Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Report on History Lab North East ‘History outside the Academy’, Sutherland Building, Northumbria University, 21 November 2014

Thanks to all those who attended and supported History Lab North East’s ‘History outside the Academy’ workshop. The day was built around a widely acknowledged problem facing researchers. On the one hand historians (and academics more broadly) are increasingly required and expected to disseminate their research to a non-academic audience. However, they also face a range of challenges, problems and pitfalls in doing this. Academics are expected to meet a wide range of criteria within academia – centred around results driven research outputs as well as teaching responsibilities – leaving little time for additional non-academic work. If time can be found, it is unclear how to balance the types of broad narratives that are so often a part of public history with the intellectual rigour and analysis expected in academic research. There are also questions about how academic research can actually be disseminated to a non-specialist audience? Without clear methods or directives in place even if researchers have the time and desire to reach new audiences, doing so is often dependent on their own initiatives. The workshop contended with these issues in a variety of ways.

The first paper of the day was given by Ellen Crabtree who gave an enlightening account of Madeleine Rebérioux’s activities during the Vietnam War. In particular, Ellen focused on the challenges that Rebérioux faced as an academic when she stepped into an especially visceral contemporary political debate and attempted to take action within that context. A notable member of the Communist Party, Rebérioux formed a key part of a transnational network that included American academics such as Noam Chomsky and which aimed to supply books to Hanoi University. Such a scheme was plagued by both practical issues and ideological fissures about the literature that should be provided. Despite its problems, ultimately the scheme represented a new form of academic militancy through which those in ‘Western’ institutions demonstrated solidarity with their peers in Vietnam.

The second paper of the day, presented by David Hope, gave an account of his own work and experience of stepping outside of the academy. David highlighted how Adam Smith’s seminal eighteenth century work The Wealth of Nations has been claimed by contemporary free-market advocates and right-wing thinkers in a way that minimises the text’s historical context. As a historian David seeks to critique this analysis of Smith but runs the risk of becoming a political agent himself. How to place contemporary politics in a proper historical context whilst avoiding becoming embroiled in partisan political debate is a difficult question and one with which Rebérioux must have also contended.

In the third paper of the session, David Thom brought out many of the broad themes of the day. An interesting comparison was drawn between history and poetry, and specifically the comments of Jeremy Paxman about the necessity for poets to connect with the public and not operate in closed artistic circles. As David is himself embarking on a new research project that looks at military service tribunals during the First World War, the centenary commemorations present opportunities for public engagement activities. However, as a PhD student with an expectation of rapid academic development in a strict three year timescale there appears to be an inherent tension between public engagement and academic research. With these seemingly conflicting expectations and the limited time available to meet them David runs the risk of creating two entirely different research projects – one ‘academic’ one ‘public’.

Following these papers the group was joined by John Wynne-Griffiths and Jo Moody from the National Trust who spoke about how the National Trust as an organisation engages with the public. From this discussion two main themes emerged. First, the techniques used by the Trust to ‘reach’ the public highlights just how much work needs to be undertaken to effectively engage with a broad audience. The Trust has to balance its own responsibilities as regards conservation with the provision of a visitor-centred experience that attracts high visitor numbers and ensures an enjoyable experience for people of all ages and backgrounds. Second, the opportunity for postgraduate researchers to work with and for organisations like the National Trust was explored, especially how postgraduates’ specialist knowledge and abilities were valued by the organisation. Postgraduate students were offered advice on how to approach charitable organisations like the National Trust and broader issues surrounding postgraduate employability were also discussed. 


History Lab North East 2014 – Postgraduate researchers learn about the inner workings of the National Trust.

The day concluded with the History Lab North East AGM. The following topics were discussed and will be addressed by the committee before the next event: 1) new representatives need to be chosen by the different member institutions to replace outgoing members; 2) a host institution and workshop theme need to be decided for the next event (a take on ‘publishing’ was raised as a possible theme); and 3) different ways to fund and raise the profile of future events were discussed. 

