Doing History in Public Again

IMG_4460I was on television last night. If you follow me on Twitter, then you will probably have seen this already. Given that I was speaking to Daniel Radcliffe for Who Do You Think You Are?, both I and my department were quite keen to publicise this event.  Since the broadcast, there has been quite a lot more interest, and some very interesting discussions about historical research for factual television, letters from women to soldiers during the First World War, and the significance of the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Dud Corner. In other words, this bit of academic public engagement, me bringing my historical expertise to bear on a popular subject in a very public forum, went as well as I could have hoped when my meeting with Dan was filmed back in May.

What has made this experience slightly ironic, however, is the coincidence of the publication of an article in The Economist late last week. Entitled The study of history is in decline in Britain’, it argues that historians (by which the author, ‘Bagehot’, means academic historians) ‘increasingly devote themselves to subjects other than great matters of state: the history of the marginal rather than the powerful, the poor rather than the rich, everyday life rather than Parliament. These fashions were a valuable corrective to an old-school history that focused almost exclusively on the deeds of white men, particularly politicians. But they have gone too far. … What were once lively new ideas have degenerated into tired orthodoxies, while vital areas of the past, such as constitutional and military affairs, are all but ignored.’ While some historians, the author graciously acknowledges, do ‘demonstrate a genius for bringing their subject alive’, they are, he claims, either not in academic posts or ‘face brickbats and backbiting from their fellow professionals’. Military history, according to the author, is catered for entirely by non-academic historians. Academics he (an educated guess at the gender of the author) argues ‘need to escape from their intellectual caves and start paying more attention to big subjects such as the history of politics, power and nation-states.’

Now, I make no claims to having a genius for bringing my subject to life but, like all my colleagues doing our best to work with the current impact agenda, I am fully aware of the dangers of ‘learning more and more about less and less, producing narrow PhDs and turning them into monographs and academic articles, in the hamster-wheel pursuit of tenure and promotion.’ I don’t want to speak only to other historians, which is precisely why I jumped at the chance to appear on a nationally broadcast, BAFTA-winning programme which, for the first time in its history, was touching on a subject about which I had written a book.  I hope and believe that my enthusiasm for the subject and the relevance of the type of document I was exploring with Dan came across, even if there wasn’t time or space for our discussion of the references to the Easter Uprising that occur in one letter, or the contemporary political significance of separation allowances as a form of proto-welfare benefit. Similarly, I hope and believe that the public lectures I gave on the ranks and work of RAMC throughout the First World War centenary and the variety of resources I helped produce for schools on the medical history of the war helped to both nurture public interest in history as a subject and inform debate over the relevance of the past to the social challenges of the present.

The problem isn’t that academic historians don’t do public history. We do, in far more ways than publishing books or appearing on television, as I have noted previously. Nor is it that we ignore war, politics or power structures by focusing on ‘marginal’ subjects. Social and cultural histories simply provide another way of looking at war, politics, economics, diplomacy. Indeed, the interrogation power structures are their very fabric, not their antithesis. I would strongly recommend Dr Daniel Todman’s (QMUL) acclaimed two-volume social history of the Second World War to Bagehot’s attention to see what I mean.

Rather, the problem is that public history is a different discipline from academic history. Doing both well is possible for a single individual, but it is hard and time-consuming, especially when added to the other expectations of teaching, administration, pastoral care and grant capture that are expected of academics today.  I am becoming increasingly aware of just how different and difficult a discipline it is as I work to turn my academic research into a ‘trade’ book for wider public consumption (although even in its academic form it is free of charge to download, and I have been honoured to have it recommended as a useful resource for GCSE teacing). Even if I succeed in doing so, I doubt that the ultimate product will have anything like the breadth of impact that 5 minutes of speaking with the man who played Harry Potter about some of the work I did for my PhD and turned into an academic monograph has had. But that isn’t going to stop me trying because I am historian, even if one who happens to work in an academic job. And I believe from my experience in engaging with the public that people are interested in listening to these stories of those on the margins, including those on the margins in wartime, and hearing what they have to say about the world they lived in and how it shaped the world in which we live in today, even if Bagehot does not.

