The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

One rant, two tweets, and the exploitation of the historian’s labour

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.


26 comments on “One rant, two tweets, and the exploitation of the historian’s labour

  1. lucyrobinson27
    February 19, 2014

    This is a conversation that really needs having if we are going to defend our selves as valuable public sector workers too – emphasis on work. I am concerned that early career researchers are pouring vast amounts of time and work into blogging etc in the hope it will help them get a job or somehow count as impact. In the REF world it means sweet FA. However if used to help develop the writing process as outlined in your blog, or to make sure we re-use and make something of all the extra bits of research that havent, or haven’t yet, made it into press, as Tim Hitchcock does v well, then blogging etc can be a great support system to the work we do. There is no tv appearance, blog post, list of Twitter followers or fb group that can counter balance existing privilege.

    • Doug Rocks-Macqueen
      April 15, 2014

      To be a bit cheeky here and I mean no disrespect to anyone here. What if you replaced blog with peer-reviewed article in what you say?

      ‘I am concerned that early career researchers are pouring vast amounts of time and work into writing “peer-reviewed articles” etc in the hope it will help them get a job or somehow count as impact.’

      In pretty much every field there are more PhDs than there are jobs in academia. And by more I mean each year in my field, archaeology, in the UK we produce 150 new PhD for between 5-10 new positions. Other fields are very similar or worse, some better.

      Would we not be worried that they are spending too much time on activities that won’t get them a job outside of academia?

      Just thought it was an idea worth raising.

  2. The Trickster Prince
    February 19, 2014

    Thanks Lucy: you’re right about the importance of work and our public value. I also worry about the pressures on early career researchers and PhD students to engage in this kind of activity. There seems to be a lot of misguided advice out there when appointment committees etc. etc. are still so preoccupied with REF and teaching experience and the rest of it.

  3. jbailey2013
    February 19, 2014

    Fantastic observations, Matt. It is irritating that on one hand historians are berated for not making their research accessible (when the mechanisms to do so are restricted) and on the other (Keith Thomas last year) for trying to be too commercial. Both are positions of those with extreme privilege. I also believe distinctions can be made between the ‘ingredients’ of history and what historians do with them. The former are not copyright but the latter should be.

  4. The Trickster Prince
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you Joanne. I think you’re right here — and I like your comment on Twitter the other week about arguments vs ingredients. That seems to encapsulate the process of our labour and the value that it adds.

  5. historianalice
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you so much for writing this post, it really chimes with things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m one of a group of PhD students taking an AHRC course on public engagement. At each workshop we hear from different people in the media and academics who have worked with them; their advice is priceless and we’re so lucky to be part of a small group to get it, but again and again we find ourselves asking how to balance sharing what we’re passionate about with not being exploited, particularly as ECRs. Lots of us already blog and we’re not afraid of hard work, but many of the suggestions for going beyond the blog involve having at the very least an institutional affiliation and a regular income, if not a permanent geographical position from which to build long-term projects and connections. Many ECRs don’t have those. It’s a cliché, but it’s not for want of trying that we’re finding things tough.

    It’s great to see someone highlighting that it can feel very like a minefield out there, which those who went before crossed before it was so hazardous, and who we’d like to follow but really often aren’t sure where to start!

  6. The Trickster Prince
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you Alice: this is an important comment and your perspective is really valuable. It sounds like there are some big tensions here — on the one hand this course gives you access to great networks; on the other hand it doesn’t address the position that you are in in terms of career stage and institution. No wonder that you’re finding this tough! Let me know how all this develops.

  7. cathfeely
    February 19, 2014

    Brilliant blog, Matt, and one that, as you know, chimes with my own thinking. I’m especially concerned about the impact agenda and the (well-meaning but perhaps dubious) advice being given to ECRs. I’m currently co-organising a symposium which will look critically at public engagement and we are going to have a panel focusing on the pressure being put on ECRs. Watch this space …

  8. The Trickster Prince
    February 19, 2014

    Thanks Cath: this is something I’ve been thinking over since the social media workshop the other week. I didn’t really want to write something that summarised my comments on the day, but this seems to reflect the general mood of what I was getting at. This point about misguided and often incorrect advice for PhD students and ECRs is something that really worries me. It’s great to hear that you’re looking for ways to address this.

