The Oxford Historian: Michaelmas Term 2018

Professor John Watts

The Faculty has an air of aftermath this morning: we have just been through another undergraduate admissions round – with the largest number of applicants ever, and, anecdotally, they look very diverse too, despite the continual round of negative press on this topic levelled at the University.  It is a massive operation, stressful and time-consuming for everyone concerned, but it is positive too – the sudden arrival of well over a thousand interviewees injects energy into the haggard Oxford of early December, and the caring instincts of tutors, worn down by a long Michaelmas Term, are revived by the recognition that the decisions we take have real significance for young people’s lives.

It has been a busy term – certainly for me, settling in to a new role – but also, of course, for everyone else.  Among the highlights have been three lectures.  The first was a remarkable talk (with barely a note!) by Peter Pulzer, emeritus Professor of Government and Public Administration, and fellow of All Souls: he spoke of his experiences as a child in Vienna during Kristallnacht in 1938, and went on to place Nazi policy and public reaction in a wider context.  The second was Rob Iliffe’s inaugural lecture as Professor of the History of Science: in a sweeping survey, covering several centuries, Rob told us the story of how imagination came to be a recognised part of the practice of science.  The third was the annual Harmsworth lecture from our visiting professor, Barbara Savage, who told us the life story of Merze Tate, after whom one of our classrooms is named.  Tate was an African-American historian of international relations who came to Oxford with funding from a black sorority in 1932 and went on to have a long and distinguished career in the USA, her work on the transnational networks of non-state actors anticipating the historiography of the twenty-first century by several decades. 

The three lectures said something about the great diversity of today’s Faculty: the wide range of its interests, and – as ever in Oxford – the fresh perspectives, typically coming in at an angle, that open up new insights and approaches.  Diversity is a central issue for us this year in particular, as we prepare our application for Athena Swan accreditation – a system of grading for university departments based on how effectively and openly they address the under-representation of women at the higher levels of academic study.  In History at Oxford, women are a majority among applicants and (just) at undergraduate level, but they become a narrow minority among master’s students and a considerable one among doctoral students; by the time we get to employment, women are about a third, and at professorial level more like a quarter.The Faculty has an excellent team working on our submission, informed by statistics, focus groups, and two questionnaires which produced 170 pages of comment from colleagues and students.  While there is much that men and women alike appreciate about the Faculty, there is also much for us to learn and change, as we try to be more equal and inclusive.

And we want to do these things in other ways too.  This autumn, the Royal Historical Society produced a report on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History’, detailing lower-than expected participation and employment rates in History among students and colleagues from ethnic minorities, as well as disturbing examples of racial prejudice.  Partly through our Race Equality Working Group, the Faculty is working on an action plan and a range of initiatives to tackle this situation.  In particular, it is a big concern that History – still such a useful degree for employment in so many lines of work – has not been attracting applications from black and minority ethnic young people in the same proportions as other degree subjects.  Broadening our syllabus to include more attention to extra-European history and to questions of race and ethnic interaction is something we have already begun to do, but I hope we shall also find ways of attracting more students of colour and building links with the local community.

And, finally, on a bright, cold Thursday morning in 7th Week, I joined forty others at an inaugural workshop on Disability History, organised by Perry Gauci and colleagues from the Disability Working Group.  We heard papers on epilepsy in Africa, dyslexia in the UK, teaching disability history, and the relationship between sadness and depression.  This struck me as a model for how a community of scholars might respond to a question of social inequality – by engaging with it both as citizens and academically, incorporating the insights of those who have studied disability in our thinking as historians.  I am pleased to say that the conference was such a success that a group has formed to take forward the study of disability history in the Faculty in the years to come.  Our late friend and colleague, Rees Davies, used to say that ‘in Clio’s house, there are many mansions’; I think it is exciting that new wings are being added all the time.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

John Watts

Professor of Later Medieval History, Chair of the Faculty Board

Corpus Christi College


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