Once again the organisers (Stan Neal and David Hope) would like to thank all of the speakers and attendees, Northumbria University Graduate School, and the National Trust for their contributions to the workshop. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Call for Papers - History outside the Academy

Northumbria University, 21 November 2014

We are pleased to invite speakers for the next event of the History Lab North East. This time round, the theme for the half-day workshop will be ‘History outside the Academy’. As part of a fantastic networking opportunity for postgraduate students based in the North East, we are looking for speakers to present short papers (15-20 mins) that will form the basis of an afternoon workshop, which explores how to effectively disseminate historical research outside of academia.

The workshop is intended to create an informal and non-threatening atmosphere in which postgraduate researchers can share ideas, develop their skills, and create links with researchers from different institutions and backgrounds. Postgraduates from all areas of historical research are invited to participate. The afternoon’s proceedings are set to include:

  • Postgraduate papers that consider how cutting edge historical research can be applied to   non-academic contexts.
  • A group discussion on how the challenges of disseminating historical research to a wider audience can be overcome.
  • A training session for researchers on outreach and employability issues.
  • Networking and socialising opportunities with postgraduates from around the North East.

Each presentation should ideally provide a brief overview of the on-going research project and demonstrate how the project can be relevant and important in a non-academic context. Different approaches may highlight the possible social, political, cultural, or economic relevance of historical research to contemporary narratives. Above all, the workshop aims to generate debate, discussion, and introspective analysis of how we, as postgraduates, can escape from our scholarly spires and show how our research is of interest to a wider array of audiences.

Could interested speakers please send a 100-200 word abstract via email to historylab.northeast@gmail.com with ‘History outside the Academy’ as the subject by 21 October 2014.

Follow the History Lab on social media for further updates:
Twitter: @HistoryLabNE / https://twitter.com/HistoryLabNE

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Northumbria University Summer Speaker Series

Please find below the details of Northumbria University Summer Speaker Series - a series of public talks from Northumbria University postgrads.

Starting from 2nd July these bi-weekly events, covering a vast range of topics, will be taking place at the Literary & Philosophical Society (near Newcastle Central Station). 

They are open to everyone and refreshments will be provided. For more information head to www.northumbriasummerspeakerseries.wordpress.com or follow @NUSummerSpeaker on twitter. 


Monday, 12 May 2014

Report on History Lab North East 'Narratives' Workshop Hild Bede College, Durham, 8 May 2014

'Narratives' was the theme for the first meeting of the relaunched History Lab North East to be held in Durham. In part this was a natural development from the theme of 'sources and evidence' at the previous Newcastle workshop, but the call for papers suggested a discussion of both historians' narratives and those found in historical sources. Suggested topics included 'popular', 'public' and 'dominant' narratives; all sorts of narrative types, tropes and patterns; the particular influence of religious or mythological narratives; historical fiction and film; the importance of narrative in historical writing; and narrative as an appropriation of the power to 'construct' a past. The speakers responded to both these suggestions and to other approaches of their own to produce a highly stimulating afternoon.

Narrative in a very physical form was the main theme of Mike Cressey's paper on restoration plot narratives as (perhaps) 'the first celebrity hardbacks'. The unnecessarily costly format of The Information of Thomas Dangerfield (1680) was a clear attempt to bolster the author's credibility against other (often more cheaply produced) narratives. On the work's title and title-facing pages Dangerfield and his publishers went to great lengths to establish his account as “a genuine establishment work”, to the extent of advertising a license from the speaker of the House of Commons, although the act mandating such licensing had expired a year before. A large royal coat of arms completed the ensemble, informing the reader that the publishers were printers to the king. In response to questions afterwards, Mike noted that most plot narratives of the era were at least in part written to vindicate the characters of (suspected) plotters – though one witness in a court case used his own moral dissipation to support the veracity of his account of a subversive underworld. Authors also made substantial sums from sales, sometimes needed to cover their legal costs. In both respects, the ways in which the presentation of the product affected the judgements of the consumer was obviously not to be left to chance.

