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.

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