This week we had both Louise Prowse and Mark McKenna in as guests to talk about local history. Both have “done” local history, as well as engaged with their communities and with local historical societies. They spoke about the theoretical/conceptual challenges of doing local history, as well as some of the practical issues that might arise. Of course, there is a strong relationship between the two, especially when raising questions that don’t always resonate with those who you are raising them with, as Louise pointed out. This can at least help push us to change the questions or think differently about our approaches.
Discussion ranged across a number of issues, including the relationship between the local and the national, the kinds of sources that might be important, and relationships between local authorities, the community, and the professional historian as well as the “hierarchies” of local knowledge and authority too.
We also talked about the tension inherent in working with local groups and writing analytical history, which again raised questions about who our histories are for, and what are they for? Do we need a sense of personal connection, or a common point of interest to work well together? Where do we feel a sense of belonging? What do we feel connected to? Do we need to connect with communities/localities that we study? Can we “own” a history that is not ours? Or is written by someone else? What can we bring to the table as “insiders” and as “outsiders”?
And the key question again, what is our role as historians? Mark McKenna has written that history should be about confronting myths, rather than reassuring stories. But Frank Bongiorno and Erik Ekland have written in their article “The Problem of Belonging: Contested Country in Australian Local History,” that instead of confronting myths, we should think about excavating the “historical meanings of social memory.” What role do myths play in our historical consciousness?
Building on all of this, I think one of the most important questions that arose from the readings and discussion this week is whether we can/should think of our histories as acts of reconciliation?
This week Annette Cairnduff, the University of Sydney’s Social Inclusion Director, came to talk to the class about the issue of inclusion, especially at Universities, and the University of Sydney in particular. She told us of her own background, the work done at the University of Sydney over the past six years, the collaborative projects encompassed in the Bridges to Higher Education Project, and why she is a passionate believer in the goal of inclusion. Both Annette and Hannah Forsyth, whose work we read in tandem (A History of the Modern Australian University ), noted that while Universities have become more inclusive over the past one hundred years or so, they have also continued to be sites of exclusion, too. And Sydney University still has some way to go to fulfil a more expansive vision of an inclusive University. For some of the efforts of Annette and the social inclusion unit, including Compass, see http://sydney.edu.au/compass/.
Annette’s talk echoed the readings on community history, too, or perhaps histories in communities. As noted last week, Martha Sears has urged us to think about history in ecological terms, as a dynamic and organic system where diverse and different parts contribute to the health of the whole. A more diverse and inclusive University will be a healthier and more dynamic place, too. Genuine engagement with a broader community is also a route toward a healthier University and is of course part of the University’s strategic plan.
Based on some of the exciting proposals for community work that have emerged so far in this unit, and which we discussed a bit this week in our tutorials, I am hopeful that students can play an important part in both connecting and engaging with diverse constituencies, and thinking more inclusively about history and history-making. It is clear from the readings and discussion this week that that would involve a recognition of the limits of our own knowledge; an openness and attentiveness to new forms of expressing knowledge; and a valuing of other ways of thinking about history and knowledge.
As Michael Frisch has written, an engaged history is about sharing authority, and letting go of some of our preoccupations and interests and what we know (like our traditional idea of research, writing a history essay, and playing it safe with something that we already know we do well). Doing so does and has raised anxiety levels a bit. This is understandable. Students are doing something new here – something so new that we don’t actually know what will result exactly. As Martha Sears notes, if we take this seriously, let go of our “authority” (as a history student) and engage, listen, and learn, history and history-making can be something more alive – organic, dynamic, etc. But not knowing what will result is scary, maybe even terrifying at times (and part of the “letting go”), but it is also the point at which we’ll all hopefully learn most.
A student report on HSTY3903: History & Historians.
The Middle Ages may well occupy a distant past, but the period seems to have a persistent hold in one way or another, whether invoked by political leaders in the West to designate the religious fundamentalism of ISIS or car-parks offering up the remains of long-dead kings. I just had a lecture on medieval Spain where Hélène Sirantoine explained Francisco Franco’s appropriation of the Reconquista narrative to service his political goals during Spain’s civil war in the twentieth century.
Among historians, the Middle Ages continues to undergo new treatments and approaches. In recent years, as global history gains general momentum (or rides the crest of a wave), some historians have turned to the concept of a global Middle Ages, with dedicated journals, conference roundtables, teaching units and research centres in tow.
