Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project and the Project
Officer, Danny Millum, will be speaking to Professor Penelope Corfield
about her experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and
academic profession of history.
Professor Corfield, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Penelope Corfield: I had a classic, happy upbringing, with a loving family and a house full of children and books, and the family cat. If you wanted to place us, you could say we were part of the intelligentsia, but not the urban glitterati of Holland Park or Hampstead – instead, the track within that that comes from the sober, godly living of the non-conformist tradition, albeit by this time secularised. My dad worked for the trade union movement, which didn’t pay much in terms of money but it was what he was committed to in terms of working-class solidarity. And for me it was absolutely wonderful: I had my political training by being allowed as a teenager to sit in on the shop stewards’ debates: absolutely fascinating – I learnt a lot – and I can also now stand up and address a crowd of complete strangers as brothers and sisters without any embarrassment.
PO: And in terms of history itself, how did you end up coming into the profession?
PC: From a very early age I knew I wanted to research in history, and later I decided also I wanted to teach – which now I love very much – but my initial impulse was research, so I set out to get a degree in history, then a PhD.
Only later did I realise I had a very eminent relation in the field, namely my uncle, Christopher Hill. My mother, being his younger sister, had felt very overshadowed by him when she was a child so she made sure we were protected from his aura. In fact he hadn’t published much in the time that I was at school and deciding to do history, but he began to publish in a great flourish from the 1960s onwards when I was a student. Though I was influenced by him then, my decision to become a historian was taken on my own. Christopher, in our younger days, was just the shy uncle who liked to play cricket in the back garden with us.
PO: You mentioned that later on he became an influence; would you be able to name any other influences, both in terms of teachers that you had and in terms of intellectual influences?
PC: Without a doubt, Christopher was one, not so much for his writings but because we came from the same sort of political, cultural, secularised non-conformity, so we had a lot of shared values and I was proud later on that we became personal friends. Another big influence was E. P. Thompson, a deeply charismatic figure, and I admired Edward and Christopher because of their quest to find the big picture.
But the third was a completely different character, and one that both those two regarded with some suspicion, and that was Jack Fisher (F. J. Fisher) at the LSE. Jack Fisher was another extraordinary man with a very, very powerful intellect. He was a meta-critic – not a sort of quibbling, fussy, pedantic critic, but a critic who could go to the heart of your argument and work out what your fundamental philosophical position was, then check ‘Is this position compatible with that?’ I heard him once tear a paper of E.P. Thompson’s to pieces forensically because it was based on two incompatible positions. It was a very powerful approach, but it could be too critical and he never wrote his big book. For me the challenge of history is the tension between the desire to put things together and make the big picture and synthesise, but also the ability to criticise a generalisation.
PO: The two competing sides.
PC: Yes: the detail and the generalisation.
PO: Normally at this point in the interviews I’ve been conducting, I ask people a few questions about their particular field, but in your case, at Royal Holloway you’re a Professor of History, full stop. I was wondering if you wanted to explain how that came about?
PC: I am happy to explain that because I have always taken the view – going back to Maitland – of history as the seamless web, so I don’t think we should be parceled up into different specialisations. I’ve been happy to work in a whole variety. I’ve done some social scientific history with databases and historical psephology, but also cultural history, the linguistic term and gender history.
For me, it’s all history, so when I got my Chair they said ‘What do you want? Do you want to be called Professor of Social History or British History or anything really?’ I said I just wanted to be history. There was a bit of a fuss, but there was nothing in the regulations to say no, so I’m just a Professor of History, and I think that’s much the best.
I was always encouraging colleagues in the small Economic and Social History departments who were worried about merging back into History. I was saying ‘No, no, that’s the right development’. Actually the break in history earlier this last century where economic and social history broke away from what they thought of as old style, fuddy-duddy political history was a very bad move. So the reintegration was absolutely right. And mostly the reintegrations happened successfully.
PO: And for what reason do you think that was a bad move?
