the director of the Global History Centre, gave life to these shifting shapes of Global History. Her lecture, which we re-publish in this issue of The Oxford Historian, conveys the sweep of global trends, both of imperial conquest and the consequent two-way spread of diseases, across the changing shapes of the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century. Yet, the impact of those changes was, above all, individual. As Matthew Crampton’s article demonstrates, the related phenomena of indentured labour, penal transportation and, above all, slavery were not just global trends which occurred “out there”, but ones that were intimately connected with the lives of many British people of the era.

Central to these processes was of course the overarching political carapace of empire. Britain, and perhaps Oxford in particular, has been experiencing in recent years an overdue coming to terms with the legacies of empire. There has been much that has been positive in this process, notably the way in which it has encouraged our students to debate the interconnectedness of present and past. But we risk trivialising the study of empire if we reduce it to a particular definition. Empire, as recent events have well demonstrated, is one of the most obstinate continuities of History. The forms of empire may have varied greatly, but its reality has endured. This is a point which is very well made in John Darwin’s contribution to this issue. John’s long and immensely distinguished career in Oxford in many ways traversed the transition away from a certain end-of-empire history, which dominated the British historical profession in the 1960s and 1970s, to the new fields of Global History at the end of the century. But, as he rightly emphasises in this article, in the twenty-first century the phenomenon of empire has returned centre-stage, to seem more relevant, and more contemporary, than ever.

The shapes of History change, and so does the structure of our degree. Many of you will be familiar, from articles in previous issues, with the reforms we have made to the content of the undergraduate degree, intended notably to give non-European history rather greater prominence, and to bring in thematic papers that cross chronological and thematic boundaries. That is now coming into full operation. The students who started in October 2017 will be the first to follow the revised curriculum; but, ahead of that, we have also made a change to the examination structure. This summer, almost as you read this issue of The Oxford Historian, second-year Historians will, for the first time be doing an examination which will count towards their Finals. We have moved the examination in the outline paper in British History from the end of the course to the end of Trinity Term in the second year; and we have also changed it from a conventional three-hour examination into a take-away examination, whereby the students will write over a period of ten days three essays (each of 2,000 words) from an examination paper, across the latter half of Eighth Week, and the whole of Ninth Week. There are many reasons for doing this, not least to alleviate the stress of revising a range of papers at the end of the Third Year. But, above all, the change is intended to diversify the skills we assess in Finals. With a compulsory thesis, an extended essay (tied to the Special Subject) and now a take-away examination, students doing Finals in History will be tested in a variety of ways, alongside four conventional three-hour examinations. Older generations of alumni will no doubt recall the particular challenge – or medieval ordeal – of sitting ten three-hour examinations in one week for Finals; but I am not sure that they would regard the new mixed structure, and more especially the innovation of an examination at the end of the second year, as less of a challenge.

This is the last issue of The Oxford Historian, in which I will have had a hand. I pass the responsibility of Chair of the Board of the Faculty to John Watts this summer, after a very enjoyable and fulfilling three years as Chair. There has been much to do, not all of it foreseen, but plenty has happened that has helped to move the faculty forward, not least through the essential and generous support of our alumni community. John will continue that process with great energy and intelligence, and his contribution to this issue will give you a foretaste of what he intends to do.

Chair of the Faculty Board
Professor of Contemporary European History and Tutor at Balliol College

List of site pages