  9. pajohnston
    February 20, 2014

    Really good blog post, thanks! I actually approach this from the counter perspective. I have done plenty of public engagement work, from working on museum exhibitions, to TV programmes, to policy formation, but because I’m an ECR (using that term very loosely) without an institutional association, it’s not really public engagement work – it’s just work!

  10. The Trickster Prince
    February 20, 2014

    Thank you: it’s really useful to get this kind of perspective into the conversation. I think we can too often miss that there are other issues at stake around all of these relationships.

  11. Mal Houlbrook
    February 20, 2014

    Brilliant Matt – shake up the establishment a bit more and get the debate started in earnest. It seems from the responses that you have alresdy received that the troops are rallying alongside you. Let battle begin eh?

    • The Trickster Prince
      February 20, 2014

      Thanks Dad: glad you liked!

      • Mal Houlbrook
        February 20, 2014

        Sound the trumpets and send out the rallying call.

  12. Laura King
    February 20, 2014

    Thanks Matt – I, too, agree with all of this. It’s a really tricky area. As someone working in a role that not only involves engagement, collaboration and ‘impact activities’, but also supporting others to do this, I’m a big supporter of ECR involvement in this kind of work and have always thought we should make our research as accessible as possible. But the pressure to find time to do this on top of everything else is tough.

    I find differentiating between different types of public engagement is basic but important, and encourage the fellow ECRs I work with to take more careful and strategic decisions about how they might start along this path. I also always emphasise that we should try to resist the (over-)emphasis on the importance of working with the media. Media appearances don’t mean impact, of course, and we should remind ourselves that engaging with a local museum, cultural organisation or community group, and the public audiences they work with, is often time much better spent. This is where researchers can get a lot out of engagement too, in contrast to being used and (potentially) abused by the media. The difficulty is often in demonstrating this value on both sides!

  13. The Trickster Prince
    February 20, 2014

    Thanks Laura: this is a really important perspective. I thought about including the work we do with community groups, museums, and archives but in the end decided it was more productive to focus on the media stuff here — and these are the issues that have been exercising me over the past couple of weeks. You’re exactly right that this is often the work that is most important, engaging, stimulating and productive.

  14. JudithRowbotham
    February 20, 2014

    What has always been worrying and problematic about historians’ attempts to engage honestly and professionally with the media is that the relationship is unbalanced because of a common assumption by media professionals that what academic historians yearn for primarily is ‘fame’, in the shape of their face on television, voice on the radio or name on the by-line, and that they will therefore be willing to compromise on what is delivered in their name in order to achieve that fame. Its not just the not-used interviews and research but the lack of respect for historical accuracy (as one recent researcher on a well-known programme put it to me when asking me for a comment I was reluctant to give): why should you worry? People won’t remember exactly what you say, only that you said something on tv. As you say, some historians such as the admirable Mary Beard have the determination and also the authority which comes with academic seniority and publications to stand up for themselves. But others are more easily bullied into an acceptance of an edited end result which can seriously transform the point that they were trying to make. We need to educate media professionals into a greater respect for the academic project as well.

  15. The Trickster Prince
    February 20, 2014

    That’s exactly it Judith! There seems to be an assumption that we share the values of a world in which celebrity and fame are the most important thing. It might be the case that a growing number of younger historians in the public eye are driven by that kind of motivation (naming no names, again). Still — I think that more of us still retain a sense of the public value of research, knowledge of the past, and accuracy. Your conversation with the researcher about accuracy seems symptomatic here. In a recent case I heard of an early career researcher generously gave up their time to identify the basic errors of fact in a widely advertised BBC4 series: they ignored her and screened anyway. There seems to be very little respect there.

    • JudithRowbotham
      February 20, 2014

      Yes, there is an assumption that media professionals know best what makes a good programme, regardless, and make use of hard work when it suits them – often without acknowledgement (I think of Garrow’s Law here, in relation to Tim Hitchcock et al’s work on the Old Bailey Online Proceedings) – or ignore it when they think they have a ‘better’ (ie less challenging and so ‘popular’) programme without it, I remember being hauled on a set to advise on a film adaptation of a Rosamund Lehman novel which initially set out its stall as being historically accurate. When I pointed out several appalling errors and clangers, what they did was decide to drop having a historical advisor and instead, advertise it as a pastiche! And so many historians I know have been on standby for programmes (from Today to Woman’s Hour, for instance) and then – when the phone call hasn’t come – been told, oh – something else came up and we went with that instead. But they assume it doesn’t matter and that you will be waiting next time… and sadly, because of the pressure from institutions, too many find themselves in a position where that is practically true. One reason I resigned from Nottingham Trent was because I was fed up with a lack of respect from my own institution on this front (as well as many others)…. At least I can now decide for myself if I want to be on such stand-by!

