Getting Heads Together: Reflections on the first RHS History HoDs Meeting

What’s it like to head up a History department? What challenges and opportunities do History HoDs face, and what’s the best way of responding to them? In May 2019, over 20 Heads of UK History departments gathered under the auspices of the RHS to compare notes, share good practice and brainstorm tricky issues. In this post, Professor Abigail Woods, Head of the Department of History at KCL, and organiser of the first meeting, reflects on the discussions.

Getting Heads Together

On 24 May 2019, KCL hosted the first RHS Meeting for Heads of History Departments, bringing together more than 20 colleagues. The RHS was represented by its President  Professor Margot Finn, herself a former HoD. Some attendees were permanent HoDs; others occupied the role temporarily. Responsibilities ranged from head of subject to head of school. Institutional contexts and student demographics also varied, and yet there was much common ground.

The attendees generally agreed that nurturing staff and students, and having a chance to shape the bigger picture, were major highlights of the role. Downsides included a lack of training, institutional micromanagement and difficult colleagues. HoDs highlighted the tensions they faced between “fire-fighting” and strategic work, and between defending their department / subject and encouraging necessary changes in it. They also shared their concerns around the casualisation of the academic workforce, and highlighted local steps taken to reduce precarity and improve support for temporary staff.

All HoDs acknowledged the importance of the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report and had taken various actions in response to it. These ranged from discussing the report with staff and students to making new hires and reforming the curriculum. We shared tips on how to write job descriptions and run selection processes in ways that would attract a more diverse pool of candidates and counteract unconscious bias. Efforts to diversify and decolonise the curriculum were also discussed, along with the various challenges faced in making changes to the syllabus, adopting an inclusive pedagogy and guarding against bias in module evaluations. HoDs felt it important to lead from the front and distribute the work of curriculum reform across the department rather than leaving BME staff to carry the burden.

Making a Case for History

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion on how to make a stronger case for history in the face of negative media messaging around the value of the humanities. Andy Gritt (NTU) posed a provocative challenge to the relevance of much academic history. He argued that too many historians see their role in terms of reproducing themselves rather than demonstrating the importance of history to the world today. Unless this situation is addressed, students will increasingly shy away from taking history degrees, leading to departmental closures that threaten the future of the discipline. Some HoDs countered by highlighting ways in which history is proving its relevance to the present. Others argued that question of relevance is not particularly important because students are largely motivated by their love of the subject. Nevertheless, it was acknowledged that we all need to work harder in developing a positive story about studying history at degree level.

After further, informal exchanges of experiences and expressions of mutual support, the meeting concluded. A good time was had by all, and with so much left to discuss, this type of meeting looks set to become a regular fixture in the History HoD calendar.

The feedback we have received suggests that the event was a real success, providing a rare opportunity to share challenges and opportunities among a group of supportive colleagues. The RHS hopes to run another event in Spring 2020, and will be in touch with Heads of Department soon. If you are a Head of Department or Subject in History and would like to know more, please get in touch by email: rescommsofficer@royalhistsoc.org.