It’s just wishful thinking to believe you are in any kind of position to future-proof your subject area – isn’t it? For a start, there’s the unpredictability of school-level curriculum changes; these in turn affect third-level recruitment; and then there are the vagaries of the employment marketplace. Your subject’s resilience in the future depends on the past – i.e. on what has already happened at school level – and that’s out of your hands. Or is it?
The choice is yours. If there’s one thing that’s certain about these changing times, it’s that change will happen. While STEM (science and maths) subjects are seen as relatively able to adapt to future changes, humanities subjects face particular challenges in this respect. Recent years have seen closures of university departments teaching subjects as diverse as music and chemistry, modern language programmes have been under sustained pressure, and in recent weeks changes have been announced to the school curriculum which mean that there will be no more A-level teaching in archaeology, classical studies, and history of art. In the face of such larger forces at work, what might any given individual do beyond carrying on doing his or her job as professionally as possible, hoping that enthusiasm will carry the day?
Do you know what your subject’s admission figures were this year? At institutional level? National level? How do these figures compare with other, similarly profiled subjects? How do these compare with admissions in previous years? What about A-level take-up? Acquaint yourself with the figures that are available through the national statistics agencies, such as HESA (for university data) and data.gov.uk (for schools data). Talk to your admissions officer. This way you will build a picture about your subject’s standing in terms of hard data and practical information.
Engage your subject community
Consider what organisations or associations there are – official or unofficial – that make up the backbone of your subject community. Inevitably, the focus of many of these will be on the pursuit and dissemination of research, but most, if not all, will also include some activities that explicitly address the longevity of the subject area. Consider what you might offer your subject area in this respect – and whether your proven communication skills might be put to good use to underpin the future of your subject area.
Create a narrative
What is your subject’s story? By which I mean not just its history, but the story it tells – to students, schools, and the public in general, about its benefits, value and significance to those who study it, and to society at large. Does it have a coherent narrative? Is this narrative one which is obvious to those who are not immersed in the subject area? New subject areas have to do this all the time, and often do so very successfully – but longer standing, more traditional subjects may not see the need, assuming that everyone knows what they are about. STEM subjects tend to have a very clear, often technologically oriented narrative, and humanities subjects might capitalise on their engagement with the human being rather than technology, for instance. Work with your subject associations to promote a clear, engaging narrative about your subject area – using social media as well as traditional media.
Look outside your subject
Look beyond your subject not just to see how other subject areas describe themselves, but also to make strong connections that will embed your subject area across disciplines. Is there an aspect of your subject that would lend itself to interdisciplinary teaching, for instance? Often opportunities for such collaboration are possible at Masters level and beyond, so consider your input to your own PGT programme and that of your neighbouring disciplines.
Future-proof your students
Lastly, don’t forget that the best way to make your subject long lasting is to look to the next generation. Give them the skills they need – not just new media or technological savvy skills and so forth – but in analytical skills, the ability to make deep connections, to research and understand information critically, and to situate their subject in the context of other areas of human endeavour. In other words, give them knowledge as well as information, and let them drive your subject area forward.