  16. The Trickster Prince
    February 20, 2014

    I’m happy to concede that media professionals have a far better idea than I do of what makes a good programme, but I don’t see why or how that has to come at the expense of accuracy and respect for the historical professionals on whose work they draw. In all the examples that you give there is very little give and take — nothing to build confidence and trust, for example.

    • JudithRowbotham
      February 20, 2014

      That is the issue – most of us are perfectly happy to learn what makes a good programme from the professionals, but they need to learn from us what makes good history! Unless and until there is a greater mutuality in the power balance, it will continue to be very difficult for there to be a mass engagement….and I honestly regret that!

  17. The Trickster Prince
    February 20, 2014

    Mutuality and ethics: that has to be the way forward!

  18. timhitchcock
    February 21, 2014

    Hi, Matt – thanks for your post, and comments. What I suspect we might disagree about, is the most effective early career strategies. But since perhaps my main point was rather lost in 140 characters perhaps I can expand on it.

    On the copyright issue, it seems to me that history is a shared memory – a fragment of civil society, and as historians we are privileged to work with it. But we do so by license only. The stories in the archives belong to the dead, and holding them to your breast as if they are our own, disrespects the dead, and serves no purpose for the living either. Copyright your methodologies if you wish; count up your hard work sifting the material, but remember dead. The analogy I tend to favour is with medical specimens – only we don’t even bother with asking permission to dissect them.

    In relation to historians ‘getting over themselves’, I just mean that history is more important than the people who write it. In my mind, history has always been a shared project – a political engagement with community and memory.

    I also believe that if early career historians (and others) don’t get out there, don’t think of their work as a contribution to public sphere, and don’t take the risks necessary in order to help make that happen, then they are not doing the job. And as importantly they are not doing themselves any favours in the job market.

    I am perhaps not the person to comment on any of this – and please accept my apologies for trying to participate, without perhaps checking my privilege thoroughly enough, But for all the privilege (class, health, gender, education) I still find that giving away the results of my own work (ideas and sources, references and stories); and scattering them to the widest winds, is a more effective way of contributing to ‘history’ than saving them all up for the monograph and counting the citations, in hope of exchanging them for a job. I have now spent several decades giving stuff away, motivated by my sense of commitment to the ‘historical project’. In the process, it has also proved about as good a ‘strategy’ as any I have heard described in the hothouse world of early career anxiety.

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  20. The Trickster Prince
    February 24, 2014

    Thanks for this intervention Tim: it’s really productive and challenging. Thinking about history as a shared memory or fragment of civil society seems vital here. This is what I was gesturing towards in talking about our public responsibilities as historians. I touched upon the idea of history as a common project in a post on the practiioners of history this time last year — see — but didn’t manage to articulate my ideas with as much clarity and force as you do here.

    Of course, as much as we might all agree about the politics of history-writing, and about the ethics of our relationship with those we write about, none of this exists in a vacuum. Differences of career stage, broader social and political hierarchies, and the institutions and markets that we have to engage with all make it easier for some of us to share our ideas as freely as you have been able to. At the recent History Lab Plus event on social media it was clear that early career historians are keenly aware of the importance of getting their work out there and intervening in public intellectual life. At the same time, they are also anxious about what might happen to their ideas (rather than simply their material) in a period in which they might still be establishing their reputation. The experiences that some of them generously underscore what the consequences of being too open might be.

    Like you I don’t believe in squirreling away material and counting citations. Like you, I guess, I’m in a position where that matters last.

    Thanks again for engaging in this debate: I really do appreciate it.

  21. Helen Berry
    August 12, 2014

    Your comments about providing advice to researchers and being used as a ‘jobbing historian’ resonated, Matt. Or as someone put it to me after I’d suggested a programme based on someone I’d been researching for 5 years: yeah, that’s great, but could you come up with a few more?

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