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.

Policy advisers: out of the top corridor and into the classroom?

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The university policy adviser is now a fixture in higher education.  At least, there are enough of us that we’re now getting organised.  There’s a large Political Affairs Network under the auspices of UUK that brings together policy, comms, strategy and related staff as well as a smaller, more informal collective of VCs’ policy advisers and exec officers, now named the Lighthouse Group (after Plymouth’s Caroline Chipperfield handed the attendees of the first get-together snazzy lighthouse phone charms).

We work to very different VCs with very different institutional aims, but in practice the similarities are surprisingly many.  One of the main similarities is also the source of one of the main challenges: we work in VCs’ offices.  Maybe not in physical terms that far from where the core business of the university happens, but sometimes it may as well be.  It would be relatively easy to stay in the bubble of the ‘top corridor’ and only interact with other parts of the university when we need a ‘crunchy’ case study for an MP’s briefing note, some figures for a speech or an amenable group of students for a ministerial visit.  That is of course a crude characterisation (all the HE policy advisers I’ve met have genuine dedication to their institutions).  And we do need access to – and the trust of – the executive team to be effective. But I wonder if that’s only half the argument.

Would we be better policy advisers if we were also part of ‘core business’?  More aware of operational realities, more part of the fabric of the place and more able to bridge the corporate and academic ‘levels’, both as advisers and advocates?

Some could get involved in teaching and supervision, building on (or developing) their academic credentials or team teaching to integrate their professional expertise on politics, government, journalism or management.  Others have come by different routes and could contribute to student administration, marketing or recruitment.  Of course, some of these roles would need significant commitment – a genuinely dual or hybrid role – whereas others could be fulfilled on a less formal basis.  And there would need to be mutual benefit and a collaborative approach – no-one would want a tokenistic effort that involved more trouble to accommodate than it was worth.

Personally, the best and most fulfilling thing I have done has been taking on an academic role.  It has clarified my sense of self and opened up a whole new future.  But even if you’re a dedicated follower of policy, getting some experience of ‘core business’ has got to be worth considering.  From the university’s perspective, why shouldn’t policy advisers be expected to  ‘practise what they brief’, if only to make them better advisers and advocates?  From the adviser’s perspective, we can develop that rare combination of profile and substance that is often lacking in politics (with the well-established special adviser route to ministerial status).

As I’ve argued before, it’s a shame that university systems and structures create parallel tracks for staff that make any such innovation difficult.  Making it happen relies on the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of those involved (on both sides).  But maybe working on the ‘top corridor’ is only worth it if you also know how to work outside it.

Does a great piece of history writing have to address itself to one readership over another?

I just wanted to reblog a interesting piece on the Guardian Higher Education Network that takes on the academic/public history divide.

John Gallagher argues that history can be both popular and academically rigorous

A satire on university politics published in 1908 introduced ‘The Principle of Sound Learning’, which stated that ‘the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence’. This attitude to popular scholarship came to mind recently when eminent historian Sir Keith Thomas spoke to the Independent about the books he had read as a judge of the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.

He said: “There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially.”

Thomas reportedly bemoaned a ‘parasitic’ relationship between high-flying popular historians, who let poor academics slave away in archives, doing the real work of research, before nabbing their findings and using them in mass-market paperbacks.

The response from much of the historical establishment was largely uncritical. Antony Beevor, saw no fundamental problem with the caricature of “a dash for fame among freshly-hatched PhDs”, couldn’t name a single one. Even after Thomas said his comments had been misinterpreted, History Today’s Tim Stanley wholeheartedly endorsed them: “We all know of whom he [Thomas] speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste.”

Do we, though? Apparently “we all know” who’s being talked about here. I’m not sure I could name them, though. Can you?

There is, it would seem, a spectre haunting the historical profession. But that’s all it is: none of these commentators tell us who it is that’s been drawn in by “the lure of the limelight”. Apparently: “While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash”. But would it hurt – actually, wouldn’t it just be good historiographical practice – to give us an idea who’s doing these things? I only ask, of course, because if you told me that historians with an academic background who were giving the profession a bad name, my thoughts might turn to the likes of David Starkey, rather than the young ‘uns who dared to try abseiling down the ivory tower.

This debate couldn’t be more timely. TV and radio are brimming with exciting new history programming from the likes of Helen Castor, Amanda Vickery, and Mary Beard. Popular history has an uncanny knack for raising hackles – every new documentary is assailed with the same arguments about flash presentation and ‘dumbing down’. We – the public, not just the historical profession – are in the middle of a conversation about how academic history can be presented in a way that makes it exciting, interesting, and accessible, all without losing its academic integrity.

In canvassing for opinions from the academic community, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, an academic historian who also writes and broadcasts widely, emailed me these thoughts: “There needs to be a spectrum of historical writing – from the deeply academic to the fearlessly popular. The work of the academic who is toiling at the coalface, in the archives, to generate new knowledge is fantastically important – but so is the work of the historian who shares that knowledge with the public”.

The problem with the arguments of Thomas, Beevor, and Stanley, is that they all start from the premise that young academics pushing a public agenda are really after a primetime slot and a wad of cash. This, to put it mildly, is spectacularly disingenuous. Where they might see a gold rush, I see gifted historians making a case for an academic history that has value outside the university common room.