Nicki Kindersley discussed the problems of oral history as amplified by the challenge of 'spy stories' told by southern Sudanese who lived in Khartoum during the south's struggle for independence. The local press at the time characterized southerners as a “fifth column”, and returnees to the south seem to have embraced this identity in a “macho retelling” of their exploits in the underground resistance movement. On closer inspection, much of this 'espionage' turns out to have consisted of meetings with close acquaintances which never developed into wider networks; other stories contain  discrepancies, or indeed strange parallels with other accounts which suggest some level of fabrication. As Nicki demonstrated, however, to notice only this self-fashioning would be to miss the essential point of these narratives. They dramatize the general fear and uncertainty of the time, fuelled by a lack of information from the south itself and severe limitations on freedom of speech in Khartoum, which included very real cases of detention and torture.

In 1830s New South Wales, a “border war” was being fought between aboriginal people and white settlers around the fringes of the colony, resulting in a particularly brutal massacre of aboriginal women and children at Myall Creek on 10 June 1838. Stan Neal showed how this event has been contested by proponents of different narratives of Australian history ever since. For much of the contemporary metropolitan audience in Great Britain, in the years following the abolition of slavery, the event was “an atrocious massacre of innocent natives” (The Morning Post), but for the local Sydney Herald it was part of a necessary fightback by settlers, who, when threatened by savages, ought to “SHOOT THEM DEAD” (uppercase original). In the year 2000 a memorial was erected at the site of the massacre by the joint efforts of white and aboriginal Australians. But in the meantime historians had clashed bitterly over the question of whether a 'genocide' was perpetrated against aboriginal peoples in the early years of settlement, a debate which was joined by Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Myall Creek became a central event for many narratives – it was even transfigured into a romantic novel – but, as Stan pointed out, it was hardly a typical incident in that the perpetrators were prosecuted (twice), and hence an unusually substantial documentation was created and preserved.

Jessica Prestidge took up a theme well-known but rarely so calmly dissected in the north east: the representation and continual re-representation of Margaret Thatcher, in biographies by Patrick Cosgrave, Christopher Ogden and Charles Moore. Jessica sketched the problematic status of biography as an historical genre, in which inherent methodological conservatism meets inherent interdisciplinarity, and the highest praise is reserved for so-called 'definitive' works, yet biographers are so exposed to their subjects for so long that deep criticism of their 'heroes' becomes almost psychologically impossible. Narratives of Thatcher never emphasize complexity: for critics, she is shallow and tediously straightforward, whereas her supporters praise her steadfast single-mindedness. But her representations reveal the far from straightforward responses of observers to a woman in a position of traditional male authority, a politician from a non-establishment background, and with all this a player in global Cold War politics. Thatcher's own auto-narrative of humble beginnings, an inspiring father and a great destiny certainly looks pedestrian compared to fantastical depictions of her as a nanny, a governess, a boarding school teacher, a housewife full of domestic and familial virtue, the heir of Winston Churchill, and a British leader with an intense interest in America (Ogden, writing for a US audience). Biographers have many reasons for projecting these different characters on to Thatcher, but Jessica drew out one in particular: a person's life, especially that of a 'great person', is expected to conform to some sort of coherent narrative; and the biographer needs this narrative more than anyone else.

Appropriately for the final paper, Kathleen Reynolds took a more self-reflective approach. She asked how she can write an “honest narrative” of non-noble women undertaking unpaid medical work in early modern England (1400-1800). She pointed out that the sources do not speak for themselves: they need context to become meaningful. But though the scarcity of sources for this subject is one problem, the historian's act of selection and choice from amongst the available sources is still problematic, as is the act of periodization. This is particularly troublesome for women's history, as our conventional epochs – even those based on long-term economic and social movements – are primarily male in their frames of reference. But Kathleen expressly does not want to “smash female sources against male narratives”, and her efforts to do justice to her subjects are a welcome antidote to the self-promoting assault on supposed 'master narratives' which can sometimes characterize the intellectual shifts between generations of historians.

