Reflecting on a life in a British university
I suspect I am known most as a researcher-writer, but teaching, notably once marking is included, has taken more time in term. And, bar large-scale marking, it has generally been far more interesting: the totally solitary character of research and writing, and the possibility of, and apparent need for, continual revision of the text, are not joys. As I come to the end of my time as a professor at Exeter, I want to reflect on my experience of teaching.
A very bookish child devoted to History, I first taught when I was ten, the indolent Mr Carrington deciding that I could substitute for him. So, there was me on the Crusades et al. A possibly slightly less unconventional beginning was seven months in 1975 at a mixed prep Scottish Highland boarding school, Aberlour House, the feeder for Gordonstoun. It was straight out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh – the head in the interview delivering the view “I don’t mind the boys playing around with each other, but I won’t have them playing around with the girls.” Those seven months saw me teaching History, Geography and, in particular English, setting essays such as ‘Thoughts from the Cooking Pot: you are being cooked. What are your last thoughts?’
After Cambridge, I was a postgrad at Oxford for two years. In the second, as a Senior Scholar at Merton, I taught for Magdalen, being expected to fit in round the pupils’ cricket.
I was amazed when I first saw Durham in 1980. Arriving for my interview for the Early Modern European job, I had expected to find a landscape full of pitheads. Instead the vista was green. I was there under false pretences, as, aged 24 and with no doctorate yet, I did not anticipate success, and only applied in the hope of getting my expenses covered en route to reading early-eighteenth century newspapers in Newcastle Central Library: I was working on foreign policy, and was intent on not being restricted to diplomatic or political sources, but wanted to look at press coverage, including non-metropolitan coverage. Alphabetical order dictated that I was interviewed first, and I then rushed off to Newcastle. When the result was announced at the end of the day, I was the only one of the six interviewed not present, and with no forwarding details.
Eventually tracked down, I was told I had the job and invited to lunch at Castle (University College) by Paul Harvey, the then head and still a friend. With great hesitation, he asked me what I would like to teach. To his clear surprise, I said I would teach what I had been hired to do, and his relief was palpable. Apparently the other five candidates, all older, ‘doctored’, and with more experience, including ‘the Internal,’ had said they were specialists on France, or Germany, etc, and would not teach anything else. I had said that, as a diplomatic historian, I knew a little bit about everything.
The baby in the department, I was trusted by the two Professors in a way that today would be replaced by tick-boxing. I launched a programme of courses that I enjoyed, that ran full, and from which I made friendships that have lasted to today. There were then about 60 new students a year, and you could be expected to know all your students as individuals. My early courses were a first year Europe 1560-1730 (before Guardianistas say that I was deliberately leaving out the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, John Rogister would not let me go later as that was ‘his’ turf), a second year Britain 1688-1815, and a third year special subject on British Foreign Policy 1721-48.
Being able to hold classes amidst the eighteenth-century pamphlets etc of the University’s Special Collections was a great boon. I enjoyed the teaching and developed a lecturing style of speaking without notes, offering contrasting interpretations, and focusing the analysis on conceptualisation, methodology and historiography, the three elements I sought to drum home in lectures, seminars and tutorials. Extensive school and university experience in debating, always extempore, helped greatly.
Indeed, it has been crucial to my lecturing. Although a tea junkie, I have never taken drugs, but getting up to speak, starting with ‘There are Six Things to Remember about the Thirty Years’ War’ (none of course in your mind at that moment) is like what I envisage an injection of adrenaline would do. There is certainly a rush as you challenge the brain to start thinking, and to construct a well-structured and appropriately phrased argument while speaking very fast.
The longest individual lecture was three hours, given without preparation, notes, or a prior outing
Lecturing can leave me on a high as well as slightly exhausted, but, to find time for research and writing days, I liked to teach back-to-back, usually for the whole day. The longest individual lecture was three hours on The Strategies of the Vietnam War for the National Defence University in Washington, again given without preparation, notes, or a prior outing.
Teaching style at Durham was very much a matter of individual preference. Training and probation were a joke. However, standards were high, much more so than at Cambridge or Oxford; actually that is no real praise. Moreover, the staff were broader-ranging in their intellectual engagement than is often the case in the modern age of specialisation.
There was no careers advice for staff. The Reader in Modern History, Mervyn James, a tweed-suited Braudelian of much conceptual engagement, was amazed that I should want to complete my PhD: he was proud of not having one. Mervyn had no television and came over to watch the Charles and Diana wedding which he found fascinating as an anthropological spectacle. He took he sole armchair in the two-up two-down we lived in in Durham, and I sat on the floor. Having a burst tyre while driving on the A1(M), Mervyn had told the Highway Patrol when it arrived to change his tyre, and the police had duly obliged.