Doing history in public

Last week I met with a woman who wanted to know more about the history of her great-uncle, an ex-serviceman from the First World War who suffered from shell shock. I had an email correspondence about plans for a future workshop on visible and invisible wounds that I might offer to a group of primary school students who I worked with over the summer. I began putting together the PowerPoint presentation for a talk I am giving to a local professional association next week. And I proposed two potential posts for a national research blog on the history of the First World War.

This wasn’t, of course, all I did.  I worked on my current book chapter, met with four postgraduate students to discuss their work, put the finishing touches on the reading list for the seminar on gender and medicine I’m teaching this term and completed two book reviews (one of which the editor kindly complimented as being ‘jargon-free’).  But the work I did that might be classified as engagement or outreach or even, at a pinch, impact (to descend into academic jargon for a moment) seemed particularly pertinent, occurring as it did in the context of the Twitterstorm over Rebecca Rideal’s promotional interview for her new book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.  I have no intention of recapping the  ins and outs of this particular squabble, not least because it showcased an extraordinary level of bad behaviour on all sides of the debate, except to gently point out to my fellow Twitterstorians on all sides of the debate that subtweeting is rude, whatever your level of professional seniority, and that I don’t care how justifiably angry you believe yourself to be, there is no excuse for sexist comments.

In spite of all the unpleasantness, however, there does appear to be a small silver lining appearing in the form of blog posts responding to the issues raised about who is defined as a ‘historian’ and, more specifically, how a ‘public historian’ might be distinguished from an ‘academic historian’. Catherine Fletcher was one of the first off the blocks, arguing that historians who ‘do public history’ are misunderstood by ‘academic historians’ who are defensive about the boundaries of professional definition  and therefore engaging in ‘occupational closure’, to use sociological terminology.  Yesterday, Graham Smith issued a call via the Historians for History blog for historians, ‘irrespective of where they work or what they work on, to collaborate on projects in a spirit of shared authority.’ Doing so, he suggests, would be a step away from internal squabbles over resources in which boundaries of period, approach and discipline are mobilised via exclusionary and demarcatory strategies. (Yes, I have been reading rather a lot of historical sociology as part of that book chapter I am writing.)

At one level, I have no problem with the overarching argument that both Fletcher and Smith are putting forward, namely that those who do history (and can therefore be defined as historians) often practice outside the limits of the formal academy and that it is incumbent upon those working within those limits to engage with those outside them, whether via projects of ‘shared authority’ (which I think refers to what I know as ‘co-produced research’) or via engagement with the media of public dissemination (television, radio, trade publishing, blog posts, podcasts, museum exhibitions). What I do take issue with, however, is the implication of both posts that a) the boundaries between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history are fixed and impermeable and b) that the fixing of these boundaries has come solely from one side of the discussion.

As far as the first of these implications is concerned, Fletcher’s own positioning of herself as an academic actively engaging in public history (via her role as an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker and the publication of a well-received trade history) demonstrates that this is not the case.  Nor is she exceptional, except possibly in the level of her public profile.  Every academic I know engages at some level in communicating their history publicly, whether through publication or presentation.  For most of us that means giving lunchtime talks to thirty-odd pensioners at our local library rather than broadcasting on national radio. It means acting as an uncredited advisor to a local drama group rather than a talking head on a national documentary. It means convincing our publisher to run a paperback edition of our monograph rather than pitching to a literary agent in order to get our research read.  But all of us, as I have argued before, are fundamentally motivated by our desire to communicate our research to others, and many of us are extremely creative in how we do so, well beyond the sometimes rather narrow definitions of what constitutes ‘public history’.

Which brings me to my second point, that the ‘gate-keeping’ of the boundaries of professional definition works both ways.  Not all of us are given access to the audiences provided by schemes such as New Generation Thinkers (a project with a fairly rigorous competitive selection process).  Some of us work in field where the competition in trade titles comes from Jeremy Paxman and Katie Adie (backed by the BBC), making a pitch to an agent that much more complex.  And those who control the channels of public communication at the national level in particular bring their own knowledge and assumptions to the table, shaping their willingness to hear and broadcast potentially challenging ideas (something that has shaped much of the criticism by historians of the national commemorations of the First World War centenary as produced by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC).