Maybe the real story is that these much-maligned public historians – of all ages – would rather speak to a wider audience not because they’re out to make a quick buck, but because they want a history that is truly popular. Maybe, like me, they believe that a work of history can only have minimal value if it cannot be explained and made interesting to an audience beyond the ivory tower. And maybe the new crop have looked at their elders – the increasingly reactionary rantings of Starkey and Ferguson, say – and thought that it might be time for the whippersnappers to roll up their sleeves and show how they think it should be done.

A lot of comment on this debate misses one simple, crucial fact: the cat’s already out of the bag. The new generation of historians, far from waiting for Penguin and the BBC to come to call, are actively using blogs, Twitter, and even stand-up comedy to reach a far wider audience than their predecessors might have dreamt of. It’s not just recent PhDs doing this – witness the multimedia dynamo that is Mary Beard – but it’s hard to deny that the younger generation’s media literacy has given them an increased ability to enthrall an interested public.

And it’s good for research, too. Dr Lindsey Fitzharris created The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, a blog about the history of surgery which allows her to merge her academic interests with a desire to reach a wider public. She says that, as well as making people more interested in some fascinating but little-known material, the blog “has forced me to think about my own work from the perspective of a non-specialist”, inspiring “new and interesting ways to think about my research”.

A great piece of history writing doesn’t need to address itself to one readership at the expense of another – Thomas Penn’s The Winter King, a biography of Henry VII, made serious scholarship read like a thriller, and topped best-of-year lists in 2011. The idea of an unbridgeable gap between the academic and the public historian is becoming less and less plausible. The demise of the cloistered scholar needn’t mean the end of brilliant, rigorous history – it just means we get to shout about it from the rooftops.

Parallel tracks 2: Academic/professional divides in universities

I blogged back in March about how the development of intellectual capacity and that of employability skills are too often regarded as parallel tracks in higher education.  Such false dichotomies often create impasses, and impasses inhibit the ability to adapt, respond and innovate.

Another such divide is that between academic and other staff in universities.  In newer institutions, such staff may be called ‘professional’ rather than ‘support’ staff as a way of capturing their ‘different but equal’ status in the running of the organisation.  Many other companies and organisations have taken similar measures.  As a symbol of corporate-level recognition of the contributions different roles make to the whole, this is to be welcomed.  Moves towards equalisation of pay and conditions often follow (such as the single pay spine in HE).

There is certainly more to be done to realise a university culture in which the different roles are truly valued and respected, but to see this just as an HR issue is to miss an important dimension.

As Paul Marshall, ABS Chief Executive, reminded the assembled Hertfordshire Business School in a keynote last week, we live in a VUCA world: Volatile; Uncertain; Complex and Ambiguous (and Higher Education feels to many particularly VUCA).  It wouldn’t be saying anything new to suggest that such an environment calls on a wider range of skills, experience and capacities in leaders than were needed in more stable times.

‘It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader,’ Ancona et al argued in the Harvard Business Review back in 2007, a call that resonates to an even greater extent now.  The modern executive’s role is ‘to cultivate and coordinate’ – not ‘command and control’ the actions of others.  By seeing themselves as incomplete, they can then start to rely on others to ‘make up for their missing skills.’

So we’re back to complementarity.  In an HE setting, this means building management teams with expertise in different aspects of university activity.  Many universities, particularly the newer ones, do indeed have directors of key services at the top table.  Such arrangements imply recognition of the complementarity of academic and professional roles.  But recognition solidifies those categories – and the lines of demarcation between them.  ‘Different but equal’ makes sense in theory, but in practice it makes rigid and definite what could productively be flexible and fuzzy, particularly in the VUCA world of HE.

An alternative (and complementary) way of looking at complementarity in terms of skills for HE management is to think about the individual.  An individual with an ‘academic’ role could develop complementary skills, knowledge and insights through a secondment internally, or into a company, government department or local council; one with a ‘professional’ role could do so through undertaking doctoral study, teaching or contributing to a collaborative research project.  One route that has worked is from professional practice (such as nursing, law or business) into academe.  But those transitions tend to be one-time (and therefore one-direction) movements.  They also seem to be coming under pressure from demands for academic accreditation and research activity in many universities.

Assembling such a portfolio of experience may not be for everyone.  But why would we not want our leaders to be so equipped given the uncertainties and volatilities of the future?  It wouldn’t make them ‘complete’ of course, but it might make the incompleteness more conscious and therefore productive.  Building a team, developing strategy, making decisions – these processes could all draw not just on an intellectual awareness of the need for complementary skills but a real ability to identify with the questions, concerns and priorities of the functional areas that hold those skills.

The transformation of the ‘support staff’ to the ‘professional’, even though nominally based on parity of esteem, addressed the symptoms not the problem.  Those symptoms badly needed treating, and we must finish the course.  But we shouldn’t forget the underlying problem: parallel tracks.  Maybe it’s up to each of us to be an entrepreneur in our own careers – just like Darlene Roth’s public historian – but then at least the environment needs to be conducive to innovation.  Why shouldn’t university policies support ‘academics’ to bring discipline-level nuance to website development and marketing, or ‘professionals’ to undertake the advanced studies that allow them to bring their specialist knowledge to students’ learning?  Why shouldn’t hybrid or dual roles be more common, even encouraged?  We need a new kind of blended learning and a new, more open and flexible approach to progression and recognition to help develop the incomplete leaders of tomorrow’s universities.

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’.