History At Sheffield, 1988-2004: All Change Please!

Bob Shoemaker | 29 March 2021

Historiography / History Of Sheffield / Sheffield History

A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

R. I. Moore’s blogs on the history of our Department, 1963-88 (part 1 and part 2) tell how expansion, the arrival of new staff, and curriculum reform transformed a ‘a small and obscure department in a provincial university’.

I arrived in the Department in 1991 as a new lecturer and found it a very welcoming and student-friendly place. Some things never change. But to this American young-man-in-a-hurry, the Department still felt very conservative. It was led by two professors with titled chairs (the Professor of Medieval History and the Professor of Modern History), each with his (sic) own secretary.

British history was still compulsory–a period each of medieval and modern history, with 1509 as the dividing point. Teaching was conducted by lectures, seminars, and first-year tutorials of no more than six students, and assessment almost entirely by unseen examinations. First class degrees were rare–none were given out in my first two years. And there were virtually no computers, though they were becoming common elsewhere.

But the ensuing years felt like continual revolution, as various external and internal pressures led to major changes in all aspects of the Department’s activities. Most important was undoubtedly the government-funded expansion which caused student numbers to double in the 1990s.

Government-imposed research assessment exercises, together with dramatic increases in research funding, primarily from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (later Council), provided new resources to do research and increased the value assigned to publication. Meanwhile, broader changes in the historical profession, and in the wider culture, encouraged new approaches and more diverse topics, while computers transformed everything. 

All this was overseen by forward-looking if sometimes controversial Professor Ian Kershaw, Head of Department from 1991 to 2001 (while concurrently writing his prize-winning two-volume biography of Hitler). But change was a collective enterprise, facilitated by an expansion in the senior ranks (with several colleagues promoted to ‘personal chairs’–professorships) and a new committee structure overseeing the key areas of teaching, research, and postgraduate study. But many decisions were taken in seemingly endless Department meetings, in what might euphemistically be described as a productive culture of argument. 

The first issue to confront was the 1988 merger of the Department of Medieval and Modern History with the Departments of Ancient History and Economic and Social History. While many staff moved to other universities, the social historians stayed put, holding onto a separate honours degree in social history. Over time, as many members of the old Department came to practice various types of social history, this separate degree lost its distinctiveness, and it was finally abolished around 2000.

Academic expansion did not keep up with student numbers, leading to a big increase in the staff-student ratio. This led to changes in teaching practices (most obviously larger classes) and assessment. But it proved difficult to reduce the staff workload, as the introduction of continuous assessment meant more work which needed precise marking (sometimes double-marking). The introduction of a requirement for student essays to be ‘word processed’ (opposed by some colleagues who thought it would diminish the quality of the writing) eased some of the burden.

Prompted both by changes in wider historical practice and the diversity of newly appointed staff (more women, people from abroad, and non-Oxbridge PhDs, but few from BAME backgrounds), the curriculum changed significantly. This was encouraged by University-imposed modularisation and semesterisation in 1994, which meant that courses running over a whole year or over the whole honours degree could no longer be offered (though the Department fudged this by keeping its core year-long special subjects and dissertation).

While the increases in bureaucracy and marking which this caused were unwelcome, the greater number of what were now called ‘modules’ encouraged curriculum innovation. Mandatory British history was abolished, and courses on a much wider range of topics flourished. The first course which used gender as an explicit category of historical analysis was taught in 1993. A new degree in International History and Politics promoted non-European history (long largely confined to the study of the United States); the first staff taught the histories of Australia, India, and South Africa. 

Two core elements of the 1985 curriculum were revamped: ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’ (level one) replaced ‘World Civilisations’, and ‘Modern Historiography’ replaced ‘Modern Historical Thought’ (level two). The first recognised that the Department did not have the necessary expertise to teach world history (while still introducing students to a broad chronological and geographical perspective), while the second was less philosophy-oriented, focusing on innovation in post-1945 historiography.

The modular programme’s final semester proved difficult, but eventually a reflective core module, ‘Rethinking History’, filled the gap. While the post-modernist ethos of its first iteration proved unpopular with students (who did not appreciate the suggestion that all history was merely ‘representation’), a module reflecting on the purposes of history has retained its place in the final semester ever since. While the seemingly constant chopping and changing was arduous, regular attempts to improve our core modules reflected well on the Department. And with a spine of required modules across each level of the degree, the Department stood out as having a more coherent curriculum than many of its rivals.[1]

Computers transformed not only student and staff writing, but also research. The pioneering Hartlib Papers project (1987-1996), led by Mark Greengrass (with colleagues in English and the Library), based in the newly formed Humanities Research Institute (1991), transcribed and digitised the Library’s collection of the manuscripts of seventeenth-century polymath Samuel Hartlib. This was followed by an AHRB funded project to produce a definitive electronic edition of John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. In the short term, Hartlib suffered from its CD-ROM delivery platform; the development of the World Wide Web in the late 1990s opened up new possibilities, both for the analysis of digital texts and public engagement.

In the early 2000s two projects, the Old Bailey Online and the Cistercians in Yorkshire, cemented the Department’s move into large scale funded projects, and made it a leading centre for Digital History. For this and many other reasons the Department performed well in the periodic research assessment exercises, attracting additional funding and further enhancing its national and international reputation.

Our combination of research success with teaching excellence (also confirmed by external assessment) led the Department to conceptualise its teaching as ‘research led’. It also encouraged the Department’s expansion of its postgraduate programme, both with a stand-alone MA programme (notably the MA in American History, 1993), and in PhD research, as the Department stopped referring its best students to Cambridge and Oxford.

Throughout this period the Department was housed in a set of rather run-down buildings at the intersection of Glossop Road and Clarkehouse Road (though the main building, a former Victorian mansion, exuded an air of dilapidated grandeur). In 2001 the University bought the site of the former Jessop Hospital for Women, paving the way for the Department’s move from its increasingly unsuitable accommodation to purpose-built Jessop West in 2009.

But I will end this story in 2004, when I became Head of Department, marking a generational shift in Department leadership to the baby boomers. At this point I become too much part of the story to be the right person to tell it, so I will leave the sequel to my younger colleagues.

Bob Shoemaker is Professor of Eighteenth-Century British History. His most recent publication is ‘Sympathy for the Criminal: The Criminal Celebrity’ in Eighteenth-Century London’, Crime, History and Societies, 24:1 (2020).

[1] For a review of university history curricula in the late 1990s, see Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker and John Tosh, ‘Skills and the Structure of the History Curriculum’, in The Practice of University History Teaching, ed. Alan Booth and Paul Hyland (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 47-59.