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Professor Sarah Richardson

During her 30+ years as a member of the History Department at Warwick, Sarah (Deputy Head of the Department of History and Deputy Chair of the Faculty of Arts for Education) has witnessed transformational change. Once the youngest member of staff and the only woman, Sarah is now the longest serving member of the team. She shares her experiences and memories of how the department has developed and evolved below.

Gender split

I was the first woman academic to be appointed to the department (although Joan Lane and Barbara Weinberger were members of the Centre for Social History). I was also the first appointment since 1976, which meant that many of the men I worked with were twenty years older than me. However, the department had a strong egalitarian, collegial and inclusive ethos and was both welcoming and intellectually stimulating.

I was appointed as the first lecturer in History and Computing in the UK, a reflection of the department’s innovative and pioneering outlook. I taught modules on what now would be called digital humanities to undergraduates and postgraduates, where we explored some of the tools to analyse historical sources. My role also meant that I inadvertently became the ‘go to person’ for anyone wanting technical or IT advice! The staff profile of the department has certainly changed since then, with the numbers of men and women academic staff roughly equal. There are 12 male professors and 10 female.

Academic focus

The intellectual focus of academic staff has also evolved, although the emphasis on social and cultural approaches to history has been maintained. There are strong staff research interests in global history, material culture, gender and sexuality and race. These interests are supported by four research centres based in the department and a cluster of interdisciplinary groups. The Centre for Social History which was an autonomous, though closely related body closed in the early 1990s but the arrival of a number of historians of medicine meant that an exciting new research centre was established in 1999. The history of medicine and medical humanities have been an integral part of the department’s teaching and research culture with ground breaking projects looking at aspects as diverse as the cultural history of the NHS and health in prisons. Occasional research seminars in the 1980s were held in academics’ homes because of the small size of the Department. Today, they are mostly online due to Covid-19 and have audiences of more than 50 people.

Number of students

The student body was relatively small in comparison with today – around 300 UG students and no taught postgraduates in History. There was a thriving MA in Labour History in the Centre for Social History. Today there are somewhere in the region of 1,000 UG and PG students, with 10 joint honours programmes and four Masters level courses. Our teaching in the 1980s and 1990s mainly took place in our offices. Seminar sizes were around eight students. The core modules in the first and second year (imaginatively named Basic 1 and Basic 2) mainly took place on Thursday afternoons and the corridors thronged with students waiting for classes.

As student numbers rose so did seminar sizes. Today the average seminar has 16 students and we teach classes all across campus. Assessments have also changed – but only relatively recently. When I arrived in the department, students wrote far more essays and sat many three hour exams as standard practice. Today, the assessments are far more varied and diverse. There has been a move away from exams although a small number remain. Covid-19 meant that all exams had to go online and it seems likely that there will never be a return to the exam hall.

Essay lengths

Essay lengths are generally shorter, most around 3,000 words and there is a compulsory dissertation for single honours students. Special subjects have disappeared (all final year options are now called advanced options) and with them the ‘gobbets’ papers, although some tutors still use some form of source analysis. There are many more of what are termed ‘authentic’ assessments which take the form of tasks found in the ‘real’ world such as writing policy papers, devising lesson plans, curating exhibitions and creating digital objects.

Commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice

What has remained unchanged, though, is the department’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and social justice. Members of staff are passionate about widening and diversifying the student body and for conveying the results of their research to a wider interested public. There are active debates about ‘decolonising’ or ‘liberating’ the curriculum. I was interested to learn recently that one of the first final year modules taught in the 1960s was entitled ‘Race, Revolution, Colonialism and Industrialisation’, demonstrating a long-standing commitment to intellectual debate on these issues.

Public engagement

Public engagement is much more widespread today with Warwick historians active in the press, on TV and radio and on social media. I have found myself commentating on the re-interment of Richard III for the BBC, writing articles for BBC History magazine on snap elections and presenting a Radio 4 documentary on women voters in Lichfield in the 1840s. Coventry City of Culture has presented even more opportunities for public engagement and as part of Warwick's 'Amazing Women' themed month in March, I led a walk around the city focusing on the contribution of its citizens for the fight for women to obtain the vote. (Coventry Women’s Suffrage Walk

Our new home

Although it is much larger, the department is still friendly and welcoming. We’ve recently moved from Humanities into the new Faculty of Arts Building (FAB), and there are numerous spaces for extending social learning and for collaboration with other staff and students. The department will surely continue to evolve but I hope will always maintain its distinctive and stimulating character.

Sarah is the longest serving member of the department, having joined in October 1988.