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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“Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t”: public history and the political present

If ever we need historians, it’s now.

Niall Ferguson has recently urged the President to convene a Council of Historians for the ‘United States of Amnesia’. It seems unlikely that Trump would be interested in understanding the past – ever the assertive businessman, he insisted on Twitter he calls his own shots – or that any historical perspective would survive the ‘alternative facts’ treatment.

Historians may find the current political climate frankly pretty scary. In November, three judges ruled that the British Prime Minister needed Parliament’s support to begin the process of leaving the EU – and were duly accused of being ‘enemies of the people’ on the Daily Mail front page. The historical alarm bells were deafening.

On the other hand, the ignorance of and hostility to history around at the moment can be a galvanising force. The social historian George Gosling (@gcgosling) posted the photo below of a protest placard in Birmingham. As someone interested in the potential of public history as activism, this was an encouraging moment in the midst of widely felt distress and anger.

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‘Our history teachers readied us for this dumb sh*t’. @J_C_Graney_Art‘s placard at protest against US travel ban, Birmingham. Via @gcgosling

So, for me, finding the ‘public’ in public history is no longer just intellectually interesting but politically pressing. What I mean is that public history can’t just be popular history. It has to also be about giving people – the public – historical resources to think with. History with public purpose if you like.

The idea that history was key to sound political judgement – that history and politics belong to one another – is as old as the discipline itself. But historians in the UK have only really been engaging seriously with policymakers in the last ten years or so, led by the efforts of History and Policy. Public history, however, has never really claimed this territory as its own, wary perhaps of ceding the more politically conducive ground of history-from-below informed collaborative projects with local institutions and community heritage groups.

We don’t have the luxury of that choice any more. My latest post for the international blog-journal Public History Weekly  makes the case:

In a world in which the “voice of the people” is being celebrated by populist politicians in defence of often xenophobic nativist agendas, we need to revisit what the “public” in “public history” means. While popular engagement with the past may always provide orientation for the field, a truly public history must also be concerned with the political present. If we don’t give people access to intellectual resources of our discipline, we cannot then lament the use and abuse of history in public debate. Let’s unpick our terms.

Read on here: Keywording the Field: From Popular to Public History? – Public History Weekly

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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