PC: The really key thing is to be in big departments and big fields where you can move around. History’s such a creative subject that people have to be able to move as their research fields and their students’ research fields are moving on. The trouble is if you get caught in small departments you are left with old style syllabuses and programmes and the subject can’t develop. In fact economic history, at least a strand of it, developed into very, very specialist economic quantification, and the numbers there were just not enough to sustain separate departments. People then got defensive and worried, and put their backs to the wall. It’s much better to have history’s seamless web – that’s what it’s all about.
PO: You say that you’ve worked in history from many different perspectives. Are there any of those approaches that you are particularly interested in at the moment? I know that you said you were interested in talking about language and gender – I don’t know whether I’m correct in phrasing those as an ‘approach’ to total history?
PC: I don’t actually use the phrase ‘total history’, which is rather a remnant of the days of ‘total football’. I prefer ‘holistic’, which doesn’t mean that for everything you must try and include everything in it, but just that you are approaching it from an overall viewpoint. So, for example, I was always an advocate that women’s history should see itself as part of gender history. I believe this has actually happened, although it caused a bit of a fuss at the time. To say you’re doing gender history doesn’t mean you must always do women and men or men and women, or all different sorts of men, or all different sorts of women. You can specialise within that just as you can within everything else. But there should be no boundaries, so if you’re doing political history, it may well include cultural history, or cultural history including language history, and all the rest. It just shouldn’t be dividing them off. And the best historians – people like E.P. Thompson – didn’t subdivide things like that.
PO: You were suggesting that you thought holistic history or long-term history was due for a comeback. Who in the past there has been a significant exponent of this type of approach to history?
PC: Well, I do think that we are getting to a return to ‘big’ history, long-term history, the diachronic, but it probably will be done in a different way. Of course, individuals now still do write their long-term history of the world with an ecological slant, or the histories of kings and queens over time – there are all sorts of ways of doing it. What I’m arguing really is that as well as the specialisation by period, by theme, and the tremendous specialisation that you find in schools’ history (which, especially in secondary schools, is an absolute disaster area in my view) nonetheless there’s a quest for returning to the big picture.
But rather than simply one person saying ‘it is this’ particular story – the rise of freedom or whatever, the failure of freedom and the degradation of the earth, whatever ecological or other message – it may be done by teams of people, for instance looking at overlapping periodisations. We had a conference on this last year with some archaeologists, pre-historians, geologists and others, looking at different ways we might think of the significant periods for different sorts of things. That opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities, although no instant synthesis, but that’s good.
PO: And that’s interesting because quite often these periods, or terms for them, are assumed, aren’t they? ‘Medieval period’, or ‘early modern’ and the like. It’s a question in a sense of going behind those assumptions.
PC: Yes. I have actually written against the use of these; they’re just default terminology but they now have no meaning whatsoever, and I personally try to avoid them whenever speaking. The students sometimes laugh if they catch me out because they’re so pervasive, you can’t always shed them. Again, I have been arguing (and have an article coming out on this) that we’ve got to think of new ways of describing these periods rather than just using periods of time. I mean, ‘the Middle Ages’ – what on earth does that mean?
Also, for some purposes we will have longer spans and for others shorter spans. In fact, if you look at what historians are actually doing, there’s tremendous eclecticism, but it’s all left undefined and unclarified. One of my particular hobby horses is how people use the tag of ‘modern’ and they just plonk it down on whichever period they decide is modern without testing and cross-checking against other peoples’ usages. I particularly collect references to historians on the birth of the modern world, anywhere from the twelfth century to the twentieth century. That seems a bit elastic!
PO: So the word of course becomes meaningless, it becomes without reference to…
PC: But this is what I mean by the return to the diachronic. It doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly going to agree a new periodisation, but instead would be talking about why we choose this period, or why we choose that.
PO: And you mentioned that you thought in the future there might be a possibility of historians working in teams. That’s something that has been – as far as I know – uncommon in the discipline. I think the Cambridge group of demographic historians was an example of that, but perhaps an unusual example.
PC: Yes. I don’t think in institutionalised teams. I don’t actually think that works very well because a lot of history is the individual scholar (not the lone scholar because we’re all in networks). Nonetheless the project could be linking up and debating various things across these specialisations.
