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A Way Forward: Look Local

This forum on the trouble in British history aims to “inspire…us to advocate for a way forward,” according to Asheesh Siddique’s opening piece. In that spirit, I want to offer here some possible ways to address the crisis in British history jobs. I have posted a longer version of this piece in the comment forum on this roundtable to respond to earlier blogs expressing doubt about the value and likely effectualness of such an effort and to make the case for British Studies. Here, for reasons of space, the focus is tactics for moving forward.

The causes of the current crisis are many and, to me, defy a clear political approach. On the one hand the job market problem is fueled by a crisis of research funding emerging, Siddique explains, partly from what might be characterized as Leftist political concern for social justice and the need to support more precarious, untenured scholars. At the same time, as James Vernon emphasizes, our universities are under attack by the far-right. Some of the skepticism about the value of fighting for the field that percolates through this forum is rooted, I suspect, in a sense of hopelessness about the practical possibility of doing so, given this range of adversarial forces. To pursue this struggle, beyond appreciating the problem and its stakes, we have to have a sense of how to address it and who should address it. The question of tactics is largely a question of whose responsibility it is to act.


There is an existing body, the NACBS representing British Studies in North America, with regional branches as well. Preservation of the field of British history is essential to its mission—and survival. If, as Siddique writes, cuts to research funding spread the view that British history is not a worthwhile research enterprise, the NACBS (in coordination with organizations representing other subfields) might be the appropriate body to make the case for the field (on this, see the longer version of this piece) to the Mellon, the SSRC, the ACLS, and so on, as part of a “coordinated field-wide strategy.”

There is also work for us as British historians and members of the NACBS: we must actively make the case to colleagues in other fields for why British history matters to the health of the discipline more broadly. When you give a talk in a department that does not have a British historian, ask questions, make it a source of embarrassment, and arm colleagues in other fields there with arguments that they can make to their departments and universities to push for tenure-track hiring in British history and, importantly, to forestall further losses in the field. We might also do this as alums interacting with our undergraduate and graduate programs, as advisors who write letters recommending our students to PhD programs, as colleagues who write tenure review letters. Our everyday interactions with other history departments are opportunities to press the case for our field, and to create a reputation cost for not having it.

This is a call to work locally and from the bottom-up rather than, as Vernon (echoed by Ted McCormick) advocates, taking on all the various crises in higher education to “first save our universities.” Not that that isn’t important and urgent and the root of the whole problem, across fields, but we might at the same time adopt a complementary tactical approach that might also be part of the overarching objective of saving our universities. As is clear from Kate Fullagar’s account of alternative rubrics for British history in Australia, as much as the problem is global, local contexts matter—as we would remind any student working on a transnational question. Though he ends on a “grim” note, without a sense of any scope for action, Glen O’Hara’s essay likewise makes clear the particular dynamics strangling the field in the UK.

The picture in Canada is yet again different, McCormick’s report shows. McCormick too ends on a “bleak note” to urge recognition that the problems facing British history are not really about British history in Canada, where it remains popular and a site of “intellectual vitality.” It is rather “the crisis in academic employment, it is the crisis in university governance, it is the crisis of social disinvestment in learning.” This is true, and the local context matters: In the US, there is, arguably, also a particular crisis in British history, as explained in the longer version of this piece. It is not necessarily true that the lack of jobs in British history is entirely “insoluble apart from” the wider crises of the discipline and the university—which are ever-changing but perhaps never-ending (more on this below).

In short, making a case to a department in the UK for hiring in British Studies is a different problem from making a case to a department in California, which would in turn be different from Florida or Alberta. Different places will require different tactics; different kinds of institutions will require different tactics. What works for a private university will be different from what will work at a small college or public university. Some universities have unionized faculty, and those collective bodies might be helpful in making the case for British history. At wealthy private universities like mine, more informal lobbying might be productive. Some departments may indeed need to curb production of PhDs to avoid oversupply for a limited market, as Vernon advises, but some may need to be pressed to hire new faculty in British history with the capacity to train graduate students in the field. Improvement of the job market will make oversupply less of a problem.


