Department of History

Historians at Sussex

From Subject Group to Department: a brief history of past and present faculty.

Founding years

It has often been alleged that the University of Sussex, or at least the Arts area, was founded by and for historians. Sussex was the first of the new Universities created in the 1960s. There were three historians, Asa Briggs, Martin Wight and Maurice Hutt, among the founding academics when the University opened in 1961 with fifty undergraduates in a house in Preston Road, Brighton. The founders promptly announced their aim to 'redraw the map of learning.' The academic structure was to consist not of departments but of Schools of Studies in which students would study a Major discipline within a context of courses specific to each School. The Majors were organised by Subject Groups, such as History, Philosophy, English, Economics, French etc. several of which operated in more than one School. Two of the original three Arts Deans were historians, Asa Briggs in Social Studies and Martin Wight in European Studies and when the Arts Schools expanded to five, another historian, Anthony Low, was appointed as the first Dean of African and Asian Studies.

The central position of the History Group in the early years was signified by the fact that its faculty taught a history course to every student in the Arts area. A substantial part of the initial curriculum was common to all students in their first year, introducing them to literary criticism, philosophy and history. The Introduction to History course, later kept for historians alone, concentrated on historical problems and controversies, analysed through epic interpretations such as R.H.Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and Pieter Geyl's Napoleon. For and Against. As the Arts syllabus grew and changed this problem-based approach continued to characterise Sussex History and was expressed collectively through several publications, from the series of books edited by Hugh Kearney under the generic title Problems and Perspectives in History (Longmans) which started in the 1960s, to William Lamont's edited book of essays by Sussex historians entitled Historical Controversies and Historians (UCL Press, 1998).

Undergraduate teaching

Rapidly Sussex historians became a large, influential and diverse group. For almost forty years they were the only Subject Group to sustain a Major in all the Arts Schools, while contributing substantially to the widely different School courses known colloquially as 'Contextuals'.

Teaching and learning was through small seminars and even smaller tutorials, supplemented by lectures at which attendance was voluntary for most of the first thirty years before teaching methods had to change to accommodate the huge increase in student numbers. The History syllabus varied from School to School, but essentially it consisted of four or five main courses: a long period in history, normally of two or three centuries, exploring change and continuity over time; a short period, of about a century in length, giving a wide choice of area-based options; a special subject, based on the Oxford and London traditions, concentrating on a specific topic and studied in depth through original sources; and a comparative subject, for example 'Revolutions' or 'Peasant Societies', which compared a theme across time and area. This Comparative Subject became one of Sussex's most important and successful courses. The overall aim of the history syllabus was not exhaustive coverage, but a training in analysis of source material, an awareness of historiographical debates, and a continuation of the problem-oriented approach already introduced in the first year.

Undergraduate experience was enriched by study abroad. All students in the European School spent their third year in the European country whose language they were studying alongside their Major. Their experience and the dissertations they wrote during this year often launched them into specialist areas of postgraduate research and other career paths. Similar, but shorter, opportunities were open to American history Majors who were part of the American Studies Subject Group, and to a more limited extent some history students in the School of African and Asian Studies were also able to spend time abroad. (see also the European scheme below)

Alongside the Major courses, with all their internal options, many of the interdisciplinary School courses had a vibrant history element supplied by historians. Among the most popular and successful of these were the Topics in History and Literature, taught jointly by a historian and a specialist in literature. They were just one example of history's close cooperation and integration with other disciplines, notably languages, anthropology, art history and eventually media studies, as well as literature. In the early 1970s, well before film study was established as a university programme, several historians at Sussex pioneered teaching with film and other visual evidence, while the equally new practice of oral history was strongly represented in the methodology of many courses.

At different points in the University's expansion, Intellectual History, Economic History, Contemporary History, and for a time Classical and Medieval Studies, became separate Majors. The Group, however, continued to function as a single unit down to the present, and over the years several members of faculty from other Subjects such as Education, International Relations, Art History, and Modern Languages moved into the History Group.

Postgraduate teaching and Research

The range of specialist areas and publications of Sussex historians have fully reflected the University's commitment to areas of research on the frontiers of knowledge, ideas and interdisciplinarity. So too have the faculty's international exchanges, notably with Freiburg, Beijing and Szeged in Hungary. The early years of the University coincided with some of the most polarised periods of the Cold War, and yet the School of European Studies, and History within it, was planned from the beginning to include Russia and Eastern Europe. Russian Studies was one of the first interdisciplinary programmes in which history, literature and social sciences all combined at MA level.

