Profile: Professor Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society
Professor Margot Finn is an historian of Britain since 1750 and the current President of the Royal Historical Society. Her work has ranged from the history of Victorian popular politics to the gendered legal, social and cultural histories of debt and credit in England. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Imperial Family Formations: Domestic Strategies and Colonial Power in British India, c.1757-1857.
Professor Finn describes herself as a ‘misfit’ – polymath would perhaps be more accurate – because her first degree – and her first publication – were in Biology and Biochemistry. Having graduated in science, she attended graduate school at Columbia University in New York, studying social sciences although she had no previous historical background. From Columbia she went on to complete her post-doc at the University of Chicago, working on the interpretation of culture through Anthropology. She feels it was beneficial to keep on choosing to work ‘outside my comfort zone’. She then taught at Emory University in Atlanta for a decade. When an opportunity for a research fellowship at the University of Warwick was offered to her, she accepted it and worked at Warwick between the years 2000 and 2012, spending some of that time as the Head of the History Department and also completing a short stint as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor – which she says she detested, because it took her away from teaching and research. Her career then took her to UCL, where she is Professor of Modern British History and Director of Research in the History Department.
She is half-way through her four-year term as President of the Royal Historical Society. This involves a diverse range of activities, including chairing the Council, giving the annual Presidential lecture – hers are about historians’ turn to material culture – and ensuring that the Society is working for its historian members. For the Society’s 150th anniversary she commissioned and participated in the production of a big report on race and ethnicity in UK history, taking the cue from her predecessor, Professor Peter Mandler, who had previously commissioned a report on gender equality. Both knew that these projects would be controversial and yield results that would not always show the discipline in a good light. The Royal Historical Society is now in the process of appointing a two-year post-doc fellowship to continue this work on race and ethnicity.
Another policy area in which Professor Finn is deeply involved is Open Access. In February 2019 the Society published her comprehensive report: Plan S and UK Learned Societies: The View from History (available from https://royalhistsoc.org/plan-s-consultation-feb-2019/ ). One of her key collaborators on open access is Richard Fisher, formerly MD of Cambridge Academic.
Asked what she regards as her greatest achievement, she says that she is especially proud of the work she has initiated on gender and ethnicity. This involved a huge amount of research – for example, 737 people replied to the questionnaire that supported the RHS study on race and ethnicity – and she knew it would be challenging to focus on an issue which was not a national strength. Other UK disciplinary learned societies are now using the RHS reports as they begin to scrutinise gender and race inequality. Her own and her predecessor’s work on this were part of a move to make the RHS a policy-orientated society as well as a professional association to support scholars.
Professor Finn’s advice to young people just starting out on their careers is, “You have to be ready to keep on throwing yourself over the same hurdle and fall flat; and you have to find a way of not taking this personally, as well as recognising that you could have done things better. This can be incredibly difficult; but there are a lot of people out there who can give you good advice.” She adds that it is particularly hard for today’s generation of students not to take rejections personally, because they are almost over-supervised. Supervision when she was herself a postgraduate was ‘trivial’ – her tutor would not see her until she had completed a chapter. Students now are often taken through their work section by section. Once these students are subjected to the sharpness of the ‘real market’, they often find it difficult to cope. “It can be comforting for the next generation to know that not everyone was appointed to a permanent post at the age of 20.”
Professor Finn has yet to put detail on her next set of goals. She says she might apply for another Leverhulme Grant – she was awarded one for her work on the East India company; and she has a book to finish. Next year she will be able to take study leave to do this, for which she is very grateful. She will continue to make a large commitment to the RHs for the remainder of her term as President; one of her ambitions is to increase the number of members and fellows ‘beyond 4,500’.
Cambridge University Press is one of Professor Finn’s principal publishers. She is the editor of the Press’s new Modern British Histories series and was previously a co-editor of the Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories. She hopes to publish her third monograph with CUP. She likes the Press because its books are beautifully presented ‘with proper footnotes and bibliographies’.
Professor Margot Finn concluded the interview with the following reflections: “Academia has changed dramatically from when I was a student. I was taught by only two women for my undergraduate degree – that would be unimaginable today. Having women in the classroom is normative now. I hope that within the next decade we will make non-white academics normative, too.”