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

Connecting research and teaching

One of the academic stereotypes often bandied around is that we only have eyes for our own research – teaching is an irritating and burdensome responsibility.  While there may be some out there with that attitude, my experience so far is that many academics enjoy many aspects of teaching.  They find motivation and reward, even delight, in the various interactions they have with students and the intellectual development that they witness.  Prioritising teaching over research can be a function of the great pressure on time during term, but can also arise from a deep-seated sense of the value of teaching, the privileged position you have as a tutor.

We should read sceptically the claims about the almost osmotic transfer of excellent research into excellent teaching.  All too often, such claims have political audiences in mind; they are conditioned by designs for territorial defence – both in ideological and in financial terms – on the part of the ‘elite’ universities and their representatives and advocates.  That’s not, however, to say that there’s no relationship between what we do in the archives (or the lab) and what we do in the classroom.

Revisiting my notes on the nineteenth-century Jewish periodical I studied for my Master’s research over a decade ago has been a bit of a revelation.  I have found delight in rediscovering the material and thinking about what I could do with it now (a couple of articles on Jewish citizenship and Romantically-influenced concepts of the role of religion in the state are taking shape).  Developing a proposal with a colleague  for a project on the architecture and public history of parliament buildings has been energising and exciting.

If that delight in, that energy for doing history ‘shows up’ when you teach, irresistably bubbling up to the surface, surely that’s a valuable connection for students?  So, as we teach, we’re also modelling being historians of different kinds, and encouraging our students to join in the ongoing conversation about the past, its interpretations and meanings.  I hope that my own sense of engagement with being a historian ‘shows up’ and that I can help my students find similar excitement in aspects of their studies.  Whatever course each student’s life ends up taking, knowing what intellectual excitement feels like, being able to look for it and recognise it when you find it, is surely an asset.

Being a researcher doesn’t automatically make you a better teacher.  There are teachers who communicate delight and enthusiasm for their subject without being actively engaged in research.  Where academics are doing both, we should offer more nuanced understandings of the connections and flows between research and teaching – in both directions.

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…

(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.

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


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.

‘Science’ and ‘arts’: should we play in each other’s fields a bit more?

I find science and maths a real draw.  I often listen to The Life Scientific, Material World and More or Less podcasts ahead of more predictable favourites Making History, The Long View and History Today (though maybe not Friday Night Comedy…)

It was interesting to hear the recent  interview on TLS with Sunetra Gupta, novelist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, in which she refused to recognise a division between science and arts, only different ways to express ideas.

From this perspective, the early commitment of Hatfield Technical College to Liberal Studies seems ahead of its time.  All students were to have 10 per cent of teaching time allocated to subjects such as History, Economics, Politics, Geography and Modern Languages.  It was thought that educating the next generation of engineers and technologists in this balanced way would serve the national interest.  So it was rather fitting that C P Snow became the then Hatfield Polytechnic’s first Visitor in 1972.

The humanities have since come into their own as the institution broadened its scope and the model of reserving time for accessing another ‘culture’ did not survive.  Now it seems an unrealisable ideal – and student choice may be delivering a narrower range of experiences than was imposed in the 1950s.  Would we now be prepared to mandate that all students should take a module a year from different Schools or Departments?  What would be the demands on lecturers or the effects on the ‘home’ students?  What would be the implications for students’ grades?  Then again, if we did do it, what might be the returns?

While academics tend to have a strong sense of disciplinary identity, many of us also have an inclination for greater integration of different ways of expressing ideas.  And these may well currently be manifested only in podcast preferences.

But there is often more than unites than divides us.  I often find Alice Bell’s blog Through The Looking Glass setting off some mental sparks and work aligning scientific and historical method has proved hugely interesting and useful. The case for interdisciplinarity between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ in meeting some of the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change or an ageing society, is now being made in stronger terms. But how often do we actually bridge the divide? Or if we do, do we tend to contribute to the greater whole from our respective positions as specialists in our disciplines, rather than getting to ‘play in each other’s fields’?