Engaging with History

I’ve been thinking about history ‘engagement’ recently. Partly this is because of our Cambridge PhDcasts – our fourth episode, featuring Alice Blackhurst talking about luxury in a digital age, is out today – and our reflections on producing the first season. What worked, what didn’t, what should we try next time? It’s also because last week Katy Barrett and I had lunch and a fascinating talk with Helen Weinstein, who works for the BBC and www.historyworks.tv. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the event Helen organised yesterday on ‘The Future of the Past at the BBC’ but it provoked some very interesting conversation on twitter – there is a storify here.

Really, I am still thinking, and I only have one point to make here. Well, two connected points. The first is that I think we need to see engagement, and its perplexing corollary ‘impact’, not as an adjunct to ‘traditional’ academic activity but as a single scale which ranges from the kind of mass media produced by the BBC to the kind of personal-contact teaching performed in schools, colleges, and universities. The second is that it seems to me that at the moment this scale is mainly being measured quantitatively, and we need to rescue the qualitative side.

There is a quite a lot of pressure now on academics to step out of the academy and present their research and their teaching to a wider audience. This is unquestionably a good thing: I hope my involvement with the PhDcasts and other projects such as MarineLives show that I am in favour of getting outside of those ivory towers. At the same time, I love university-level teaching, and I sympathise with a point made persuasively at a workshop organised by Brodie Waddell at Birkbeck last month, that universities should not lose their role as a place for difficult work, for research which is important but does not necessarily appeal to large numbers of people.

This is why it is so problematic that engagement seems to be measured mainly by numbers; the argument for doing things like radio and TV is often along the lines of ‘think how many people you could tell about your research!’ I admit that my interest in wider engagement was increased by the peculiar experience of a Ph.D., where you spend three years of your life writing 80,000 words which probably no more than ten people will ever read (although it also goes much further back than that). It’s natural to want to reach a bigger audience. I have also been delighted by the viewing numbers of our PhDcasts, which I have checked obsessively. Yet this is a very crude form of measurement. Yes, a TV programme might be seen by many thousands, even millions, of people, but I suspect that its actual impact on each individual is slight. This is even more so when you compare it with teaching, where the impact on an individual can be literally life-changing; that is certainly how I feel about some of the teachers I was lucky enough to have throughout my education.

Which brings me back to my first half-point: that this is a scale. At extreme ends are mass-media aimed at large numbers and teaching aimed at small numbers. Somewhere in the middle we might place local history societies, online initiatives like our PhDcasts, and perhaps radio shows which are often more in-depth than TV (although some of the tweets on the #bbcpast storify seem to want TV programmes to move in a more ‘radio’ direction). Researchers should definitely be encouraged to try out different forms of engagement, though I think they should also be allowed to specialise, play to their strengths, and do what they find to be personally most rewarding. Most of all, in assessing how successful each of these different forms of engagement are, I think we need to recognise not only how many people they might reach, but what nature of reach they have: how important, how enduring, how profound.

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4 thoughts on “Engaging with History

  1. Thanks Richard! Thoughtful piece… We actually have no straightforward and agreed methodology for how to measure the impact of cultural experiences on individuals, communities, nations. The AHRC is funding a series of research projects to help in this area and you can find the research papers on twitter via #culturalvalue, and apply for funding at the AHRC by going to the pages for THE CULTURAL VALUE PROJECT.
    For our #bbcpast event, please be sharing the storify made @historyworkstv. Note, there are two sets of storify and you should embed both in your blog: the questions and discussion harvested on Monday 13th May published as a storify on 14th May, and the questions and discussion harvested on Wednesday 15th May, and published on 16th May.

  2. Hear hear! Thanks for putting this out there, Richard. On the specific issue of ‘impact’ in REF, this reminds me of so many other government initiatives of this type. I think the idea of encouraging academics to disseminate their research and expertise beyond the university is an excellent one and, in fact, long overdue. Yet, as usual, they’ve ended up implementing it in such a crude, quantitative, punitive manner that it has actually turned many scholars against the whole idea and had all sorts of negative side effects.

    • Thanks Brodie! There are two particular dangers which worry me: that, as you suggest, something which should be (and so far for me has been) fun and rewarding could, through wrongly-applied pressure, come to be seen as a chore or something to resist; and that the value of personal interaction might be missed. I would like to see a balanced acknowledgement of the worth of all ways to ‘engage’. Perhaps the studies Helen mentioned will produce encouraging reflections!

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