Learning to Listen: Diversity and History

by Prof. David Stack

One of the skills required of any good historian is the ability to listen. For those working on oral history projects that means quite literally hearing their subjects speak. For the rest of us it is a case of ‘listening’ figuratively to the ‘voices’ that echo through the texts and objects that constitute our primary source materials. In recent years, the profession has made great strides towards learning to listen in new ways, both by hearing once neglected voices from the past, such as those of transgender individuals, and by listening to contemporary concerns like the #MeToo movement.

These are welcome developments, but there remain other voices to which the historical profession as a whole can still seem a little deaf. One reason for that is the very limited diversity of our profession.

It is no coincidence that historians (male and female) have become better attuned to hearing women’s voices from the past at the same time as the number of female staff and students in history departments has risen. But we are a long way from seeing a similar change in relation to non-white history.

As the Royal Historical Society report on Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History (2018) showed, 93.7% of university historians are white; less than 1% are black.

There is, of course, a context for this disparity. The paucity of Black and Minority Ethnic representation intersects, to some degree, with the appalling class inequality that still disfigures all levels of education, and is but one piece in the wider matrix of racial inequality in which BME workers routinely experience less favourable outcomes. There were over 70,000 race-based hate crimes in 2017-18, and black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely than the national average to be permanently excluded from schools.

We could continue with a plethora of similar statistics illustrating the broader societal, structural, and institutional forces at play. Yet even after this context is recognised there remains a distinct problem for universities in general – there is a 15.6% attainment gap for BME students across higher education in England – and for history in particular.

Perhaps the most chastening statistic in the RHS report was that there is markedly less diversity among history students (only 11% of whom are BME) than those in most other subjects. The uncomfortable truth is that this is, to some extent, our particular problem. One of the causes of this problem lies in the way in which we relate to audiences beyond academia, and to those groups who are still underrepresented in higher education. We have not listened to them.

‘Widening participation’ and ‘public engagement’ are now watchwords for our profession, but the transformative potential of both is yet to be realised. Widening participation is too often pursued as a matter of reluctant compliance with the Office for Students, rather than embraced as an opportunity to enrich all of our experiences. Public engagement, meanwhile, is generally regarded as a one-way arrangement, in which the public help populate our REF-inspired ‘impact’ case studies, or provide a passive audience for academics to lecture to (in both senses of that word).

It could be different.

Back in the autumn last year, soon after the RHS report was published, I attended two events which highlighted a more genuinely inclusive approach to history.

The first, ‘Striking the Empire’, was a discussion between the historian and broadcaster Professor David Olusoga and Akala, the award-winning hip hop artist, and author of Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018). You can listen to their conversation here. The second, ‘“Where do we fit in?’ Black and Asian British History on the Curriculum’, was organised by the Institute for Historical Research and the Runnymede Trust, to consider what progress had been made in diversifying the school curriculum.

Both events were self-consciously participatory, and both were extremely popular. ‘Striking the Empire’ filled the Royal Festival Hall, with a paying audience on a Saturday night; the IHR event was moved to a bigger venue to accommodate demand – and was still oversubscribed. That these were predominantly non-white audiences eager to engage with history, and drawn from precisely the demographic groups history departments are failing to attract, was just as damning, in its own way, as any statistic in the RHS report.

What these events highlight is an appetite for history that is ill-served by existing HE institutions. Universities must do better, and most history departments have already begun to rethink what they teach, and the ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ campaign has prompted some long overdue module changes. The next, more radical step is to make this a genuinely two-way process, in which academic historians work alongside those who have hitherto been excluded from universities – by barriers of class, race, or both – in the co-creation of research questions, outputs, and teaching programmes.

The first stage is simply to begin conversations, by inviting local groups on to campus, and exploring what they might want and need from us, and how we can work together. To some extent this can be done by building upon existing initiatives. At our university, the strategy of developing a ‘University for Reading’ and the championing of an ‘Open in Practice’ research agenda both imply the need to build community connections. But if these initiatives are going to be truly transformative, they need to proceed in a spirit quite different from ‘business as usual’.

What we need is a broader cultural change in our work and in our research; a change which opens up our campuses and our minds, and encourages us to listen to and learn from voices beyond the academy.

We need, that is, to heed the message of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) and to listen more, and lecture less. What we hear might be uncomfortable, but uncomfortable truths can prompt excellent work, as the University of Glasgow’s report into its own historical links to slavery proves. Our starting point needs to be that we too have something to learn, and that the concerns, priorities, and stories of those who have traditionally been excluded from campus can enrich our historical understanding. Not only do we not know all the answers, we haven’t even thought of all the questions.

This is not just a cynical matter of improving recruitment numbers, but a way of changing our approach on a deeper level and with more profound consequences. We must break down boundaries that have traditionally defined our academic discipline – and by doing so, work to change the discipline itself. We can begin that work by listening.


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