Annual Baynes Meeting for Ancient Historians: The Great Depression

This weekend I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express at Stevenage. You are probably wondering what on earth I was doing in such an unlikely town, as it is devoid of any historical or archaeological interest. And yet, its obscurity means that overworked and underpaid Ancient Historians from across the UK could afford to pay the modest hotel bill for one night (the whole experience cost us around 100 pounds) and hold there the important Annual Baynes Meeting. It is worth mentioning that, despite the lukewarm service, the nearly edible food and the very basic facilities, we will probably hold the Meeting in the same place also next year. The low price and the convenience of public transportation are the main reasons for such a choice.

The quality of the hotel matched the depressing atmosphere of the Meeting. It became obvious from the very beginning that most of my colleagues were concerned with the situation in Higher Education. The impeding cuts at the University of Leeds and King’s College London hit a nerve earlier this year. Everyone agreed that this is the beginning of a long freeze in recruitment and possibly also payments. It is expected that the majority of the universities in the UK will not hire any ancient historians in the next five years. This could only mean that fresh PhD and Postdoctoral researchers will not be able to find permanent or even three year posts. Instead, they may have to seek alternative means of survival, until the crisis is over and departments manage to balance their budgets. In subsequent posts this week I intend to give more specific information about individual universities and their current state of affairs.

So, what are we going to do about it? The first measure that has been suggested is an immediate change in the nature of British Academy Fellowships. For example, it has been noted that during the 1980s, when another freeze was imposed to university posts, these Awards were given to older, more experienced Ancient Historians. This way several members of our profession stayed employed and went on to find permanent jobs much later, in the beginning of the 1990s. Now, we may be facing a similar situation. If some of our skilled historians find themselves without a job in the near future, then, instead of seeking another post, they would probably be allowed to apply for a postdoctoral British Academy Fellowship. Of course, such a course of action will have severe implications on the future of current Ph.D. students, who will be left without true prospects in Academia.

Another step that should be taken is to try to bring the community of Ancient Historians closer together. Several of us believe that a meeting once a year in Stevenage is not enough to discuss the problems arising from the current situation in Universities across the UK. So, we have seriously started discussing the usefulness of social media in creating an online community of Academics. I can assure you that the discussion in the Meeting was particularly heated (even by British standards) and that the delegates were divided in two distinct parties: the ones in favour of the scheme and the sceptics. As we agreed to disagree, we also came to the conclusion that there is no harm to try to use social media in order to raise the profile of Ancient History in the eyes of the public and at the same time create a forum of discussion for academics. With these aims in mind over the next few days I will set up a blog in which all Ancient Historians and Classicists will be able to post their views. The comments will be open to whoever wants to participate but the posts will be written only by members of Staff in UK universities. At the same time I will set up a facebook group, in which Ancient Historians and Classicists (again only UK Staff) will be able to participate in the discussion. When these two platforms are ready you will be contacted via email. If some of you are not contacted and you wish to participate, please, let me know about it. In the meantime, if you wish to share your views with the rest of us, you can post them in my facebook page called “Love of History”, which is also open to the public.

Economic historian and numismatic consultant


  1. My instant reaction to this was, “Hold on, do you mean the professionals don’t already talk to each other every day over the net?”

  2. The majority of the professionals are NOT on the net. So, my mission is to encourage them to appear online and participate in the discussion.

    Gary, I talk to you more often than with any of my colleagues!

  3. There’s also the problem that academic staff say they are so overworked that they can’t cope with any more, and some saw social networking as yet another ‘task’. Those of us who are really sceptical wonder whether this is part of a Cunning Plan by our employers to stop us uniting across institutional boundaries, and keep us weak. Reminds me of religious cults that get everyone up early, work them hard all day, then they have no energy left to discuss the rubbish they’ve been fed!

  4. I have been talking to several of our colleagues since I came back from Berlin last semester. It is clear that some have suffered break downs in the past, anxiety or depression. Some are even going through mental health issues as we speak. The excessive pressure which ruins their mental health has not been addressed yet. Should we all end up in the mental hospital before they (and we) realise where the situation is leading?

  5. This is too pessimistic. What we are seeing is in Leeds and KCL is the tail end of the kind of macho managerialism and academic instrumentalism which already looks outdated. With the new minister of education quoting Matthew Arnold, the omens for the longer term are not at all bad.

