More Change Than Previously Thought: An Interview With Dr Linda Kirk About The Sheffield History Department
Peter Holmes | 2 April 2021
◇ Gender / Historiography / History Of Sheffield / Sheffield History / Women / Women's History
Continuing History Matters' recent series on the history of the Sheffield History Department, Dr Linda Kirk has very kindly given up some of her time to talk through the changes that occurred within the Department throughout her time there. Linda first joined on a temporary basis in 1969-70 to fill in for Colin Lucas, having previously spent three and a half years volunteering in Africa and teaching at the University College of Rhodesia. After this initial year Colin Lucas did not return and Linda was told she need not apply to the vacant position. But after Colin’s replacement fell through, the department again turned to Linda but this time on a more permanent basis – Linda was to remain a member of the Department until her retirement in 2009.
The Department’s default position was male, with there being only ‘two and a half’ women out of a staff of thirteen and a half – Frances Armytage, who worked as a part time assistant lecturer constituted the half. The 1970’s saw an expanding department with the appointment of several ‘chirpy and self-confident Oxbridge educated people’ who had the appetites to introduce a little bit of Oxbridge into the style and manner of teaching at Sheffield.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a history degree was structured with nine papers examined over the course of a student’s second and third years. Much like today first year would not count towards the final classification of the degree. Katie Crowley’s blog does a wonderful job of explaining the different BA courses that were offered at Sheffield at this time.
The basic structure of courses did not change much throughout this period, with the syllabus getting stuck with three blocks of continuous British History: medieval, early modern and modern. It was not the case, however, of lecturers coming in and reproducing the same notes as the previous year over and over. The course names would remain constant but what was being taught within them was changing. As literature swirled and patterns rearranged themselves so did the content of lectures and reading lists along the lines of these shifts in historiography.
Alongside these three blocks of British History, students would take a special subject that would account for two papers as well as a history exam tackling general themes in history, with questions such as ‘does history matter?’ or ‘do tyrants always fall?’. This took their total up to six. There would then be two more papers on the history of political thought and another on a period of European history, with the last being an optional choice from a selection that were being taught that year. This took students up to the total of nine papers which would complete their degree.
It was not until modularisation in the 1990s that a structure more familiar to current students began to take shape. We start to see modules such as ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’, which every single honour student taking History at Sheffield in the past 20 or so years will recognise, appearing on the syllabus.
‘Paths’ was also the beginning of interactive and online learning in the Department. A chat room function accompanied the module where students were supposed to discuss their findings in the readings. However, this was quickly abused and degenerated into a male-led discussion on the attractiveness of their female peers. So, an end was put to that idea. An idea that stuck around a little longer was the introduction of visual material in the form of transparency projections, and then PowerPoints accompanying lectures.
Change would also occur in the ways that a history degree was assessed. Students were already completing two essays per term per course; however, the marks from these had no relation to the outcome of the degree – exam results were the only grades that mattered. The change was as a result of pressure from students, who believed if they had a bad day during the exam, it would have a disastrous impact on their degree. So, gradually, a classification that was based 100% on the exam would become 67% exam and 33% coursework, and modules that were entirely assessed on coursework such as course assignment and a dissertation would become commonplace.
The increased weighting of essays did present an issue for the Department. Plagiarism would become an increasingly problematic issue for lecturers. With an exam, a marker could be certain that the work of the person themselves, but with essays these distinctions became blurred. What Linda found to be more disturbing was that some staff would find numerous cases in a batch of essays and some would claim to have never seen any.
In the early 1970s, students met individually with a staff member twice a term in an essay return meeting. Linda campaigned to swap these meetings for a weekly group meeting of five or so students – a rudimentary seminar. This marked a reluctant acceptance that Sheffield could not match the weekly individual essay-return supervision or tutorial offered at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the years, the group size of these seminars would grow and grow from five to six to ten. As university student numbers swelled in the 1990s and continued to grow through the 2000s, occasionally up to twenty people could be in these seminars.
This naturally presented issues. Notably, the relationship between students and staff was forced to change. In the 1970s there was an annual weekend trip to Losehill Hall in Derbyshire for second-year students and a reading party at Cumberland Lodge. This was only possible since the entire cohort of 30 to 35 single honours students could fit in a single bus. When these numbers increased to over 100 this became impossible. These trips were intended to create a ‘mateyness’ that was ‘social and interactive’, which is hard to reproduce currently apart from perhaps in the special subject seminars.
As someone who has been heavily interested gender history, I was intrigued to hear about the ways in which the field had been covered and taught within the Department. In particular, I wanted to know the role that Joan Scott’s 1986 article ‘Gender: A useful Category of Historical Analysis’ had in shaping how women’s history was taught. Women’s history has always been closely linked to feminist politics. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s that saw there was a lack of female representation in standard historiographical texts and sought to re-discover women’s role in the past.
In her blog a year ago, Katie assumed ‘that there was no aspiration to teach women’s history’ in the Department. This is incorrect. Women’s history might not have been visible on the surface of things, but it certainly was taught at the university. Though often hidden behind course titles and overarching themes, women’s issues were being addressed. In Linda’s second year course called Ideas and Institutions of the Age of Reason, some limited focus was on women. But within the History of Political Ideas course, she offered a five week optional sub-section (usually taken by 20 to 40 students) ‘Towards a Doctrine of Women’s Rights’. This worked through Rousseau’s Emile, Diderot’s ‘Essay on Women’, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Condorcet’s, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’.
Linda described herself as a ‘very, very cross, active feminist’ who was trying to ‘introduce women’s history into everything she did’. Take her special subject on the French Revolution for example: one week dedicated to grain riots would focus on the particular role of women in enforcing a ‘just price’ while they were less open to legal penalties for unruly behaviour; another re-emphasised women’s role in the march to Versailles. There clearly was a strong desire to teach women’s history and what was being taught was very important to those within the Department.
As for Joan Scott’s article, Linda recognised its historiographical importance but was insistent that it was not the beginning of women’s or gender history. There had been plenty of work done on the topic and the ideas were hardly new. What the article allowed for was an establishment of a vocabulary around the pre-existing works – that of ‘gender’ and not ‘women’ or ‘sex’. This change that surprised Linda and still remains an ideological issue within gender history today. The Department followed suit, putting on a course called Gender, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain which typically put Joan Scott’s article front and centre of the reading list.
Taking a cursory glance at the History Department during the 1970s and 1980s you could make the assumption that little changed. But looking deeper it is clear that within the broader themes covered there was a significant change in what was being taught as well as the manner it was being delivered. Today the university offers a multitude of gender and women’s related course for second and third years, but it is clear that the Department has a long history of teaching women’s issues that began long before 1986.
Peter Holmes is an MA Global History student at the University of Sheffield currently working on social and economic networks in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Liverpool during the nineteenth century for his MA dissertation. This blog is based on an interview conducted with Dr Linda Kirk who was a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 1969 to 2009, who witnessed an expanding department as well as changes to the curriculum and teaching methods in her time with the Department.
 J. Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91.5 (1986), pp. 1053-1075.
 J. Hannan, ‘Women’s History, Feminist history’, Making History (2008), https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/womens_history.html, [accessed 7th April 2021].