Public history and public policy: A view from across the pond

A re-blog of my recent post on the National Council on Public History’s Public History Commons, History@Work (comments welcome – please add to the original):

Looking from across the pond, the maturity and scale of public history as a discipline and a sector in the US is a striking phenomenon.  The narrative is well-established: the crisis in the academic job market; the emergence of new contexts for historical employment, in preservation, education and regeneration; the entrepreneurship of universities in structuring the supply of skilled professionals through new programmes emphasising workplace skills and experience.

The story is of course rather longer and more complex, nuanced and interesting than this, as I discovered during my comparative research on public history in different national settings.  In the UK, the contrast could not be more marked. The academic discipline here has also experienced periods of contraction and pressure.  But we have not seen the ‘push’ factor from higher education in terms of imagining (and foregrounding) the many pathways a historical education could lead to (and hence also what historical education could mean).  Nor is there much evidence of the ‘pull’ factor from employment markets such as government or business for historically-oriented roles.

The absence of such drivers for development and innovation is, I think, one element of the explanation for why public history in the UK remains rather tentative, even marginal, gaining some traction only in a few universities and remaining preoccupied with a narrower agenda than the American field.  Apart from a small number of pioneering MA courses, public history tends to be represented only by a single module in a ‘mainstream’ history programme.

One of the connections we have largely missed in the UK – to our detriment – is that between history and policy.  And here the US example is illuminating.   There have been some attempts to inform policy making–most notably the History and Policy network, which has done vital work in putting the cause of better public policy on the historian’s radar and raising the profile of the study of the past with politicians and the media.  These efforts have not, however, been located within a broader public history field.  One consequence of this, it seems to me, is that such efforts draw on the methodological models of academic history rather than seeking to create user-oriented and collaborative alternatives.

The importance of such alternatives is persuasively put by Duncan Macrae, Jnr and Dale Wittington in their 1997 work on expert advice for policy choice.  As few policy problems can be addressed by one expert community alone, cooperation and division of labour across disciplinary boundaries is needed to equip the decision-maker with the best possible advice. Communication must run, they argue, not only between experts but also between experts and users – and in both directions.  Macrae and Whittington draw attention to the benefits of having instruction in public policy analysis built into training in the basic disciplines, so that graduates are able to translate their specialism into salient policy advice (whatever the context they may work in).  History is only given a passing reference, but the work has much to offer the wandering public historian with an interest in policy.

I hope that as the academic history community in the UK develops its undergraduate and graduate programmes in public history, we will be open to such possibilities.  There is much we can learn from the US in this regard.  We should also take note of how early in the development of the professional discipline a sense of the importance of historians’ contribution to democratic institutions and processes emerged (for example, Benjamin Shambaugh’s School of Iowa Research Historians).

I am very much looking forward to hearing Shambaugh’s biographer and former NCPH President, Professor Rebecca Conard, speak at this year’s Higher Education Academy conference on Teaching History in Higher Education.  Public History can and should be so much more than museums and archives, heritage and commemoration, important as those dimensions are.  It is, in Alfred J. Andrea’s words, the application of ‘the dimension of historical time in helping to meet the practical and intellectual needs of society at large’.  And that is a definition worth aspiring to.

Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.