I am currently involved in one myself on historical psephology. Three of us are working together on the eighteenth century electoral database and in fact we’re hoping to create a famous database of databases, with the crime database and the clergy database. There are wonderful things that can be done. But it’s more aggregations and associations for some purposes, while retaining your individual scholarship for others, which I think is a much more flexible way.
PO: That makes sense. The idea of returning to long-term history suggests an idea of returning to the grand narrative, and I was wondering what your thoughts were in connection with the idea that developments in what has grandly been called postmodernism are supposed to have killed off the idea of meta-narratives and the grand narrative. Perhaps in contrast to developments in the twentieth century, where various grand narratives have seemed to themselves have been disproved by events?
PC: That is an interesting one. I can’t resist noting that the postmodernists have a narrative of their own – that is, the collapse of modernity and the advent of postmodernity. I detect an incredulity to the concept of postmodernity myself, as well as to meta-narratives. In fact if you look at the usage of the term ‘postmodern’, it had a big peak in the late 1990s but is now fading away. I’ve done a bibliometric count of references, and its peak was 1999 and 2000; it’s a real fin de siècle – or rather fin de century – phenomenon.
So I don’t think the quest for long-term explanations has gone away, but again I just think it will be done in more pluralistic and inventive ways, rather than saying there is a single story of the march of this or the rise of that.
But it is quite common now for some people, even who are not postmodernists, to say ‘Oh, there’s no history, only histories’. I think that’s a real evasion – do we mean there are separate women’s histories, old women’s history, white history, black history? No, on the contrary, there’s a history of humanity. It may be a pluralist one with conflict and things we don’t like as well as things we do like, but nonetheless we can look at all of these together. I think that’s why people study history. It’s the stock of the recoverable human experience or experiences, and people’s subsequent reflections on that: nothing can be more important, and that’s what in fact the postmodernists are doing – reflecting on the 20th century.
PO: And I guess finally on this topic, how do you see your approaches relating to, for instance, the Annales school, which again has been described as proposing a total history?
PC: I think I would go back to the point of the difference between a total history and a holistic approach. In my own work for my PhD, I did what you might call not a completely total history, but a history in the round of the city of Norwich. This was not unlike the sort of thing some of the Annales school were doing, like Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis. I wasn’t particularly copying them, but I was just trying to look at a society in the round from as many points of view as possible.
That doesn’t mean that’s the only way things may be done; one may want to take out a specialist strand and look at that over a long time. I don’t think the phrase ‘total history’ is really helpful because that implies you must throw in everything plus the kitchen sink, whereas in fact you may want to take out a strand but but that one strand may illuminate all sorts of things in very divergent ways.
Again, if you look at what historians are actually doing, they’re bursting out all over from the traditional approaches. Historians of food, for example, are choosing quite different periodisations and approaches, and in fact it is some of the historians of food who have been the earliest to denounce these old period terminologies.
PO: I suppose when you’re taking a different approach like that, it’s often then that you see that the periodisations have absolutely no relevance to…
PC: Yes. It’s difficult to avoid the periodisations though because they are institutionalised. They’re institutionalised in the structure of the degrees and in the structure of the profession, and the journals and the research grants, publishers’ expectations, everything. It is institutionalised so it’s hard to get away from it, but this new approach is bursting through. It’s much more eclectic, much more diverse, but it’s quite tricky to teach. In teaching, you sometimes have to go back to the simpler frames, but it usually excites the students a great deal.
PO: And you’ve mentioned there these new ideas, new histories, or approaches bursting through the old periodisations. I just wanted to ask you in general if there were any other trends in the popularity of different periods or different approaches that you’d noted?
PC: During my time as a historian, different trends have come and gone and so I tend to be a bit sceptical of people announcing the latest new thing and how it’s going to revolutionise history. It always has a burst of excitement and fun and stimulus, new journals and conferences, but it very rarely produces a new epistemology, and rather beds down and settles in as part of history’s seamless web.
