Thursday 16 May 2019

The long and the short of the eighteenth century

What follows is the text for a short presentation I gave at a one-day conference in late May 2019: Eighteenth Century Now: The Current State of British History. The event was organised by ECR scholars working with the Long Eighteenth Century Seminar (Miranda Reading, Dr Joseph Cozens, Dr Sally Holloway and  Esther Brot).  The panel I contributed to was charged to look at 'short and long term approaches to eighteenth-century history', and I took this as an opportunity to reflect on the changing nature of the field over the last forty years. An excellent review of the day as a whole can be found here.  In the nature of a text for public presentation, it retains all the quirks and foibles of 'speech'.

It seems to me that history works in just a few ways.  It can be an explanation of the present – how we got here.  Or it can be a ‘distant mirror’ – a way of contrasting the past and the present.  In either case, its importance, the justification for all the effort, is that it informs how we understand the present; understand the politics of the present and understand the challenges of the present.
But in the case of eighteenth-century British history these two approaches also determine the long and the short it.  And the relative dominance of either approach has either given the period and place real significance, or at least threatened to focus attention elsewhere.   
When I first engaged seriously with British history in the mid-1970s, eighteenth-century Britain was a proving ground for modernisation theory. The idea was that understanding ‘the first industrial revolution’ would allow us to understand how non-Western societies might replicate that ‘take off’.  Economic historians poured endless hours into understanding capital flows, innovation and the take up of new technology – and the centre of the world was Birmingham and Ironbridge. As part of the same project, the demographers put eighteenth-century Britain at the centre of a story of profound demographic change – the great transition in growth rates and life expectancy around 1800.  And the urban historians added their voice – describing the development of a new urban world – a Renaissance – brought in to explain the growing pace of innovation, and the growing freedoms of mind and body. The main narrative (essentially a Marxist recounting of the stages of economic development) gave point and purpose to a dozen sub-disciplines from women’s history to agricultural history, to the history of science.
These were all ‘long’ eighteenth-century stories, with roots stretching back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and influence reaching forward to the present. And you could add to these the political narratives that became more prominent in the 1980s – reflecting a new concern for the history of the state and the evolution of the ‘public sphere’. These evolved in dialogue with the Thatcherite and neo-conservative attacks on the state; with the decline of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the EU; with the workings of politics in a new age of mass communications.  But they nevertheless remained long stories.
But, it seems to me that a constellation of fundamental changes took place in the 1990s that has tended to push academic history and the history of eighteenth-century Britain in particular towards something very much shorter.
First, these long stories were themselves increasingly undermined. Faith in the social sciences and the developmental models that underpinned them largely collapsed. In part this collapse reflected the critique associated with post modernism; but more importantly the neo-conservative political project of dismantling the state made grand explanation seem less convincing and less desirable. The social sciences were and are all about influencing the policies of the state as an agent of change – and are inimical to the small state ideologies that gained prominence in the 1980s.  Neo-liberalisms – whether Thatcherite or Blairite – do not invite explanation, as they are predicated on supposedly ‘natural’ aspects of human behaviour. 
For the political narrative, the collapse of the Soviet Union drew the breath from political history.  Habermas, for instance, was all about understanding the origins of fascism, and the politics of democratic societies; and the failure of the Soviet Union – leading to Fukiyama’s claim for ‘the end of history’ – made the relevance of these kinds of long-term political narratives much less obvious. The West had won, and no more needed to said.
The same decade also witnessed a subtler transition – the digital revolution.  I know my undergraduates look on the slide rule I used for basic maths in the 1970s, as if it came from an entirely different world.  This sense of a profound disjuncture - a gulf of generational miss-understanding - makes sustaining a long story of explanation ever more difficult.   
In other words, almost all the long stories – with the eighteenth century at their pivot - that dominated post-war academic history writing lost purchase in the 1990s.
All of which simply left a charred landscape of failed narratives – into which flowed history as a form of distant mirror.  In part, this was about the rise of identity politics.  In most instances, to ‘explain’ an identity is to challenge its very basis. LGBTQ+ history, for example, almost always takes the form of a distant mirror precisely because an explanation of the origins of a gay identity would imply nurture over nature. In gender history an explanation of change undermines the assumed coherence and universality of patriarchy – making less obvious appeals to shared experience based on gender. In the 1990s separate spheres (a long story of gender) was replaced by the gentleman’s daughter (a short, distant mirror, reading).