The Department was very factionalised. The Medievalists appeared to see themselves as better (on the whole correctly as far as scholarship and academic behaviour were concerned) and to look down on the Modernists, who were definitely eclectic. Several of the latter went to the Shakespeare for a liquid lunch and appeared to spend the afternoon staring in a rather raffish Lucky Jim. They did not get on with Reg Ward, the Professor of Modern History, who had his own clique. A Northerner with the teetotal integrity of a Primitive Methodist, and Lay Preacher, Reg told me on my appointment that Durham risked going the way of Oxbridge (which he and I had attended) – ‘they take good people and don’t do very much with them’: he meant the students, but might have been referring to the staff.
Reg also held up for approval the example of Sir Lewis Namier, under whom he had worked at Manchester:
‘He was the opposite of the standard academic. They are distant to students, offhand to junior colleagues, and oleaginous to those of their own rank. [I had no idea of what oleaginous meant. Since my spelling was poor, dictionary elucidation took a while.] Namier was pleasant to the students, encouraging to his junior colleagues, and an absolute swine to those of his own rank.’
An interesting man Reg — very wide-ranging in his intellectual interests; a very hard worker — he told me that he could not take seriously anyone who could not write 5,000 words a day; and, as Barbara did not like him cooking at home, he kept a Baby Belling in his office and would cook implausible dishes and always invite colleagues, in my observation always two of them, but whichever the two, always two who did not get on, to share the meal before joining him in the washing-up.
There was a good coverage of history by the standards of the period and the size of Department. For example, there were two Americanists whereas most provincial Departments had one and I had been taught no American history (or anything after 1793) at Cambridge. The coverage of Continental European history at Durham was good, and Economic History, a separate Department with which we merged, added more talent, notably Frank Spooner and Richard Britnell.
This system was to be buffeted by change. Anthony Fletcher who came in to succeed Reg, made it obvious that he deplored what he found, and sought to push through a complete syllabus transformation, including lots of modish topics in social history (Anthony was very interested in sexuality), as well as compulsory dissertations. He and his Medieval counterpart, Michael Prestwich, who had succeeded Paul after a period of vacancy, did not get on terribly well, and this increased the fissiparous character of the Department. Talking to students from those years with whom I have remained friends, it is clear that none of them discerned these tensions. That I suppose, to a degree, is a sign of staff professionalism.
I meanwhile went through some of the administrative load. The ‘joys’ of running a Departmental Library, and the much greater fun of admission interviews, were followed by being Dissertation Convenor, which was doubtless my reward for opposing their compulsory character: I was concerned that so much of the social history agenda was very much a matter of acquiring a specialism in a small fragment of English social history at the expense of broad and significant topics in national and international history.
I taught a lot at Durham, which I enjoyed, especially the lecturing. I also developed a teaching/research/writing process that proved exciting and invigorating. It got me a chair in 1994, the first time there had been two Modern History chairs in the Department, but being promoted over the heads of many colleagues is not good news, and it was appropriate to move on. I have remained good friends with former students from Durham days, and have some good memories. Ron Hutton dismissed the university in conversation as ‘a frozen rock in the North of England,’ but he was wrong and it was so much more for me and others.
In turn, at Exeter from 1996, I taught a greater range of courses, although not all each year. For First Years, there was Europe, eventually Europe and the World, 1600-1815, as well as a ‘Sources and Skills’ source analysis paper on English Newspapers 1700-1861. For Second and Third Years, there was Maps and History, and War, either 1500 to the Present or 1775 to the Present. There was a Special Subject, either Britain as a Military Power 1775-1815 or World War Two, and a taught MA in war. On top of that, doctoral students and undergraduate dissertations. The variety was stimulating and I backed a policy of the staff teaching different courses on a two-year rotation, thus giving them and the students change.
Unfortunately, ‘reform’ in the form of opposition to single-person courses (and clearly academics are proto-Shipmans, a reason why single-handed GP practices have largely gone) and possibly also opposition to military history, meant that all these courses were eventually swept away by a ‘Teaching Committee’ not all noted for their teaching, who were too busy to ask me even for one minute what I thought or would like to teach.
I became, instead, the key lecturer for the first year World History courses, World History-1750, and World History from 1750. No choice on what to cover, so Black on Medieval Towns, the Reformation etc; although I was adroit at subverting the nonsense topics of political correctness. I also did a Second-Third year course on Newspaper History, and continued the War MA and the dissertations. I found global history a tonic, but missed the national perspective which drove me to try to cover that in print. I also felt that in the syllabus there could be a disturbing lack of interest in Britain’s past.
This ends my life in a British university, but my writing and research go on.
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