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Toward a Strategy for the Future of British Studies in North America

British studies in North America is in trouble. We know this: the academic job market in the humanities is miserable and has been for years, both in the US and in Canada. But there is an adjacent crisis that has gotten far less attention, but which directly impacts the well-known collapse of the job market: the evaporation of available research funding to pursue our work. The cuts to research funding impact all of us, but they have especially devastating consequences for our graduate students – the future of the field and the professions of our membership, if, indeed, are to be such futures.

A line engraving in black and white showing a crowded reading room at the British Museum.
“British Museum, The Reading Room,” 1844. Image courtesy Yale Center for British Art.

As I detailed in an article for Inside Higher Ed last year, since the mid-2010s, grants for US-institution enrolled graduate students to conduct doctoral research in the humanities have dramatically declined. The causes stem from the conjunction of two factors: first, the infrastructure for such research has long been anemic; and second, the infrastructure that did exist was miniscule, provided largely by just one foundation – the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has since 2018 made what it terms a “strategic shift” toward evaluating its grantmaking decisions through a particular conception of “social justice.” It was Mellon’s support for humanities research fueled and underwrote the more limited investments by other non-profit organizations, including the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), and, of particular relevance, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), the UK’s national center for historical study, in support of British studies. The Mellon Foundation underwrote not only US-based grants for graduate students but also partnered with the IHR to offer a fellowship for PhD candidates at North American universities to spend an academic year in UK archives. But in light of its 2018 “strategic shift,” Mellon has ended all of these programs; evidently, the pursuit of curiosity-driven inquiry in the humanities does not comport with the foundation’s new understanding of its purpose. And while the ending of these grants has disproportionately impacted graduate students and early career researchers, tenured faculty are not exempt from the effects: since 2020, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) has restricted its general grant program exclusively to untenured scholars.


Without access to research funding, it is difficult to imagine how graduate students in British studies in the United States will be able to produce research – which portends disaster for our field. And without recognizing British history as a worthwhile research enterprise, departments and universities will not invest resources in creating tenure-line employment in it. The already imperiled job market in our field will be reduced to nothing – and with it, the future of the field itself. What can be done about this existential crisis? 


Clearly, we must make the case to our departmental colleagues for why the field matters for students. Indeed, there seems to be continued public interest in British studies of a certain variety, as seen in the success of television programs like Bridgerton, The Crown, and Downton Abbey; a plethora of popular media coverage of the Tudors; and the United Kingdom’s status as the most popular overseas destination of American travelers – all of which might be harnessed to encourage greater undergraduate enrollments. But even that will be insufficient unless we can also convince both them and administrators that we are engaged in a worthwhile research enterprise that garners external investment and recognition, and thus deserves the internal institutional investment of departments and universities. And achieving that recognition requires making the case to foundations like the Mellon and public agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) – which, unlike its STEM counterpart, the National Science Foundation, does not fund doctoral education and research. We need a coordinated, field wide strategy to revive investment in our research enterprise, and we need to work in concert with other disciplinary associations to fight for massively expanded funding for the humanities in general. It is a fight that will be difficult and long, but if we don’t wage it, 'British studies’ in North America may not survive the twenty-first century.


Over the course of the next several weeks, NACBS will convene an ongoing forum with responses to this piece. It will include contributions from a range of colleagues – those working in universities in the US, Canada, the UK, and beyond, as well as in libraries, archives, and other institutions invested in the future of the field. We hope to start a conversation that will inspire all of us to advocate for a way forward.


Asheesh Kapur Siddique is an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His first book, The Archive of Empire: Knowledge, Conquest, and the Making of the Early Modern British World, will be published later this year by Yale University Press.


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