Beyond Us and Them: Public History and the Battle for the Past on Twitter by Graham Smith

Twitter war

Just over a week ago The Guardian published an interview with Rebecca Rideal whose narrative history 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire  has just been published. The interview provoked a number of historians to Tweet criticism of Rideal, a PhD student and former TV producer who founded The History Vault. Her assertion that ‘The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end’ seems to have touched a particularly raw nerve.[1] The common complaint was that Rideal had failed to acknowledge that the fight against great men histories had been waged for over three decades.Twit 4

I have some sympathy with these grumblings. Back in 1982, I returned from completing an MA in Social History at Essex to my first university armed with a poster for Leonore Davidoff’s course. I was just pinning it to a noticeboard when the department’s senior professor of economic history spotted me and declared, ‘Women in History, Graham? Whatever next?’

However, as others have pointed out, the fact that the struggle to go beyond hegemonic discourses continues suggests that winning once is not enough. My belief is that evidence of a new generation reinventing ways of taking up that fight should be a cause for celebration rather than condemnation. As tends to happen on Twitter, battle-lines were drawn, allies and enemies were quickly made and exchanges sharpened after those initial criticisms of Rideal. On one side were historians who clearly identified with Rideal, especially those aiming to make a living from producing popular histories. On the other, for the most part, were historians working in universities, some of whom began to question whether Rideal was even qualified to write early modern history.

Spiraling sub-fights, with supporters weighing in from various camps, fed a debate that became increasingly acrimonious. There was also the usual Twitter induced comic confusion – it is not always clear who is responding to what strand as arguments fork, overlap, separate and loop. Nevertheless, things were very evidently turning nasty.

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Twit 1

 

 

Responses – public history

A common response during the course of the spat and afterwards has been to present the ‘history profession’ as broad enough to encompass both thTwit 2ose working inside and outside of universities. Such claims were underpinned in most cases with the argument that Rideal is engaged in ‘public history’.  Leaving aside the rather odd formulation of the ‘history profession’ with its Rankean pretensions, intellectual insecurities and constant discipline making, patching things up with another poorly conceived label seems like an inadequate way to proceed. Instead, moving the debate forward will require genuine reflection on the nature of ‘history’ as a profession; otherwise we will continue to periodically descend into bickering and trading insults.

One difficulty amongst historians in Britain is that public history is not as well developed or understood here as it is elsewhere, especially in North America and Australasia. We tend to talk about public history as history that is produced outside of university departments; an activity, such as a television history. Or sometimes we stretch this base definition to include public history as impact, especially the influence of historical policy research translated for the consumption of publics or politicians. But the roots of public history are older and the acrimony of the recent Twitter battle reminds me of a wider war.

In those very early and heady years of the 1980s, I had left Stirling University to learn about oral history at Essex. At the time, oral history was despised by ‘professional historians’, rather than generally misunderstood or dismissed as is the case now.  The economic historian I referred to above taught me in my final undergraduate year and on being approached for a reference recommended I should continue to study with him. By so doing, he insisted, I would be able to take, ‘A panoramic view of the past, rather than going down in the dirt with the yokels’. My response to such unashamed elitism, was to attend his final seminars dressed in a top hat and frock coat bought from the local Oxfam.

These days, the battles within ‘the profession’ are mainly over resources and too often fuelled by egotism. With its proponents organised into warring tribes according to the periods and places they study, or corralled into sub-disciplinary groupings, History is fractious even within the academy. In all of this sound and fury, and despite constant internal sniping, the discipline has been traditionally slow to innovate and much of the sparring is about maintaining rather than extending boundaries. It is worth noting, for example, that those pioneering courses in women’s history and oral history at Essex were taught in the Sociology Department. While members of other disciplines frequently offer support for new ideas, historians – too often operating as lone scholars – revel in knocking lumps out of one another, reserving particular spite for those who try to innovate. The result is that in open competition for resources, most obviously for research grant income or in the formation of mutually beneficial research partnerships, historians do not achieve the same results as, say, political scientists or human geographers. Nor are we as prepared to look after our researchers or early career colleagues as would be the case in economics or sociology.

So what can public history offer? In answering that question I’m alluding to historians who actively research and publish as reflective public historians and are not only making up numbers in the history commentariat. Drawing on the work of early oral history, at least some public historians have developed a greater sense of working in partnership, and have come to genuinely appreciate the notion of ‘shared authority’. This at its most basic is the recognition of different forms of expertise and was developed in response to the simple question of who were the authors of oral history interviews. Was it the (oral) historians conducting the interview? Or the interviewees who were specialists in their own lives and always much more (otherwise why bother interviewing them)? Or both?

