A Disciplinary Perspective on the post-COVID university. What can History offer?

Jennifer Clark and Adele Nye

While still in the midst of pandemic, we are increasingly vexed by the possible shape, form and quality of life that will emerge as the so-called ‘new normal’. We constantly speculate on the way we might do business, enjoy entertainment, experience social interactions or deliver and receive education in a post-COVID world. We are knowingly sailing in uncharted waters. At this anxious time of uncertainty, we find some comfort in the historically positioned description of the pandemic as ‘unprecedented’. If we have no models, it is alright to take risks, to make leaps of faith, to offer up our best suggestions and to excuse ourselves when we fear and flounder. 

The university is no different from any other institution in its efforts to survive the disruption of pandemic. It must press ahead with plans to reorganise, restructure and perhaps even, re-define. COVID-19 has hit every university with a reverberating shock wave. We are already seeing the repercussions in massive job losses, hurried shifts in teaching patterns, exposure of weaknesses within the financial models, contraction of the global student market, unequal access to and reliance on digital tools to connect teacher with learner and learners with each other. And yet, in amongst all of this whirling change, we still teach and research within our traditional discipline boundaries.  COVID-19 challenges not just the university as an institution, but the disciplines within it. What will disciplines look like as a result of pandemic and how well are we prepared to face the demands of a COVID-pressured world?

The discipline of History will survive Coronavirus and emerge stronger because of it. We argue that the key lies deep within the nature of the discipline itself and the way historians have cultivated a professional agility to pivot and push boundaries, at the same time embracing interdisciplinarity and new analytical and critical epistemologies as they appear. Of all disciplines, except obviously for Epidemiology, History has a special role to play. It will be the pandemic’s chronicler, interpreter and critic. It will analyse, synthesise and communicate to us and future generations an understanding of the most significant event of the 21st century to date. This will be done using methods that have been well-honed over many years and new methods only just emerging. As a discipline, History is both ‘sure footed’ as well as ‘light on its feet’. It is poised to respond. 

A prepared discipline 

As a discipline, History is in a constant state of adaptive reinvention. Key texts demonstrate the twists and turns in the discipline over time. Although we could begin this story with Herodotus and Thucydides, the refinement process was most rapidly amplified with the publication of Keith Jenkins’ Re-thinking History in 1991. Jenkins proposed History as a positioned and purpose-driven narrative about the past. History and the past could no longer be interchangeable terms. This conceptualisation recognised History as being openly receptive to the changing environment in which the historian worked and freed from the rigidity of an imposed hunt for an illusively unobtainable objective truth. History was labelled as a literary discipline, that told stories of the past. As Alun Munslow explained it: “the histories we assign to things and people are composed, created, constituted, constructed and always situated literatures”.

Well before COVID History actively underwent an extensive reflective revisionist process, in pedagogy and practice as part of its professional development as a discipline. It means, that when pandemic threatens how we might undertake disciplinary work in the future, History should not fear. Historians have created a flexible and creative discipline, open to the impact of new intellectual movements and able to respond quickly to buffeting public demands and shifting needs. The History discipline is a broad church that bleeds easily into other disciplines and as a consequence has an inbuilt capacity to embrace other disciplinary epistemologies. The discipline is naturally agile. It is not tied to tradition. The best History is ground-breaking not just because it explores new topics but because it challenges us to think differently about the past. The best History is confronting. It is also timely. There is nothing more confronting at the moment than pandemic.

Teaching Pandemic

Discipline agility is one thing, but will the content of what we teach change in a post-COVID world? History has no core curriculum. Its topic bank is vast and its adaptability is endless depending on the questions we ask. Those questions in turn reflect the issues that are important at any given time and the values of the community from which Historians come. It may be that the pandemic throws up new topics and new concerns that we never saw as important, or relevant, or even interesting before. On the other hand, it may also make other topics trite, out of date or old fashioned. Already courses are coming on board that investigate the pandemic itself in historical context. They explore plague and pestilence in the past, and ask questions about cause, experience and recovery. The Spanish Flu, for example was usually an afterthought to the History of World War I. Now, it has gained a lot more attention. Moreover, the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate what we do and why we do it. We can not afford complacency. We see a new era of inventiveness and creative solutions. This is fertile ground for historians who explore change over time and penetrate society’s cracks and fissures to explain the past in the present.

