I was prompted to write this post by a storm that blew up on Twitter a few days ago. In case you missed it, here is a short summary: A Guardian interview with Rebecca Rideal about her new book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire gave the impression that Rideal claimed some historiographical novelty for her approach; some academic historians on Twitter commented that it did not appear particularly novel. The ensuing (and often bad-tempered) discussion took in a wide range of issues from the propriety of senior academics using Twitter to criticise a PhD student’s work, to news values in the reporting of research, to the question of whether the title ‘historian’ should be accorded to someone without a doctorate.
The issue that struck me most, however, was the wide reporting from many people working in public history, particularly young women, that they had experienced hostile or unsupportive responses to their work from academics. As someone who works in academia but who also does (and teaches about doing) public history, I am interested in understanding why this happens and how we might deal with it. I should say that my observations here are not based solely on the Twitter row, which I have no desire to re-open, but on many conversations over the twelve years since I began my PhD.
First, I am not surprised that academics in the humanities feel defensive. (I think this is often not understood by outsiders, who think our salaries and relative professional autonomy are actually a pretty good deal.) Our work is subsidised by taxpayers: the Arts & Humanities Research Council (UK) had government funding of £103 million in 2015-16. But both within and outside universities, we have to fight hard to justify that level of spending and to make the case for humanities research more broadly. The vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast had to apologise earlier this year after suggesting sixth-century history wasn’t relevant to 21-year-olds. In Australia, the Treasurer (Finance Minister) recently suggested academic projects seeking public funding should have to pass a ‘pub test’, implying many are too obscure.
But of course it’s often this ‘obscure’, publicly-funded research that is later synthesised into more popular histories for wider consumption. Very few academics object to that, but I often hear complaints that work is insufficiently credited, which I think are understandable against the constant demands to justify our work. TV rarely credits at all, except for major consultancy roles or book adaptations; trade books credit in acknowledgements or endnotes but often not (for reasons of style) in the main text. Moreover, both TV and trade publishing rely on presenter/author ‘brand’ to pull in an audience: you are reading or watching Smith’s latest because it’s Smith, not because of the topic. That model does not lend itself to emphasising research as a collaborative process. Instead, a TV programme becomes the sole presenter’s exciting quest to uncover secrets of the past, while the Amazon algorithm tells you that as you bought Smith’s last book, you might like to buy her next one.
Moreover, in my experience, these workings of public history are not well understood, even by academics who value engagement with wide audiences. This is a problem because increasingly we (academics) have to supervise doctoral students who may want to consider these career options (and given how niche they are we can’t rely on the Careers Service here). We have to think about how our students might combine academic work and public historical practice. Thanks to the provision of Collaborative Doctoral Awards we’ve got better at doing this with museums and galleries, but the world of commercial history is still very alien to most. I don’t have all the answers, but we should have a discussion about what would be helpful, involving supervisors, students and former students.
We should also think about ‘gatekeeping’ and how we talk about professionalism and authority. Again, the question of money – and public money – is pertinent to some of the anxieties I detect in academia. If one doesn’t need a PhD to be a historian, and can do history quite well without one, ought taxpayers really to be funding so many humanities PhDs? After all, the majority of History PhDs will not go on to an academic job. Personally I think it is possible to be a historian without a professional qualification, but I also think the PhD is worth having, and that it is more difficult to be a good historian without that apprenticeship. I could not have written the books I have without the time my (publicly funded) doctoral and postdoctoral research gave me to explore archives and think and talk about history. But I doubt that’s very obvious to the average person who buys them in a bookshop. We should talk more about how to communicate the value of the PhD – which in turn would help those PhDs who go on to work outside academia in a world that often doesn’t understand the point of the qualification.
Finally, I think academics who are unhappy about aspects of public historical discourse should discuss whether there are things that might be done to tackle the problems. A couple of years ago I had an enlightening conversation with a scientist about this. He and his colleagues were frustrated that TV’s go-to expert in their field was someone with a poor reputation among his peers on ethical issues. They got together and worked with a media officer to promote alternative voices, and now the coverage, in their view, is much improved, the one problematic individual no longer dominates and overall their field has a better relationship with the media. Could historians do likewise? We should at least talk about it.