What should a public historian do with 3 hours in Paris?

A quick Google search will yield plenty of advice for travellers on a tight timescale (for example the Independent’s ’48 hours’ series).  You can be guided through the unmissable sights as well as pointed to some gems off the tourist trail.

Public historians are probably more likely than most to seek to make use of little parcels of time in a new place as busman’s holidays.  So with 3 hours in Paris in August, I’m hoping that the wonder of the web will allow me to gather the ideas of fellow travellers, public historians or otherwise.

So what are the unmissable stops and the hidden gems for public history in Paris?  Which places or experiences capture something important or striking about the way history is put to use, presented, represented or explored, in French public life?  Which offer a counterpoint to our understandings of public history/history in public in the UK or US?

Please do leave your comments here and I’ll use the blog to discuss my planning as well as to report back. Someone may already have got there, but, if not, would there be a market for an online space for public historians (broadly and inclusively defined) to share their tips for “trade tourism”?

We must continue to try to understand the policy process…

…we must continue to try to understand the policy process – however irrational or uncontrollable it may seem to be – as a crucial first step towards trying to secure effective policy making.

The imperative for constructive engagement put succinctly by Michael Hill in The Public Policy Process, 5th Ed (2009).  It’s much easier to say what you’re against than to try to be part of the process – with all the risks that entails.

History ventures: skills vs knowledge in the public history marketplace

“The skills of doing history are more frequently used, needed, and recompensed than the expertise of knowing history”

This is Darlene Roth, writing in the NCPH’s Public History News.  Roth goes on to talk about the successful model of ‘developmental history’ work her consultancy The History Group undertook for planners, developers and government agencies.  She also refers to corporate histories and museum curation.  These examples open our eyes to the range of tasks and projects that can done well – or best – by historians, whether academics working ‘across borders’ or the historically-trained working in professional contexts.

But for me it also suggests the need to open our minds.  Can we articulate clearly what ‘the skills of doing history’ are and be creative in identifying tasks that are not necessarily explicitly historical in character but would be done well – or best – by historians?  There are fields where there is often a ‘history gap’, such as in policy development, marketing or organisational strategy, but these should not constitute the limits of our imagination.

Working this out is not just a self-serving exercise.  Humanities applications for the first year of the new funding system are down in many institutions.  It’s too early to say whether concerns about employability in the context of higher debt are a major factor, but it’s a strong possibility – particularly for certain student groups – that we need to consider (league tables of salaries are rather unhelpful here).  More needs to be done to ensure prospective students and their parents understand the student finance system, but  universities have a role too, and not just their recruitment and marketing departments.  Open days and school visits are important opportunities for university staff to meet students and parents and discuss what studying a particular subject at a particular institution is like.  If, as historians, we can share with them the many ways in which the skills of doing history can be meaningfully and usefully applied in the world of work, and our commitment to helping students develop those skills, we can start to counteract the belief that a humanities degree ‘just equips them for standing in the dole queue’ (as one Tweeter said to me recently).

Students come to university for many reasons.  To further their job prospects may only be one reason, but it’s a legitimate one, and one with which we need to engage.  We shouldn’t give in to the cynicism that divides knowledge and skills and denigrates the latter as empty, instrumental or devalued.  Nor should we section off ’employability skills’ in the curriculum; by teaching students to be historians, we are developing skills needed for work – we just need to bring awareness of that connection to the surface (see my earlier Parallel Tracks blog post).  I hope the emerging field of public history can provide a context to help us frame the terms of the debate rather differently.

Roth goes on:

I am saying that it pays to look at how you do what you do as a historian, and how you think as a historian, and follow those routes to marketability, not just the standard one of equating historical knowledge as the thing being sold.  Ergo: “I am an entrepreneur, and history is my product” becomes “I am an entrepreneur and history is the source of my products”… If history is the answer, what is the question?  Who needs it and why?

We may prefer a somewhat different language in this country, but I think we can take on the idea of entrepreneurship and interpret it for our own context.  Can we be entrepreneurs for the discipline, for the practice of history, but also for our students so that they can see history as their future?

The need for a hybrid policy-academic idiom

Martin McQuillan, Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, posted an interesting review of the new Stefan Collini book What are universities for? on WonkHE recently.  The review itself is worth a read but I was particularly interested in his concluding comments:

Equally, and as a matter of urgency, we need to develop a productive, hybrid idiom in which policy can accommodate awareness of its own history and analytical self-reflection, while critical academic writing can direct its intelligence towards the task of addressing the pressing political (practical) questions of today that will otherwise be left to the think tanks and the policy wonks.  The choice cannot only be between ‘HEFCE-speak’ or ‘Collini-ism’; another conversation must evolve if the idea and practice of the university is to have a chance in the future.

I think he’s hit a number of nails on the head (not least the one about the need for historical awareness in policy development – though that could also be developed in university management too).  Perhaps the most important point he makes though is about current absence of a ‘productive, hybrid idiom’ in which to discuss higher education.  Votes of no confidence in the Minister, dire warnings of the end of days, even despondent head-shakings in corridor conversations further disengage and distance academe from policy.