I don’t mind this process of renewal and embedding, but though my own view is that currently time – the diachronic – is becoming the way forward, I don’t want actually to try and over-hype this and see it fall flat on its face in the same way. I think actually the return to the diachronic, is actually not just refuting – it’s also building – on what has been done. So I’m not actually viewing this as a turn in the same way, but a deepening.
PO: You’re not claiming to set up a new paradigm.
PC: Well, I am but not by saying that everything that’s happened before is wrong.
PO: Right. Moving closer towards the question of the profession rather than the discipline itself – if the two can be separated – I wanted to ask you what you thought about the pressures on academics and how they’ve changed during your career?
PC: The pressures have changed very substantially,
particularly at BA level. It’s very hard now to know all your student’s
names, which once was axiomatic – I always knew the names of all the
students in every class. Now lecturing to 200 first years I don’t, and
I do think that’s a loss. I try very hard to keep that going in my second
and third year classes, but it’s not so easy.
Plus, like everybody else, I hate all the bureaucratization and the form-filling. There are so many forms we know they can’t all be read, so I try and do them as efficiently and quickly and with as little original thought as I can possibly manage in order not to waste brain power on them. At postgraduate level, in some ways I think we are better organized. We see more of our postgraduates and have a clearer idea of what we’re doing with them to help them through, and we have a school of fellow postgraduates who help each other, so it’s not the isolated and rather disconcerting experience it could have been. So I think at BA level there are real, real problems, at PhD level it’s probably better and MA level is terrific.
PO: So a mixed picture in a sense. You were a member of the History sub-panel for RAE, so I suppose you’re seeing it from a different side as well.
PC: Of course I can’t comment about any of the details, but I must say it’s absolutely fascinating. It gives one an overview of one’s own profession, and except for the fact that I don’t really think that this sort of scrutiny is necessary – I wish there were more trust in the universities and the profession – it’s a wonderful chance to see what we’re all doing. I don’t think it’s giving away any particular secret to say that the depth, range and professionalism of History is staggering. That’s History with a capital ‘H’.
PO: And when you say the depth is staggering, would you contrast that with the past and say that the quality’s improved? I know it’s very difficult to say.
PC: I think in terms of professional presentation it has improved. If you look back for example at doctoral theses of 50 years ago, the change to now is really, really notable, in the way in which work is presented now and the range of documentation – but also the range of levels that people present their work. So there’s the more specialist, formalised work and then there’s the more popular, outreach work, and both of those are good and they’re done in different styles and different ways but draw on the same sorts of scholarship. The panel has been determined to reflect the state of the subject as it is, rather than imposing any view, so that any output that is research-based at whatever level and however directed is up for assessment.
PO: That’s interesting. So that moves me onto a related question to do with the relationship between academic and popular history. In your last reply, you suggested that perhaps that had changed to a certain extent – I was wondering if you could comment on that?
PC: I think the interchange is a thoroughly, thoroughly good thing, and I’m all in favour. I’m not sure it’s changed quite as much as some of the protagonists – that is, of popular history – like to think, because there were people like A. J. P Taylor who were media dons long before, but nonetheless the exchange is really great. People should try and write their more specialist stuff and then write more popular accounts of it as well, so that you get the interchange both ways round.
The only thing I think we have to admit is that there are over 2,000 professional historians, and it’s not possible for them all to become media stars. There is bound to be an element of specialisation, so I don’t think it is going to be feasible to be saying to everyone ‘Go out and become a media star’. But there should be the overlap, it is constructively there and I’m sure it will continue, and historians are always in demand to advise on film and theatre and that’s great. Long may it continue.
What I also don’t like, from the other way round, is media historians who then make snide remarks about the professionals on whose work they draw in their own accounts.
I think that perhaps we’re more conscious of it now which is good. Talking to someone like Natalie Zemon Davis, she’s thought a lot about how to represent past periods in film, when you can’t literally go and just create, say, sixteenth-century bodies, music, sounds, because people have different expectations now. But at the same time you shouldn’t just put a merry past on it and should try and find some way of mediating between people’s expectations now, looking back, of how things were and what the historian knows about the time.
