At a time of already great disruption, historians at Aston University this year faced the threat of departmental closure and redundancy. Public and private support for Aston historians led to the programme’s survival, though colleagues at Aston and historians elsewhere have seen their courses closed and their livelihoods ended.
Here Dr Ilaria Scaglia recounts a time of contrasting futures and emotions. In times of crisis, Ilaria argues, forceful advocacy for programmes, departments—and the discipline—can foster greater appreciation of the value of historical knowledge and of mutual support.
In the summer of 2018, my colleagues and I embraced the rare opportunity of starting a brand-new history programme. Quite literally, we turned a fresh page in a notebook and listed what we most wanted from this new creation: critical thinking, engagement with a broad range of primary sources, relevance to current times and events, and diversity in our curriculum. We looked forward to a transformative journey of discovery, something through which we and our students would grow at Aston University.
Indeed, we could have never imagined where we would be by the summer of 2021, and that is probably a good thing. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2020 abruptly changed our course, as well as everything around us. We could no longer have in-person class discussions, field trips to local archives, and the plethora of encounters and experiences we had embedded into our programme as stepping stones for intellectual and personal growth. Confined to our homes, we did our best to put mic and camera to good use but could not help feeling that the wind behind our sails had ceased to push us forth.
The first hint that this unexpected turn might take us anywhere we wanted to be came after a few weeks, at least for me. After the end of an online session, a student finally turned on his camera while talking to me individually about his project. I could not help but notice several younger siblings walking in the background and pity the less-than-ideal conditions in which his university experience was unfolding. At one point, my own children made their untimely appearance. Thereafter, a conversation ensued about the intersection of personal and professional lives, and the challenges of staying on track while walking an unpredictable path. This journey was not the one we had envisioned but we were all learning together how best to proceed.
In late-March 2021, another unexpected twist came in the form of Aston’s university-wide turn away from the humanities and the subsequent proposal for closing down the entire department of History, Languages, and Translation. Our growing programme was about to be interrupted before our first cohort even had a chance to graduate.
This process—though steeped in pain—triggered a stronger awareness of the value of what we do.
Three months of frantic work followed as we collectively amassed data to draft a response. This time, students did not have to guess the reason for our increasingly haggard appearance, and quite a few participated in making a case for the existence of our programme. This process—though steeped in pain—triggered a stronger awareness of the value of what we do. Each piece of supporting information gave us further resolve. Confidential and public statements by dozens of individuals and professional organisations, together with more than 6800 signatures on a UCU petition, injected much-needed strength.
Our story made it to the press: a piece on The Guardian included quotes from prominent figures, including the RHS President; in the USA, the Executive Director of the American Historical Association and one of the AHA’s former Presidents co-authored an Inside Higher Ed article in our support.
Aston also featured in the Royal Historical Society’s May 2021 statement on closures of UK history departments. That statement also championed history as ‘a cornerstone of a healthy democracy and an informed, tolerant citizenry’; a knowledge and perspective that we must not allow, and we cannot afford, to be the preserve of a privileged demographic. Though these numerous responses were primarily calls to protect at-risk departments, they therefore also speak forcefully for the wider discipline. As I myself wrote in a letter to the Editor of the AHA’s Perspectives on History: ‘By their very presence, [such actions] reminded everyone involved that at stake were not only livelihoods but also the intellectual, educational, civic, and personal callings that had made these sacrifices worthwhile.’ This makes it all the more dismaying that closures continue to be discussed and implemented.
We and our students know what needing support and giving it to others can do.
In the end, Aston’s history programme was saved, though the language offering and many other positions were not. The overall trend of cutting the humanities indiscriminately continues to grow in numerous countries, but so do stronger voices of condemnation. Aston’s is one of the most diverse history programmes in the UK: over 60% of our students identify as BAME, roughly six times the national average according to the 2018 RHS report, Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History. We now have a chance to build on our experience, link with others, and to make a difference. Aston historians and our students know what needing support, and giving it to others, can do.
We might be able to tick some items from that old page of our notebook, after all.
About the author
Dr Ilaria Scaglia is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Aston University in Birmingham. Her main fields of interest include the history of internationalism and the history of emotions. Ilaria has recently published The Emotions of Internationalism: Feeling International Cooperation in the Alps in the Interwar Period (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Ilaria’s current project considers how technology—and the practice of reproducing documents—changed the archival experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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