We cannot afford for the message received in Westminster and Whitehall of an unreasonable and unresponsive sector to be consistently reinforced (however unjustified that might be).  Language matters, as Prof. McQuillan recognises.  It conveys our motives and intentions, our commitments and our parameters.  There is a legitimate dialogue to be had about the future of higher education (though the exchange between academe and policy should range much further – universities have much to offer every area of policy from transport to justice) but we need a shared language.  Maybe that should be our ‘grand challenge’?

NB: That is not to say that there aren’t entirely genuine and justifiable concerns about the government’s current programme of reform, but we need to be part of the policy development process if we want to shape it.

As an aside, I think ‘policy wonks’ (I’m blaming Mark Leach for the traction that term seems to have achieved!) at least those inside universities, could be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem.  As long as they are engaged with the core activities of the institution, they are well-placed to act as brokers, mediators or translators between universities and policymakers.  This could be by having a hybrid role combining policy with other responsibilities, whether professional or academic, or by structuring their work to ensure regular contact, particularly with Schools or Faculties.  Secondments between university and government policy functions would enhance their ability to operate in and between the two worlds (as well as helping their inhabitants to be bilingual).

What are the success factors for public historians?

On the NCPH’s new public history commons, History@Work, Darlene Roth posted a blog about identifying what success looks like for public history, a debate as interesting in a US context, where educational and career pathways are well-established, as it is for a UK field still seeking to define its parameters and priorities.  In a thought-provoking two-part post*, Dr Roth goes on to lay out 7 areas, or scenarios, where public history is distinctive from its academic counterpart.  I’d be interested to hear from public historians in the UK (and indeed in other countries) whether they recognise descriptions or whether the points of departure are to be found elsewhere.

Reading the post, the introductory comments seemed to me as illuminating as the scenarios themselves.  She starts:

Each paragraph below presents a common public history work scenario that differs – a little or a lot – from traditional academy-based work.  I am looking for comments, suggestions, alternative ideas, and specific examples of what is described.   This was written as a centerpiece for a work session planned for the 2012 annual meeting, but is a topic that deserves widest possible exposure.  It is being cross-posted on the H-Public listserv and I invite comments either here on the blog or on the list.

These remarks serve not only as a preamble.  For me, they also encapsulate the character and spirit of public history, which is (as she goes on to point out) often a group effort, with historians working alongside, for and in close collaboration with many others.  As a result, maybe discussions such as this happen more frequently among public historians than within the ‘mainstream’ academy?  When they do, do they draw in more participants in more animated exchanges?  Can this same vibrancy of debate be created in the UK, where public history is still (mostly) approached tentatively and seems to preoccupy itself with heritage rather than testing its own boundaries (for example, into what Dr Roth refers to as ‘public service’)?

Of the seven areas she describes, perhaps the most intellectually interesting from my perspective was concerned with process:

Process is as important to public history as findings are. Usually public historians are working in areas that are in some way unprecedented.  Often enough, public historians are tracking historical records and creating new chronicles of activity for purposes of documentation or correcting the existing record.  More often, though, they are looking at things that have not yet been “storied;” they are dealing with objects, events, places, and persons, that are only now being considered “historic,” or they are being asked to evaluate the historicity of something that might seem anomalous (to others).  What the historian does in these instances, as well as how they do their work, and how the historian conceives the thing to be, are every bit as important as what they find.  In fact, these are instrumental to the findings.  It is therefore essential in public history to share procedural matters as much as it is to share findings.  Yet these are often classified as secondary tools of the practice and therefore do not feed into the traditional success model as much as they almost have to in public history formats.  Articles in The Public Historian, for example, have made it clear over the years, that HOW work is done in public history is as important to know as WHAT work is done…

In this respect, public historians have an obligation to their field, to their peers (both in public and in ‘academic’ history) and to their collaborators and audiences, to be transparent about the processes of their work.  Such clarity helps to define and advance practice and method.  My research is looking at another dimension to the importance of process, so I’ll be interested to see responses to Dr Roth’s comments.  Would a shift in focus from the provision of historical ‘content’ or insight to the inclusion of the process of historical thinking be a more effective way of bringing historical perspective to activities such as policy development and strategy-making?

*At the time of writing, the second part had not been published on the blog, but only sent by email.

What would you teach if you could teach anything?

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, who teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, posed this question today.  Here is an extract from her answer:

I want students to step into the past with me and embrace its unexpected lessons. I don’t care who begat whom among the high or low born. I like to pass among the ghosts and see the world through their eyes to the extent I can. When that happens as I read a poignant diary entry or detailed newspaper description, the veil of eternity lifts. I want to share that…

So many men, women, and children flit though my mental landscape from Portland to Pune all while I realise that I’ve missed millions more who could shed light on the delights and dilemmas of the human condition. If I could do anything and teach anything, I would visit them all with students in tow. I just need that machine….

I’d be interested to know what others think.  For me, it’d be about making students feel full of sheer intellectual power of history: the potential of their historians’ minds to take statements and positions apart; inspect the evidence; analyse the claims and the associations made; stretch their thinking diachronically and synchronically; expose, challenge and reframe.  And then to consider how that power could be put to use not just in the service of historical knowledge and understanding, but in many other contexts.

The Public Philosopher comes to town

The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’.  Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian.  But would it ever happen?

Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific).  So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue.  But what about the academic side of things?  Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)?  Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?