Edward Samuel Wesley De Cobain entered the Antrim Court dock in March 1893 believing, at least outwardly, that he was innocent.

He was, right up until he was expelled in 1892, a well-liked representative for East Belfast in the House of Commons. His ardent defense of Protestantism, Unionism, organized labour, and Belfast’s working-classes was hardly spotless during his tenure (1886-1892), but it set him aside from the rest and it nevertheless earned him respect from his constituents and fellow Unionists. He must have thought that his marital status would work against him, but he would have put his own mind at ease, for after all, he was a member of multiple all-male clubs, the Orange-Order and Parliament being among the most worthy of note. Not least, he was a zealous Methodist evangelical; his character witnesses made sure to stress this last bit. So as De Cobain made his way to the dock, shackled, he must have surely thought that if anyone could parry a buggery charge, it would be him. He could not will the jury into agreement.

Over the last year or so I’ve focused on articulating De Cobain’s story, and that process finally culminated with the submission of a manuscript a few weeks back. Before I stumbled over these skeletons, I was considering writing a publishing history of two Victorian working-class periodicals, The British Workman and Workwoman. I was dejected when I found out that someone else had written a lengthy thesis on the very same topic sometime in the late 2000s (kuddos). It’s difficult to put that moment into words. That moment when you realize that an idea that you had been shaping and refining in your mind, convinced by (relying on?) its originality, had already been put into words is trying. If nothing else, I learned an important lesson about thorough preliminary research.

So I went back to what I knew best: the Victorian periodical press. By then I had developed an interest in the history of Victorian sexuality, and the popular homosexual scandals of the late 19th century (Dublin Castle, Cleveland Street, and Wilde) were fresh in my mind. When I first read of De Cobain’s trial in The Times, I thought nothing of it, not because it wasn’t interesting, but because I assumed that other historians had already told (and re-told) his story. I was right, but mostly wrong. Indeed, historians have spilled ink on De Cobain, but all together their efforts total to about five pages of printed text. How many pages have been dedicated to Lord Somerset or Wilde, I wonder?

As I continued to explore De Cobain’s antics I began to periodize the scandal differently. How did him absconding from England in 1891 affect the trial? How did Westminster react? How did the press paint De Cobain? What was he up to whilst in Spain, France, Belgium, and in the United States? What did his family think? Why did he return to face his accusers? Not least, what if the actual trial in March 1893 wasn’t the most important part of this whole thing? I learned very quickly that I was telling a more complete story about De Cobain. But more importantly, I learned that I was using De Cobain’s experiences to tell a story about reactions and tolerances. This was to be a story about voices in the press and otherwise that frothed with self-righteous male indignation against an alleged sexual deviant. This was to be a story about timid voices calling for candor and judicial integrity. This was to be a story about a troubled man searching for answers, both from his brother and from God. This was to be my historiographical contribution.

I write all this because today I received in the mail a number of documents that, I hope, will allow me to write a definitive account of what happened in that courtroom. As fate would have it (or my own incompetence, the jury is out), I discovered these documents after finishing and submitting the final manuscript, so I’m not entirely sure if I’ll have to revise or add to the story that I was trying to tell there. But even if these documents turn out to be a waste of cash, they’ve already reminded me of something that I’d forgotten after I pressed “send” weeks ago: definitive accounts of anything are impossible to craft, but we can try.

Peter Mandler, professor of British cultural history at the University of Cambridge, recently published an essay in Aeon (at the risk of sounding like an insufferable dolt, I was reading Aeon before it was cool). In what is a well written piece, Mandler establishes something that we already knew very well but needed reminding: humanities enrolment has been more or less static since the 1960s. Moreover, relying on some pretty convincing statistics, Mandler argues that while relative numbers in the humanities have declined, absolute numbers in England, Australia, and the United States have actually increased (mainly due to the increased number of women studying the humanities). He also establishes historical precedent for the current utilitarian push away from the humanities, as he contends that “The swing away from the humanities and the sciences [in the 1970s] demonstrated some old lessons. Policymakers had had a very simpleminded understanding of the relationship between education, human capital and economic growth. Their efforts to steer students into the sciences were really a return to earlier, socialist ‘manpower planning’ in favour of certain industrial sectors. In both cases, students had their own ideas of what to study. In both cases, they didn’t respond to government incentives. They were following different signals.” This sounds very familiar.

Indeed, but what of these signals? What of the cultural forces at play that convince young students to spend their years studying Plato, or reading Chaucer? Mandler returns to these enigmatic forces towards the end of his piece. Here I would have liked to see Mandler apply his skills as a cultural historian; instead, he relies on the work of economist Ross Finnie. Mandler writes: “As the Canadian economist Ross Finnie has suggested, subject choice derives from ‘a complex set of influences, experiences, relationships and developments that are rooted in the family and probably start quite early in an individual’s life – rather than related to a simple well-informed calculation of the future (monetary) costs and benefits made near or at the end of high school’.” Having read the article, Finnie was actually referring to “decisions regarding access to post-secondary education,” and not “subject choice,” but we’ll let Mandler’s misquote slide because Finnie’s comment is totally vague and can still apply. I found it curious that a cultural historian would rely so heavily on statistics and ignore an opportunity to do history. At the same time, I shouldn’t be surprised: quantitative evidence has always carried more weight. Nevertheless, his essay seems to have been well received by professional historians and graduate students, while general audiences keep on in ignorance.

