Tooling Up: Public History in the University Curriculum

My latest blog for Public History Weekly was inspired by meeting around 30 Essex applicants for group interviews earlier this year, all with their own reasons for wanting to study history and a truly diverse range of historical interests. None of them used the term, but every single one gave voice to ideas that are, for me, right at the heart of public history. They wanted tools to think with, to help them understand and navigate the world of the present and future – and they were clear that one of the toolkits they needed was historianship.

So much for the notion that the sciences are somehow ‘essential’ for society, the arts and humanities merely ornamental, an indulgence. They may be told that (including by parents and teachers, to whom they are sometimes having to justify their choice of A-level and degree subjects), but they don’t believe it.

That’s what got me thinking about that thorny topic of student ‘demand’ and whether we, as educators, are really open to engaging with it. Of course, there are demands we want to challenge and refuse. We want our students to discover hidden, unexpected and disruptive histories, even if they also follow the odd well-trodden path.

What these students said suggested to me that they don’t distinguish between studying history in a conventional sense and acquiring a historical toolkit. If it’s us educators who are hiving off ‘public history’ into bolt-on modules, placements and employability – and not seeing the exciting intellectual potential of integrating it into the ‘mainstream’ curriculum – then maybe we’re the problem. Sometimes, demands aren’t unreasonable.

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Public history is making its presence felt in university history departments. Sometimes, it has a genuine champion among the academic staff. At others, it’s the response to demands from senior management that history degrees be made “relevant” to the wider world, and graduates more employable for an uncertain labour market. So, create a course about history presented on screen, in museums and at heritage sites. Add a placement option and match teams of students to community groups to undertake small projects. But is this approach doing our students justice? What happens if we flip the model and, rather than just creating new offerings labelled “public history”, we also look for opportunities to bring its critical eye to the “mainstream” curriculum?

Carry on reading at: Tooling Up: Public History in the University Curriculum – Public History Weekly – The International Blogjournal

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Post-Brexit, we must make the case for scholarship, not just science…

Exit
Credit: Billy Frank

The vast majority of UK academics supported Remain.  The free movement of ideas and people is vital to what we do.  EU colleagues have brought expertise, students fresh perspectives, and, of course, the UK benefitted disproportionately from EU funding programmes.  Despite this near unanimity, there is a divide in UK academe that I fear Brexit will only sharpen.

Throughout the pre-referendum ferment and into the frankly frightening aftermath, I was one of many non-scientists who followed Scientists for EU.  It’s a great initiative – probably the most active and visible academic campaign.  Everyone knows (or at least says) science matters, right?  It’s easy for a campaigner on the doorstep, or a Minister on TV to talk the talk of celebrating UK science and the need to protect investment, if only as some kind of marker of international prestige when few others come to mind (whether they walk the walk is, of course, another thing…)

The problem is – and this is no criticism of Scientists for EU – that it’s not just science at stake here.  Of the ten most vulnerable subjects to EU research funding, six fall outside the STEM designation.  Beyond money, there’s an intellectual case too.  The lone scholar in the humanities is a prevalent but only a partial picture – and a potentially damaging one.  All disciplines thrive on collaboration and conversation, even if (and even when) our labour is often solitary.  Sustaining a meaningful, productive community of enquiry in the humanities means people meeting, talking, sharing, debating and generally pushing against the boundaries of what we think we know.  Scholarship is always a collective endeavour.  There is more we have in common within academe than divides us along disciplinary boundaries.

But leaving both those arguments aside, perhaps the most powerful case from a policy perspective for dealing with scholarship rather than just science is that, when it comes to solving problems, it’s the mix that matters.  In the UK, we’re just starting to think about how to deal with one of the most complex, divisive and unstable set of social, economic and political problems.  Whatever the toxic views that were peddled about experts in the lead-up to the referendum, we should surely be drawing on all the cognitive resources we can possibly access as we tackle its consequences.  That includes the humanities.  In my recent book, I argue that ‘policy is multi-dimensional, messy, uncertain, ambigious, shifting and contested because so too are the human beliefs, commitments, decisions and interactions at the core of the exercise of power.’  The humanities give us insights into and purchase on the inescapably human dimensions of life – including constitutional crises…

It worries me that in a context where STEM subjects are perceived as the only useful forms of knowledge, science becomes a proxy for the total research base as the impact of Brexit is evaluated and policy responses formulated.  There is an opportunity now for advocacy groups such as Scientists for EU to defend science not just in its own terms, but also as part of a broader collaborative effort to make the case for scholarship and evidence in the broadest sense (even if people in this country had indeed ‘had enough of experts‘ before the vote, they seem to be grasping for expertise now).  And it should be in scientists’ interests that the UK maintains a vibrant mix of intellectual activity.  Dynamic trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary work relies on active, sustainable, ambitious and confident disciplinary cultures.

