August 2011

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The future of history

Professor Bridget Brereton reflects on her career and the times ahead

By Serah Acham

Professor Bridget Brereton. Hers is a name almost synonymous with Caribbean History and one that’s fixed in the history of the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies. But how did she come to be the resident historian of the Campus?

Her journey began in 1963 where, as an aspiring undergraduate at The UWI’s Mona Campus, she was tasked with choosing between her two loves: History and English Literature.

“It was partly a quirk of fate,” she says.

While she always loved History and reading historical works, she felt she was better at Literature since, “it came more easily to me.” However, fate intervened when her father, a professor of English Literature, accepted the position of Professor of English at the Mona Campus.

“Neither he nor me wanted me to do a degree in English when he was the Head of the English Department and the Senior Professor. We both thought that was awkward, so I turned to my second love which was History.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in 1966, she went on to pursue her Master’s in History at the University of Toronto, Canada. She then to moved on to The UWI’s St. Augustine Campus for her PhD.

“My claim to fame is that I was the first person to get a PhD at St. Augustine in any subject outside Engineering and the Sciences.” This was in 1972, she says, “and ever since then I have actually been at the History Department at St. Augustine here, teaching at one level or another.”

In 1995, she was promoted to Professor of History.

Over 40 years (she taught part-time at The UWI St. Augustine while studying her PhD) and countless students later, Professor Brereton has witnessed and experienced the progression of teaching and student learning at the St. Augustine Campus.

One development, she says, has been the “massive explosion” in the amount of scholarly work, publications and research on Caribbean and Trinidad and Tobago’s history. “When I was an undergraduate … in the middle 1960s,” she relates, “the booklist was quite limited because relatively little had been published of a scholarly kind on Caribbean history.” That’s definitely not the case now, she asserts. “There’s now a huge amount of work and it’s increasing all the time.”

She also notes that there has been a significant increase in the number of graduate students of History. “When I was a PhD student at St. Augustine in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was one of a very very small group.” Now, she says, there are considerably more graduate students across all disciplines at The UWI St. Augustine. “In History we have had, over the last ten years, quite a large body of very active students doing MAs, MPhils and PhDs.”

“Unfortunately,” she says, the most significant change that she has noticed is not positive. “Our students are less well prepared for university studies, less intellectually curious, less well prepared to read … anything except for short short pieces.” She does assert, however, that not all students fall into this category and that this phenomenon is not unique to The UWI. “There’s a worldwide decline in the ability to read more difficult material,” which she attributes to the burgeoning social media trend. The “tiny little tweets” that are gaining popularity as a regular mode of communication she says, contribute to the “the loss of the ability to write whole paragraphs in proper English.”

What this means for teachers, she explains, is that “you have to change your teaching methods and basically simplify, simplify, simplify.”

What she would love to see, are “students who are more intellectually curious ... more interested in exploring their subject ... who are not just prepared to do the minimum little bits of reading off the internet and think that they can coast along on that.” To achieve this, she says, reforms need to begin at the secondary school level and particularly with the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE). She says that, while she knows the CAPE History syllabus is “quite good,” she isn’t “convinced that our CAPE graduates who come to UWI are very well trained to cope with difficult material ... at the university level.” To accommodate for this, she says, teachers at The University “have to redouble our efforts to train students to read properly, to study properly and to write.” She also recommends that her colleagues “continue what they’re already doing … using all the ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) in order to engage the interest of their undergraduates.”

Additionally, she believes that UWI should put more focus on graduate teaching. “I would like to see more of the resources ... devoted to nurturing, helping, funding and encouraging our graduate students, particularly our MPhil and PhD students.” In doing this, “you’re sort of encouraging your own future staff.” She draws an example from the History Department. “I think we have a very good group and we have for the last few years.” This, coupled with the Department’s “very good tradition of research ... Nearly all its members have been active researchers and ... publishers of their work,” can help foster and strengthen this tradition, “so that the body of work on Caribbean history will continue to increase and,” she avows, “UWI should be at the forefront of researching and publishing good work on Caribbean history.”

Professor Brereton, herself, has been one of these active publishers. In fact she believes that her publications, particularly her books “on the social history of Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean,” have been her most significant contributions to her field.

Yet, her talents, interest and influence are not solely centred on Caribbean History. “I’ve also helped to pioneer the field of Gender and Women’s History in the Caribbean,” she says – a feat that was not without its challenges.

“When we began in the ’80s,” she recalls, “it hadn’t yet become a part of basic academic life, at least not in this part of the world ... so we did have to face some scepticism and perhaps some mild patronising attitudes.” These didn’t last long, however, since, “there were obviously serious academics, such as myself and Dr. Marjorie Thorpe ... who were involved.” She adds that because, “relatively little had been published on the field” at the time, there was also the challenge of creating decent courses. “In fact we had to write a lot of the material ourselves ... we wrote papers, articles and book chapters ... edited and co-edited books in order to produce the sort of materials that we could base a respectable course or courses on.” And since then, “it’s become a very respectable and growing field in Caribbean history.” Now, Professor Brereton says, their only challenge is balancing the gender distribution in the classes. “Our classes have almost always been entirely female which is not what we wanted. We’ve always wanted men as well as women.