What grew in this charred landscape were beautiful micro-histories that spoke powerfully to the present – and were and are powerfully political and frequently progressive. But the problem with a distant mirror approach is that it doesn’t really matter which period or place you choose to study. The quality of difference, and the ability to make a modern reader empathise with someone across that gulf of difference is the only measure of success. There is no real reason to choose to write the history of the eighteenth-century Britain rather than 16th century Spain, or twelfth century Japan.  Or indeed 1960s London. They are all different, and they all allow us to view ourselves through that distant mirror.
Of course, the irony is that you would have expected this transition to result in a decline of eighteenth-century British history as a discipline and subject. Why look to the eighteenth century, when any other period or place would do the same cultural work. And yet, despite the decline of explanation, the period remains absolutely fizzing. There were 10,000 more publications produced on 18th century Britain between 2008 and 2018 than were published between 1978 and 1988 (based on a structured search of the Brepolis Bibliography of British and Irish History).
I think the explanation lies in part with the twentieth century's creation of a profoundly sophisticated archival infrastructure, which was then turned into a profoundly sophisticated digital infrastructure. One reason eighteenth-century Britain remains a central and popular field is because it is the most digitised where and when in the world. Between JISC Historic Books, and digitised newspapers; between crime records and parish records; between a remarkably comprehensive system of archives – housed in a remarkable stone-built infrastructure and made findable through integrated national systems; between the wealth of ego-documents and the new languages of the self; all written in a language understood by 20% of the world’s population, eighteenth-century Britain is more richly evidenced, and more readily accessible to more people, than anywhere else.  Eighteenth-century Britain remains popular in part because it is easy.
And that may be enough.  Much of the work being done at the moment – in ecological history, women’s history, in animal-human relations, disability studies – in a dozen separate fields – is both fantastic and powerfully political. It is justified by its intelligence and its careful navigation between the past and the present. But, I am increasingly of the opinion that our abandonment of explanation brings with it real dangers; and the necessity to think harder about what we are doing with all that ‘short’ history.  
For one thing, simply ploughing this well-tilled soil re-enforces the dominance of the same old voices – rich white people do not need a lot more of our attention.  And there is an urgent need to expand the ‘right to be remembered’ to the 98% of the world’s population that do not currently get much action between hard covers.  
And it may be that the wealth of our archive can be turned to account in serving that right to be remembered, but there needs a real and self-conscious effort to make it happen. There has been much work on British and anglo-phone working lives, for instance, but there remains a massive task of reconstructing the lives of non-western peoples, of the enslaved and the colonised. It may be that the very wealth of our archive makes this more possible, but it is only with self-conscious effort that we can escape the assumptions that underpin the archives themselves (the clerks’ hectoring, racist voice) to turn that archive to account.  
In other words, I guess where I have ended up is in with two or three largely contradictory conclusions. The first is that in the absence of a traditional Marxist ‘explanation’, the purpose and point of eighteenth-century British history is limited. It was important because of where it sat in that bigger analysis. In many respects the eighteenth century is either long, or it is meaningless.
But second, and on a more optimistic note, the wealth of inherited documentation means that even in the absence of a long story, there are powerful short stories to craft.  But if we are to abandon the older long stories, we need to be very clear about the purpose of our short ones.
I want to end, however, by sharing a bit of anxiety.  Anxiety is always better when shared!  In the end, I am concerned that however good those short stories are, they will not be enough.  One of the few long eighteenth century stories that survived the 1990s and is growing is prominence in this new dystopian political world of the 2010s, is a ‘white nationalist’ narrative that puts Britain and Northern Europe at the heart of an explicitly racist story.  We are witnessing the re-emergence of eugenics and race theory – justified by accounts of colonial expansion.
We need new long stories to ensure that the work of generations – and the wealth of the archive – are not turned to a racist account.  
 All of which is just to suggest that the most powerful uses of the eighteenth century are the long ones; and that unless we self-consciously find new big stories to tell, I am uncertain that the short ones will sustain us.

