You’re a what?

When meeting new people how do you answer the perennial question: what do you do?

I know we all change our answers depending on our audience, but there usually is an essential thread.

More often than not I call myself a teacher, which probably reveals more about my own interests and insecurities than I would like. Interestingly, when people show more interest and ask where, and I tell them I work at a university, they usually say something along the lines of ‘oh you’re an academic’. Everytime I hear that response, to me it seems to imply teaching, being an educator is not something the public see as being an part of the role of an academic.

Some decades ago now (more than I’d care to admit) I was on a tour of Italy after completing a postgraduate degree in the field of public history.  They did one of those hideous ‘introduce yourself’ activities in the bus. When it came my turn, for the first time ever, I announced myself to be a historian.

This was met mostly with two kinds of facial responses: one was disinterest, the other was confusion. Clearly I did not fit the idea of what a ‘historian’ was in the minds of most of the people on the tour. Also clearly many did not see it as an interesting career – a response that was particularly curious given a large focus of the tour was about Italy’s past.

Somewhat non-plussed myself I didn’t think about it again. Until a few days later when, sitting around having drinks one night after touring through an area of Northern Italy, someone who was keeping a diary of their trip asked me a question. It was something to do with the history of the place, it was all so long ago now I cannot recall the details. What I do recall to this day is how the small group around me grew and others began to ask questions and add things to their journals/trip diaries based on what I shared about the history of the place we had visited. It was a surreal moment. One that repeated itself multiple evenings during the trip. While I already had experience with lecturing and tutoring in history at university level, that was to students who chose to study history. It was the first time I was ever seriously asked about my knowledge because I was a historian in a non-academic context.

I can’t say that has happened much since.

But it has stuck with me as an example of the strange relationship historians have with the public. There seems to be such a stereotype of what one is, and young women (as I was then) do not fit the assumed mold.

Now many decades on, I have a speciality I am passionate about, Screened History.

It is a field for which I now find myself campaigning for – at conferences, in articles and most recently in my book. It is a field referred to by historiographical introductions, and most historians as ‘History and film’. But, for me that title no longer fits – the issue at the heart of Reframing the Past – because our society has technologically moved well beyond just film or even television as a place where history is enacted and communicated. The ever expanding new forms of media and communication in our society make the idea of the field I research in being called ‘History and film’ no longer feasible. Hence, Screened History.

Unsurprisingly, over the last decade when asked ‘what do you do’, I have begun to respond that I am a ‘historian of film and television’ and now more confidently, a ‘screened historian’.

This certainly gets more enthusiastic responses. Yet very quickly it is also revealed that most people think I have an encyclopedic knowledge of films. In the public sphere, again, the idea that I am a Screened Historian – someone who has spent over a decade researching and writing about how historians have interacted with, talked about and even produced history on screen – still does not fit the more general assumptions of what is history and who are historians.

It is an issue that I often consider when I am pondering my research, career options and future path.

I love shows like QI and watch many, many productions from the History channel and other ‘past’ related television. Yet the era of the ‘celebrity historian’, the well known, public historian (perhaps best embodied by the likes of AJP Taylor in the 1960s and 1970s, through to Simon Schama in the 1990s and 2000s) seems to have lost momentum. Yet we clearly see many celebrity scientists in the current period – like  Professor Brian Cox or Neil deGrasse Tyson – have caught the eye of popular culture.

Last week, in a tutorial activity I gave a group of students a list of common university disciplines, including the fields of law, medicine, history, drama, and many others. They were then told that they were in charge of the university, and that due to economic pressures, they had to choose 3 disciplines to close down, to cut from the offerings, and to provide the rationale for their decisions.

The activity always proves popular, with lively debates and often hilarious reasons for closing certain departments. There has been a consistent trend in what to close over the last 6 years I have run this activity – history gets cut (actually usually every discipline I have ever studied gets cut). Yet again this year many groups chose to cut History.

But within a heated group debate about a far more creative response another group made  to cut medicine, law and environmental science, because they felt the university should specialise in the humanities and social sciences as a way of differentiating itself in a crowded market place, one student commented ‘but there is no point in teaching History’.

A sobering response for someone who has dedicated over 20 years to the field.

So what does this all mean for those of us whose passion and careers are in the field of history? Where do we fit within popular culture, and what roles should we be actively developing?

Reconceptualising ‘History and film’ as Screened History is perhaps my personal response. To argue that the field of History needs to know more about how it has engaged with film and television in the past, and has to consider how it will engage with new forms of media into the future. History, a public interest in the past, can be found alive and well in popular culture, on television, in film, online and in print.

Yet I still have students passionately arguing that history is not relevant.

And I still find myself wondering how to answer the perennial question ‘what do you do?’

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