A Revitalised Comparative history

Apart from content, the pandemic may bring comparative history back into fashion. What can be learned not only by comparing the COVID-19 pandemic with say, the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, but what can we learn by looking at how different countries have responded, how different political systems managed the crisis, how leadership styles were important, and how infrastructure differences may have mattered. The pandemic will inevitably encourage historians of oral history, medicine, gender, race, and trans-national history to ask the first questions. Any such list will be inadequate and inconclusive. We will emerge not just with histories of the pandemic, but with a broadened discipline in ways we can’t even yet imagine because the Histories are yet to be written and the pandemic is yet to fully run its course. No one and no thing remains untouched.  

History as Interpreter

The current pandemic has wrought such global havoc, that inevitably, it will serve as a watershed for a range of practices that may not survive through to the other side. History will identify them and interpret what is the biggest driver of global change in our lifetimes. The pandemic is on a par with world war, the Great Depression and the invention and spread of technology as a game changer in how we live our lives. Although we may want to return to how things were, that will never happen. It is impossible to go back. We are changed forever, for better or worse. In the way that World War I ushered in enormous social changes, the pandemic may do the same, most notably for example, in how we use technology but also perhaps in the way we work in the future. History, as a discipline is well suited to capture those changes in a narrative that asks questions, seeks out perspective, and evaluates success or failure of our collective systems.

Delivery of History education

The delivery of History education in universities is already changing. Twenty years ago Glasfurd and Winstanley argued against the doomsday view that the internet would destroy scholarship in the History discipline. They noted that there were many challenges to be faced developing an effective pedagogy and dealing with  the ‘will o the wisp’ nature of error pages and disappearing web sites. In the ensuing years we have seen online learning, teaching and research become embedded in higher education practice. Digitised records have revolutionised access to archives and using the methods of digital humanities made the interpretation and utilisation of those sources completely new. Because we can manipulate large quantities of data we can work with data sets that previously would have been out of reach.

This gives us new knowledge but, more importantly, allows us to ask new questions. If the pandemic has proved anything, it is the value of technology. Most obviously, the pandemic has forced universities to introduce online teaching for everyone. This has hastened the inevitable perhaps, but once down that path it will be difficult to retract such flexible and accessible delivery completely. We concur with Katie Barclay who argues, forthcoming in our Teaching History for the Contemporary World: Tensions, Challenges and Classroom Experiences in Higher Education, that there is something acutely appropriate about using distance education to teach about social distancing.

As we ponder the post-Covid University, it is History that will emerge stronger. When we need to train students for jobs that we don’t even know will exist we need students who are flexible, resilient and adaptable. In the discipline of History is both the lesson and the example. History teaches skills of analysis and synthesis. It provides a platform upon which we can explore a vast array of sources and topics by asking the questions of the day. The pandemic has exposed frightening weaknesses in our systems. History can help students explore and explain them.

Alun Munslow called History ‘our only organized access’ to the past. But that does not mean it should always stay the same. Carl Becker wrote that historians were the ‘honourable’ folk in society and that their work should be always accessible. ‘The History that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world’, he said. History work has long been thought of as doing more than providing a canon of facts to be memorised and repeated. We know History does important work, illuminating the voice of the disadvantaged, revealing previously unheard or unexamined evidence and providing the basis for critical arguments for government policies and their implementation. If the pandemic has proven anything, it is the fragility of our systems and the way in which what we take for granted can so easily be snatched away. That is the stuff of revolution, and when that happens, the discipline of History is waiting in the wings.

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

Jennifer Clark is Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Her current research focuses on automotive history, memorial culture, post-WWII Australian History and History pedagogy.

Adele Nye is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of New England, NSW, Australia. Her research focus is on the teaching of history in Australian universities. Adele is the Higher Degree Research Coordinator for her school and also  teaches qualitative research methods to preservice teachers.

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