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A Teachable Moment?

In this latest series for Broadsides, our colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific have detailed how the jobs crisis and the dramatic reduction in research funding for academics in the humanities and social sciences pose existential threats to British Studies. In this essay, I explore what those of us in teaching-focused positions – the majority of NACBS members, as in the academy at large – and undergraduate-only institutions can do to make the case for the vitality and importance of our field.


I am a tenure-track assistant professor at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in the rural Midwestern United States. (Very unusually for a small American college, my department was already home to two other British historians, Michael Guenther and Elizabeth Prevost.) Grinnell has always been proudly and solely focused on educating undergraduates. Should current trends hold, however, in particular the “evaporation of available research funding,” more and more of our colleagues in the field will end up in situations similar to mine: teaching only at the bachelor’s level and lacking the opportunity to advise and learn from research-active postgraduates. The reality of the job market is already such that vanishingly few of us, even those of us lucky enough to land permanent employment, will get to choose what kind of institution we work at, whether public or private, comprehensive, research, or teaching, with or without any MAs, PhDs, or postdoctoral scholars as part of the ecosystem. 


From my vantage point six years into the job, those of us in British Studies can be justly proud of the intensive research training we provide to undergraduates, especially in primary sources and in early modern topics. As a specialist in the English Reformation, I have guided undergraduate research projects based on pamphlets, sermons, petitions, parliamentary debates, statutes, law cases, depositions, libels and state papers from the late fifteenth to the end of the eighteenth century – available in (scans and transcriptions of) their original spelling and formatting thanks to the wealth of printed sourcebooks and digital humanities projects produced by scholars in the field. (Some of these resources are open-access, made possible by state and private funding that seems to always be at risk, while others are only accessible to students at well-resourced institutions such as Grinnell. This is a disparity that a professional organization like the NACBS can potentially help to ease, by negotiating with digital humanities publishers for better rates and access for our members.)  


All undergraduate students who pass through British Studies courses such as mine – the courses that we all teach as our bread and butter – gain valuable experience in conceptualizing and managing complex research projects and understanding how history is produced. In the Anglophone academy, British Studies is special because students can often read the words in their primary sources without the help of a translator or editor. The value of this simple fact should not be underestimated. With our guidance, this allows them to become close to the sources in a way that they could not do in other fields without years of linguistic training. Despite this, these sources still present appealing challenges for undergraduates learning to interpret early modern print and syntax (even later seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century paleography), as well as to absorb the religious, political, cultural, and economic context and allusions necessary to grasp intent and meaning. In a new era of education shaped, if not upended, by artificial intelligence, reading primary sources and searching for the kind of scholarship that can best illuminate them is the kind of task that plays into student curiosity and rewards their willingness to personally engage. 


Undergraduate research is of course no substitute for the work of doctoral candidates and junior scholars. As Asheesh Siddique argues in the galvanizing inaugural post of this series, we need a “coordinated, field-wide strategy to revive investment in our research enterprise [and] to fight for massively expanded funding for the humanities in general.” Yet Siddique also posits that one way to address the jobs-and-funding polycrisis facing British Studies is to “make the case [to endowments, administrators, and the general public] for why the field matters to students.” By this metric, I am perhaps more optimistic in my outlook than the other writers in this series. In the United States, an enduring fascination with the British monarchy and Britain’s imperial legacy have translated into robust enrollments in our courses, which in turn means that the scholarship in our field has a wider readership and usership than we might expect (numbers that should in turn be harnessed to argue for expanded funding). My fellow editor here at Broadsides, Mikki Brock, observes that British Studies attracts students “who perhaps don’t want to take a class on gender or religion or race, but asks them to encounter those things anyway.” Once in the classroom, students learn, as James Vernon writes, that British history is “essential to understanding the forces that will shape the twenty-first century. The British Empire was ground zero to the forms of capitalism, migration, and environmental degradation that haunt our present and shape our futures.”


In her post, Kate Fullagar notes that the crises facing our field – and the humanities and social sciences throughout the West – are borne out of the prevailing political economy. She makes the connection that the “only way to change political minds” – and to raise the level of investment in our colleges and universities – “is to change elector minds.” Luckily, we reach young electors every day in our classrooms. Any effective strategy to nurture and grow our field is dependent on being transparent with our students about the circumstances under which they learn and we teach, especially the majority of faculty across the higher education sector who do not enjoy tenure, renewable contracts, or often even middle-class incomes. We can train ourselves to better communicate why our students should join us in agitating for increased state and private investment in higher education and how gains in this space can translate into better-resourced, more equitable (and crucially, in the United States), more affordable access. The NACBS can and ought to be undertaking this type of education: putting together a platform (a broadside!) that we can share with every student who enrolls for a course with us explaining how the scholarship that makes up British Studies is produced, why it is in peril, and what they can do about it. Our students are passionate organizers and activists for a host of causes. Let us make the case to them that the next cause they should adopt alongside us is one that will have a very direct impact on our working and educational lives. 


 

Catherine Chou is assistant professor of pre-modern European history at Grinnell College in Iowa. In addition to her work in British Studies, she is also the co-author of a forthcoming book with Mark Harrison, titled Revolutionary Taiwan: Reimagining Nationhood in a Changing World Order (Cambria Press, 2024). 


 

The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the original author/s and do not necessarily represent the views of the North American Conference on British Studies. The NACBS welcomes civil and productive discussion in the comments below. Our blog represents a collegial and conversational forum, and the tone for all comments should align with this environment. Insulting or mean comments will not be tolerated and NACBS reserves the right to delete these remarks and revoke the commenter’s site membership.

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