November 26, 2015 | Patrick McGhee.
Produced in collaboration with Doing History in Public.
History means talking to each other. More now than ever before, members of the public are able to join with students, researchers and academics in order to communicate and connect across departments and disciplines, countries and continents. Digital platforms and social networks such as academia.edu, WordPress and Twitter can both augment and change the way we share and debate ideas.
However, some platforms bring with them their own pitfalls. Conversations can become insular, engaging only those whose opinions are already situated within predefined perimeters of agreement. In parallel, the growing need to boost viewing figures risks promoting a ‘clickbait‘ culture wherein the titles for articles and blog posts often matter more than the piece itself. In a number of areas, there is also a risk of trivialisation. For example, how do we conduct a meaningful, public conversation about morality, political turmoil or the past in bite-sized chunks of 140 characters? How do we balance complexity with engagement? In order to make the most of the exciting, yet complex and challenging opportunities offered by the digital world, our efforts must extend beyond the occasional tweet or eye-catching headline.
A crucial exercise will be to listen as well as talk. Academia in general, and history in particular, can benefit from a reciprocal relationship involving shared social spaces and the exchange of ideas between researchers and non-specialists. This will require closer connections between universities and between disciplines, especially through interdisciplinary projects such as ‘Inciting Sparks’, which are essential if we are to navigate through these new digital environments. Most importantly, this endeavour will mean listening to what people around the world think about the arguments taking place within academia and the world around them.
This reciprocity is also at the heart of the Doing History In Public project at the University of Cambridge. Focused on publishing dynamic, innovative and accessible posts about research and current affairs, the blog seeks not only to share ideas with as wide an audience as possible, but also to hear what those audiences have to say. Our recent conference, ‘Making Big Data Human’, emphasised accessibility alongside critical analysis in the pursuit of quantitative historical evidence and research data. Meanwhile, contributors have argued not only that archives, libraries and museums have a duty to act as public spaces, but also crucially that such public engagement is directly beneficial to the study of History. Others have explored the changing nature of various mediums including historical novels, television drama and video games, identifying ways in which these sources of entertainment can foster productive debates and understanding or engage future generations of students and researchers in complex and rewarding historical conversations.
This effort to widen the range of platforms in which History can take place is crucial because the discipline pertains directly to the way we think about our lives. Historians engage with political debates, situating current crises and poignant controversies in their essential historical contexts and thus reshaping our responses to them. Historians emphasise the many ways in which the past is intimately and inseparably linked with our own identities, from sexuality, gender and ethnicity, to the memories, traditions and cultures in which we ourselves are steeped. These connections between public and past are simultaneously too important to be confined within the academy and too complex to merely tweet about. At a time when the pursuits of research are increasingly interrogated with questions about ‘impact’ and ‘value’, it is the responsibility of academics and students to join with non-specialists and the wider public in an attempt to decide upon what these words can mean for the benefit of all in a digital age.
This is just one of the many challenges that History can help us face together, but they are always only aspects of a much wider, deeper and perpetually changing dialogue. ‘Doing History In Public’ means talking and listening to each other. We warmly invite you to join in the conversation.
I am a graduate student of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, researching atheism and unbelief in post-Reformation England.
Edited by Matthew Tibble and Bridget Moynihan.