A brief post-endum

In the questions that followed Jonathan Clark suggested that he had essentially invented the 'long eighteenth century' in response to the structure of the Cambridge Tripos - which split modern history at 1750. The claim is slightly problematic as a quick search turns up the phrase as early as 1963 when Jonathan Clark was just 12 years old. But his claim does expose a real gulf in expectation and experience, and I entirely understand why he might have experienced the field as if he had invented it. Afterall, I was reading British history from the perspective of Berkeley California, and from that perspective it slotted neatly into a global understanding of historical change that was both wide and long. By contrast Prof. Clark was researching the field in dialogue with the Cambridge undergraduate curriculum. To this day that curriculum is built on a narrow understanding of British political history. I remain committed to the long eighteenth century because of its ability to reflect on a global story, but understand the desire to write the period as little England. But Clark's question/comment also took me back to an aspect of this story that I did not discuss on the day. Clark is absolutely right to suggest that the community of scholars who grew to maturity in Cambridge during the 1970s (including himself - at least tangentially), really did shape the 'long eighteenth century' in powerful ways. Perhaps most self-evidently, the group of scholars who accumulated around J.H. Plumb - including John Brewer, Simon Schama, David Cannadine, Linda Colley and Roy Porter essentially re-worked the field as a very different kind of story. John Brewer and John Styles' An Ungovernable People (1980) was a direct repost to Douglas Hay, et al, Albion's Fatal Tree (1976). And perhaps most importantly, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb's Birth of a Consumer Society (1982) turned on its head generations of 'supply side' and Marxist economic history; chiming with the new Thatcherite abandonment of industrial policy, in favour of a reliance on consumer behaviour and 'demand side' economics.  Most of this work was essentially liberal, rather than Marxist in approach, but J.H. Plumb's urgent adoption of Thatcherism in the 1980s reflects the lintellectual direction of travel.  In other words Prof Clark was right. At least a couple of 'long eighteenth centuries' were created at Cambridge in his youth; but none of them are quite the period or place I inhabit.      

Saturday 26 January 2019

Historical simulacra: breathing life into the digital dead

 The blog post that follows is adapted from the text of a short presentation I gave to a symposium held at the University of Sussex on the 18th of January 2019 - Subjectivity, Self-Narratives and the History of Emotions. It was organised by my excellent colleague Dr Laura Kounine, and I was honoured to be asked. I very much enjoyed the day, and the other presentations reflected a wonderful variety of perspectives on the history of emotion, illustrating just why the 'emotional turn' has grown in signficance.  Having said this, as usual, I found myself 'outside the tent, pissing in' - not able to write a convincing 'history of emotions', and not entirely convinced by much of anything.

I am afraid the talk that follows is much more a case of me thinking aloud rather than taking the form of a clearly thought through position piece.  As often happens – at least to me – the synopsis and title of this talk was written long before the talk itself, and it has turned out rather differently than I initially envisaged.  I very much hope that this does not seem disrespectful.  I should also admit at the outset that while I very often try and write with emotions, I am not a historian of emotions; and hence am rather speaking from outside the tent.   

With these caveats in mind there are just a couple of things I want to discuss today – first, the remarkable rise of ‘emotions’ as a category of analysis – the creation of a what has occasionally been termed the ‘emotional turn’.  And second, the impact of new – digital – research methods on historical research.  And I want to do this primarily as a way of getting at something third – the changing nature of the ‘historical project’, and what we actually think we are doing when we write about the dead.  I believe that both these developments impact directly on the kinds of writing we do and they have had the effect of changing aspects of the underlying project of academic historical scholarship.

