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.

Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?


In what might be the finest opening gambit for a paper on public history, Rebecca Conard – in this morning’s session at the NCPH annual conference in Ottawa – introduced us to the concept of the historiographical joke (just the mention of which was enough to elicit laughs).

This is the joke she introduced us to.  Funny for insiders but pointing, like a lot of good jokes, to something more substantive. If this is what history looks like, how can we ever make sense of it for outsiders?

Originally posted on The Dispersal of Darwin:

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative…

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The PhD thesis: the five things that made a difference to me


I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis (I can’t actually believe it).  This doesn’t really entitle me to start dispensing advice, but here are five things that, right now, I think made a difference.

1. Be open-minded and sceptical at the same time

Scholarly material isn’t infallible.  Wikipedia is sometimes revelatory.  I read a recently-published textbook that said public historians were ‘promiscuous’ with their sources.  Which is rather revealing of the authors’ view on public history.  I would rather say I’ve been eclectic, but I guess promiscuous will do.  Anyway, it can pay to be willing to look for evidence almost anywhere – as long as you ‘read’ it with a sceptical eye, wherever it comes from.

Sometimes you can find things in unexpected places.  Only a week before I submitted, I worked out (from Wikipedia) that Charles Clarke – he of the dismissive comments about ornamental medieval historians - was the son of Richard Clarke, the senior Treasury official who’d been a major advocate for the experiment of “funding experience” in the 1950s and 1960s (basically, using history to improve policymaking).  OK, it was only a footnote, but an interesting one in the context of my comments on changing political culture and attitudes towards history.

I’ve been told, in a research student training course, that only journal articles and academic books “count”.  Be confident enough to more promiscuous – just take the necessary precautions.

2. Invest in your references

EndNote is great (other reference management packages are available).  Importing direct from the British Library or JSTOR is rather satisfying, in geeky kind of way.  But you can store up a whole load of work if you don’t check (and refine) as you go.  Are there transcription errors?  What conventions are you going to use for footnoting and bibliography?  (Because publishers have very different practices).

You don’t want – believe me – to be editing hundreds of individual records for consistency just before submission…

3. Structure early, restructure as you go

One of the best things my supervisor did was get me to get chapter headings and sub-headings down early.  They changed as the research progressed, but probably only went through three iterations.  They kept me, my reading, thinking and writing, focused and coherent (mostly).

It may have been particularly helpful as a part-time student, who could only write in blocks of a week or so, often months apart.  I could, within a couple of hours of being back at my desk, locate myself again in the overall project – and pick up the thematic threads connecting the chapters.

Formulating chapter headings can be daunting.  It feels like a big commitment.  I’m not sure what the best analogy would be – a scaffolding system maybe, which allows you to build your thesis soundly behind it, move between sections and stand on different levels to work on and view the edifice.  However you see it, it does, I think, bring a certain discipline that helps you move between the big picture and the detail.

4. Write – almost anything

I’m sure every student gets this advice, and I’ve certainly dished it out.  But it does genuinely help.  The first thing I wrote, to write anything, was a ramble about some issues that interested me.  I still have it.  It’s called ‘rabbis, Romanticism and Seeley’ and is essentially me thinking about the (admittedly unlikely) connections between a Master’s on Prussian rabbis in the 1840s and doctoral research on using history in public policy.  God only knows what my supervisors thought…

‘The religious reformers of Wissenschaft des Judentums,’ I wrote, ‘took on the roles of archaeologists and historians to enable them to be architects. The past, present and future were essentially linked for them. This perspective on time i.e. that it must be viewed as a continuum and that the viewing is purposeful, is another area to consider. Seeley expresses similar idea in the Expansion of England, 1883…’  I wrote that just over 2 years ago, and the ‘stream of time’ became one of the central concepts.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying – writing’s rarely wasted.  It may only get you writing: not a bad thing at all.  But it may also take you somewhere.

5. Be grateful

Just as a final note – doing a PhD is a very personal experience.  But other people often have a major role.  Supervisors, of course, but also parents, partners, friends, children…  I couldn’t have done my PhD without my husband being willing to pick up the slack in all kinds of ways and my Mum’s advice (not to mention keen historian’s mind).

It’s easy to get wrapped up the enormity of what you’re doing, and, to an extent, you have to.  But it does help things along to acknowledge from time to time what others do to enable you to pursue PhD research.  I’m not sure I was always successful on that front, but I tried.  You know who you are – so you can always come chase me for a drink/Lindt bunny/flowers/other reward of choice…

No doubt once I’ve got over the initial post-submission high, rather more sober and considered thoughts on the experience of doing a PhD will come to mind.  Maybe the June viva will put paid to my sense of having any thoughts worth sharing at all.  But for now, these are the things that feel like they made a difference for me being here now.  I hope they are of help to someone.

(Teaching) history in the news

michael-gove-007I had an interesting exchange with Robert Gordon VC, prolific Tweeter and blogger, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, over a post he put up about students’ apparent lack of awareness of a major news story: the French intervention in Mali.  I mentioned that at the start of every workshop with my third year Public History class, the students bring along and present examples of ‘history in the news’ for discussion.

Having filled a whiteboard with all the many ways in which the past is present in the present, the students have found an impressive array of material.  Royal and papal stories were easily idenitifiable.  But they also started to tune into the role of anniversaries, and the calls for commemoration that often accompany them (such as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 3rd March 1943), and to pick up on international news (such as the burning of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu) and on history in politics (Michael Gove’s curriculum reform efforts providing a particularly rich seam). 

The students quickly developed a capacity to read the news like historians, rather than consuming it.  They already had the skills to do so, it’s just that they weren’t necessarily being exercised.  Maybe ‘historianship’ was compartmentalised in their minds, something you only access when writing an essay.  Doing public history has, I hope, given them a sense that historianship can be a habitual practice, a mode of thinking that can shape how they see and interact with the world.

‘History in the news’ generates some of the liveliest discussions – maybe because in a sense the students ‘own’ that part of the class.  Having three exchange students has been particularly interesting and has made us all aware of the extent to which our referents and understandings are conditioned by context (and rarely inspected).  Explaining Remembrance Day, Bonfire Night or the Battle of Britain (or indeed, Australia’s Sorry Day or Martin Luther King Day in the United States) has also helped us really get at some of the key issues in the scholarly literature.

‘History in the news’ is only one way of doing it, but making that connection in public history teaching between history as a scholarly activity and history as a mode of thinking and viewing seems to me a priority.  Even if students never end up working in history, they can always be thinking with it.