This is not to suggest that lack of access should be used as an excuse by those within the academy for retreating into an inward-looking discussion, or to express resentment of those who do gain access, which they will have worked hard to achieve, through unfair or unwarranted criticism.  Rather it is a call for two things: firstly, a little more self-awareness by those producing widely distributed forms of public history that they have privileges of their own, some of which may come through leveraging their association with academia but which are not necessarily available to all their colleagues.  A permanent academic position is, as has quite rightly been pointed out, not the be-all and end-all of historical authority; nor is it a position of infinite security and privilege. We need to treat all our colleagues, however they practice their craft, with civility and respect, which includes not throwing unwarranted accusations from either side.

Secondly, this post is a call for a greater acknowledgement of the full range of public history being undertaken by historians across the spectrum, from the HLF-funded co-produced project through artistic collaborations to the Christmas best-seller.  Increasingly this form of historical practice is being expected of academic historians by funding bodies and univesity administrations, in addition to (rather than in place of) depth and breadth of engagement with subject knowledge and methodological practice.  Those of us with academic positions (or aspirations to such) are becoming increasingly adept at code-switching in response to the variety of audiences we address, so having it assumed that our writing will be full of jargon or our public presentations too abstruse simply because we hold or are working towards a higher academic degree is deeply dispiriting (as well as not a little patronising to our intended audiences). We are also, as Fletcher and Smith both beautifully demonstrate, engaging in a huge range of creative public practices, starting from our classrooms, where increasingly ‘public history’ is an academic subject and ‘engagement’ an aim, and encompassing a huge range of creative co-productions, both formal and informal, funded and not.

The Rideal Twitterstorm initially began with a complaint about the lack of acknowledgement for historical work already undertaken.  How we acknowledge such work within the ever-growing sphere of public history in ways that satisfy the demands of a media landscape where novelty is all remains an important discussion.  But if we are to lift the professional barriers that seem only to bring out the worst of history’s insularity, we all need to acknowledge both that a range of practitioners are historians, and a range of practices make up public history.

What fresh hell is this?

This post is one of an occasional series that might be entitled ‘Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while’.  In fact, my silence on the blogging front has been something of a frustration as I have at least three posts that I want/need to write.  The problem, as always, is finding the time between grant deadlines, an overdue book review, an even more overdue article, teaching, marking and, oh yes, the research project that I am actually contracted to be undertaking!

And that is just on the formal professional front.  As a (semi-)public historian in this centenary year, I find myself juggling interviews, requests for interviews, requests for articles and comments, as well as the private demands of family life which, as my tag-line for this blog indicates, are as much a part of my identity as anything related to the histories of gender or the First World War.  So the post I had planned to coincide with International Women’s Day has been rather swamped by the fact that my son still hasn’t written his thank you cards for his birthday presents (meeting deadlines is clearly not a skill that runs in the family). Such are the ironies of working motherhood.

So yes, there is a lot going on in my life, but probably not any more than any other working parent, and I am blessed by having a job with a certain amount of flexibility built into it.  It is when I bump up against immovable deadlines, like the current grant application which is due next week and which has been slowly driving me mad with its looming urgency and terrifying complexity, that something, somewhere, has to give.  Generally speaking, it is this blog, the space where I explore the aspects of my life and work that I find thought-provoking but not necessarily immediately productive.

My apologies, therefore, if you have been eagerly awaiting my comments on the spate of recent First World War media outputs (and for once I know that this group includes more than just my mum as I did promise someone a comment on the Max Hastings/Niall Ferguson debate).  There will be, I promise, some thoughts on being a female First World War historian, on why shell shock is not the same thing as PTSD, and how I have been haunted by a (still unfulfilled) research project since I wrote my PhD, eventually.  But not until after 25th March.  Sorry.