And the place to start is with the remarkable recent rise in the history of emotions.  This symposium is perhaps evidence enough of the centrality of emotions to some of the most innovative work of the moment.  You can, of course, trace a narrow historiographical path back to the work of people like William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein – and via them to the histories of gender, post-structuralism, and all the rest.  But, I don’t think this actually captures the significance of the rise of ‘emotion’ studies.  Its ubiquity is remarkable.

I was recently asked to contribute to a festschrift for a well-respected senior historian – to be filled with the work of their students, inspired by fifty years of scholarship.  Now the historian in question started off in urban history, did some medical history, and wrote a lot of great stuff on the evolution of social policy.  But, the one thing they did not do is write about emotions.  And neither did their students. And yet when the book was produced – including some wonderful micro-histories and accounts of the impact of social welfare policy – it was touted by OUP as an ‘introduction to and critical reflection on the growing field of the history of emotions’.  My understanding is that this was a theme forced on the editors by OUP.  And yet, there was no more emotion between the covers of that volume than in your average box of shredded wheat.  The press was clearly jumping on what it perceived as a bandwagon, shoehorning some excellent social history into this ‘growing field’.

In a similar way the seminar I help run at the Institute of Historical Research on the Long Eighteenth Century recently ran an introductory session for new researchers just starting out on their PhDs.  We could fit in some twelve presentations, drawn from across the country – capturing a cross section of new PhD students working on 18th c. history.  And what was remarkable was the prominence of ‘emotions’ in how those PhD students formulated their subject.  Over a third explicitly used the language of ‘emotion’ as part of the framing of their doctorate.  And while all had smart things to say, when questioned about why they chose ‘emotions’ as a framing device (admittedly an unfair question) they all struggled to give a clear answer.  You could still see the impact of new sources, and older traditions, but the sore thumb that stood out among them was one crying and laughing along the way.  Economic and political history, digital history, urban history, even history from below, were all largely absent and in their place was ‘emotion’.

If we wanted to explain how we got here we could go back to Lefebvre and Peter Gay perhaps, and into second wave women’s history, queer theory, body history and the history of sexuality – or if you want another trajectory, via anthropology and psycho-history, to Robert Darnton and Barbara Taylor.   But none of these lineages really seem to me to account for this – sudden – popularity for the analysis of emotions. 

And what occurs to me is that the fundamental drivers of this ‘turn’ lie primarily in a newly felt need to reconstruct unknown lives and interrogate ‘experience’.  Looked at not as a lineage but as an intellectual technology in its own right, one aspect of the ‘work’ that the history of emotions performs is to allow us to imagine the interior life of a dead person for whom we have no personal record and to be able to footnote our imaginings along the way.

This in turn allows us to generate on the page that sense of a lost ‘experience’ told via the lives of people who did not otherwise record their innermost thoughts.  A historically specific model of an emotional landscape, or community, allows us as historians to paint the silent dead in the emotional colours of their class, gender and epoch.  

In other words, the history of emotions appears to me as a means to a literary end, and a fragment of a broader impetus to reconstruct the worlds of people not adequately reflected in the archives – of women; of the poor, of those excluded by race, sexuality and disability.  To have a model of how emotions worked within marriage in 1880s Leeds or Manchester, or to be able to discuss the fear felt by untold soldiers on the Russian Front in the First World War, forms a strategy for breathing life into the silent dead.  Arguably, it allows us to embed what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘rainbow’ in biographical writing – emotions, perspective, interiority used on the page, to evoke a reader’s response.

And this is where the history of emotions seems to me to intersect with digital history.  It is a remarkable thing, but the nature of historical research has changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five years.  The digitisation of the historical record has essentially liberated us from many of the structures of the archive – even as it creates new controlling structures along the way.  Connections that just thirty years ago would have been impossible to make, are suddenly open to us via keyword searching and nominal record linkage. 

