(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.

Independent learning or isolated learning? Squaring the student satisfaction circle

Our Dean of Students was telling me today about a presentation he recently gave, in which he highlighted views expressed by students on what ‘independent learning’ meant.  They essentially said that it meant ‘learning on my own’.  The sense is of an ‘absence’ or ‘lack’ – so independent learning is the same thing that happens in a seminar, lecture or tutorial, just without the support that such contexts provide.  Independence seems to mean isolation, not autonomy.

In the humanities, we emphasise the importance of independent study.  It’s part of learning and practising our disciplines.  It develops skills that we describe to students as valuable for their future lives: defining a problem or question, pursuing a line of enquiry, synthesising evidence, critiquing others’ interpretations, constructing an argument.  The products of such a process – still often essays – provide the raw materials for assessing students’ academic achievement.  Far from being a deficit model, independence is part of being intellectually resourceful and productive (which can be brought to bear not just in individual but also in collaborative work).

The apparent disjuncture between the student and the academic understanding of ‘independent learning’ could be a real issue, not least in terms of students’ capacity to develop that ‘graduateness’ that seems to be associated with an ability to be reflective and to take responsibility and ownership for learning.

Recent UH graduates Lewis Stockwell and Florence Afolabi’s reflections in their recent post on the Guardian learning and teaching hub on collaborative/partnership vs consumerist/transmission models of HE delivery seem relevant here.  In a context where student satisfaction stands as the main indicator of ‘quality’, the belief that they’re just being ‘left on their own’ is a potentially damaging one.  Maybe it’s akin to the perennial issue with feedback.  Do we need to invest more in explaining what independent study actually is, what it looks and feels like, its dead ends and u-turns as well as its moments of insight and discovery – and, importantly, its place at the heart of academic practice?  Or is something more fundamental involved?  Can we square the circle and remodel and describe independent study in a way that enables students to develop academic initiative and independence and allows them to feel supported (and, yes, satisfied) in doing so?

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?

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.

Policy advice in higher education: a historical pathway?

At university, I remember being faintly jealous of fellow students who had a clear sense of the path ahead (a medic and a lawyer being among my housemates).  Even if they weren’t sure of where they’d specialise, they knew there was a thing called medicine or law, and that they’d find their places in time.

It’s far less easy as a student to identify a ‘thing’ called history outside the confines of study, much less imagine all other other things that touch on, connect with or are enlivened by history.  (I hope to help my students do such imagining but that’s for another post).  So like a lot of graduates, it took me some time to find a path I wanted to follow, which mainly involved taking opportunities as they arose.

Policy advisers have been around for a long time in different guises but are relatively new in universities.  As a result, I wonder if they attract those, like me, who didn’t have a ‘thing’ but rather fell into the role with a commitment to higher education and a bundle of skills, experience and interests we hoped would be of use.  Many universities now have someone in a policy-related role and it’s great that a network has now been formed under the auspices of Universities UK to allow the members of a new profession to connect.  (I try to resist the term ‘wonks’ as embraced by Mark Leach of Wonk-HE in the Times Higher but have unfortunately failed to come up with a neat and catchy substitute as yet).

Maybe as roles develop and become established in university structures and advisers gain some profile in their own right, students will be able to identify them as part of a new career path, a new ‘thing’ to work towards.  Placements and internships can play an important role here but there’s also some advocacy to be done here.  Occupying as I do a strange world between the professional and the academic domains, I hope to be a double agent: exposing students to policy work as something that’ll make good use of their historian’s skills and then bringing them into my team for some practical experience.

In a 1984 Public Historian article, Avner Offer calls on historians to ‘stimulate demand; supply will then take care of itself’.  Policy advisers (wonks, historians or otherwise) could usefully adopt the same mantra.  Stimulate demand, from students, from universities, from government and stakeholder organisations, and we too will have a clear path ahead, and a ‘thing’.