My project for History & Historians began with investigating this concept of a global Middle Ages and its development among historians. My research led me to the work of Henry Pirenne (1862–1935), a Belgian medievalist renown for his famous ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne’ thesis. Briefly, the thesis argued against the then conventional proposition that the Germanic barbarian invasions of the fifth century instigated a break from antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. Instead, Pirenne proposed that these Germanic tribes embedded themselves in a continuing Roman world, establishing a syncretic Romano-Germanic culture, while it was the much later seventh-century event of Islam’s rise (Mohammed) that broke Mediterranean unity and gave rise to the Middle Ages, Western Christendom and Charlemagne. Pirenne made the bold statement that without Mohammed there would be no Charlemagne.
Reading Mohammed and Charlemagne for the first time, it struck me that not only was he writing about the early Middle Ages, but also a post-war Europe of the 1920s. In making a case against Germanic exceptionalism in late antiquity, Pirenne seemed to be challenging the triumphalism of the German nation-state with medieval roots as written by German historians of his time (and suggesting a modern Romano-Germanic culture, which is particularly relevant for a Belgian).
I then turned to his historiographical writing and a speech he made as president of the International Congress of Historical Science (Brussels, 1923). A consistent theme across these sources is his criticism of German historicism, Rankean political history, theories of race and ‘the nation’ as adequate frames for understanding the Middle Ages. Pirenne felt they were limiting, unscientific and/or dangerous. While it’s unlikely he would have used the word ‘global’ (though he might use ‘international’), I discovered in his post-war works a vision one could call global — looking beyond Europe, enthused by 1920s internationalism and concerned with connections between peoples.
This is, of course, Pirenne at the end of a long, successful career. His influence would be felt by his successors. After hearing Pirenne present his thesis in Algiers in 1931, Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘His lectures seemed prodigious to me; his hand opened and shut, and the entire Mediterranean was by turns free and locked in!’
In a 1924 article, ‘De l’influence allemande sur le mouvement historique contemporain’, Pirenne criticised German historians for valorising the Prussian state and ignoring the reality of events around them. He wrote, ‘Ces historiens se placaient volontairement dehors l’histoire’ (‘These historians willingly placed themselves outside history’). And while Pirenne’s words may be charged with the experience of war, occupation, detention and collegiate betrayal, they are a firm reminder that historians are themselves historical actors.
‘HSTY3903: History and Historians’ was a great opportunity to place history and historians in their own historical contexts.
In an essay entitled “Public History” in Clark and Ashton, eds., Australian History Now (2013), Paul Ashton reflected on his experiences as a public historian and the growth of the field in general. He concluded by noting his working definition of public history as “the practice of historical work in a wide range of forums and sites which involves the negotiation of different understandings about the nature of the past and its meaning and uses in the present” (179). Such a definition draws on Raphael Samuel’s idea (discussed last week) that “history is a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands,” and also points forward to Martha Sears’ ecological view of different forms of history-making as “part of a dynamic system where every diverse and distinctive element contributes to the vigour and health of the whole” (Sears, “History in Communities,” in Clark and Ashton, Australian History Now (2013), 212-213).
For me, this is a useful way of thinking about public history, and immediately encourages us to reflect on the practice of history in the University and classroom, which often (though not always) precludes these kinds of negotiations about different kinds of understandings about the past, and present uses. Our reading this week about the Enola Gay controversy in the United States in the early 1990s reinforced the dangers of not doing so, but also how difficult it might be to do so. Our discussions invariably shifted to the History Wars in Australia, but particularly the commemoration of Gallipoli and the ANZAC tradition. Is there a historical middle ground between commemoration and historical analysis? What role should the historian play in negotiating a kind of common ground that might move the debate forward, too? Opinions varied… Of course the Enola Gay controversy has resurfaced once again, especially in the USA and Japan, where the seventieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has just passed. History News Network, a useful clearing house for history-related news has been alive with discussion of this event (see, for example, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/159701http://).
We were also fortunate to have Bruce Baskerville https://twitter.com/mrbbaskerville join us to share his story of how he became a professional historian and the many challenges and opportunities he has faced. We were impressed with just how hard he has had to work at this and yet how many interesting projects he has been involved with. Students were keen to know how he got started, and also his hints on practical issues such as how to approach local and community organisations. Questions about ethics and responsibilities of the historian doing public history again came up in the discussion. Bruce, who is the current chair of the Professional Historians Association of NSW & ACT http://www.phansw.org.au, talked about some of this and also noted that the Professional Historians Association of Australia has some guidelines that might be useful in their “Code of Ethics” (see http://www.historians.org.au/). But Bruce also recognised that there are many grey areas that need more fulsome discussion. No doubt we’ll be coming back to some of these questions throughout the unit.
…REFLECTIONS on leading HSTY 3903 in semester 1, 2015…:
A surprise nudge, then a step: a new centre of gravity.
