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.

The PhD viva: the five things that made a difference, part II

Back in April I posted shortly after submitting my PhD thesis on the five things that made a difference to me in getting it done.  The viva seemed a distant prospect.  Maybe you have to invest so much in getting the thesis (and yourself) together that however long you have to wait between submission and examination it seems an age away…

In the end, with other things demanding attention, I only had just over a week to prepare.  In retrospect, this was, at least for me, a Good Thing.  Having only two months to wait, I did have the advantage that the material was fresh-ish in my mind.  But only having that week kept me focused on a small number of tasks, which could otherwise have expanded to fill the time available without adding to my preparedness.

The other advantage I had was knowing and working alongside a lot of people with PhDs and PhD students.  Even if you only have access to your supervisor, number one is as simple as: ask!  Ask what it’s like to be examined – and to be an examiner.  Ask what experience they had and what they’d do differently now.  Ask what they expect a candidate to be able to do – and what not.

Which leads me on to number two.  Like any other work of scholarship, there is no such thing as perfection (and there’s extensive scholarship on just that issue).  Remember in particular that a PhD is an apprenticeship in scholarship.  An original contribution to knowledge does not mean a definitive one…

In this sense, the thesis and viva are the final stages in a process, in which you get to demonstrate the critical powers and command of subject material you developed over an extended period of time.  So number three would be: try to enjoy the intellectual exercise that this demonstration entails!  I couldn’t always maintain it, but I tried see the viva as an opportunity to discuss my research area with three eminent historians, in detail.  To test my thinking and get their advice.  Not that that gets rid of nerves, but it probably sends you into the room in a constructive frame of mind, which is another Good Thing.

On a more practical note, number four would be reading the thesis carefully and anticipating questions and concerns.  These can range from the broad (what is the role of x concept or y theory in your work?) to the very specific (on page z you claim…) so flagging and annotating your copy is a useful exercise.  Even if you don’t end up using the copy in the viva (I didn’t), the process makes you engage in a focused way with your work, but from an examiner’s/future reader’s perspective.  It should also help with answering opening questions, for example on the key themes, ideas or findings in the thesis (as well as highlighting corrections you may need to make).

Finally, test then rest.  Doing a mock viva or just fielding a few searching questions can help you feel ready.  You know your research best and being (gently) tested on that knowledge just reminds you of that.  It may also point to a couple of areas for final preparation so is probably best done a day or two ahead of time (but not too far).  Once I’d done that, had a read-through and made some final notes, I found that having to detach was really helpful.  Lunch out with colleagues turned out to be the best way I could have spent the last couple of hours beforehand.  Some discussion was had about the impending viva but not too much, because frankly other people shouldn’t have to talk about your PhD the whole time.  And maybe you shouldn’t either.  Taking a rest from having it at the forefront of your mind can also keep it fresh for the viva – and also give those closest to you a well-earned break…

The PhD thesis: the five things that made a difference to me

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I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis (I can’t actually believe it).  This doesn’t really entitle me to start dispensing advice, but here are five things that, right now, I think made a difference.

1. Be open-minded and sceptical at the same time

Scholarly material isn’t infallible.  Wikipedia is sometimes revelatory.  I read a recently-published textbook that said public historians were ‘promiscuous’ with their sources.  Which is rather revealing of the authors’ view on public history.  I would rather say I’ve been eclectic, but I guess promiscuous will do.  Anyway, it can pay to be willing to look for evidence almost anywhere – as long as you ‘read’ it with a sceptical eye, wherever it comes from.

Sometimes you can find things in unexpected places.  Only a week before I submitted, I worked out (from Wikipedia) that Charles Clarke – he of the dismissive comments about ornamental medieval historians – was the son of Richard Clarke, the senior Treasury official who’d been a major advocate for the experiment of “funding experience” in the 1950s and 1960s (basically, using history to improve policymaking).  OK, it was only a footnote, but an interesting one in the context of my comments on changing political culture and attitudes towards history.

I’ve been told, in a research student training course, that only journal articles and academic books “count”.  Be confident enough to more promiscuous – just take the necessary precautions.

2. Invest in your references

EndNote is great (other reference management packages are available).  Importing direct from the British Library or JSTOR is rather satisfying, in geeky kind of way.  But you can store up a whole load of work if you don’t check (and refine) as you go.  Are there transcription errors?  What conventions are you going to use for footnoting and bibliography?  (Because publishers have very different practices).

You don’t want – believe me – to be editing hundreds of individual records for consistency just before submission…

3. Structure early, restructure as you go

One of the best things my supervisor did was get me to get chapter headings and sub-headings down early.  They changed as the research progressed, but probably only went through three iterations.  They kept me, my reading, thinking and writing, focused and coherent (mostly).

It may have been particularly helpful as a part-time student, who could only write in blocks of a week or so, often months apart.  I could, within a couple of hours of being back at my desk, locate myself again in the overall project – and pick up the thematic threads connecting the chapters.

Formulating chapter headings can be daunting.  It feels like a big commitment.  I’m not sure what the best analogy would be – a scaffolding system maybe, which allows you to build your thesis soundly behind it, move between sections and stand on different levels to work on and view the edifice.  However you see it, it does, I think, bring a certain discipline that helps you move between the big picture and the detail.

4. Write – almost anything

I’m sure every student gets this advice, and I’ve certainly dished it out.  But it does genuinely help.  The first thing I wrote, to write anything, was a ramble about some issues that interested me.  I still have it.  It’s called ‘rabbis, Romanticism and Seeley’ and is essentially me thinking about the (admittedly unlikely) connections between a Master’s on Prussian rabbis in the 1840s and doctoral research on using history in public policy.  God only knows what my supervisors thought…

‘The religious reformers of Wissenschaft des Judentums,’ I wrote, ‘took on the roles of archaeologists and historians to enable them to be architects. The past, present and future were essentially linked for them. This perspective on time i.e. that it must be viewed as a continuum and that the viewing is purposeful, is another area to consider. Seeley expresses similar idea in the Expansion of England, 1883…’  I wrote that just over 2 years ago, and the ‘stream of time’ became one of the central concepts.

Which is a very long-winded way of saying – writing’s rarely wasted.  It may only get you writing: not a bad thing at all.  But it may also take you somewhere.

5. Be grateful

Just as a final note – doing a PhD is a very personal experience.  But other people often have a major role.  Supervisors, of course, but also parents, partners, friends, children…  I couldn’t have done my PhD without my husband being willing to pick up the slack in all kinds of ways and my Mum’s advice (not to mention keen historian’s mind).

It’s easy to get wrapped up the enormity of what you’re doing, and, to an extent, you have to.  But it does help things along to acknowledge from time to time what others do to enable you to pursue PhD research.  I’m not sure I was always successful on that front, but I tried.  You know who you are – so you can always come chase me for a drink/Lindt bunny/flowers/other reward of choice…

No doubt once I’ve got over the initial post-submission high, rather more sober and considered thoughts on the experience of doing a PhD will come to mind.  Maybe the June viva will put paid to my sense of having any thoughts worth sharing at all.  But for now, these are the things that feel like they made a difference for me being here now.  I hope they are of help to someone.

(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?