From the second year of the University there was a one-year History M.A., with a wide variety of taught options, and gradually this year became seen as the necessary prelude to doctoral work. Eventually in the 1990s, as the graduate intake substantially increased, it proliferated into several separate programmes, though all had an obligation to introduce postgraduates to research methods and values. The postgraduate and faculty 'Work in Progress Seminar' on every Thursday has existed from the very early days of the University, rigorously chaired over several years by Peter Hennock, and subsequently by a succession of faculty members, and is probably the only history seminar of its kind in the country to have had such a long, uninterrupted, weekly existence. A list of its eminent speakers over 45 years would be encyclopaedic, but it has also maintained its fundamental role as the first exposure for new doctoral research from within the University. Historians were also a vital part of the faculty/ postgraduate interdisciplinary Renaissance seminar. The Gender and History Group was set up by postgraduate students in the late 1980s and held regular seminars for some years. It developed into the Southern Region of the Women's History Network and still continues. One of their conferences was held at the university in 1996 and Sussex is still regarded as a leading institution for women's history. More recently post-graduate students have set up their own successful conferences on an annual basis, now funded by the ESRC, and put out an on-line Journal of Contemporary History. Postgraduate research has been a strong element in Sussex History from the beginning, helped by the specialist collections in the library, in particular the unique Mass Observation Archive, which attracts researchers from all over the world, the Paris Commune Collection and the Leonard Woolf papers. The prestigious Martin Wight lecture is held every three years at the University under the auspices of the History Group.

(For research areas and publications by Sussex historians see separate faculty profiles.)

External and community relationships

The History Subject Group was among the first to join the Inter-University History Film Consortium set up in the late 1970s to produce documentary films on historical subjects, though a Sussex film was never realised.

Sussex History was chosen by the European Commission to co-pilot a scheme whereby European students studying history could spend a term or more in other European universities and gain credits recognised by their own university. This ran for several years in conjunction with other European universities. Through the involvement of Alun Howkins Sussex historians and postgraduates have been closely associated with the History Workshop Journal (founded in 1976), and its conferences were held in Brighton in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many important conferences have been organized by Sussex historians. Amongst them the centenary of the Paris Commune was marked in 1971 by an international conference which resulted in a book edited by Eugene Schulkind called The Paris Commune of 1871: the view from the Left. (Cape, 1972), which also created the library collection referred to earlier. In 1976 Eileen and Stephen Yeo organised a conference on Working Class Leisure; Self Expression versus Social Control, which laid down a new research agenda. Two international conferences were staged at Sussex in 1984 and 1994 on Vichy France and the Resistance. The annual conference of the Association for the Study of French History was held at Sussex in 1996, and again in 2006; In 1992 Eileen Yeo and Gerry Holloway organised a very successful international conference on Mary Wollstonecraft: 200 Years of Feminism, with 400 delegates from all over the world including China and India. Pat Thane brought the Economic History Conference to Sussex in the late 1990s and the British Agricultural History Conference was organised here by Alun Howkins in 2001.

Relationships with historical activities in Brighton and the Sussex area have always been close, and historians have had regular contacts with schools. The local branch of the Historical Association (HA) has had a representative from the University on its committee since the University first started. Members of the Group have sat on the HA's national council, and for many years ran a successful annual Sixth Form revision conference on campus. In an imaginative collaboration with the local community historians from Sussex, including Eileen and Stephen Yeo, were central to the foundation in 1972 of QueenSpark Books in Brighton, which is the longest- lived community history and publishing project in Britain. Many Sussex historians and graduate and undergraduate students have played important roles in the organisation and in the production of over 80 books. Through its links with the Universities Centre of Continuing Education, and historians in CCE such as Al Thomson, Gerry Holloway and John Lowerson, History at Sussex has helped to train local and regional historians.

Past to present

From the beginning the University was founded with change in mind. Within the recent structural changes to the School system and the University move from Subject Groups to Departments, Sussex historians have continued to flourish and constitute one of the most popular departments in the new School of Humanities. The range of faculty, teaching methods, the syllabus, and research priorities have adapted to new demands, constraints and opportunities, but the aims and values of the original founders are still present in the traditions of an interdisciplinary approach to the subject and an emphasis on problems and perspectives. These are still at the core of History at Sussex.