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Practicing Public History: The Short Essay and the Applied Assignment

One of the criticisms people often make about history degrees (and degrees in other arts subjects) is that they are not ‘practical’ or ‘professional’ – that the arts and humanities don’t contribute to the economy or society as much as degrees in the sciences or professions. There are some pretty obvious flaws in this reasoning. First, it’s worth noting that many of the most vocal public advocates of this view themselves hold degrees in the arts or social sciences (or, in the case of parliamentarians, no degrees at all). As of 2017, of 650 MPs, only 33 had qualifications in the sciences or engineering, while 16 held qualifications related to medicine nursing or psychology. Only one MP had a science doctorate, while a handful once practiced as engineers (whether university trained or apprenticed) or clinicians. The only Prime Minister to have a science degree was Margaret Thatcher, famously a chemist. In fact, MPs are much more likely to have undergraduate degrees in History than in all of the STEM fields put together.

Second, on the economic front, in a world in which virtually all industries have become hypermobile, and even the high street has moved online, heritage and the arts stand out as rarities: economic sectors in which national investments can ensure national economic benefits. Because historical and cultural assets, landscapes, and events have immoveable physical and human contexts, jobs and industries associated with them stay put. And with ever-increasing human recreational movement (tourism, to you and me), the Arts and Heritage sectors across Europe are growing.

So how do we, as historians, play a role in the public sphere? How can we contribute to public debates and discourses? We will be addressing this question through both the Term 1 short essay and -- more substantially -- through the applied assignment. Note that it will probably be most efficient for you to do your applied assignment on a topic similar to your short essay, though this is not mandatory.

Below the instructions, you will find an ever-growing selection of blogs, podcasts and online exhibitions that might be useful to you in completing this assignment. They might work as models, as tools for reflection, or even as examples to work against (yes, there is also 'bad' public history...)

 

The Short Essay (1500 words): Reflecting on public history

You may not knowingly have encountered much ‘public history’ but if you ever spotted a blue plaque on a building, or went on a school trip to a museum, historic site, or National Trust property or landscape, you saw it in action! Similarly, you may have seen historical dramas or factual programming on the television, or heard podcasts or broadcast radio programmes covering historical topics. And of course, unless you have been living under a rock, you will have heard politicians and activists mobilising history in relation to Covid-19, Brexit and the EU, global trade, the NHS, migration patterns, the environment, Parliament, and virtually every other topic currently informing the zeitgeist. But what have HISTORIANS contributed to this public history?

For this short essay, you need to locate and analyse at least one and no more than three examples of ‘public history’ related to your topic and produced by, or in collaboration with professional historians and their scholarly work. It could be a television or radio programme, an exhibition, a website, a blog or podcast, a popular history book, or an example in another genre. (Evan Smith has pulled together a list of interesting sites here: https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/radical-online-collections-and-archives/ For other examples, ask, and see below!).

 

Steps:

    1. Choose your general topic. It may be related to your dissertation topic or a subject you plan to address in your long essay, or it may be something completely different. Submit this topic to me by at least 10 working days before the short essay is due.
    2. Select a ‘public history’ source (or up to 3 sources) related to your topic. Look for sources via Box of Broadcast, on the websites of major broadcasters and production companies, or on the website of major archives, museums, heritage sites, and other knowledge-producing institutions, OR look and see whether historians whose work relates to your subject have blogs or websites themselves (you may be surprised by how many do). You could also use the e-resources included on our weekly reading lists. If you get stuck, come see me. PLEASE MAKE SURE I APPROVE YOUR SELECTION(S). I will not in general accept items of news coverage as examples of 'public history'.
    3. In no more than 1500 words (not including footnotes or bibliography), reflect on what makes your source(s) good –or, potentially, bad-- history: is it accurate?; nuanced?; well-supported? Reflect also on whether it is good public history: is it appealing and easy to understand? Exciting? Did it inform you about new things and/or change your point-of-view? Did it inform public discussions or debates? What role did the historian play in creating this source?