  6. I don’t remotely share James’ optimism – universities are going to be in for a very rough financial time over the next few years, and that’s likely to entrench rather than undermine managerialism – but equally I’ve yet to be convinced of this ‘circle the wagons’ approach. Worth keeping in mind that ancient history is not under attack in its own right. There is a general tendency at national level to favour STEM subjects, which works to our disadvantage as it does to the disadvantage of other humanities subjects. At local level there is a clear tendency to focus cutbacks on departments perceived to be weak in research, teaching or finance, and in some cases those happen to be departments of classics and ancient history. That doesn’t amount to a direct attack on the subject (even if it feels like it), and rallying to defend ancient history on its own is effectively rallying for other humanities subjects to be cut instead.


  7. Certainly, this is an Arts and Humanities issue rather than an ancient history one. There are also factors about size of units and whether they are free-standing departments (looking very easy to close, if small) or merged into larger units (where the problems are more likely to be about whether posts are replaced on a like-for-like basis, or according to which part of the unit shouts loudest). Also local situations are very different: in Bristol, as I understand it, Science rules, whereas in Reading, Science departments are taking more severe cuts than Arts and Humanities ones… so far. If you look at the international picture, some countries are going for pay cuts, others for job losses. And then there’s the demographic – if there is nobody in your department who could apply for early retirement, the word ‘redundancy’ rears its head.

  8. I did smile a little at the post, as I see others did.

    When wondering why ancient history finds itself friendless, the bald statement, “The comments will be open to whoever wants to participate but the posts will be written only by members of Staff in UK universities” might be considered!

    Isn’t that almost an epitaph for a discipline that has somehow managed NOT to connect with the public enough to save itself, during a period when archaeology had a weekly series on Channel 4 and public interest in antiquity was at its height?

    Not that I am hostile to ancient history, or to attempts to preserve the discipline — far from it! Perhaps this is merely a PR gaffe.

    But I would fix it, if I were you; decisions to exclude the public always need to be justified, not merely stated. Perhaps there is some good reason for this statement — I don’t know.

    But a humanities that depends on the public dollar must serve and engage the public that pays that dollar. Anything else is a form of elitism arising from a Marie-Antoinette sense of entitlement. And it always ends in cuts!

    • Roger,
      thank you for bringing up such an important matter. I am one of the people who strongly believes that ancient history should open its doors to the public, present its face and accept the criticism. The blog that we will put together intends to do exactly that. The ancient historians and classicists in the UK intend to present their face through their own posts, without university or other types of censorship. And, of course, they will be willing to accept the recommendations, comments and criticism of the public. Under no circumstances do we want to hide from the world or abuse the public’s money, as you suggest. Nevertheless, we cannot accept everyone indiscriminately to post their articles on a blog on Ancient History and Classics. Such an act would cause chaos and open the bag of Aeolos to all kind of spamers. In fact, would you ever give your username and password to the world, so that they can publish in your blog?

      As for facebook, Ancient Historians and Classicists need a forum away from the eyes of people who, in some cases, censor our public views and push us to redundancies. If you want to participate to our more general and, indeed, more historical discussions you can join the Love of History facebook page. It is entirely open to the public and anyone can join.

  9. I don’t understand why such a blog seems extraordinarily closed or restrictive.

    Does anybody complain that Mary Beard writes all her blog posts herself?

    I don’t understand Roger’s point – except perhaps that he might have misunderstood what our plans are.

    The blog posts will be by ancient historians – the talkback will, as far as I understood our discussion, of course be open to the world. Isn’t that the normal shape of most blogs?

    If everybody posts at the same level, I’d call it a forum…..

  10. … and concerning the state of academia:

    I am afraid I have to contradict James Whitley as well…. I certainly know several academics in our subject who have been suffering from stress to such an extent that they were considering counselling or actually sought professional help.

    We often put up with conditions that you simply wouldn’t see at a normal company in the real world. It’s not the long hours – it’s the incompetent management and confused signals we constantly get.

    Where else are you told that your career and promotions depend on one specific activity (research) just to see your employers do their damned best to keep you from carrying out that particular activity, by withholding, to the best of their ability, time, staff support, infrastructure and funds?

  11. Maria,

    I’m sorry if I was unclear. Let me spell it out more simply.

    I do not share my blog with others. Nor do I put on it a sign saying “This is mine,mine, mine, you dirty plebs keep out”. I don’t need to. The former is natural, the latter looks gratuitously nasty.

