Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
This rant has been a long time coming.
It is occasioned by two tweets.
Here is the first:
Here is the second (it’s the one in the middle, by Tim Hitchcock):
I do not know Simon Schama and Tim Hitchcock. I do admire their work, and the important contributions they have made both to our discipline and to public intellectual life. That does not stop me thinking that they are wrong here. It is a lazy cliché, I know, but in this instance I think they need to check their privilege.
And yes – I am aware of my own privilege, and the good fortune that means I can write this as a permanent member of academic staff and what is euphemistically called a “mid-career” historian.
Graduate schools, and graduate students, and more established scholars working across the arts and humanities do care about writing for an audience beyond the academy. Organizations like the Institute of Historical Research’s History Lab and History Lab Plus are doing more and more to provide advice and support for younger scholars interested in reaching a broader audience for their work. PhD supervisors and programmes have begun to include formal and informal training in this area. And in these days of the REF and impact and public history we know all too well how important it is that we strive to get out of the Ivory Tower. Many of us have always known this, however, and I suspect I am not the only person who still thinks that as historians we have a public responsibility to engage different audiences.
If only it was that easy. Here is the problem that Schama misses: engaging with an audience beyond the academy often (but by no means always) means participating in a market in knowledge-as-entertainment. And like all neoliberal capitalist markets this one is profoundly unequal. We do not have the same resources to draw upon when we participate it; not do we have equal access to the mediating institutions and networks that control access to that market.
In reaching an audience beyond the academy, the star Professor draws on privileges that neither my peers nor our doctoral students have. We do not have the same public reputation; nor do we have the same contacts, knowledge, and social and intellectual capital. Schama’s tweet linked to an article for the New York Times. I would love to write for a newspaper like that; I guess many graduate students would feel the same. No matter how passionately we care about writing beyond the academy, however, the New York Times does not care about giving each and every one of us a platform.
So when we participate in this marketplace as historians, we often do so from a position of weakness and vulnerability. I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have given up my time and knowledge to television and radio researchers and journalists. In phone and in person I have shared what I know about the past – and I have done so for free and willingly, because I thought as historians we have a public responsibility to engage audiences beyond the academy.
Often this has been stimulating and enjoyable. More often, I suspect I have been used as a cheap labour source – a convenient research assistant who there is no need to pay. There is nothing more I enjoy than to be called by a journalist or researcher who openly admits that they haven’t read my book, but wants me to give them a convenient summary of all the juicy and / or important bits. Am I overstating the point to suggest that this feels like exploitation of the worst kind?
Giving up a couple of hours to record an interview that never gets used (and about which you hear nothing more) pisses me off – though I know I have a face for radio and a voice for silent film. Sometimes these experiences are just funny. I spent eight years researching and writing Queer London; I thought it was important to talk about some of that knowledge in a television interview about 1930s drag balls. Some editor thought differently and cut out the bits where I actually said something. I might have been the most overqualified pointer to the News of the World ever. That’s something to be proud of.
I don’t think my experiences are unusual. The mediating networks of the media marketplace, and the lowly position we occupy in it, make it difficult for many historians to reach an audience beyond the academy. We can’t all have our own series on the BBC or column in the Daily Mail, can we? One response to this has been the efforts many scholars have made to bypass or short-circuit the market: this is one reason that blogging, Twitter, and other forms of social media have become increasingly popular.
In putting our words and ideas and research in the public domain, however, we once again expose ourselves to exploitation. In an open access world the blog is only the most obvious example of this vulnerability: a doctoral thesis, journal article, or published book are all out there for others to use and abuse. Many of us will be familiar with the horror stories here. News agencies and oh-so-holy national daily newspapers cut and paste words and images from a PhD student’s fantastic blog; they do so without acknowledging them and then fail to reply to a series of emails and letters complaining. A television production company rips off the content of another PhD student’s thesis; they use their ideas and examples yet ignore their later generous offer of help and screen something full of factual errors. On screen and in print, at least some public historians build a career on the back of other people’s research. It does not cost that much to acknowledge intellectual debts and the generations of scholars that come before us.
Do you want me to name names?
I should clarify something. Contrary to what Tim Hitchcock might suggest, I do not think that we can (or even should) copyright the dead. I have no problem with the idea that a rich story that I have found is now in the public domain – it’s there to be read, shared, developed, and reworked. In his wonderful piece on Bobby Britt and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square (part of his great blog Another Nickel in the Machine) Rob Baker took the case of Bobby Britt, a dancer arrested at a house party in Fitzroy Square in 1927, and transformed it into a moving and evocative account of mid-century queer life that I could never hope to emulate.
In suggesting that: “historians need to get over themselves,” Hitchcock fails to acknowledge both his own privilege and the intellectual labour we do. Implicit in his statement is an idea of the historian as doing nothing more than uncover the traces of the past. We do much more than that: we make history – we create it through the ideas that we bring to the archive. Our labour adds value; our ideas and arguments are our own. Get over myself for continuing to believe that? No thank you. By all means draw on my research and blog about Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball, but I would prefer if it you didn’t just cut and paste a couple of pages out of my book.
Perhaps I am overstating my case here. There are so many generous, talented, engaging, wonderful public historians out there – historians whose writing and television work I have nothing but admiration for (thank you Mary Beard, Amanda Vickery, Michael Wood, and Simon Schama). There are smart, professional, and supportive production companies, journalists, and researchers with whom it is both a pleasure and a challenge to talk about history. At the same time, however, I can’t help thinking of at least some of those repackaging the past for the mass market as contemporary versions of the interwar shark publishers and disreputable publishers I spend my time writing about. * If we want to have a genuine conversation about engaging audiences beyond the academy, however, what I have ranted about here raises the difficult questions that we have to address.
*There’s definitely a television series in that project, by the way.