Some of the most stimulating intellectual environments encourage movement in our thinking even when we might not expect it. Thoughts are like bodies: they jostle, touch, struggle, fall, and leap. Discussion is a motive force, and I was thrilled by the directions we travelled as individuals and as a group in “History and Historians” – or “H&H” as we came to call it.
For teachers, building a new class always entails an ideal projection: “this is where we’ll start, and that is where we’ll end up.” But a class like H&H – by inviting its members to shape the direction of the semester, particularly in its last month, when we share our research in roundtable discussions – challenges that projection in exciting ways. My generic conception of what we’d learn by semester’s end had to be reformulated and expanded. My centre of gravity had shifted. The questions H&H members were asking were excitingly diverse; they dug into the construction of histories on at least five continents and over 10 centuries. Everyone had to learn how to “talk history” across those spaces and times while still addressing central questions about the craft of interpreting the past.
But amidst that diversity were some remarkable consonances. I hadn’t foreseen the thematic accords that would bind the projects of the 2015 cohort together: a questing after the nature of nationalism and its relationship to memory and politics; a concern for histories of global social justice and Indigenous peoples; a dissatisfaction with existing periodizations and a pursuit of new methods; a debate over the way that historians engage with the world outside the university; a desire to open up to analysis our accepted histories of class and gender. These were just some of the many links we forged.
By the end, it seemed to me as if we had all been nudged in new directions, prodded forward by the curiosity of our peers. In 2016 it will happen again, energized in different ways by a new group’s perspectives. And we’ll all step forward once more.
For those who don’t know the class, here’s the official description:
HSTY 3903: History and Historians
In this unit you will independently frame, research and write an original essay analyzing how historians have written about the past. In choosing your topic you may draw upon historical issues, approaches and debates encountered throughout your previous studies in history. The lectures and tutorials introduce you to new methodologies and approaches to the past, and guide you through the stages of identifying an issue or debate, researching and understanding its different aspects, and shaping your own argument in response.
This week we kicked off discussion by watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Performance of “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House in 2009 (click the link above for it). Since then, the musical Alexander Hamilton has been hugely popular in New York and now become a Broadway hit. See:
The clip was an appropriate starting point for a discussion about “What is History?,” “What is History for?”, “Who Does History?”, and “What is the role and responsibility of the historian in public history?.”
Our readings ranged from EH Carr’s classic essay “What is History” to M. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain, the former seemingly caught between the positivists of the 19th century and the postmodernists of the 20th, and the latter making an argument for history as a “turning and re-turning of myth, history, and memoir.” Momaday’s definition was arguably given some extra weight by an excerpt from Raphael Samuel’s 1994 book, Theatres of Memory, called “Unofficial Knowledge” in which Samuel pointed out the myriad ways we learn, and do, history (and in the process outlining an agenda for a new generation of cultural historians). We finished off with a discussion of an excerpt from Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen’s landmark study The Presence of the Past, with students pointing out that even since 1998, when they published this work, we seem to know a lot more about how non-historians think about the past and do history in their everyday lives.
We finished our seminar with a short discussion of just how to get started on a community-engaged project, emphasising that the engagement should come first, and let the historical questions arise from it. Several students shared their ideas about the kind of local/community organisation they might like to work with, and there were some terrific ideas. Very promising…
While we only managed to scratch the surface of the questions raised this week, they will of course be at the heart of this unit throughout the semester.
(Photo by Michael McDonnell, Broken Hill Railway Museum)
After several years in the planning, HSTY 3902: History Beyond the Classroom is finally under way this semester. I’m looking forward to teaching this, and to learning a great deal from each other. The main aim of this unit is as follows:
In this unit you will produce an independently framed and original researched project drawn from an engagement with communities and organisations outside the University. Students will explore history in action in a variety of contexts and think about different ways of creating and disseminating
history other than the traditional research essay that might appeal to a public audience. Lectures and field trips will help students frame relevant community-based questions, adopt appropriate methodologies, and explore new ways of presenting arguments or narratives. In tutorials we will workshop every stage of your project.
Part of the aim of this unit is to introduce students to history as a lived and lifelong practice and to appreciate history as a vital individual, community, and organizational practice. Together, we will explore a variety of histories in action via time spent working with or alongside community organizations outside the University and discuss the challenges and opportunities of history beyond the classroom. In keeping with this idea, we will also explore different formats for presenting our histories that might reach a wider and more public audience. In doing so, we will also discuss the vital questions around the issue of whether reaching for a wider audience means changing or diminishing academic standards. Can history beyond the classroom co-exist with and inform and enrich history practiced in the classroom?