I talk about this with my students a lot in the first year ‘What is history?’ course, and they are convinced, and I’m sure that’s right, that there’ll be more and more adjacent forums attached to any programme. So programme makers can talk about what they did and have a website, and viewers and commentators can send in their own views as well. That way, we can have a much more thoughtful discussion around all these things.
PO: You were talking about the research of professional historians, and other people’s research resting on that. I was wondering about the relationship between teaching and research, and if you thought that that had changed at all?
PC: Well, I do believe the relationship between teaching and research is absolutely essential from both the researcher’s and the student’s point of view. It’s hard to keep that going but it’s absolutely essential so we must preserve that, come what may.
PO: Do you think that relationship has altered during the time you’ve been in the profession? Become more difficult to preserve, if you like? That’s a slightly leading question.
PC: It is difficult in the sense that there are so many pressures on the academic’s time, and you have to learn to switch from one thing to another. But now, when I get my day in the British Library I’m so delighted and thrilled to be there that I can switch on immediately and switch into that straight away, whereas when I was younger it took me much longer to do. I try and always have a sort of default problem or theme, or something that I’m thinking about, so that when I’m walking around I’ve got something that I can go back to. So when I sit down in the library I know where I am and can pick up on it. Even if I haven’t written it all down, it’s whirling around in my mind.
But, yes, it is hard. And actually it makes me laugh when PhD students get their first job and suddenly realise all the things that the academics are doing, and wonder how they manage!
PO: They don’t realise how lucky they’ve had it for those last three years. Mentioning that, I suppose you’ve supervised a lot of PhDs – again, have you noted any changes there in terms of the types of subjects studied or the way in which people approach the PhD?
PC: The big change during my time as a supervisor has been the internationalisation of PhD research, so I have far more overseas students than I ever did at the start. But that has been thoroughly good, and they all get on and help each other, and that creates a sense of excitement with people coming from all around the globe to study in London.
People from London going elsewhere to lecture and teach has also been great. That puts me into opposition with those who think there is purely a ‘western’ style of history and a Japanese style – that every culture has its own way. On the contrary, I think history is an internationalist subject and the internationalisation of its actual protagonists has been brilliant.
But there has been, in terms of subjects, a certain amount of caution now on the part of supervisors to make sure people don’t undertake projects that are too big. In fact although I believe in the diachronic frame I am mainly encouraging my students now to do synchronic immersion, to pick a relatively finite period of time with relatively homogeneous sources, as something can be done more expeditiously.
This isn’t just because of the pressures to finish within the four years – although those pressures, those institutional pressures, are there – but it’s partly to help the students too. The old ten-year PhD wasn’t really helpful to people – they got stale and bored and full of self-reproaches. You have to have finite subjects that people can do, and then go on, so I usually encourage them to have a synchronic immersion for the doctorate and then something diachronic for the post-doc.
PO: Would you be able to just define those two terms, diachronic and synchronic, that you’ve been using?
PC: Yes, I’m happy to do that because in my view these are art terms that are going to come into the historical profession very shortly. The synchronic is referring to the short-term or immediate focus. Not just as in a history of a year, like a book on the history of 1819 for example, but of a relatively finite slab of time. Whereas the diachronic is the long-term, through time, and that’s much more difficult to do at a PhD level – indeed, I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing like that when I began.
These are useful terms, and I’ll give you an example how I use them. I have just been teaching a course on the long 18th century including the early 19th century. We take a slab of time, and so most of the question are synchronic – say about parliamentary reform or Chartism. But then we also study the diachronic footprint, so we study Chartism through time from then ‘til now. The students then choose a topic and write two essays on, let’s say, the young Charles Dickens. Dickens synchronically, as he was viewed in his time, taking up the reviews and comments of the time and his own comments at the time, and then Dickens over time, or through time.
And that gives them a marvelous idea of the two ways in which historians cast their mind – they try and go back to the period but they’re also studying the later traditions, reputations, oscillations in the history of whatever it is that is under study. So that really works quite well because history is about the recoverable past but it’s also about reflections, the later history of that past as it has been reassessed by later generations.