And for a select band of historical figures – the 18th and 19th century anglo-phone working class - criminals, paupers and the ancestors of various Mormons – we are confronted – indeed seduced – by the possibility of re-constructing hitherto unfindable lives in evidence scattered across the ever more comprehensive records of the nation state. 
The Digital Panopticon

In a recent project I was part of called the Digital Panopticon – we tied together some forty or fifty datasets covering the trials, convictions and punishments of some 90,000 mainly working class Londoners – criminals and transportees to Australia.  For many of these men, women and children, there are tens of brief references – single lines of information – marking their journey through the systems of criminal justice.  To this can be added census material and life events.  All building into what feels like the bare bones of a remarkable series of biographies. 

This is a single person’s collection of historical data – Jane Tyler – for whom we have 53 separate items of evidence, leading up to her eventual transportation on the Second Fleet to Australia in 1789. 

We can know people’s weight and height, their distinguishing marks, and who they shared a prison cell with.  We can know how much money they had with them when they arrived in New South Wales; and we can read their very words recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.
For some, we can even look in to their eyes, and search for meaning.

This is Sarah Durrant, convicted in 1871 of receiving two stolen bank notes and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Wandsworth prison – in a mugshot that has all the characteristics of a formal portrait.

There are problems.  I have written about this elsewhere, so will not labour this point today; but the digitisation of the Western archive – in part driven by the commercial impetus to monetise popular western demand - has increasingly skewed the historical record by race and national identity.  The white working class – citizens of well-ordered states – are suddenly hyper-available for analysis and empathy; while 98% of the rest of the world are simply denied a ‘right to be remembered’.  There is a massive challenge to right this imbalance – and to at the very least - acknowledge the absences from the archive.

But there are also new and profound possibilities.  If, as I suggested earlier, the work performed by the history of emotions is to allow us an interior view of the lives of those otherwise excluded from the archive; digital history has created a framework of bald records upon which that emotional representation can be hung.

If the ‘work’ of the history of emotions is the recovery of interior lives; the ‘work’ of digital histories, is the evidencing of external lives.  It provides what Virginia Woolf set against her ‘Rainbow’; the ‘granite’ of event and fact – driving a narrowly evidenced narrative made humane and palatable with emotional insight.

By combining the points of sharp light provided by digital research methods with a model of communities of emotion, we are apparently allowed to create more fully rounded historical actors – whose interior life is suddenly available in a new way – whose motivations and behaviour can be understood and used as part of a broader analysis.  And given that the essence of ‘modernity’ is generally thought of as the rise of ‘interiority’ among the middle classes of the early nineteenth – this is a big deal.  It apparently, allows us to ‘use’ working class lives and sensibilities as part of the project of writing the dead in a new and inclusive way.  For a start it helps expose the ridiculous and infinite condescension, that suggests that historically ‘modern’ western middle class people were somehow possessed of a richer interior emotional landscape than pre-modern, working class and non-western people.

And as a long-term practitioner of ‘history from below’ in the British Marxist tradition, you would imagine that I would simply be elated by this (or whatever emotionally positive term is appropriate to my gender, class and community).  This combination of new sources about the working class available because of digital search with a new technology of knowing about emotions and community, would appear to do much of the work only tilted at by micro-histories and history from below.  

So I wonder why I am not actually convinced? Why does this not feel like a new high point in the history of historical scholarship?

And I think it is primarily because when you combine this strategy with the return to narrative evident in the vast majority of academic history writing, several slightly weird things happen.  
We have increasingly moved from the social sciences to the humanities, and from explanations of the evolution of the social order; to profound engagements with the past as a ‘distant mirror’.  To my bemusement, even recent history, including that of the 1960s and 70s – a period I remember with a clarity that suggests I was not taking enough drugs at the time (something I absolutely deny, by the way)  – is now frequently received as journeys into difference.  In part, my suspicion is that historians have come to accept the truism that the digital revolution, when combined with the political and social revolutions associated with feminism and the collapse of communism, formed a historical disjuncture that makes traditional forms of causality seem ever less relevant.  Historians have drunk the kool-aid served up by the likes of Zuckerberg and Fukiyama.

And when these journeys into the past as a foreign country – an unrelated past world of difference -  are also presented in the guise of narrative accounts of individual lives – via biography, collective biography and micro-histories – we change the historical project.  By adopting forms of writing that use techniques drawn from fiction but made plausible by digitisation and the history of emotion, we effectively undermine the difference between fact and fiction; contributing to the political process that says if it ‘feels’ right, then it is right.   

