Professor Sir Richard J. Evans on History and the Public

by Janine Noack and Tiia Sahrakorpi

On January 28th, 2014 Sir Richard J. Evans gave a Q&A session to Cambridge University MPhil and Ph.D students on what it has been like to work and research as a prominent historian in the digital age and earlier. Students sent in various questions about his career and how history has changed since he was a student.

Reflections on a career in academia

Having completed his Bachelor’s Degree and subsequently his Ph.D, Evans entered the academic world at the age of 24 with a job as a lecturer. This was the 1970s, a time when there was much less pressure to publish works. Back then, professors were more remote from students and junior lecturers, making it difficult to hold them accountable. Now, he says, students demand more from professors, which he thinks is a good thing.

Another big change in the academic world was the rise of women into academic positions. While this has changed a lot since the 1960s and 1970s, change has been slow, Evans remarked. Typical historical themes of the 1950s were military and diplomatic history, areas of history which were seen as “something boys did”. In the 1970s, social history became popular and a way for more women to enter the historic community; even more so since the rise of cultural history. Of course the selection of topics to research should not be based on gender classifications, but on personal preferences; unfortunately it remains difficult to escape this pattern.

A job in academia is not only about research, it is also about teaching. Universities required new lecturers like Evans to take courses on teaching even when they started in the profession. These courses were too generic to be of much use. “You have to learn teaching by experience, trial and error, and noting the reactions of the students to how you do things”, Evans stated. The most important aspect a lecturer can have is “enthusiasm” for the subject.

Differences between German and British academia 

A great discussion occurred on the differences between German and Anglo-American academia. While Evans describes British academia as a “success story” with many universities in the top ranks of world universities, German universities have failed to get anywhere near the top in recent decades. German academia needs to change structurally. Evans argues, “[It] hasn’t moved with the times”. Powerful professors still dominated German universities and there was too little independence or security for younger staff.  The requirement to complete two doctorates meant that academics were usually near forty before they obtained a permanent job. This stifled initiative, he argued, because of their dependency on the big professors.

Public engagement of historians 

As for writing books, Evans remarked on the difference between writing a survey work on a general topic and academic monographs. The difference, Evans said, was that for a survey text you sketch out the broad lines of development before filling in the details. In monographs, you have do extensive research before linking the empirical detail to the wider context. In both, however, a strong argument is essential for binding the material together. Anecdotes and quotations are essential, but should only be used to advance the argument.

Television shows, radio and Twitter were also of interest to the students, and Evans discussed the pros and cons of working with each media. He said that not all historians should have a public role, but TV is a good way to present research and historical topics to a wider audience who don’t necessarily have time to read. For radio, he advised students to use a modulated voice to engage the audience.  It’s important to be relaxed and spontaneous on radio and TV, and this is easier on live broadcasts than on recorded ones.

“Twitter,” he said in an amused tone, “for me, is more like a game.” He uses Twitter to advertise lectures, publishers, and events for the CRASHH project he leads on Conspiracy and Democracy. Generally, he now avoids voicing strong opinions on Twitter because of backlash from some people. Evans (@RichardEvans36) has 5000 followers.

Sir Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, focusing on modern German and European history, especially social and cultural history, since the mid-nineteenth century. He is currently President of Wolfson College and has published various influential works.

Recent works:

The Coming of the Third Reich (London, 2003)

The Third Reich in Power (London, 2005)

The Third Reich at War (London, 2008)

Cosmopolitan Islanders (London, 2009)

Altered Pasts (London, 2014)

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