The Challenge of Academics outside of the Academia – A Reply to a ‘Paucity of Military Historians in University Departments’

Richard Duckett has made some interesting observations on a keynote lecture delivered by Professor Charles Esdaile at the recent BCMH New Research in Military History conference. I could not make the conference, as such, it was a shame that I could hear them in person. As such, what I have to say here is more a reply to Richard’s points rather than Esdaile’s views, though I hope that, in due course, the latter’s thoughts will appear in the British Journal for Military History.

While I agree that Esdaile has a point, a bit like Richard, I am not convinced he is entirely right about the ‘paucity’ of military historians in university departments. If we focus in on just History departments, which I believe was his point, then yes, he may be correct; however, if we think more broadly, or up and outside of our silos, we can see that ‘military’ historians have made their way into a whole host of departments. Indeed, when I started my War Studies degree in 2001, there were only two institutions that offered such a course. That is now no longer the case. Times have clearly changed and ‘military’ historians, in general, have changed with the times as well. Indeed, the term ‘military’ is probably no longer applicable. For example, I define myself as a Historian of War. I purposely use this as a broad term as my focus is not merely about battles but rather the more general concept of war. My approach is inherently interdisciplinary in character as I seek to draw in ideas from related fields. This, I think, enriches what can be brought to the table. Thus, perhaps, the argument about making ourselves more appealable is about how we market ourselves to our colleagues. There is still a stigma attached to the old ‘drums and trumpet’ approach to military history as opposed to the broader study of war. As such, those who focus on the military as an organisation have, I think, a responsibility to illustrate the relevance of their research beyond just the mere fact that war is, perhaps, the most important aspect of human endeavour.

Before I move on onto some of Richard’s specific points about his experience working in the Further Education (FE) sector in the UK, I first want to make the point that I am talking from a position of knowledge. I worked in FE for four years before I was lucky enough to return to university to read for my PhD full-time. However, my experience, reading between the lines of Richard’s post, was very different and this is part of the problem. The expectations made of staff at FE institutions vary widely, and here just one example will suffice. During my PhD, and at a point when money was tight, I seriously considered returning to the FE sector. As such I applied for a post and got an interview for a job that I ultimately did not get. However, reading between the lines of some of the feedback I got from the interview, it was clear that my style of teaching, linked to the development of critical thinking and research-driven learning, did not suit the institution to which I had applied for the job. This was, in my opinion, a college that only wanted to ensure that the students achieved their target grades and little else. This does not fit well with me, and perhaps it was right that I did not get the position. Nevertheless, I agree with the view that many talented people are teaching not just in FE but also in the education sector as a whole. Yet, standards vary, and while processes such as REF do not exist, the challenge of OFSTED is ever present, and I do not think this engenders best practice amongst staff as they are working towards the ends identified by this process. Playing the OFSTED game, combined with issues such as the number of contact hours undertaken by FE lecturers, generates challenges for teaching, though some of these are surmountable. For example, I believe in the importance of research-driven teaching, and one advantage of the modular system in place for both GCSE and ‘A’ Levels is that modules can be selected to fit the interests of the educator. This is important as we, as teachers, need to enjoy what we teach. There will always be times that we teach something outside of our comfort zone but delivering something that we can put our enthusiasm into is essential both for student success but also for our enjoyment of the job. This motivation is crucial, and I was lucky enough to be able to do this in my previous position. However, as I have already reflected, the management approach of some FE institutions leaves a lot to be desired and leans towards a training view of learning rather than education. For some, it is about skills rather than knowledge. This is also not helped by some of the processes engendered by the exam boards and the standardisation of marking, which while necessary, still leaves much to be desired. Again, just one example here suffices. For obvious reasons, I used to teach a unit on the changing ‘nature’ of warfare; however, I would often debate the very use of the term ‘nature’ versus the more accurate term ‘character.’ Let us just say this was not always appreciated. However, I think it is important for students to understand such nuanced views.

There are, however, some further practical solutions that I believe can engender and encourage research by staff that is not just to the benefit of the broader historical community but also to students. First, cut the number of contact hours. I am in no way suggesting a reduction to the levels enjoyed by university lecturers; however, even a minor reduction to around 20 hours a week might increase the time that can be directed to research. Second, add a research target to staff annual objectives to focus the mind and inculcate a culture centred on the importance of personal study. This objective does not have to be a book but rather something more tangible such as producing a plan for an article and mapping of the beginnings of such a project. Additionally, such objectives do not have to be focussed on a historical topic but could be pedagogical in character as research into curriculum development is just as important as developing knowledge. Third, on the issue of access, many FE institutions have developed relationships with local universities in the form of foundation degrees, and as part of this affiliation; staff from the former should be given access to the resources of the latter, such as online journals and university libraries. I suspect this would not cost much and would open up access and encourage research by staff at FE institutions; I was very lucky that I did my MPhil while teaching in FE, as such, I did not suffer this challenge, but it is one I face in my current position.

A final broader point worth making is the problem of the distinction between academic and non-academic and whether this difference produces better quality scholarship. This is most unhelpful. I am an academic; however, I do not work in a university. This does not affect the quality of my research, and we need to stop making distinctions such as these. What matters is the quality of the scholarship, and while qualifications do matter – in my opinion, they help develop valuable critical thinking skills – they are not the be all and end all being a good historian. Indeed, issues such as the ability to teach, the quality of writing, and capacity to analyse are just as valuable tools. Furthermore, regarding teaching, there are plenty of well qualified ‘academics’ who cannot teach. We must achieve a balance between these factors and encourage the use of high-quality scholarship where ever it may occur whether that is within universities, colleges, schools, or indeed, in my case, museums.

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2 responses to “The Challenge of Academics outside of the Academia – A Reply to a ‘Paucity of Military Historians in University Departments’

  1. He made the distinction between untrained and academically trained military historians Ross. Although you don’t work in a uni at the moment you’re firmly in the academic camp. It was an odd keynote.

  2. Dan, I agree about being an academic. Part of the issue is perception. I perceive myself as an academic outside of the academy. I do hope the keynote is published, however.

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