Backlash against the digital humanities movement

Our new colleague at Hertfordshire, Adam Crymble, has recently written an ‘essay on the backlash against the digital humanities movement’ – a reflection on ‘living in the age of digital hubris’ over the past decade.  Crymble calls for a dose of ‘digital humility’ from his fellow ‘DHers'; digital history has been well-funded at a time when research budgets are being slashed elsewhere – so perhaps the recent backlash is the result of ‘an establishment that’s decided those DH people get enough already.’

Public history hasn’t been on the receiving end of million-pound projects (although streams such as Connected Communities are starting to shape work in the field) but Crymble’s comments about the tensions between new fields and the academic establishment resonate.  Public historians, particularly those who have come ‘alternative’ routes into academe, might well emphathise with his experience:

DH is inherently interdisciplinary. My “core” discipline is history… But if I had to convince a group of anonymous historians that my work was worthy, I seemed destined for the “no” pile.

Times are tough. I can accept that there are other great candidates out there who may have been better for the job, or more worthy of the scholarship. But it’s not just me. Most of my colleagues in Britain were self-funded during their Ph.D.s, or supported their studies as part-time developers and project managers. I know of none with the golden-ticket scholarships that have long been a measure of the top students in the humanities.

There’s definitely some common cause to be made between public and digital historians in building bridges with other domains of academic history.  But a bit of humility on all sides is probably needed, as part of seeking greater integration of the discipline, something Justin Champion and I wrote about in unashamedly advocatory terms.  As Crymble says, we’re all on the same team…

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/07/15/essay-backlash-against-digital-humanities-movement#ixzz38HgdvpEG

Historian with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office – a job with a history

Last week, the post of Historian with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was advertised (with the strapline ‘If you’re passionate about the past and excited about the future, consider a role as a Historian in Whitehall’).  Historians in government are a very rare breed in Britain, at least in historical roles (historians have been taken on as generalists since the civil service professionalised – and came under pointed criticism as ‘amateurs’ for it from the late 1950s).  By contrast, historians working as historians are part of state and federal/provincial government structures in the USA and Canada; the US Society for History in the Federal Government has been around for over 30 years.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that the grass is greener for colleagues across the pond.  Being a historian in government doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bringing historical thinking into the corridors of power (even walking said corridors doesn’t equal admission to the offices where the major policy decisions are taken).  The North American experience suggests recognition as a specialist can be a distinctly mixed blessing.  An expert’s influence can easily be limited to those questions relating directly to the area of expertise…

The role of the historian in government is often concerned with research and the management of records: cataloguing papers; editing documents and producing official histories for publication; responding to queries; writing briefing papers on historical topics.  In countries such as Canada and New Zealand, historians are also expert contributors to processes that address grievances and claims relating to the treatment of indigenous peoples.

The currently advertised job certainly fits with this editorial and curatorial profile.  But the FCO is a particularly interesting case, because a previous historian at the department made the transition from editor of official documents to historical adviser to the Minister.

Rohan Butler Credit: FCO

Rohan Butler Credit: FCO

Rohan Butler (1917-1996) worked at the Foreign Office from 1944, while also a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.  He became Senior Editor of the Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1955, and, in 1959, he was commissioned to produce a history of the Abadan Crisis as part of a Whitehall initiative (‘funding experience’) to learn lessons from the past.

Peter Beck’s careful scholarship has revealed the work of historians at the Treasury and Foreign Office during this experiment.  Butler, however, managed to gain a position of influence as a historian (the Abadan history was finished in 1962 and Butler went on to become historical adviser to successive Foreign Secretaries until 1982) – something his Treasury colleagues never did.

Beck states that the Abadan history ‘fed into, guided, and influenced on-going discussions and reviews within Whitehall by juxtaposing the lessons of history, contemporary realities, and possible new directions for both foreign policy and methods.’[1]   Beck somewhat underplay’s Butler’s success, stating that it’s difficult to ascribe a ‘clear-cut outcome’ to the history.  But Butler’s work was informing the highest levels of decisionmaking.  He was, effectively, a policy adviser as well as a historian.

The job description for today’s FCO historian mentions ‘responding to requests for historical information and advice from Ministers, officials and the public’, but the prospect for a role such as Butler’s seems remote.  The salary of £26,363 – £32,834 is well below the range for special advisers and points, perhaps, to a role seen as ‘back-office’ rather than ‘core business’.

We may today lament that history has little influence on policymaking – it might be worth looking back at Butler for inspiration: a historian on the inside.

[1] Beck, ‘The Lessons of Abadan and Suez for British Foreign Policymakers in the 1960s’, p. 545.

See also: Beck, Using history, making British policy: the Treasury and the Foreign Office, 1950-76, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

NB: Butler’s authoritative memorandum on the Katyn Massacre (produced in 1972 and printed for internal circulation in 1973) is now in the public domain with original footnotes and annexes.

Self-herding, discrimination, pride and defiance: thinking about badges

One of my teammates in the university football team had a wooden sign on her door: ‘Mathematics Department’.  She was training as a teacher after her maths degree and had been given the sign after a school clearout.  It was of the era of flip-top desks with inkwells and a fine thing in its own right.  But it also captured my imagination – I’ve always hankered after a history one since then.  I guess we all love a label.  We like to badge ourselves, thereby both defining for ourselves and declaring to others aspects of our identity we deem important – which club we support, which political party or band we prefer…  The idea of taking sides in the antagonisms of celebrity life is one of the more recent examples –  Marina Hyde recently gave a sharp critique of the inclination to ‘self-herd’ in this way after David Cameron professed his allegiance to ‘Team Nigella‘.

