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Letter from the new Chair of the Faculty

Alex Walsham

Early December in Cambridge is admissions season. After a busy term, colleagues across the Faculty are ensconced in their colleges interviewing candidates keen to begin their undergraduate studies here in October 2020. The air is filled with anxiety, but also hope and anticipation. The current cohort of students has largely departed home for the vacation and the Seeley Library and Stirling Building are relatively quiet. From my office high up on the fifth floor, I have a commanding view across the Sidgwick Site and towards the central tower of the UL. But, as I reach the end of my first term in the Chair, I am very well aware that I still have only a partial picture of the immensely complex organism that is the Faculty itself. There remains much to learn.

Thanks to my predecessors Larry Klein and Tim Harper, the Faculty is in a fine state of health. We retain our spot at the top of the league table of UK History departments. Our MPhil programmes are flourishing and we continue to attract outstanding doctoral students from around the world. A new, outward-facing website that will better communicate our vision and more effectively reflect our achievements and ambitions is under construction. A series of events to engage our alumni is in the planning stages (watch this space!). Steady progress is being made towards the implementation of the first major reform of the Historical Tripos in fifty years. Many challenges surround this process, but an overhaul of our curriculum is long overdue and opens up exciting new opportunities for staff and students alike. In the nine years since I returned to Cambridge to take up the Professorship of Modern History in 2010, the Faculty has undergone an invigorating process of generational change and renewal – so much so that I now feel part of the ancien regime!

Chairing the History Faculty is an honour but also a responsibility, and these are particularly turbulent times in which to take on this role. I am conscious, too, of the weight of History on my shoulders as the first woman in the post. But I’m also encouraged and consoled on a daily basis by the support, good will and tolerance of my academic colleagues and the administrative staff who keep the whole operation afloat. Hopefully their forbearance won’t wear off too soon. In the meantime, I have a batch of mince pies to bake for the Faculty’s Christmas party: a foolish promise made in a fit of enthusiasm that I am now bound to keep!

Alex Walsham