And this is where I become anxious.  What a combination of digitsation with a history of emotion used in pursuit of new forms of historical writing, geared towards ‘experience’, does, is allow us to create a specific kind of historical simulacra, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word.  We can now collect small fragments of light, to illuminate this moment, or that exchange – five or ten or twenty moments, when a historically real person stood in front of a clerk, and had some aspect of their lives turned into the fiction of accounting.  

We tell ourselves we are pursuing Baudrillard’s first stage of simulacra building – ‘the sacramental order’ – in which our partial collection of signs reflects ‘a profound reality’.  But it seems to me the addition of any claim to insight into emotions and experience sends our representations of the past directly to his fourth stage – the ‘pure simulcra’ in which our representations are in fact simple fictions that have no relationship to any reality whatsoever. We increasingly use the tools of genre writing to create empathy, but our bricks are without straw.

If as practising historians, we simply adopt a methodology that allows us to write from a more fully imagined human perspective; to appeal to the idea of ‘experience’ as a topic of historical writing without also doing the work of the social sciences along the way, we effectively abandon the older historical project of explanation; and in the process abandon the cultural authority that comes with interpreting how we got here.  When Jo Guldi and David Armitage published The History Manifesto a few years ago its many flaws were paraded before a spiteful audience (myself included); but it did get one thing right.  As they suggested, unless we claim the high-ground of historical explanation; claim a science of social evolution (whether Marxist or otherwise), we will become mere stylists, using the past as a dress-up box for the intellectual equivalent of seasonal panto.

We can make our readers cry, but I worry that we increasingly fail to make them think.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Twenty five years of the REF and me.

Over on Twitter there has been a recent series of posts on the #REF, and a lot of contention about its use and its worth; and its impact on the humanities in particular. For an excellent summary see Ian Pace's blog The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. The raw emotion felt in response to the ill-treatment of many at the hands of RAE/REF managers is fully on display - and makes for harrowing reading.  The pressures on ECRs are very real and the REF leads many academic department heads and research administrators to make stupid, and inhumane decisions.  My own experience of the RAE and REF, however, is different, and as 240 characters won’t allow me the space to reflect how it has shaped my career - I have posted here instead.

I received my doctorate in 1985, via a system that seemed predicated on a belief that supervision was just one option, human contact a luxury, and emotions superfluous.  The five years spent as a doctoral student remain a low-point in my life.  Entirely unsuccessful in my attempts to find a job or secure a post-doctoral fellowship, I spent the next four years supporting myself doing a mixture of working building sites, casual teaching (mainly for US 'study abroad' programmes) and research for publishers.  As an institution uniquely open to the un-employed, the IHR tea-room became my only academic point of contact.  By 1989, I had essenitally given up any academic ambitions, when I was appointed as a lecturer in 'eighteenth-century social and economic history and humanities computing' at the Polytechnic of North London.   It felt miraculous at the time.  As far as I can remember this was the first permanent post to come up in the UK in my field of 18th century social history in four years, and I suspect I was appointed not for my historical expertise, but because I could cover both halves of the job description.

A few years later PNL became the University of North London, and I was charged with running the department of history.  The first RAE the 'new' universities could participate in came soon after, in 1992. No one else in the department thought it was worthwhile putting in a submission and there was no mechanism for organising such a thing, so I pretty much wrote it myself. The department at the time was a stunning place to teach (my best work experience in a 30-year career), but there was no research funding.  The annual research budget ran to some £2,500 between some 45 humanities staff.  One year there was an actual physical fight outside the committee where that £2,500 was allocated.  My colleagues were nevertheless a remarkable group of historians including people such as Kathy Castle,  John Tosh and Denis Judd. 