Badges can also have a more sinister side, of course.  They can be applied to people to define them as different – inferior, suspect, a legitimate target.  The patches, hats and other distinguishing items and marks that Jews were required by law to wear at times in medieval European states predated the Nazi yellow star by centuries.  In the concentration camps of the Third Reich, extensive systems of insignia defined inmates by their initial ‘crimes’, such as political prisoners, homosexuals and asocials, and also by aggravating factors: a ‘repeat offender’, a flight risk, Jewishness…

Badges can also turn others’ discriminatory labelling into statements of defiance.  The ‘March on Washington’ button badges on sale in the bookstore near the Martin Luther King, Jnr memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC don’t just serve as marks of homage or respect.  They also make a statement about the present day and the as yet incomplete fulfilment of equality of opportunity.  Such badges are also a kind of visual shorthand for a collection of political ideas (not necessarily clearly defined or coherently assembled, or even historically consistent) and invite the viewer to associate the wearer with them (badges on sale at public history sites would make for a very interesting research project – maybe it’s already been done).  We can ‘badge’ ourselves in many different ways too; when Barack Obama took his second oath of office on bibles used by King and by Abraham Lincoln, those books played a similar symbolic role.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

As an aside, an excellent session at the American Historical Association conference explored significant shifts in the design process of the MLK memorial, including the omission of King’s own strident references to race from one of the quotations etched into the inscription wall that encloses the statue of King as the ‘rock of hope’.  A pen was to be in King’s hand as he looked across the water to the Jefferson memorial, pointing to the ‘promissory note’ that the architects of the republic had written ‘to which every American was to fall heir’: a note on which America had defaulted insofar as her citizens of color are concerned’.  A rolled-up scroll is all that survived of this plan.

Credit: Marjory Collins (1943), Library of Congress

Credit: Marjory Collins (1943), Library of Congress

A badge to show a certain defiance, as well as pride, is evident in the display of service flags in American windows to show sons on active military duty.  They emerged in the First World War and were then widely adopted and subject to standardisation and codification – although a blue star for each son (or, now, daughter) in service and a gold star for those who had died have emerged as common practice. The flags have become symbols around which communities can build: Blue Star Mothers and American Gold Star Mothers interestingly accord a special status to the grief and the subsequent activism of mothers (and a proposed monument will give that status material form).

The badges that announce our disciplinary affiliations are, of course, of a different order.  The specialisation that many disciplines underwent in the second half of the twentieth century proliferated sub-fields, and new ones continue to emerge.  We can now be rather specific about our academic identities, should we so wish.  The question is why we would wish to do so – why do we like to label ourselves – and others – within academe?  A certain anxiety could be one reason.  The outgoing AHA President, Kenneth Pomeranz, noted in his recent annual conference lecture, that historians didn’t come to be unified by methodology, as did certain social sciences.  Many historians’ skills are to be found in other fields, albeit not in history’s distinctive combination nor field of application.  Does that mean that we feel the need for badges more than others?  If so, does it matter?

I don’t know the answer to either question.  I guess badges are fine if we use them mindfully.  We need to be aware of how they help – in helping to create a community of enquiry, for example – as well as how they might hinder us.  This concern seems particularly relevant for public history, which can all too easily become the place ‘over there’ where stuff can be placed so it doesn’t interfere with core business: community engagement, student employability, research impact and questions of ‘relevance’.  We need to ask what the price we may pay for public history being identified as a specialism.  The case for a more integrative agenda with ‘academic’ history is, it seems to me, a persuasive one.  I wonder what such a badge for history would look like?

This post was written during a visit to the US.

Connecting research and teaching

One of the academic stereotypes often bandied around is that we only have eyes for our own research – teaching is an irritating and burdensome responsibility.  While there may be some out there with that attitude, my experience so far is that many academics enjoy many aspects of teaching.  They find motivation and reward, even delight, in the various interactions they have with students and the intellectual development that they witness.  Prioritising teaching over research can be a function of the great pressure on time during term, but can also arise from a deep-seated sense of the value of teaching, the privileged position you have as a tutor.

We should read sceptically the claims about the almost osmotic transfer of excellent research into excellent teaching.  All too often, such claims have political audiences in mind; they are conditioned by designs for territorial defence – both in ideological and in financial terms – on the part of the ‘elite’ universities and their representatives and advocates.  That’s not, however, to say that there’s no relationship between what we do in the archives (or the lab) and what we do in the classroom.

Revisiting my notes on the nineteenth-century Jewish periodical I studied for my Master’s research over a decade ago has been a bit of a revelation.  I have found delight in rediscovering the material and thinking about what I could do with it now (a couple of articles on Jewish citizenship and Romantically-influenced concepts of the role of religion in the state are taking shape).  Developing a proposal with a colleague  for a project on the architecture and public history of parliament buildings has been energising and exciting.

If that delight in, that energy for doing history ‘shows up’ when you teach, irresistably bubbling up to the surface, surely that’s a valuable connection for students?  So, as we teach, we’re also modelling being historians of different kinds, and encouraging our students to join in the ongoing conversation about the past, its interpretations and meanings.  I hope that my own sense of engagement with being a historian ‘shows up’ and that I can help my students find similar excitement in aspects of their studies.  Whatever course each student’s life ends up taking, knowing what intellectual excitement feels like, being able to look for it and recognise it when you find it, is surely an asset.

Being a researcher doesn’t automatically make you a better teacher.  There are teachers who communicate delight and enthusiasm for their subject without being actively engaged in research.  Where academics are doing both, we should offer more nuanced understandings of the connections and flows between research and teaching – in both directions.