Editorial Update, 25 March 2022: Goldsmiths UCU has shared that ‘there will be a delay in sending out dismissal notices to affected academic staff, from Friday 25 March to end of play on Wednesday 13 April.’
Goldsmiths, University of London, is home to the world’s first and only MA in Queer History and the UK’s first taught MA in Black British History. Both MAs are ground-breaking and support scholarship and research in areas that have been structurally marginalised in UK Higher Education. We write as the convenors and lecturers who designed and deliver these programmes.
Both programmes now face an existential threat. Currently, the College is in the throes of an unprecedented restructure. At its core, this restructure process involves significant staff cuts to both professional services (including student-facing departmental administrators) and academic departments. The History and English & Creative Writing departments are the first targets of the academic redundancies, with each department facing substantial losses of staff (in History, this may amount to about half of the current academic staff). These losses are imminent, with redundancy notices to be sent out on 25 March 2022.
In response to media inquiries (for articles in the Guardian, Pink News, South London Press, and MyLondon News), the College has stated only that it ‘remains committed to teaching the humanities as part of a varied teaching and learning offering including the disciplines of history, English and creative writing’. And while the College has made generalised statements about its ‘preference’ to maintain teaching in Black British History and Queer History as ‘areas of focus’, there has been a steadfast refusal to commit to the continued existence of the MA programmes. All lecturers in Queer History and Black British History were placed at risk of redundancy, alongside every other member of the History department (except the Head of Department).
If the specialist staff who teach these programmes are at risk, the programmes are at risk. Both Dr Fryar and Dr Bengry, the convenors and architects of these two innovative programmes who have developed their intellectual trajectory and are responsible for the pastoral care of the students, remain at risk of redundancy. Because of Goldsmiths’ generalised commitments to these teaching areas, the convenors made explicit requests to be taken out of scope of redundancy to ensure the stability of the programmes – these requests have been rejected.
This shows a lack of respect to the Black leadership, expertise and thought that has animated the MA in Black British History (by Dr Fryar) and the Queer leadership, expertise and thought that has animated the MA in Queer History (by Dr Bengry). Further, these programmes are delivered by two specialists each; other department staff do not teach specialist modules on these programmes. If even one of these specialist positions is removed, the MA programmes are not sustainable.
To suggest that the teaching provision in these areas is safe, while simultaneously threatening their convenors and lecturers with redundancy, is to suggest that these programmes could continue without relevant expertise. Students undertaking these programmes have made careful choices based not only on content but also the teaching staff. They are not just purchasing a degree. Students enrolled deliberately in programmes taught by people who have a deep knowledge of and commitment to these areas of scholarship, as well as expertise in handling structural barriers and ensuring student safety. To say that we are easily replaceable, transferrable, or interchangeable is to deny the importance of the dedicated work we have done in our fields – work that is recognised and celebrated by local, national and international partners – and the importance of anti-racist and intersectional pedagogies in these particular areas of study.
Beyond protecting the staff teaching them, these programmes also require a thriving environment and disciplinary community around them to flourish. As Professor Emma Griffin, President of the Royal Historical Society, recently wrote: ‘these distinctive courses need to exist within a broader team of academic historians, of the kind Goldsmiths currently boasts. Research specialisms and their associated MA programmes can only be sustained in the context of a department with broad chronological, geographical and methodological reach.’
The Royal Historical Society, as the UK’s leading professional body for historians, has raised repeated alarms about the parlous state of UK history when it comes to matters of equity, diversity and inclusion. Indeed, the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History Report (2018) showed that History is one of the least representative and diverse disciplines in the country at every level, from undergraduates to academics. The overwhelming majority (93.7%) of academic history staff in the UK are white. By contrast, just 2.2% are Asian, 1.6% are ‘mixed’, and only 0.5% are Black. The RHS report has identified systemic issues with the ‘pipeline’ that brings young scholars of colour from an interest in history at GCSE level to pursuing history as a subject of study at undergraduate or postgraduate level. 90% of UK postgraduate history students are white; only 2.3% are Black, 2.8% Asian and 1.5% ‘mixed’. In only our second year, the MA in Black British History at Goldsmiths is undertaking critical work to address these disparities. With a cohort that is over 80% Black, we are training a future generation of scholars and teachers to address a deeply entrenched pattern of structural inequality in academia, if they so choose.
The significance of the work of the MA in Black British History goes beyond demographics: universities in this country have, for far too long, refused to countenance the idea that Black people’s histories have had any relevance to British history, let alone that Black histories are central to understanding British history. Our programme welcomes students of all ages from a range of professional backgrounds. It is a space where students can study the histories that are personally important to them as well as challenge the exclusionary disciplinary frameworks that have denied them access to these histories. It provides a classroom environment where Black people, Black thought, and Black history is valued, embraced, and celebrated. To lose this space would be devastating for its students and would rob the history profession of exciting research that would emerge from this programme in the coming years.
In 2020, the RHS released its report on LGBT+ Histories and Historians based on a major 2019 survey of over 800 respondents. It determined that ‘History too often provides a hostile environment for LGBT+ and queer students and staff’. For staff and students alike, participating in the MA Queer History is an act of resistance against those who deny our past is valid and thereby deny our value in the present.
The remainder of the RHS report was sobering. It discovered that one quarter of LGBT+ historians and one third of trans historians were unsure about disclosing their identity in professional settings outside their departments. Many had modified their appearance or otherwise hidden their identity from fear of discrimination. Only one in three LGBT+ survey respondents agreed that their department’s approach to LGBT+ inclusion had a positive effect on their mental health. For postgraduate students, that figure dropped to one in six. And an astonishing one in three LGBT+ History staff were not confident they would be supported to challenge reluctance or hostility to teaching LGBT+ histories in their departments. Goldsmiths’ Queer History MA was named specifically in the RHS report as contributing to growing efforts to counter the silence, fear, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia that remain rife in the academy by ‘incorporat[ing] LGBT+ history, in all its diverse richness, as more than a token presence in history degrees.’ This work has now deliberately been placed at risk.
History has become deeply politicised in our national conversation. There remains an urgent need for programmes that train people to research and understand Queer History and Black British History, so that this scholarship can enhance public understanding while meeting the highest standards of the historical profession. At this critical moment, Goldsmiths has chosen to threaten the existence of these programmes, while allowing an impression to circulate both within and outside the College that these programmes are safe. At a College that has built and marketed its reputation on the politics of social justice, the future of the MA in Queer History and MA in Black British History is uncertain.
Dr Christienna Fryar, MA Convenor in Black British History and Lecturer in Black British History
Dr Justin Bengry, MA Convenor in Queer History and Lecturer in Queer History
Dr Hannah Elias, Lecturer in Black British History
Dr Kate Davison, DAAD Lecturer in Queer History