PO: That’s very interesting, and very clear as well. Moving on from there, you were talking about people studying at undergraduate level and people taking PhDs, but again I wondered if you had any reflections on the teaching of history in schools, and how that to you appears to have changed?
PC: I am worried about what’s happening to the teaching of history, particularly in secondary schools. I think in junior schools, it’s still quite good because they do synchronic immersion – the Romans or something like that, life in a medieval castle. It’s in the secondary years that there are not enough narratives and I think young people of that age group would respond to narratives much better than all the little bits and pieces they’re doing. They’re getting a sort of saltation [history occurring in sudden leaps] through history – a bit here, a bit there, a bit of the other, and no links in between. a
Almost certainly the narratives would be over-simplified from the point of view of later study, but if they knew some narratives that would engender more excitement, and then they can deconstruct and unpick those, and look at varieties and alternatives at college. But at the moment they’re being introduced to original sources, which is great but means that universities have to change what they do. Introducing students to original sources is no longer the big excitement because they’re already doing that, but the problem is that the students from school just have bits and pieces. A fragmentation of history.
PO: So in a sense, in one way there’s been an improvement as you say, in that the idea of sources is introduced at an earlier level, but commensurately what’s been lost is what used to be presented, which was a narrative history – the likes of 1066 and all that.
PC: I think our colleagues who teach at school would say the greatest problem is just the cutting down of the time they are getting to teach history. It’s getting more and more marginalised in the timetable which is a real problem because history is a reading, mulling, meditating sort of subject: you can’t just do it in little bits and pieces. I think that’s probably what they would say is the chief problem.
I would love to see, for example, a course on the peopling of Britain. You could do who moved to Britain over centuries, and that would be relevant to students’ lives now and would include past migrations as well as present ones. I know something like this has been suggested at various times in the various syllabus reforms and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next rounds, some things like that come in.
Another thing that I would like, is for historians to take over the citizenship programme which otherwise is without a syllabus, without a proper programme, and without a historical depth. You could do the struggle for rights – not just simply dreadful states or rulers and virtuous people – but the tensions and debates in it.
There’s all sorts of things that could be done there, and I know there’s a lot of lobbying being done by historians, by the Historical Association and by the Royal Historical Society. I think the historical profession collectively should be pressing on this as well. It’s absolutely essential. Not that I think history as a subject is going to disappear at a university level – it’s too powerful or fundamental a human instinct to study the past and I’m not actually worried about the survival of the subject per se – but I am worried about the sort of training that people are getting at the younger ages.
PO: Those comments lead on perfectly to my final question, which would be just to invite you to speculate about the future of history, the profession and the discipline?
PC: I can’t conceal the fact that I am an optimist, and I must admit my optimism isn’t always well-founded, but I don’t believe the basic study of the past will ever stop. It’s intrinsic to humans – we’re a species who think long, try and plan for the future, anticipate the future, but we also reflect on our collective past. In the past, traditions about the past have occurred in all sorts of ways. Much religious teaching has stories about the past, so it is not only done by professional historians. But in a general way, I don’t believe an interest in the past as such will ever go, so that gives me a real basis for my fundamental optimism.
As for the profession, I think history is a very well-founded and professionalised profession. The quality and the range, the mixture of the arguments, the documentation, the self-reflexivity – all elements of these are very, very impressive. I suppose where the dangers lie are in history in school. That’s where I would say my doubts and hesitations are. And it’s not just that they must study more history in order to keep the universities going, because actually recruitment there is going well. It’s actually because it’s a loss to all those who are not going on to university, as well as those who are, not to have done more, better and proper history in school, so I think that’s where our real campaigning concerns should lie.
But again, going back to the general point, is history as a subject in trouble? No, the intense popularity of history – media history, publications, everything else – leads me to be confident of its general appeal. One of my dicta is that all people are living with histories. People, and indeed peoples, are living histories. And being human means thinking long and being aware of the past. That’s my snappy dictum!
PO: I think that’s a good place to end. Professor Corfield, thank you
very much indeed.