Assessment Criteria: Short Essay

Marking for this essay will, of course, follow the normal History assessment criteria with which you will already be very familiar! However, since working critically with 'public history' will be new for many of you, please have a look at the tailored advice below:

    1. Choice of source(s). Here I will be looking for sources that are solidly situated in the field of ‘public history’; and that genuinely address the history of migration broadly construed. While it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘public history’ sources identified on our reading list, I will reward the hard work and research that goes into identifying new ‘public history’ sources.
    2. Contextualisation: I expect that you will reflect on the context in which, and the purposes for which each source was created. This means reflecting on the historical moment in which the source was produced, thinking about authorship and planned (and unplanned) audiences, and considering whether the source fulfils its role of bringing historical knowledge and analysis to bear on its subject/content.
    3. Quality and depth of your critical assessment of the source(s). Marks will be awarded for appropriate reference to the history and historiography that informs the source(s) as ‘public history’, and your critique of each source’s strengths and weaknesses as a piece of history and as a tool for reaching wider audiences.
    4. Bibliography: I expect this reflective portion of the assignment to be researched in just the same way that you would research a short paper, since you will need to know about the history, historiography, and context of your source’s topic if you are to assess it critically. Your bibliography will demonstrate this.

For some useful short pieces exploring different aspects and vehicles of public history critically in the context of historicising the American civil war in the US South, see this resource page from the American Historical Association.

The Applied Assignment (40%)

Having looked at and critically assessed existing examples of ‘public history’ in your short essays, the applied assignment will give you a chance to do some yourself. Building on what you have learned in the short essay, refine your topic and think about what style of public history best suits both the topic and your own strengths as a historian and a communicator.

Steps:

Having critically explored what ‘public history’ looks like and how it works in the short essay, I want you to put it into practice. First, please think about how YOU would choose to address wider publics yourself: what kinds of sources and approaches do you enjoy? Do you think in terms of debating contemporary concerns, reflecting on their historical roots, or opening up new perspectives for others to consider and incorporate? For this module you can choose ONE of the three options below:

 

Option 1. Write a 1500-2000 word blog intended for a specific, clearly identified (non-academic) readership to interest them in your topic and expose them to some of the complexity and debates that surround it. So you might want to inform school children about the experiences of Nigerians in the NHS, or Indians in the USSR; or you might want to show fashion magazine editors the long history of contemporary representations of Black women; or you might want to inform a contemporary political debate about migrants or ethnic minorities in the US or UK. Your blog must be written in clear and colloquial English at a level appropriate to your chosen audience, it must be well-illustrated, and most of all it must be good history (and for us that means with linked citations and a brief bibliography, which will not be included in word count). See these examples:

https://peopleshistorynhs.org/portraits-and-power/ or https://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/policing-the-northern-irish-border-in-the-1970s/

Option 2. Design an online exhibition or gallery exploring your topic. You must include at least 8 objects. These might be cartoons, images from the media, works of art, video clips, oral history snippets, historical objects, or perhaps other digitised items (check with me if you use other ‘exhibits’). You must include a textual introduction to your exhibition or gallery, setting it into historical context and explaining it to a general audience – imagine that your whole extended family, some friends from Uni, and a few of your neighbours were coming along to view it – and you must fully identify, introduce and explain the importance of every object in your exhibition. The text content should add up to between 1500 and 2000 words. Again, you must also include a bibliography (not included in word count). See an example here:

https://peopleshistorynhs.org/galleries/party-politics-and-the-nhs/

 

Option 3. Make an audio or video podcast. Using clips or readings from existing interviews or primary sources, news footage, images, etc., and/or material you create yourself, you must explore your topic aloud, in your own words. Your podcast should be between 7 and 15 minutes long, should address a contemporary political, social, cultural or public policy question related to migration and/or post-migration, and should bring historical knowledge to bear on that question. (I am willing to consider alternative approaches, but they must be approved in advance). You must also prepare a bibliography indicating your research sources and the sources of all included material. If you generate your own interviews, you must complete the oral history approval procedures and form. You can find the Ethics review form on this page, under the heading ‘Undergraduates’.

Assessment Criteria: Applied Assignment.