This agenda also means historians, philosophers and linguists (i.e. all of us humanists) being willing to engage with greater commitment, and to take a platform in the way Scientists for EU have done.  My sense is we have much to learn from the ways they used social media to take an active role in public debate, including tweeting and vlogging on Facebook and Youtube.  We too need to be open to pressing not just for the value of our own fields, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of enquiry and expertise.

No policy issue is ever purely technical and no one discipline can ever produce all the answers.  As scholars, we need to see science, social science and the arts and humanities as complementary forms of knowledge rather than as competing in some zero-sum policy and funding game.  Advocacy groups have a core purpose in their own domain, but that shouldn’t preclude some timely and targeted joint efforts.  It’s both/and rather than either/or.  Surely now of all moments we should be making common cause?

Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

My latest contribution to Public History Weekly, a playful (and rather tenuous) appropriation of Star Wars metaphors to make a point about the tendency to create artificial and insidious binaries: academic/public, rigour/relevance, pure/applied.  Historians are used to working ‘in many shades of grey that blend, merge and overlap to produce complex and provisional multi-tonal pictures’.  So let’s resist caricaturing ‘relevance’ as the Dark Side and define it with integrity and honesty for ourselves…

Please read and comment at: Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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History as a resource for the future?

Selling history to policymakers is a challenge, particularly in a political culture that prizes numbers above all else.  As historians, we can pitch the relevance of our work in a number of ways: writing policy papers (and blogs), speaking on platforms provided by the media and by political parties, collaborating with think tanks, responding to consultations, among others.  The the ‘temptation to assert the importance of one’s discipline to the making of “better” policy’ is hard to resist’ [1].  But however cogently we press our case for relevance, there’s a limit to how effective we can be in influencing policymaking – as long as we’re still ‘pitching’ from the outside.
Historians need to be more than purveyors of the past.  We can provide judiciously assembled and intellectually stimulating accounts of policy challenges encountered and addressed (or not) that shed light on the dilemmas of the present.  But our reach will be limited unless we can show that history offers not just access to the past but fresh ways of seeing.  Thinking historically means inspecting our assumptions about how issues are connected and what options are open to us.  It invites us to consider how we frame our questions and approach our responses to them.  Doing so means working as an insider.
But we seem unable or unwilling to dislodge the belief that history is just ‘stuff’: the litany of names and dates assumed to be the field’s contribution to human knowledge.  Nor have we generally been inclined to give up the privileges of the academic outsider: to be able to inform, critique and admonish without having to be involved in the messy and complex negotiations involved in policymaking.
By responding to the Public Administration Select Committee’s inquiry into civil service skills, History and Policy provides a welcome challenge to ‘history as stuff’.  History as a resource for the future highlights how well the network’s activities inside Whitehall have been received (‘engaging’ and ‘enjoyable’ are notable judgements on the part of senior officials).  A potential collaboration with Civil Service Learning sounds promising, as it points to the potential for embedding history in the training and professional development of officials.  There is a good case to restore a ‘history core’ to civil service training.  As the response states, it may help attune officials to the importance of context, enable the more informed use of comparison, and encourage them to turn routinely to historical materials as they brief, advise and inform.
The response is spot on in highlighting the importance of historical skills.  Developing proficiency and confidence in primary source search and analysis should help extend the range of material on which officials can draw.
But historical skills can do more than make ‘substantive historical content’ available to policymakers.
The risk is that historical skills are only deployed when historical ‘content’ is deemed relevant: often in the preliminary phases of policy formulation, when the scope of background research is fairly open.  History can easily just be historical perspective: an interesting and thought-provoking look backwards.  It’s illuminating but not influential.
That’s what sounds alarm bells for me in the warm and enthusiastic comments of the senior officials quoted in the consultation response.  History fascinates, it engages the intellect and the imagination.  A concern to ‘capture’ the learning from the workshops, to share it more widely and to ‘create opportunities for civil servants to collaborate more closely with historians in relevant fields’ is commendable, and a real testament to History and Policy’s work.
But, like professional development courses more generally, it’s a challenge to translate them from the seminar room into the office.  Even the best and most stimulating can probably only kick off a process of reflection and change in our practice.  When the historians have gone back to their universities and the officials to their departments, what next?
We need organisations to bridge between academe and policy, but we also need historians on the inside.  Secondments and exchanges should be valued within an academic career, and historians should be sought-after experts for teams making, reviewing and implementing policy.  History is not just a repository of ‘stuff’, a lost property office whose doors are opened every so often for the fleeting intellectual engagement that exploration offers.  History is indeed a resource for the future, but we need to explain how – and then show how.

[1] Sylvia K. Kraemer, “Policy Advisors: Historians and Making Policy,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, ed. James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 2004), pp. 218-9.