Not "Them," but "Us"

Anne Gerritsen, June 2013

This is part of an online forum on a survey of historians' research interests by Luke Clossey and Nicholas Guyatt. A description of the survey can be found here. More roundtables can be found here.

Let me begin by declaring my colors.  I teach in a research-intensive university, and my colleagues and I all take pleasure in drawing from our research in our teaching.  My comments below relate to a university environment where teaching and research are closely connected.  I suspect Clossey and Guyatt’s two recommendations at the end of their piece elicit rather different responses in institutions where the focus is really on teaching and not on research.

I have to say that the results presented in this piece are not exactly a surprise to me.  We are always “overwhelmingly interested in ourselves,” not merely in our historical curiosity, but in our literary tastes, our journalism, our museum collections, and our personal lives!  But it is as important to measure that accurately, and Clossey and Guyatt are to be commended for this, as it is to seek to understand it better.  Who exactly are the “we” we are so interested in? 

Firstly, the “we” has changed significantly over the last decades.  At any of the universities included (and ranked) here, the student body will have changed dramatically in the past decades, from being rather homogenous in terms of ethnic, social and cultural background to being far more diverse, drawing from a geographically far richer range of students.  “We” now inhabit multicultural cosmopolitan worlds within which national boundaries have lost a great deal of their organizing agency and legitimacy.  The problem is perhaps less that we “study ourselves” and more that we limit our study far too much to the outdated histories of imagined unified national units that no longer exist and maybe never existed.  We need to diversify our historical research because the world population has changed.

Moreover, to get a better sense of who the “we” are, and why we look so parochial in this research, we probably need to be a little more specific about the groups included.  The study focuses on the academic field of history in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.  (I confess that I know far less about Canada, so I am limiting myself here to the US and the UK.)  While there is much we share, there are also very significant differences that shape our practices of history; access to research funding, the cost of tuition, the role of the government, the level of subject specialization in high schools -- these are all widely different between the UK and the US, never mind the level of pressure that UK-based academics feel throughout their careers in the lead-up to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) or Research Excellence Framework (REF) as it is currently known.  UK-based academics have to publish in peer-reviewed journals and produce monographs at a speed that is not only unheard of in US institutions but detrimental to anyone’s desire to use foreign-language source material.

Another issue that isn’t really addressed by Clossey and Guyatt is the place of area studies departments, which provide the linguistic training for students to work on geographical regions in a variety of disciplines.  Both the United Kingdom and the United States have  traditions of area studies departments, although they have different historical trajectories.  Faculties of erstwhile “oriental studies”, for example, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe often have venerable philological and philosophical foundations, while area studies in the United States benefited particularly from the Cold War environment that saw the strategic importance of linguistic training.  While US universities fruitfully appoint scholars with joint appointments in disciplines and area studies departments, cross-listing courses for students to broaden their experiences, the more compartmentalized university structure in the UK doesn’t encourage such appointments. 

That explains why the superb and vast history faculty at Cambridge has only very recently appointed its first historian working on (South)East Asia: Cambridge’s China and Japan historians are in what is now known as the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.  My own institution, the University of Warwick, doesn’t have a department of Chinese studies, and thus it has had a China historian for much longer (and in fact, two since 2007!).  I suspect a slightly different picture would have emerged if this research had included those who see themselves as wider world historians, but are based in other departments.

The piece ends with two recommendations: every major world region should have representation on the faculty, and history departments should be moving “south and east” to create “a more representative balance of wider-world to Western history.”  I suspect willing chairs and heads of departments might well subscribe to such ideas in principle, and in an ideal world, we would have better coverage and balance.  Realistically, however, appointments are driven by the strength of the field and student demand, and especially the first of these, in the United Kingdom, is determined by the REF. 

Perhaps we should start with a more modest aim: every department should seek to appoint scholars with research and teaching interests that cross or ignore national boundaries, that seek connections and interactions, and that recognize the significance of understanding the past of today’s diverse, multivocal, multilayered, mobile and fragmented world.  One might refer to such scholars as ”global historians,” but far more important than their label, their home department, or their geographical identity is their willingness to see that the wider world is and always was not “them” but “us.”

—Anne Gerritsen is an associate professor (reader) in Warwick University’s Department of History.