Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
What do we talk about when we talk about doing history?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the dull aches and low grade anxieties that come along with not doing history. Two transatlantic flights and a couple of hundred miles on the bike have prompted a moment of realisation: I was wrong.
What do we talk about when we talk about doing history? I talked then about the frustration of not getting my hands dirty. Being in an archive or library marks our work through the dust of the past. I talked also about the struggles of not writing. Words on screen mark the progress of our ideas.
All of that makes sense, but I was still wrong. I talked about teaching as a “consolation — something to hold onto.” “Smart students, exciting conversations, new and challenging ways of thinking about things I thought I had a handle on” — important and productive, but still (I suggested) something outside of the real work of doing history.
That’s what I got wrong.
And that’s what I have to apologise to all my students for. Because I realised that I’ve spent the past academic year doing history. Talking week on week about British culture in the 1920s and 1930s — this is a kind of collective, collaborative, repetitive process of doing history that is just as valuable as time in an archive or library.
Research-lead teaching is a cliche of the modern university. The stuff of job interviews and PGCert portfolios, it’s even written into the cut-and-paste preamble we use in all our module handbooks (let’s leave aside the fact that nobody reads this and our assessment strategies often work in the opposite direction for now).
It isn’t just a cliche, though, and I want to acknowledge here the meaningful importance of collaboration, collective engagement, and mutual learning to my own doing of history.
Like the work I’ve done for Prince of Tricksters in the past, my new special subject People of the Aftermath: British Culture in the 1920s and 1930s has been a vital way of doing history this year. The course is set up to try out an idea. War memorials and Amongst the Nerves of the World; suburban neuroses and The Manchester Rambler; Una Marson and the British Empire Exhibition; the BBC and MO; dance halls and cinemas; seeking and self-fashioning; modernist buildings and Housing Problems — all of these are a way of working out my sense of this period’s importance in the making of modern Britain. It might not always be obvious, but threaded through the sessions and sources is an argument I want to make in a book I mean to write.
Take a look at #20s30s if you want to know more.
When it comes to write the acknowledgments to that book, the students who I have been doing the history of 1920s and 1930s Britain with this year will be right up there. It will be their book as much as mine.
Taking our cue from Raymond Williams, our final session looked back over the year through single keywords and objects. I wasn’t expecting to find the 1920s and 1930s characterised as the Hogwarts Express, but that and other ideas have prompted new ways of thinking.
A smaller example — but no less important for that. I have known about the libel case that James and Emily Kitten brought against the muckraking journal John Bull in 1926 for many years now. I have used the furore over “The Black Man’s Cafe” to explore the explosive debates around race and culture after the Great War. Returning to the sources this year, our collaborative process of doing history teased out the surprising (and surprisingly precise) connections between a backstreet cafe and a transnational anti-colonial politics. It turns out that from Soho to Ladipo Solanke and the West African Students’ Union isn’t so far after all.
Doing history in this way, has given me a thread, a hook — a book chapter in my head. Now I just need those words on screen.
What do we talk about when we talk about doing history? Conversations that start in a classroom are just as important to the shape of our ideas as that fetishised time alone in a library or archive. Here we think together, and learn from one another, in ways that are meaningful and energised. This is talk about unacknowledged debts, ongoing dialogues, and the exhilaration that comes from always being caught off guard.
So I was wrong. I was wrong to think of the past year as one in which I was not doing history. For all its frustrations, I have never stopped doing history with and alongside all of those students I have been lucky enough to share #20s30s. Notes and photographed sources, archival dust and drafts of chapters — all of these appear much clearer as a result.
In this instance, when I talk about doing history, I am talking about an apology and a debt of gratitude.