Christienna Fryar is right to remind us that British history has always been an international enterprise, and that the NACBS brings together scholars from all over. But it does not necessarily follow from “rich intellectual collaboration” that our approach to solving the “global crisis” in the field be similarly international. While being “internationally informed” in our understanding of the problem, our actions to address it must attend to particular local contexts, not least because sometimes the burden of fixing everything makes it more difficult to fix anything.  

Fullagar describes the important work of the Australian Academy of the Humanities—whose job it is to defend the humanities in Australia. I am calling for the NACBS to be that body for British Studies in North America—even despite its importance as a scholarly venue for those well beyond North America. I say this not because I wish the NACBS to be a more parochial institution, but because this struggle may be more effectively fought locally than globally. Partnering with organizations in the UK and Australia and elsewhere might prove more effective for the work of cultural change and political and institutional lobbying that is needed. Fullagar is right that we need multiple approaches: spreading awareness among different constituencies, from parents to the Mellon Foundation to university leaders, of the “utility” of our field and of its professional promise to undergraduates, and spreading awareness of the importance of curiosity for its own sake, not least because we often don’t know in advance what knowledge might prove useful, and because insofar as humanistic learning is what allows us to understand our existence as humans, which informs every aspect of economic, political, and social activity, no knowledge is actually without utility—the distinction is false.


As Fullagar wisely reminds us, this must be a permanent effort, and my hope is that this is work that the NACBS and its regional branches might incorporate in their mission. The NACBS cannot take on the far-right; but it can lobby departments and funding organizations, inform them of the importance of British history, share these arguments (see longer version) with members, and keep track of which institutions lack faculty in the field (I’ll name Southern Methodist University and Kent State University here to start that list), and so on. Awareness of the complex and formidable global forces ranged against the survival of the field is necessary, but despairing in the face of such forces can lead only to counseling assisted death for the field. Doing nothing is not an option, especially when an organization to support the field exists; passivity makes us complicit in higher education’s undermining of the humanities, and the field of British history specifically. 


After all, “saving” our universities is about re-making them, not about recovering something they once were. Before the neoliberal university, it was the Cold War university, and before that, the nationalistic and imperial university. Innovation in British history has for more than a century now been tied to efforts to reinvent the forms of higher education that were central to creating and sustaining the British imperial order, through the War on Terror. Even the making of British social history during the Cold War was entangled with such experiments in an era in which the business priorities of universities were already plain, as E. P. Thompson’s volume Warwick University Ltd. (1971) made clear.

A black and white photograph showing a group gathering under a tree at Visva-Bharati.
Rabindranath Tagore at Visva-Bharati. Public domain

In short, collective struggle over higher education, over the content and purpose of historical education, and who should have say in those questions, is also permanent; it can’t be solved “first.” Moreover, it’s in the course of that struggle that the real education happens. Vernon has taught us about the costs of privileging print forms of communication (like scholarly history) that encourage private, individual forms of political agency and subjectivity at the expense of the more subversive subjectivities cultivated by collective uses of non-print media. Indeed, teachers from my family’s part of the world long ago recognized the distraction of the printed word and struggles for access to it from true understanding of human existence and purpose. Scholarly work is transformative when it is part of a struggle to remake the academy. In the maw of climate crisis, our task as scholars is to help again forge collective consciousness of our interdependent existence—work that requires transcending the classroom and the printed page. And one site for it is the collective struggle to remake our educational institutions.

All this is merely a reminder of the priority of the longstanding anticolonial question “Should Universities Survive?” Within universities now, in the midst of current battles, fighting for the survival of British history can very much be part of the wider struggle for the higher education we actually want and need. As NACBS members, let’s focus our energies on ensuring that there are jobs out there for our PhD students, who are producing brilliant and important work, and, thus, that there are British history teachers and colleagues out there for students and scholars of the discipline.


Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and Professor of History at Stanford University, where she has taught British history for more than twenty years. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Belknap, 2020), and she has long been interested in how colonialism and anticolonialism have shaped the historical discipline and educational practices and institutions—questions she is exploring further in her new book project, Lake of Liberation.


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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