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Academia: The Lure of the Limelight

Given the state of academic life today, we should not be surprised that scholars seek stardom, argues Tim Stanley.

 Plato in his academy, drawing after a painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan WahlbomToo many young historians are quitting academia for the fool’s gold of trade publishing. That’s the view of Sir Keith Thomas, chairman of the Wolfson History Prize, who denounced the brain drain in May. He identified a worrying ‘tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work’.

We all know of whom he speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste. The academics that get left behind, says Thomas, enter into a ‘parasitic relationship’ with the stars of the field. While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash. Over time the nuanced work of the academic becomes undervalued and overlooked, locked up in the library of some ivory tower. Meanwhile the trade press authors mature into recyclers of tired cliches.

Thomas has identified a real problem, but he’s only half right about the source. On the one hand the lure of fame and money is great. On the other hand any person with eyes can see that it’s a myth. Figures suggest that trade press advances for history books have fallen considerably compared with what they were ten years ago. An author can only produce one book every two years (if it is any good) and what the publishers offer in return isn’t enough to feed, clothe and house someone during that time. In many regards academia – with its guaranteed income, long holidays and respectability – ought to be a much better deal.

The fact that young historians still choose to walk away from it is a damning indictment of how unappealing the career has become. The biggest problem is that the vast majority of students go into academia to write rather than teach: we want to be Mary Beard, not Miss Jean Brodie. But with cutbacks kicking in, full-time teaching is becoming unavoidable. A glance through the employment pages suggests that most history departments are replacing retired and expensive professors with cheap junior lecturers who are expected to do at least three full days lecturing and supervising per week (discounting the two days it takes to plan classes, mark papers and lie in a dark room praying for sweet release from it all).

Perversely, at the same time that teaching has become inescapable, research is in greater demand. The government expects history departments to justify their funds in terms of productivity. In practice that means squeezing out a book almost at the same rate as a trade press writer – or at least an equivalent number of journal articles. The difference is that the professional writer will actually get paid for whatever they produce, whereas the harassed academic will be lucky if they make £3.50 from the royalties garnered from the three people in the world who forked-out for their latest monograph.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the government respected academia as an informed conversation among scholars. But nowadays it encourages ‘public impact’ as well as productivity, which means that work must be as widely reviewed and read as possible. Ergo, historians are being compelled to write texts that increasingly have the character of a trade press publication. In which case, why not just ditch the teaching and work full time on publishing popular books?

Historians like me are drawn back into universities because we appreciate their collegiality. Researching as part of a community – drawing ideas and critiques from others – is infinitely preferable to writing alone for an invisible mass market. But, if many young historians quit the academy for a shot at glory, it is because universities are overstretched institutions that demand too much for too little. For my generation, who got into academia when the funding was generous and the history market buoyant, life in a modern history department can be a breaker of dreams.

Tim Stanley is associate fellow of the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.

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