In the end, we were awarded a score of '3' - putting us about a third of the way up the list of 'old' university history departments. And with that score came approximately £90k a year in QR (Quality Related) funding for a staff of around 12, for the next four years. This radically transformed the character of the department. This was not all to the good. Arguably the focus on teaching changed and several colleagues whose world view was less grounded in the powerful values of the old poly sector let the funding rather go to their heads.  But the result of that RAE, and the redistribution of funding that followed, very much demonstrated that there was excellent research being produced throughout the sector.  I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the 'old' universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the 'new' universities, was a part of the same strategy.  It worked.  Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s - or at least became more focussed on research and publication.  This was also a period during which student numbers were rapidly expanding, drawing in both money and new staff (following 10 years of decline and retrenchment).  My generation of historians for the most part doesn't exist.  Some made a career in the US, but most of my fellow doctoral students were forced to take jobs outside of the academy, and when expansion came in the early 90s, there was a new, younger generation keen to apply.  But following the 1992 RAE, my strongest emotion was a sense of self-righteous smugness - a belief that the purpose and drive that I found in my small department had been recognised, and the remarkable talents of its staff rewarded.

That success was largely repeated in 1996 -  and following that RAE I moved from the University of North London (later London Metropolitan University), to a 'Readership' at the University of Hertfordshire.  I was recruited as part of an RAE driven strategy following the poor showing of  Hertfordshire's very strong history department in the previous year's exercise.  Hertfordshire had failed to showcase the work of its recent appointments in its 1996 submission.   It was a bitter-sweet move for me - and I remain ambivalent about it.  But while North London did not seem to want to plan for the next RAE, Hertfordshire was actively strategising.  Over the next two rounds I was again tasked with writing a department's submission, and Hertfordshire's history department's score rose from a '2' to a '5*'.  In 2008 I also oversaw some seven submissions in my then role as director of the SSAHRI (Social Science, Arts and Humanities Research Institute) at Hertfordshire. In both these rounds, the 'new' universities seemed to make real progress; and the ridiculous hierarchies of the sector seemed to be gradually dissolving.  There was a recognition that even if the 'excellence' in the 'new' universities formed only 'pockets' they were nevertheless worth acknowledging and funding.  When, in 2001, the history department at Oxford Brookes received a 5* while Oxford University's history department was rated 5, it seemed as if anything was possible.  

For successful departments in my part of the sector, the RAE also gave new authority to academic staff.  Keeping staff, recruiting new staff, and providing a context in which academics could fulfil the requirements of the RAE became ever more important.  The number of staff promoted to 'Professor' expanded dramatically, and while salary scales did not move much, the distribution of posts between 'Professor', 'Reader', 'Senior Lecturer' and 'Lecturer' changed out of all recognition.  Where departments had traditionally had just one 'Professor', and while 'Senior Lecturer' was the height of most academic's ambition; promotions now came thick and fast.  In the process the amount of money spent on staff salaries increased significantly.   Along the way there were very difficult decisions to be made.  I personally only ever excluded one eligible person from the RAE, but the interview involved remains a raw memory.  By 2008, with the department I helped to lead riding high in the RAE (well in to the top third of departments), I was convinced that the new dispensation made sense.  A regular RAE, in combination with the greatly expanded funding available through the AHRC from 2004 onwards, created what felt like a largely balanced system of support that appeared to reward hard work and quality research wherever it was found.  Humanities scholars seldom acknowledge that the funding for their reserach via the AHRC increased from £20m to £100m in a single year (2004) at a time when universities themselves where increasingly obliged to give QR funding to the units of assessment that had 'earned' it via the RAE.  This substantially increased funding for the humanities as well.  As a beneficiary of the system, I was - of course - convinced by its fairness.

The advent of the REF and the arrival and changing level of student fees; the lifting of the cap on student numbers, and a powerful fight-back by the elite institutions (the Russell Group substantially upped its game in 2004), changed much of this. 

With the advent of first £3000, and then £9,000 fees, it became clear that government policy was shifting direction.  From supporting 'pockets of excellence' there would in future be a pattern of expansion and support largely driven by the prejudices of parents and employers.  The 'new' universities were being told to get back in their boxes.  At the same time, the inclusion of 'impact case studies' in the 2013 REF sent a strong message that near market and STEM research was likely to be prioritised in future.   

