USW Family | Dr Ruth Atherton

Dr Ruth Atherton, Historian at USW

We chat to Dr Ruth Atherton about her role at USW.

Tell us about your career so far

I finished my PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2018 where I had been working as a Teaching Fellow in Early Modern History since 2015. Then I moved to the University of Gloucestershire where I worked as an Academic Development Officer in professional services, as well as a Lecturer in Early Modern History. After stints teaching at both Cardiff and Bristol Universities, I was lucky enough to get a permanent role at USW in January 2020.

What does your role involve?

I teach undergraduate History students, as well as a module on the Humanities Foundation degree programme, and I supervise a couple of research students. I teach modules on Early Modern History, focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries. I also teach on the Digital Capability module on the Foundation programme, which is all about the skills that we need to live, learn and work in a digital society. I sit on several external committees, such as the Society for Reformation Studies, the European Reformation Group, and History UK so there is often quite a bit of admin to do for those roles. I also spend time on my research. I am currently writing a monograph on sacramental education in early modern Germany as well as articles on confessional identity. So it’s a really varied role, which is great because I don’t get bored. There’s lots to do!

Will the Covid-19 pandemic be making its way into the History curriculum?

Absolutely. Part of my teaching explores the history of medicine, and just before the first lockdown we were actually talking about quarantine measures, isolation, death rates and so on in an early modern context, which then became a reality just a few weeks later. This was spooky, to say the least. The pandemic has made the past even more relevant.

Have you always been interested in History?

Yes. I think I was born in the wrong century if I’m honest. I just really, really love the 16th century. There was such a lot of interesting stuff that happened in that century – the Protestant Reformation and the fracturing of the Christian Church, and all that led up to it; the discovery of the New World, the late-medieval invention of the printing press was another huge development, and modern society would not function the way it does now, without these developments of the past.


I focus a lot on German history, and my research looks at early modern German educational texts and sermons, which ties in with the Reformation. I find it so fascinating to trace these huge theological developments and look at how critical ideas regarding salvation were spread to the masses, especially when there were such low literacy rates. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I tend to get up quite early and take the dog for a walk, then the kids go to breakfast club for 7.30am. Then if I’m teaching on campus, I’ll get straight on the road and arrive in work for about 8.30am. If I’m working from home I’ll make a start on preparing for lectures – photocopying, finding interesting resources for the students, developing PowerPoints, answering emails and marking. 

I also do a lot of research, and regularly submit papers to academic journals, as well as doing reviews of new history books that come out. I sit on several external committees and sit on the judging panel for IHR doctoral scholarships. I read through dissertations and other assignments that students submit, so I spend a lot of time making track changes! 

Coming onto campus to teach is the highlight of my week. Seeing students face-to-face has been great, because when we were teaching online, lots of them couldn’t, or didn’t – for various reasons – turn on their cameras or speak during lectures, so I felt a bit like a radio presenter, just speaking into silence. Being able to interact with them again is wonderful as they have such fantastic perspectives.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I play netball and my team is part of the Gloucestershire league. It’s such a good way of getting rid of some of the stress you get from daily life. It's also really sociable which is great. I do Body Combat as well which is really good fun, albeit exhausting!

Any hopes / plans for the future at USW?

I’m really looking forward to developing more and more of my own teaching materials, and I’ve recently taken on two new PhD students with my colleague, Jonathan Durrant, so that’s very exciting. USW is really starting to feel like my academic home, and I’m looking forward to making my mark here. I have such a good team around me and my colleagues in the History department are so supportive, and there’s a lot we can offer our students, so being able to continue to develop the History programme is something I really look forward to.