In a training session to complete the presentations, Andy McKay from Durham University's English Language Centre emphasized the role of the writer's linguistic choices at sentence and paragraph levels in creating their own voice within a narrative, and indeed the importance of a clear, active and distinctive voice altogether. Whilst this voice may sometimes have to be partially muffled in order to maintain an attachment to certain communities which prize abstraction of knowledge, and even in order to reduce vulnerability to criticism, Andy made the case for the importance of the knower over their knowledge within the humanities in particular, and for the value of active, “populated” writing as a voice with which the reader can not only engage their interest, but also their critical faculties. He offered some models of sentence and paragraph structure which might help to construct this sort of engaging text.

The organizers would like to thank the staff of Hild Bede College for hosting the workshop and serving an excellent lunch, the Centre for Academic and Researcher Development for funding the event, and especially the speakers and attendees for their contributions to the discussion.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

'Narratives' Workshop

Collier Room, Hild Bede College, Durham, 8 May 2014

12:00 Lunch

Session One

12:45 MIKE CRESSEY (Durham): Restoration Plot Narratives: The first celebrity hardbacks?

13:15 NICKI KINDERSLEY (Durham): “The night is pregnant with an invisible thing”: Spy stories
and narrative issues in South Sudan

13:45 Tea break

Session Two

14:00 STAN NEAL (Northumbria): The Myall Creek Massacre and Competing Narratives in
Australian History

14:30 JESSICA PRESTIDGE (Durham): Fictionalising Thatcher and the Contested Historical Value
of Biography

15:00 Tea break

Session Three
15:15 KATHLEEN REYNOLDS (Durham): Writing the History of Women and Early Modern
Medicine

Training Session
15:45 ANDY MCKAY (English Language Centre, Durham): Making Yourself Heard: The historian's
voice in writing

16:30 Concluding discussion and History Lab NE business

17:00 Post-workshop social

No registration is required, but if you have any dietry requirements please notify the organisers
via historylab.northeast@gmail.com.

Directions to Hild Bede College from Durham station:
Follow the signs to 'city centre' down a long flight of steps, then cross the road at the large
roundabout and carry straight on over the river alongside the A690 Leazes Road. Continue
following this major road past another roundabout and uphill to a third roundabout. The
entrance to the college is off this roundabout to the right (you may need to cross the road via the
footbridge). For the Collier Room, follow signs to the Caedmon Building
(https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/hild-bede/HildBedeSitePlan.pdf). The walk from the station
should take around 20 minutes.

Funded by Centre for Academic and Researcher Development, Durham University

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Here's a rare sight... a HLNE blog post!

This blog post serves two purposes. First, as a reminder that the call for papers deadline for our next event (on 'Narratives' at Durham University on 8 May) is tomorrow. What better way to spend a Sunday than writing a short abstract? Second, we thought it might be an idea to use the blog to start thinking about the theme of 'Narratives' in historical research before the event itself.

A long standing friend of History Lab (Northumbria University's Peter O'Connor) recently drew my attention to this Guardian article about truth in historical fiction. This is a somewhat different issue to that experienced by us researchers as though we may deal with narratives in various ways we're unlikely to pursue a particular narrative in our own research at the expense of academic integrity. That said, when discussing 'truth' in historical narratives the references to the ambiguity of 'historical fact' are of pertinence to us all.

As researchers dealing with various historical contexts - about which 'the facts' may be unclear - the appeal of a narrative to help us comprehend the events and processes we engage with is clear. However certain facts are often at odds with the broad narratives that historians have long used to situate and make sense of historical developments. In every whiggish account of teleological progress there are reactionary or conservative moments; Marxists conceptions are often complicated by actions that counteract economic processes; and, in my own research, the Saidian narrative of East versus West is undermined by the huge variables within these overly simplistic categories. Sometimes the nuance or complexity of historical events means that the facts don't lend themselves to a coherent narrative.

So how do historians reconcile the 'facts' (if they do indeed exist) with broader historical narratives? Come to our Durham event to find out!

Stan Neal 
(History Lab North East, Northumbria Rep)