“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

Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future

I first pitched my forthcoming book, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government as a full-length monograph in the standard post-PhD manner.It was Jen McCall (now Global Head of Humanities, Scholarly Division and Publisher, Theatre & Performance at Palgrave Macmillan) who suggested I rework the proposal as a Pivot.  Having resolved initial (and unfounded) anxieties about REF-ability and appeal for the job market, I took on the challenge.

Jen’s discussion of the Pivot format, reblogged here, explains Palgrave’s rationale for the short-form monograph.  I would certainly agree about the benefits of a fast, efficient process for getting timely scholarship ‘out there’.  For me, however, three other reasons have come to the fore and may be worth considering for other authors.

Introducing chapter abstracts clearly identifies the composite parts of your broader research.  Each abstract is another chance to reach potential readers, who may not otherwise have seen the relevance of your book to their interests from the title or a cursory look at the jacket.  For me this was important as the book doesn’t sit neatly in a particular historical specialism, but occupies a space at the intersection of political history, historiography, policy and government, sociology and organisation studies (with a smattering of anthropology, philosophy and even astrophysics!).  If a few political scientists venture in on seeing there’s a chapter on the policy process, then I’ll consider that a win.  The chapter abstracts make that more likely.

The e-book format is also attractive, and not just for the price (£35.99, significantly less than many monographs).  It also ensures that the book can ‘travel’, available in a range of countries without the need for appointed distributors.  The United States and Canada were important markets for me, with institutional historians employed in federal and state government and a debate about the connection between public policy and public history that is due a revival.  The option of immediate download makes sharing and discussing scholarly content on a global basis as easy as it has become for other types of writing.

My book’s at the top end, size-wise, of what’s possible for a Pivot.  The manuscript came in only just under 50,000 words, but having an absolute word limit is a helpful discipline.  Don’t see it as a standard book stripped down (a ‘monograph minus’), but almost as a genre in its own right.  You have to think carefully about structure and make hard decisions about content, but I think this helps rather than hinders (admittedly I did have a little last-minute editing to do to sneak under the barrier).  Maybe it’s that it focuses your mind on your key audiences and what they need to know, consider and understand in order to follow your argument.  But it also gives you a certain license. It’s a format that probably lends itself to work that takes a line, that aims to provoke, encourage debate, set out a new field of enquiry or reframe a problem.

It’s too early to know if the format will work for me – I guess I’ll know soon enough.  But I would encourage authors to consider it – it might just shake up our preconceptions of what academic publishing ‘should’ look like, and why and for whom we write.

Source: Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future