The applied assignment will be assessed in accordance with the following criteria:

    1. Quality of the historical scholarship underpinning your work: a key aspect of good public history is that it shows just the same level of accurate, nuanced and sophisticated historical knowledge as any scholarly work. So you will have to research your topic just the way you would a long essay assignment. I will look for this both in the bibliography that you submit and in the underpinning secondary sources that you mention, link, or otherwise identify or draw upon in your piece.
    2. Quality of the primary sources that you include. Again, this part of the assessment is no different from a standard history essay: sources should be well-chosen to support your argument; carefully explained and interpreted. Remember, they cannot speak for themselves, and in public history you can’t use the short-cut of referring to a great secondary source! You need to tell your audience what they mean, as well as what they are.
    3. Accessibility: is your language clear and appropriate to your chosen audience? Is your topic well-chosen for that audience (will it be relevant to them)? Is the format you have chosen effective for the argument you want to make? You are required to define your audience and reflect on its members' specific interests, their probable existing knowledge levels about the topic, and any other needs via a one paragraph (no more than 250 words) statement to be included with your bibliography.
    4. ‘Curb appeal’: are you presenting your piece of public history in a way that invites your audience to engage with it? Here, think about what might encourage your chosen readers/listeners/viewers to spend their time exploring your work. Run your idea past family and friends to see how they react. Have you made it easy for them to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ What’s your ‘click-bait’ or the opening ‘hook’ of your argument? What new and exciting content are you giving them that they can get nowhere else? Remember (as above) to include a brief paragraph identifying your chosen audience at the top of your bibliography section.

It is up to you whether your assignment ACTUALLY becomes public history, but I have created a webpage linked to our module where I would love to share your work (and where you can also see what previous students have created for this assignment). This can also work as a ‘portfolio’, giving you a link to include on your cv where you share this example of your communication skills and ability to deploy what you learned beyond the academy.

Sample media:

BBC Witness History podcasts: 'Witness Black History' season This is an amazing resource, not least for the wide range of subjects covered and the different ways in which they are approached. You will hear lots of historical actors speaking in their own words, and get good examples of historians addressing the widest possible global audience. The series and format are not perfect (think for example, about what it means to define these moments as 'Black History'), but they will give you some great material to work with and analyse.

British Library Blogs: 'Cable Street and After' and 'The past is Now' (and lots more) are great examples of how to incorporate a wide range of sources into a blog post, doing two key tasks for the public historian (and/or sociologist): both interpreting the past in interesting and accessible ways AND helping to make the rich historical resources that we use for scholarly research available to a much wider audience who might be put off by the challenges and time-consuming labour -- and the sometimes very formal, elite, and apparently unwelcoming institutions and processes to be navigated -- of accessing them (you can hear another perspective on this from rapper AWATE, on the same blog site, here). We do this work anyway, so why not share?!

Runnymede Trust 'Our Migration Story': an award-winning site offering the general public a history of migration to and from Britain from AD 43 to the present day.

The National Archives: Blogs and podcasts 

Library of Congress: Blogs and Podcasts and Exhibitions. The LOC also has a special set of immigration themed resources for school teachers and pre-university students: if you are thinking of addressing these audiences, you might have a look, here!

The National Archives of Australia has a special Immigration and Citizenship portal with links on to their collections, blogs, and other resources.

OUP History Blogs, Stanford University Press Blogs; and lots more! As we discussed in class, lots of academic publishers encourage their authors to produce blogs on their work. These can be more or less successful (!) in terms of making their work accessible for interested readers -- and of course they are often pitching to the very narrow band of people who are likely to buy £25 -£65 books of scholarly history! -- but they can still be excellent material for your reflections and analysis.

Migrant Knowledge Blog (for example, try this one!) and/or Runnymede Trust's Our Migration Story: Thinktanks, scholarly networks and NGOs also have blogs that use historical scholarship! Who are they writing for, do you think?

Community Organisations also have history blogs, which can be useful too. Think about how 'public history' changes when 'publics' have an active role in co-creating it... See for example, Everyday Muslim for blogs and galleries;

Tip: You could also critique history as presented to the public in, e.g., cinema: this blog lists a few exciting options:

https://film.avclub.com/coming-to-america-19-movies-about-u-s-immigration-1798257916

If you are thinking of doing a virtual exhibition, have a look at what real museums do. Try the Migration Museum, Birmingham Museum (start here!), the Herbert, and others to see how they represent subjects like migration.

Migration Museums Austalia: Migration Museum Victoria; Migration Museum Adelaide; Migration at the National Museum of Australia (and there are more, so do explore more widely...)

Ellis Island Historic Site

Angel Island Historic Site