    In other words, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

    So I wouldn’t post things like “The comments will be open to whoever wants to participate but the posts will be written only by members of Staff in UK universities”. That’s why people snickered.

    Turn it upside down, and put a positive, open spin on it. Say “posts will be written by members of staff in various UK universities”. Isn’t that much more friendly?

    I’d say nothing about comments. Most comments on blogs are open to all (even if moderated). But if you want to say so explicitly, say “we welcome comments from both academics and the interested members of the public.” Again, friendly, open — not “only the privileged welcome” which was the phrasing above.

    It’s all about perception, you know. :-)

    Nothing whatever wrong with people meeting together privately to coordinate their strategy. Just remember who may be watching! The message you want is “we are nice people being run around”.

    Good luck!

  12. I see! Well, then it was entirely my fault. Being Greek, I developed a brutal, primitive, unsophisticated way of speaking (and writing). Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  13. Constantina,

    I’ve been reading your blog post again, because I want to blog about this issue. But — being new to this issue — I came away unclear about what was happening and what precisely the problem is? Can you clarify a little more?

    I saw something about cutbacks. But I can’t complain about those (as someone who is looking at unemployment myself). A lot of people will respond with “we all have to face those, mate!” which is fair enough. But I get the impression that what’s happening is going beyond that. Can you say what is different about what’s happening here? Why is there all the clinical stress? What’s causing it?


    1. What is happening (in non-emotive language)?
    2. Why do we — the educated and generally supportive outsiders — care?
    3. What do we want to see happen?

    Can you — anyone — help me out here?

    (In case anyone takes my question amiss, I am NOT belittling; I’m just ignorant and asking for info!)

  14. I understand your questions. I will try over the next few weeks to answer them in a series of posts. Using the comment space is not enough to develop the answer to these questions. Have you read the post today on Reading? It may give you a clearer idea about what is happening within the walls of that University.

  15. By the way, excellent idea to stay in the Holiday Inn in Stevenage; i.e. in a commercial reasonably-priced hotel with good communication links. Hotel food is always rubbish, of course — the staff wouldn’t expect you to actually eat that stuff, you know! Get takeaways.

    It always irritates me when conferences are held in places like Oxford and Cambridge which enjoy making it difficult and expensive to attend.

  16. I read the post about Reading, but it leaves me none the wiser. Surely we all have to face cutbacks and redundancies? and we’ve all had to apply for our own jobs at the mercy of some hatchet-man.

    The best thing to do when you find yourself in such a situation, of course, is grab control of your own career and leave. Whether that is practical or not I know not.

  17. Two things: Ancient History and the Humanities, and cuts. First, I would like to endorse the view that this is a Humanities issue, not specifically an ‘Ancient History’ one. We need to make a case for the subject (and, as an archaeologist, I have a slightly different view on the subject) yes, but in the context of those subjects (in Britain, but not on the continent) are called the Humanities. The emphasis on STEM subjects is unsustainable, because serious research in science depends upon the historical and philosophical perspective that the Humanities (collectively) provide. This point needs to be made vigorously.
    The mood music of the new government seems sympathetic to this view — it has very quickly abandoned the rhetoric of ‘management’, which was very much part of the New Labour command-and-control approach to universities.
    Then the cuts: cuts are certainly inevitable. But there are plenty of scope for cuts in our universities. If you, like me, are part of an organisation whose administrative sectors have ballooned under the old regime, where VCs and Pro-VCs have awarded themselves handsome salaries, where there is an HR department that doesn’t (and indeed can’t) respond, and where there are financial systems that no-one can understand, then you will see there is plenty of scope for cuts. But it is essential that the cuts fall in the right places — and that universities remember that their mission is to undertake teaching and research, not ‘manage’.

  18. Why should anyone care what is happening at Reading? Real world is already full of redundancies?

    Sure it is. As someone whose husband was made redundant from an international company last November, I do know about this.

    But in the real world, they have to show that your post is no longer required. In my sector, 14 people are told they are ‘at risk of redundancy’ and that they will need to write saying why they should not be made redundant. That strikes me as about the person, not the post, and is not a pleasant way to live, not at all. I don’t think we have ‘all’ had to apply for our own job; I would be interested to know of other sectors where this is the norm. In the NHS something like this happens, but it is I think about regrading rather than losing people?

Leave a Reply to Roger Pearse Cancel reply