Who is who in your history department?

One of the things we are keen to stress on HE History Hub is where history at university differs from history at school. A good example of this is how your history department is staffed, and how it fits in with the wider university. Because teaching is only part of what goes on at a university, there are loads of bits of the university machine that you might not get to experience first-hand. If you’re in a medium to large sized department, you probably won’t be taught by anything like all of the staff on the books. Nonetheless, getting to know who is who is a good way of settling in, discovering your new surroundings, and broadening your understanding of history. Most departments will have a section of their website dedicated to their staff, their research interests and teaching – take the time to browse this before you arrive, so you have some idea of who does what.

General terms

Lecturer

The term ‘Lecturer’ often used in two senses. Firstly, and the way you will probably encounter it most frequently, it refers to the person who gives the lectures on a given module. Simple. They give lectures, they are a lecturer. Of course, the module may be split between multiple staff members, so you have multiple lecturers for a module, and they may also be leading your seminars, so they may also be your seminar tutor as well as your lecturer.

The other use of the term is more of a general job description, and it refers to the academic rank of the person in question. A lecturer is typically someone with a permanent position within a university department. Usually, they will be expected to undertake both teaching and research as part of their contract – this is why there is usually so much detail about research interests on staff webpages. Lecturers’ teaching is normally based on their research interests, although this is not a given.

  • Why not have a look at your lecturer’s webpages before you go to your first class? It’s a good idea to have an idea of the research interests of various staff members before you go to meet them, and many staff will have photos up, so you have a sense of who you’re looking for and avoid some potential embarrassment. (As an undergrad, I was rather mortified when I realised the lad I’d been chatting to before the first lecture on a module was, er, giving the lecture. On the other hand, in my first term at Exeter, I was overjoyed when one of my students turned to me as we were waiting to go into the first seminar of term and asked if I knew anything about this new lecturer! Forewarned is forearmed.) Apart from anything else, it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of what various staff members are interested in when you’re asked to come up with your own research projects.

Permanent lecturers are expected to apply for funding to support their research from external funding bodies. This is a highly competitive process, and academic staff have to put in a lot of hard work to make sure they are amongst the strongest candidates. If they are successful, they often will not teach for the duration of their award.  This is why advertised modules might suddenly change, and the lecturer you were expecting to work with suddenly disappears into thin air. Staff and departments dislike this uncertainty about as much as you do, and will try to minimise the disruption where they can.

As well as teaching and doing research, lecturers will also hold administrative positions within the department, some of which are discussed below.

Senior Lecturer

This is one rank higher than lecturer – after a number of years, lecturers are promoted to senior lectureships, dependent on their having achieved particular targets in their teaching and research. Senior lecturers might have more visible admin roles and they might have more research (postgrad) students studying with them.

Reader

This term isn’t used in all universities any more, and it’s highly specific to the UK but where it is used, it means that the person concerned has achieved international recognition for their original research. It’s essentially one step below professor. You might also see the term ‘Associate Professor’, which is essentially a reader.

Professor

Professors are the upper end of the department pack – they’re the ones with the most established research and teaching careers, the ones with the long publication lists and the multiple speaking engagements. They are the department rock stars. Professors either have what is called a personal chair or an established chair. A personal chair means the person in question has been promoted because of their individual achievements, usually their research, and they will be expected to fulfil the top admin roles too. An established chair is a post set up by the university in a particular area where they want leadership and research excellence. Some are named after the person who founded them (famous examples include the Regius Professorships at various universities, or the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge) & are particularly prestigious.

Research Fellow (or Postdoctoral Research Fellow)

This is usually a temporary research position, typically held by someone near the start of their academic career. It may be attached to a particular project that is being undertaken in the department, or it might be an independent project, funded by an outside funding body, which allows the holder to develop their research more. You might not come into much contact with them, although many research fellows will do some teaching where it overlaps with their research interests.

Teaching Fellow

This is the general term for a non-permanent member of staff who teaches. They might be filling in for a permanent lecturer on leave, or the department wants to provide coverage in a particular area, or has more money than expected to spend on teaching. This is often the first post a junior academic (i.e. someone who has recently finished their PhD) will get, so they might have less experience than permanent members of staff, although that’s not always the case. Teaching fellows will only be employed to teach, not to do their own research, so they might run or take part in more modules than permanent colleagues whose research time is written into their contract. They might be teaching modules they’ve designed themselves or they might be picking up modules someone else came up with. That’s not to imply they are less qualified, or less expert. Often, teaching fellows have some of the most innovative ideas, because they’re new to the system and can remember what elements they liked and didn’t like from their own student days, and feel more able to act on these. But because they’re not permanent, they experience quite a lot of uncertainty about where they will be working long-term. The main way this will affect undergraduates is probably if you’ve got to know a teaching fellow who suddenly moves on to another post.

Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA)

Some of your seminars will be taught by postgraduate students, known as Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAS). These are people doing PhDs in the department, and it will likely be their first experience of teaching. Most universities use GTAs, particularly on the larger first year classes. It’s a good way for graduate students to develop teaching experience, and they will be paid for the number of hours they teach. Do not write them off as some sub-standard ‘supply teacher’! They’ll have prepared thoroughly for their classes, and they’re given a lot of guidance and support as they do so. They’re also a lot closer in age to most undergrads, so they can be less intimidating to approach if you’ve got any questions.