By 2013, and although Hertfordshire put in a stunning REF performance in history (ranked well in the top ten departments nationally and level-pegging with Cambridge), it seemed clear to me that this model of open competition would not be allowed to continue; or that hurdles were being built in to the system that would rapidly undermine the progress of the previous twenty years.  It was largely in despair at the direction of policy, that I took a post at the University of Sussex - as the least worst compromise I could come up with.  Again, this was a move made in response to a REF strategy.  In this instance it rapidly became clear that the relevant strategy existed primarily in the minds of the VC and head of school, and had not been agreed by my new colleagues - but there was a strategy.

After 25 years in the now not so 'new' universities, during which the RAE and REF seemed to form the basis for real opportunity and positive change - and the basis for grounded, long-term planning, I have since found myself in an 'old' university, where the REF feels more a threat than a promise.  Most of my colleagues would prefer the REF did not exist, and that research funding was simply allocated to them by dint of having secured a job at a 'good' University.  Having won the race to the finishing line they would prefer not to be obliged to compete further.   In my new 'old' university REF strategies are also closely monitored from the centre - and there are few opportunities to use the process in pursuit of coherent academic planning at departmental level.

For myself, I look back on this journey with mixed emotions.  The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system.  First, it disciplined the 'old' universities, forcing them to take more seriously both research and public engagement - holding them to account for the public money they received.  And then, it hung the 'new' universities out to dry, by shifting the goal posts and ensuring that the system would be increasingly rigged in support of the 'old' ones.  In many ways, government - from Thatcher to Cameron and May -  played a community against itself - ensuring that all those academics who pretended to be part of a supportive community of scholarship would spend their time fighting madly to beggar their neighbour.  

But at the same time, I look to the promise of greater diversity offered by those early RAE's and cannot but think they must be at least a part of the solution.  The desire to get rid of the RAE is largely a cry to 'leave us alone'; and it is heard most loudly in the most privileged corridors of the academy.  And yet, when you look at the staff involved, if you measure their ethnic, class and cultural diversity, what rapidly emerges is a defence of the most selective process imaginable.  Most staff in the humanities in the 'old' universities (and the new) are white and middle class (myself included).  A substantial proportion come from 'academic' homes; and were given privileged access to an elite education by dint of their parent's social and academic capital.  If simply getting a 'job' frees you from ever demonstrating the significance of your work; and if all those people who did not get a job in the right corner of the academy are excluded from demonstrating the worth of their own labours, we simply re-enforce hierarchies of privilege to the detriment of the system.  Clear benchmarks, and transparent processes seem to me a better antidote to privilege than a strategy based on 'leaving us alone'.

ECRs have been dealt a rough hand.  The process of selection has been changed without anyone ever spelling out why or how.  The only explicit discussion of this I ever heard was at the AHRC, where the identification of the 'leaders of tomorrow' became an increasing pre-occupation from around 2010 as part of an emerging policy of concentrating research funding on an ever dwindling set of departments and research 'leaders'.  The path to secure academic employment is now predicated on a first class degree from the 'right'  university (read Oxbridge), followed by a funded doctorate at the 'right' university (read Oxbridge), followed by a post-doc (maybe London for varieties' sake), a book of the thesis, two articles, and success in the AHRC's 'New Generation Thinkers' competition.  And woe-betide anyone who fails to collect any one of these shiny tokens of achievement.  The effect is to raise the bar for secure employment while not being honest with the scholars who are in fact being judged and discarded at each stage.  The language of precarity actually hides an ongoing process of brutal selection.  This is a form of selection that re-enforces privilege and excludes scholars who have not travelled on this most banal, lock-step journey. To be caught in this system is very hard, but the REF is not the real issue. 

As I approach retirement I have become increasingly uncomfortable with higher education.  I look back and think with Malcom Chase that I would choose a different path if I was able to start over.  Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege - the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the 'neo-liberal' university that is the problem; but the 'neo-liberal' university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.  To my mind, the REF was a game changing opportunity, and could be again.