- Engaging People in Making History:Impact, Public Engagement and the World Beyond the Campus
Universities and academics constantly find new and exciting ways to engage with the world beyond the campus. The idea of working in genuine collaboration with non-academics is not new. Since the 1960s and earlier, the history from below and oral history movements have involved community groups and members in the process of knowledge production. The History Workshop movement of the late 1960s and the intellectual contribution of Raphael Samuel were particularly important in expanding definitions of authority and ownership over the past. By the 1990s, Samuel was observing that ‘history is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s invention. It is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands’.1 The intellectual rationale behind such external engagement has expressed itself through a growing literature on public history, though the concept has never had a fixed definition.2 This article suggests that the ideas of history-frombelow thinkers such as Samuel remain important and can be used to criticize current instrumentalist ideas about the uses of history, in the UK notably the notion of ‘impact’. As Samuel noted in 1981, people’s history helped to challenge ‘professionalized monopolies of knowledge’. This is again an important aim within the current ‘impact agenda’ which prioritizes one-way dissemination from university to public. Our own experiences of engagement, collaboration and maximizing research impact, as modern (King) and early modern (Rivett) British historians, are indicated by our title. Emphasis on the process of making histories has proved particularly successful in our own work with non-academic partners. We have both focused on contemporary issues and histories in our engagement, but it is most certainly possible to bring in historical knowledge from a wide range of periods and places.3 In this article, we draw on our own experiences, in particular a collaboration with a theatre company, Babakas, around the theme of fatherhood, and the Sheffield Stories of Activism project. Here we offer some balanced criticism of the ways in which universities [End Page 218] conceptualize their relationship with partners and publics beyond the campus, considering the current context of higher education in the UK in particular.
Historians in recent years have been reflecting on how history can be useful. Some suggest the arts and humanities have an innate value and draw, knowingly or not, upon a venerated tradition in which universities exist as a protected space wherein the highest of ‘aspirations and ideals’ can be reached.4 Others have articulated the ways in which history has a role in the present and future. As Pat Thane wrote in 2009, history is not just about heritage or a distant and non-useful past, but can be of immediate use in the present, not least to politicians.5 Pam Cox expanded this discussion in 2013,6 while in The History Manifesto (2014) Jo Guldi and David Armitage brought these debates to a broader audience, and claimed that historians’ unique training can contribute to finding solutions to the most urgent contemporary problems: inequality, a crisis of global governance and climate change.7 Their call for historians to participate more actively in public life has been widely debated and criticized, not least because it overlooks important examples of how historians are already engaging with, for example, policymakers.8
More recently, funding for co-produced research has become increasingly common, and in the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) recent ‘Connected Communities’ scheme has demonstrated the many ways in which academic historians can effectively work in collaboration.9 The UK National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement aims to promote a wide range of engagement activity, and encourages universities to sign up to its manifesto, that institutions should share ‘our knowledge, resources and skills with the public’, but also learn from ‘the expertise and insight of the different communities with which we engage’.10 Importantly, though, these developments have a broader history that precedes recent imperatives and debates concerning impact. The University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural...