This blog reflects on my role as Past and Present Fellow working on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History with the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research over the past year.
What is a PhD in History? Why are you doing a PhD in History? For the three and a half years that I was doing my PhD at Birmingham, I was both asked these questions by friends and family and I also asked myself these questions. I would reason that there was interest and value in researching exhibitions of the Irish in World’s Fairs as a cultural history of Irish identity on display – the story told important arguments about nationhood, commerce, gender and race. Whilst these positions stood me well in my viva, I was still left feeling like I wanted to have some meaningful impact in society. And being as I was doing a PhD, I felt I could have some impact in Higher Education. Yet, widening participation programmes were always only ever a few months, teaching was a semester at a time and I still felt (rightly or wrongly) like I was spending my time reading books, thinking and writing about a topic that had little relevance to the outside world. I know there are plenty of academic arguments about why this is not the case and all scholarship has value which is how I perceive of my own research but I did want to do something more practical, that had more of an interventionist purpose, something that had the potential to evoke material change.
When I saw the Past and Present Postdoctoral Fellowship working on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History advertised, I really couldn’t believe it. I had heard of the Royal Historical Society and knew about the Race Report in 2018 as one of my PhD supervisors was one of its authors. Upon seeing the advert, I felt like this was my time to actually practice what I preach. I naturally spent a lot of time reading about racism in Britain, as it manifested in media, education, policing and so on. I even started up a blog a few years prior with a close friend where we discussed these issues. Here was an opportunity where my professional, academic life could intersect with my personal and political life. I applied for the role, interviewed for it and was lucky enough to be successful.
The following year was genuinely one of the most rewarding in my very early, early career researcher journey. The aim of the post-doc was to embed change from the Race Report, to survey the field and highlight good practice, to be part of the Race, Ethnicity and Equality Working Group (REEWG) that had co-authored the report and take participate in events, workshops, seminars as relevant to the furthering of the report. One of the first things I did in the job was to read the survey responses that formed the basis of the Race Report. Not that I needed another reminder as to how dire the situation of racism was in UK Higher Education in History but the importance and seriousness of the work the Royal Historical Society were doing along with the Past and Present Society really hit home and remained at the core of any and all work I did.
I had an office based in the RHS council room (Bloomsbury) and was able to rent a flat in London. I attended REEWG meetings, events and workshops in London but also in Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham and York. If it was not for Covid-19 there were events that took place virtually organised in Glasgow and Bristol and this travel was one of the many highlights of the post doc. It enabled me to see how wide the equality conversation was and how specific forms of tackling racism were spread throughout the UK.
One of the first big pieces of work that I worked on was producing ‘Roadmap for Change’ in December 2019 with the RHS President, Margot Finn. This was a survey of how the Race Report had been used by various universities, how it had been engaged with in the broader academy and learned societies. It was a useful way of consolidating the impact of the report and identifying what progress had been made and what was still lacking. Some of the responses included in the Roadmap spoke of micro level changes that had the ability to positively impact BME staff and students which complemented bigger, structural changes instituted by some in terms of dedicated funding streams for BME students and so on. The following year in January 2019, I launched a ‘Race Updates’ blog on the RHS’s Historical Transactions blog which offers fortnightly updates on inequality issues affecting our sector, new literature that has been produced on racism, and analysis of key reports and publications.
During my year as Past and Present post doc, I was invited to many events and workshops to discuss the report and its findings. Often with Margot or the co-chairs of the REEWG, Jonathan Saha and Sadiah Qureshi. Notably, I was able to access a world beyond the PhD, being invited to speak at the Being Human Festival on the Future of the Humanities, being on a panel with the first black police commissioner of the MET in an event organised by the Kingston Race Equality Council, and speaking at a British Foreign Policy Event on how we teach the British Empire. All of these opportunities arose out of this post doc and were part of disseminating the Race Report.
I also attended the fortnightly Institute of Historical Research Fellows seminar which gave me access to a community of ECR’s, and I made ample use of the RHS’ close proximity to the British Library. I used my fifty per cent allocation for research to work on turning my PhD thesis into a first monograph and benefitted from being part of a vibrant research environment which helped further my ideas, whether related to methodology or archives. I had some great mentors at RHS and Past and Present and was advised on article publishing, book proposals and applying for academic jobs. The experts at RHS were very generous with their time and I learnt a lot from conversations had between council meetings and more informal chats with my colleagues. I was eligible for RHS, P&P and IHR research funding which meant I could spend a few weeks in Ottawa earlier this year in the Library and Archives Canada researching a new chapter for the book.
I was further able to develop networks and contacts with allies in the field, whether in the museum sector, race equality think-tanks, UKRI and even some data experts. I was able to see how the conversation on anti-racism shifts for those working on the curriculum, schools and exam boards and it was heartening to see how much is being done but also reinvigorating in terms of what more there was to do.
I was given freedom in the postdoc to explore areas of particular interest and my project over this summer with Margot is to produce handbooks on PGR study through a race, ethnicity and equality lens.
This past year has been transformative in introducing me to the many mechanics at work within UK Higher Education, offering me contact to heads of departments conversations, the priorities of learned societies and the unique concerns of the museum sector. While I have had exposure to media interviews that have not always gone to plan (one Guardian article wrongly assigned me as sole author of the Race Report), the post doc has been invaluable for my professional, personal and political development.
If you want to work with absolutely phenomenal people who are moving mountains as well as stones and pebbles to improve the situation in History Higher Education, then this post doc is the one for you. I truly do feel I have had some positive impact over the past year and am more committed than ever to take my experience as Past and Present Fellow to my new position at Royal Holloway University.
Apply for the post here and please get in contact if you have any questions about the role or applying for it.
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