Just over three weeks ago MBS published thirteen responses to The History Manifesto based on discussions at our regular reading group. I’ve Storify-ed the twitter reaction to our responses but wanted to use this post to elaborate on some themes and criticisms.
Throughout the posts and discussions The History Manifesto’s notion of the public, enthusiasm for big data, and some may say overuse of the term longue durée have been questioned. It struck me that Deborah Cohen and Jo Guldi’s brief debate over the activist/academic relationship, outlined in the Storify, incorporated a lot of these concerns. Guldi and Armitage’s emphasis on big data and the longue durée ignore practices like oral history, in doing so ignore certain opportunities for public engagement. Again, although they praise archive building, they focus on unseen government documents and the politics of wikileaks, rather than engaging the public in recording their own histories, directly political or otherwise.
Time for a disclaimer: I work on activism and local government in the 1970s and 1980s in Sheffield, and use a lot of oral history in my work. My time-frame is short, and my geography local. I have also contributed to the building of an archive of activism in Sheffield led by a coalition of activists and academics who shared the aim of recording Sheffield’s activist past in the hope of nurturing current and future activists. In my work I have found it useful to look at Sheffield’s activist past from 1850 onwards, but my actual research focuses on the 1970s and 1980s, and the archive we’ve been building relies on contributions from living people, ruling out a longue durée approach.
Guldi and Armitage have laudable aims, and sentiments that, with more reflection, I probably share. I want my work to speak more widely to post-war Britain, and have been trained to work with the “So what?” question at the forefront of my mind. It will surprise no one that I agree with Matthew Hilton’s emphasis on the big picture and I think there are ways at getting at the big picture without necessary using big data or the longue durée. This obviously comes from my work, but I would argue that the small, short, qualitative and local can also shed light on the big picture, and that these types of history and the publics they engage with should not be ruled out.
The publishing format of The History Manifesto has also been widely commented on. Open access has undoubtedly facilitated discussion, and much of this is taking place on twitter and through blogs. Social media platforms like twitter, Facebook and Storify also allow us to listen in on debates had elsewhere, such as this discussion had between Jo Guldi and Kevin O’Sullivan’s MA students at NUI Galway. Indeed our MBS responses migrated online from an old fashioned reading group in a local pub. Social media and tagging systems allow readers to control general spaces for discussion through hashtags, rather than using specific online spaces and forums, which makes further discussion easy to access as well. Yet, like always, access to debates is still constrained to those who know where to look. Becoming literate on twitter might be easier than finding your way into department reading groups, but we should also remember that for all its perks twitter often reflects society with the same people having big voices and a lot of reach on and offline.
Last, I’d like to address one of the main criticisms being levelled at the MBS responses. Ben White pointed out the lack of responses from women involved in MBS, and I imagine he was not the only person to think it. We certainly noticed it when putting together the responses but decided to go ahead. The fact is MBS is a white male-heavy research centre. This is an explanation of sorts but it is not meant to be an excuse because it is symptom of a wider problem. Why are there so many more men than women at MBS? Why are there so few black and ethnic minority professors in Britain? Why do women postgraduates lose faith in academia as a career option in more drastic numbers than their male counterparts (and I’m sure this is a problem in arts as well)?
As a woman coming to the end of a PhD this is something I’ve thought about quite a lot, and talked about with my peers. Whilst preparing the Storify I came across other discussions had by women about their experiences at conferences and in academia more generally. One of the ideas often raised to tackle this is mentorship; successful women in academia mentoring other women. And I have to say I am all for this as long as it does not put too much extra pressure on women involved. I’ve been lucky at Birmingham; we’ve built a good post-graduate community and are made to feel welcome and included by faculty members. The men in the department I deal with on a day-to-day basis have always been overwhelmingly supportive and helpful throughout my PhD. But when I’ve had the chance to sit down with women in the department for a chat about teaching or career development it has felt supportive and encouraging in a different and important way. One thing we can all do as historians thinking about our craft, is to also think about our working practices, formal and informal; recognise when there are fewer women and particularly BME academics in the room; and try to make ourselves more representative of the public we seek to converse with.