Mandler’s positive take on the current landscape of the humanities is a welcomed breath of fresh air. It certainly challenges the “crisis” narrative, and for those initiated enough to care, it should provide for brief moment of respite. With all that being said, I found it interesting that Mandler ignored (side-stepped?) Canadian statistics in his work. Here are my conclusions on recent enrolment statistics.

This is not the first time that the skies have seemed so dark.
According to StatsCan post-secondary 1st cycle students data, enrolment in the humanities dropped by 18.8% from 1992-93 (125,319) to 1999-2000 (101,736), only to rebound dramatically within the decade with humanities enrolment (from History and English Literature, to Maritime Studies and French Language and Literature) across the country increasing by 16.8% from 2004-05 (122,712) to 2009-10 (143,331). These favourable increases were prompted by increased enrolment in Manitoba, British Columbia, and Ontario. However, since 2009-10, humanities enrolment has seen a dramatic decrease to the tune of 12% (now hovering around 126,000 students). And what of humanities enrolment relative to all 1st Cycle enrolment? Whereas in 1992-93 humanities enrolment constituted 22.5% of all post-secondary 1st Cycle students (601,764 total students), that proportion is closer to 13.7% today (921,600 total students).

So what does this all mean? Yes, the number of students studying the humanities has not changed very much over the last 20+ years in Canada. But according to StatsCan 1st Cycle enrollment data, the number of students enrolling in humanities programs relative to the number of students enrolling in all other post-secondary programs has gone down by ~10%, and I’m doubtful that the trend will discontinue. While it is true that the number of students studying the humanities has remained steady, that won’t be of much consolation to program heads and deans. A recent Quarterly Update from the President of my institution (a small to medium sized comprehensive research university) placed this into perspective. According to Alan Wildeman, “
Most noticeably, enrolment in FAHSS has dropped from 44% to 34% of total student enrolments, while Engineering has risen from 9% to 15%.” These numbers have far reaching consequences on program funding, faculty appointments, and capital expenditure priorities; perhaps it’s not enough to look at absolute numbers.

This all suggests to me that policymakers and university administrators have been quite successful in presenting certain “signals,” effectively selling students (literally, with beautiful physical space, or theoretically, with promises of increased return on investment) the idea of post-secondary education in non-humanities programs. And yes, I think humanities departments at Canadian universities need to rethink the way they brand themselves to prospective students. But I also think that the virtues of an education in the humanities are largely engendered by its scale; it’s not commercial or towering, but substantial, intimate, and effective.

I read a lot Patrick O’Brien’s work as a kid. You may have seen Master & Commander, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany; that film was based on two of O’Brien’s 20 novels (Master & Commander, and The Far Side of the World). O’Brien’s books influenced me a lot during my undergraduate years, too. I capitalized on every opportunity to write about the early-modern British navy. In retrospect, those papers always turned out to be a bit Whiggish and sensational, but they provided me with an excuse to write about explosive, dangerous histories (One particularly brutal title read something like, “The Competitive Advantages of the Early-Nineteenth Century British Navy: Applying Resource-Theory to the Battle of Trafalgar.”) O’Brien would not have been pleased with such drivel.

After two degrees, and many more tortuously titled papers, I find myself turning to O’Brien’s tales again. In O’Brien’s novels, Jack Aubrey is constantly either in pursuit, or being pursued; the H.M.S. Surprise hardly laid down its anchor. As a result, Aubrey is constantly “changing tack.” “Changing tack,” for me, was a seafarer’s term, meaning to change the course of a masted vessel so as to cross the direction of the wind, years before it had any idiomatic meaning. Now, I am the one tacking, and as I adjust my course thinking of O’Brien’s novels provides me with some comfort.I was resolute in my ambition to continue learning and researching History at the Master’s level, and determined that a solid performance during my Master’s would lead to a fulfilling PhD, and more importantly, a fulfilling professional life in the academy.

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does. I tried throughout my year at McGill to discourage myself from falling for the academy; I was smitten by the people, the exchange of ideas, the writing, the wine-and-cheeses, the pats on the back, and the stumbles. Nevertheless, over a number of difficult weeks during the late summer and early autumn of 2015, I decided to not pursue a PhD in History, opting for an alternative track into the academic community: librarianship. More on this later.In closing, the thing about tacking is that, whether to outrun (or pursue) a French corvette or to adjust professional aspirations, the objective often remains the same. My objective? Research, teaching, and academic service. Now, it’s just a matter of “keeping the course.”