It cannot be beyond the capability of historians, irrespective of where they work or what they work on, to collaborate on projects in a spirit of shared authority. While rigour in handling evidence, of broader interpretation and writing should be upheld, there is much to be gained by recognising that we may all be engaged in a common project that goes beyond individual conceptualisations or where we work. Just recognising that connecting with members of the public involves a different skill set and that the ways in which we communicate should become the subject of historical study would be a major step forward. Even more pressing is the need for greater recognition that large numbers of people, especially in Britain, are often deeply invested, passionate and knowledgeable about history. The notion that ‘we’, whether ‘we’ are in community or academy settings, are the arbiters or the sole traders of the past is pure delusion. The idea that there still a great deal to do within our imagined profession even after a peace treaty is declared, should keep us all busy and out of Twitter trouble.

Political scientists are already mining Twitter for research, most notably on its use in revolutionary situations.[2] One recent study has pointed to the significance of Twitter as a means of ‘collective sense making’ during times of instability.[3] It will be interesting to see what historians make of Twitter in the future. As an echo-chamber for congratulatory thought collectives or as a means to conduct acrimonious debate, the 140-character-a-time medium will offer rich evidence of the historiographical making and unmaking of ‘us’ and ‘other’.

Graham Smith is Senior Lecturer in Social Science at Royal Holloway, University of London and Chair of the Oral History Society.

[1] Lea, Richard, ‘Rebecca Rideal: “The Time of the Grand Histories Is Coming to an End”’, The Guardian, 25 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/25/rebecca-rideal-the-time-of-the-grand-histories-is-coming-to-an-end [accessed 3 September 2016].

[2] See Buettner, Ricardo, and Katharina Buettner, ‘A Systematic Literature Review of Twitter Research from a Socio-Political Revolution Perspective’, in ResearchGate, 2016 <http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.1.4239.9442&gt;

[3] Oh, O., C. Eom, and H. R. Rao, “Role of Social Media in Social Change: An Analysis of Collective Sense Making During the 2011 Egypt Revolution,” Information Systems Research, vol. 26, no. 1, pp.210–223, 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Beyond Us and Them: Public History and the Battle for the Past on Twitter by Graham Smith

  1. I’m somewhat uneasy that you use a screenshot of a twitter exchange that I had without any contextualisation of that particular conversation. It allows for considerable misinterpretation (Joanne Begiato).

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    • I do suggest in the article that it isn’t always easy to follow sub-debates in Twitter and I appreciate that misinterpretation could result from the posting of a part of a single exchange. I did take and archive more screenshots, including most of the exchanges in full, but wanted to illustrate the piece rather than replay the various discussions. I’ve spoken to Edward, who co-edits the blog with me, and we’re agreed that we would very much like offer you the chance to respond with your views on public history, or academic history, or ideally the relationship between the two.

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  2. You know, it’s interesting – being inadvertently at the centre of a Twitterstorm, being subtweeted* about (disingenuously in my view), and being blogged about by several commentators. All because of a typo and a swift (and regrettable) response to a newspaper headline. And all without any of the later commentators contacting me.

    So interesting, that I considered leaving Twitter. So interesting I was left shaky and self-doubting about my 30 year career which started with collegial support of fellow postgrads, and is now very much engaged with the support of the next generation of colleagues (to the detriment of my time, energy and own work).

    Anything I said – and I did try to engage constructively in public, and I don’t think I subtweeted without copying in the other commentators as much as possible – seemed to have been further fuel for a particular section of #Twitterstorians to continue *their* gatekeeping. Gatekeeping about a non-metropolitan, an older woman, or an historian in a Drama department. What would she know, she’s old, she’s a she, and anyway she’s just jealous.

    Interestingly, my comment was not motivated by any kind of debate over public history – it was primarily about women’s history, and historiography.It was in my personal narrative, also a memory of 30 years ago in the 80s and 90s, and the culture wars precisely over dismantling the grand narratives (they were often called ‘master narratives’ in those days). But few people asked me about that, or engaged with the issues the first Tweet raised.

    Still, with my other hat on as a literary critic, I was fascinated by the excesses of meaning read into my first (fewer than 140 characters) Tweet. But the whole thing has left a very sour taste, I have to admit.

    *Well, at least I learnt what “subtweet” means.

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