Positions with a department

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you understand some of the main positions in a department – I’ve tried to keep the focus on the ones that have the most to do with student experiences.

Head of Department

This is fairly simple – the head of the department is the one in charge. You will probably have orientation lectures from them when you arrive, and most still keep up with some teaching too. They are in charge of the running of the department – everything from chairing the departmental meeting to sorting out the budget and appointing new staff – and they often act as a go-between for the department and the college/faculty.

Director of Education

The Director of Education is responsible for getting the taught modules offered in a given year sorted out. They will have to take into account student numbers, staff availability, staff workload, even coverage of subject areas. They also oversee the curriculum as a whole (what kinds of things you’re taught at different stages of your degree) and keep an eye on any new modules being put forward. They may have some input into the staff-student committee (see below). During the year, they make sure all the modules are running smoothly, and generally make sure the wheels don’t come off! They will also have dealings with the faculty/college administration and their counterparts in other departments, in large part to make sure that there is parity between subjects – so you don’t end up writing six times as much assessed work as your pal doing English, for example. Universities take all of their teaching responsibilities really seriously, so the DoE is a very important role.

Director of Research

Less visible to students, but a significant role within the department, the Director of Research is the person who co-ordinates and supports staff in their research, making them aware of funding, helping them put in applications, discussing and developing research strategies and much much more. Why is this important to students? Well, you want to be taught be the best historians out there, doing the most cutting edge research, the ones who are shaping the discipline. They need departmental support to do that, and the DoR plays a massive role in that.

Postgraduate Director

If you decide that you want to continue your studies after your undergraduate degree, then you will come into contact with the person in charge of postgraduate studies. They will be in charge of sorting out the various MA programmes offered by the department, and they also act as the ultimate source of information for all things postgrad-related.

Exams Officer

This is the person in charge of assessment, including exams, essays and presentations. They will ultimately be in charge of making sure your work is marked fairly, equitably and in good time. At the later stages of your degree, this will include your work being seen by someone else in the department other than your immediate module tutor, as well as the external examiners who come in from other universities to make sure that all’s well. The exams officer is also in charge of reviewing assessments to make sure they’re not unfair whilst still being sufficiently challenging. Something to remember when you come out of your exams!

Employability Officer

Universities also take their long-term responsibilities to their students very seriously – we want to help you get into the best position possible to get the career you’ve always dreamed off by the time you graduate. There will be a central university careers service you should start using as early in your degree as possible, but there will also be a member of staff in the department whose responsibility it is to make sure employability events and skills development are available to history students.

Personal Tutors

Many, but not all, universities assign each new student a personal tutor within the department. This is not necessarily someone who will teach you, but it is someone who will be your point of contact within the department during your time at university. You can go to them with any general academic or pastoral concerns, and they will keep an eye on your progress over your time at university.

Senior Tutor

The uber-personal tutor – who to contact in really serious circumstances.

Department Administrators & Secretaries

The logistical heart of the department. If you’re absent for any reason, it will usually be the departmental secretary who you call up to inform. If you need to switch modules or change seminar groups, they’re normally the people to talk to. Their exact remit will depend on your institution, but as a rule, anything that relates to the general running of your history degree, rather than to a specific module tends to go through the department office. Your department might have administrators who handle particular areas – postgraduate affairs, international students, particular year groups (check your department’s webpages – or ask!). At the same time as dealing with student queries, they are keeping the academics on course (something that must be akin to herding cats), making sure your marks are all up to date, liaising with people at College/Faculty level about scores of different things, dealing with queries from the general public, and a hundred other things you & I cannot possibly imagine. Put simply, they make a department work, and without them, the whole thing would come grinding to an abrupt and horrifying stop. Consequently, they are to be treated with the utmost respect. I have heard horror stories from every institution under the sun about how demanding some students – and some staff, let’s be fair – can be. If you want a happy, stress-free university life, being nice, friendly and pleasant to the department admin staff is my golden rule. Don’t bang off an email and grouch when you don’t get an immediate reply – call or go in to the office in person, be polite and clear in your explanations, and listen carefully to the replies you are given.

Faculty Administrators & Secretaries

Same basic premise as above. You might find that your institution handles things like absences and extension procedures, or student support, centrally, in which case you will be dealing with faculty administration. Again, it’s a crazily complicated job, and you should remember that you’re not the only person making demands on the admin staff’s time. Be prepared to have to wait for the right answer, and leave time for this, and be polite to everyone.

And finally:

Staff-Student committee

Departments really want to know what their students think of their degrees – what’s working and what’s not. They like to give students a forum to discuss strengths and weaknesses as they arise, which is where the staff-student committee comes in. This is made up of a number of staff who have significant admin positions in the department (this will change depending on where you are) and elected representatives from the student body. Usually, there will be one or more reps per year, some postgrad reps, and probably reps for combined honours degrees. Find out who they are, and if you have any issues that need raising, which you think are applicable to the student body as a whole, let them know. If you don’t raise an issue, how will anyone know it needs dealing with? Better yet, stand for election to the committee, and shape your department for the better yourself!

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About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

2 thoughts on “Who is who in your history department?

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