One thing I’ve noticed in working on my book* is that blogging work has quickly fallen down the agenda. Time is a major factor, but it’s not the only one. The problem has also switching registers from writing something relatively well-developed and formal to a thinking ‘out loud’ and working through ideas in their formative stages. Both types of writing are, or should be, conversational, in that you’re engaging with your imagined audiences and considering how they might respond. But I’ve tended to see them as calling on a different frames of mind – keeping both going has been hard.
This led me to think about the skills involved. Tutors are increasingly setting new forms of writing as assessment alongside the essay: commentaries, policy papers, blogs, briefing notes, journalism, exhibition guides, for example. This is routine for public history modules, but certainly not confined to them. The rationale for these assignments is often presented in terms of transferable skills. Students, few of whom will go on to be academic historians, will need to be able to write skilfully for different purposes and in different contexts (or so the narrative goes).
So far, so neat: ‘proper’ academic history writing, represented by the essay and dissertation, on the one hand, ‘new’ writing tasks, for the life after history, on the other. But does this division hold up?
Research networks can start on Twitter as people find others with complementary interests; the power of the retweet to bridge several degrees of separation is remarkable. Conference discussions can be already well underway before the opening plenary through blog platforms that promote the central themes and questions. The newspaper article finds future advocates and collaborators in different fields.
All of these kinds of writing can contribute to scholarship: not the self-conscious attempt at ‘public engagement’ or ‘impact’, but the kind that takes an innovative and ambitious view of the whole process of ‘doing history’. My brilliant former colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, Dr Ciara Meehan and Dr Jennifer Evans, demonstrated this well with the Perceptions of Pregnancy conference, now an international research network. Public History Weekly, backed by the German publishing house, Oldenbourg Verlag, is blending academic journal, blog and research network. The first conference of the core authors from around the world is being held in Basel later this year.
Calling the skills involved ‘transferable’ is a problem for at least two reasons. It suggests to students and to academics that these skills are, at best, marginal to the discipline and to the real business of being a historian. It’s also misleading, and underplays the extent to which historians call on a whole range of skills, insights, understandings, experiences and reference points during their work, often unconsciously. We need all kinds of writing – not because (or not just because) we think we ought to be ‘out there’, but because we can do challenging, intellectually stimulating history in ways and with people we wouldn’t otherwise.
So perhaps rather than keeping a judicious distance between the book and the blog, can we let them occupy a shared space? Maybe they’re best seen as different features on the same landscape – allowing us to map out the terrain and describe the routes between them, not just for ourselves, but also for our students, readers and collaborators.
* For those who are interested, it’s due out later this year as a Palgrave Pivot, provisionally entitled Historians on the inside: talking history in the corridors of power