The “Writing Lives” project*

*(or why following twitter historians can be as rewarding as following history teachers)

I 11372417_1456795201306836_1653475993_nwas thinking about teaching A level coursework the other day, specifically OCR’s interpretations and investigations coursework. For years the examiner’s reports have emphasised that students should not be taught to label historians as ‘orthodox’ or ‘revisionist’, and that instead they should be focussing on the different approaches and evidence that historians use when addressing the validity of their judgements.

The tendency of some history teaching resources (and perhaps also of some history teachers) to present the interaction of historians as one of conflict is troubling.  Often historiography is shown as an unfolding development of orthodox historians being challenged by revisionists who then find themselves challenged in turn by post-revisionists.  At worst history is presented as a series of battles between antagonistic titans – the example of Hugh Trevor-Roper -v- AJP Taylor springs to mind.

Is this how historians really work?  Is the current generation always to be found stripping the gilding from and digging out the foundations of the previous generation’s work?  Do historians really have professional enemies with whom they engage in Pokémon type battles, aggressively lobbing interpretations tipped with evidential explosives?

Reading about the Writing Lives project being run by Helen Rogers makes me think that this isn’t how historians really work – and that there are lessons we can learn from the project about how we set exams as well as how we teach our students about the discipline.   Students on Helen’s Writing Lives final year module at Liverpool John Moores University have each taken responsibility for blogging about one of the people whose memoirs have been given to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies.  This is a great idea on its own, made more meaningful by the end goal of publishing an ebook which draws on the research the students make as a group, but innovative as it is, this is not why I’m drawn to blog about it.

What I found so interesting (so much that I nearly missed my bus home tonight as I read the ‘about’ page) was the way that Helen explained the context to the project.  The about page explains the historiography of working class memoirs, describing several books that you want to go and read straight away.  It then goes on to explain the way that the field has changed and grown, some of the directions that Helen and others want to take it, and the great opportunity offered by the sample represented in the Burnett archive, which is very different from those used by a previous generation of writers.  This isn’t a dismissal of the previous work, in fact the insights and patterns of that work are presented as jumping off points for future work, not something to be ‘revised’ or explained away.

I’d really like to think about ways that we might get school students, and especially those working at A level on independent study to consider the ways that different historians’  viewpoints can be used to spark enquiries, and to help them see that this needn’t always involve deciding which ‘interpretation’ is better than the others.

6 thoughts on “The “Writing Lives” project*

  1. There is, I think, a structural issue in publishing, especially journal articles, encouraging historians to say how they are original, which can easily turn into damning the old. But actually, big arguments played out in public are rare and has more to do with the personalities involved than intellectual issues. 95-99% of the time our work is seen as collaborative and incremental, even when we disagree. The respect for predecessors is usually very great – in fact, usually unless they were personally obnoxious in some way. The Trevor-Ropers, Fergusons and so on stand out, to be honest, not because of their brilliance but because of their rarity and determination to find an audience.

  2. Thanks Paul, it seems that you’re confirming my suspicion of the ‘battle of the dons’ approach. I don’t have much experience of undergrad history – is comparison of historians’ positions something that university history students are asked to do?

  3. Ah! Had to laugh when you talked about the Pokémon type battles! That is, sadly, the perfect analogy of what I saw when I took myself to an academic science conference after my MSci to see if I was ‘just being silly’ not wanting to do a PhD when I’m capable and they’re good, right? Paul’s point about academic publishing is spot on, plus the fact that the scientists I was amongst were getting 9 out of 10 research applications rejected on the ground of funding shortages. It seemed all this created an aggressive atmosphere wholly unlike the image if ‘Science’ I had in my mind as a child and student.

    I’m one of those who never ‘got the point’ of history in school; had wonderful teachers but, there seemed no purpose in the study. Now I’m a huge fan of the History Extra podcast and know others who listen, so I’m no longer alone (just being metaphorically patted on the head for my knowledge i.e. A’s) and can actually engage in real gritty conversations about what things mean and what we’ll do about it. So much fun! My biggest message for students now is to connect with people leading the field your interested in. There’s no formal learning that touches the learning possible when you collaborate with people you admire.

    • You’ve hit several nails on the head Leah 🙂 – and one of the most important avenues that the internet opens up is the potential for interaction with experts – in terms of reading their stuff and listening to their ideas, but also potentially talking directly with them. Alex Ford’s amazing project ‘meet the historians’ is a fantastic example of this – you can see it at

      • Clever what’s happening, isn’t it? I’m also a fan of ‘The Conversation’ for hearing and connecting with academics. Takes some practice, but the keyboard could be one of the most democratising tools we’ve ever created; we all have the same buttons – what do we do with them? History isn’t something I think I’ll ever dive deep into (doesn’t ‘do it’ for me like for others), but I know I need to KNOW people who are in there. Talking with them is how I sense check and, in terms of my work, their understanding is crucial.

  4. Ed, it really depends on what is being studied I think. There are of course positions associated with particular authors, but we would rarely set questions that were about ‘choosing’ between them, or at least, what we really want is students to bypass often caricatured debates to tell us how they would make an assessment of the issues. At university level – especially at Cambridge – they are not being presented with two views, but a dozen different pieces, and they quickly work out that everything is more nuanced – and we hope learn that in many issues we are simply quite far from having enough evidence for a convincing explanation and need to do more work. They also quickly discover that many of the people they think are really important are actually just one or two among dozens of folk working on any issue and often aren’t considered especially significant by academic historians. These facts partly explain why many historians get a bit annoyed by TV history, because the way we work, and the uncertainties, are not portrayed by the focus on the ‘genius; or ‘journey’ of a presenter who all too often doesn’t work in the field at all. Certainly many students arrive expecting history to be big blood-and-thunder set pieces between the titans of the field, and most of us try and knock that out of them as quickly as possible. They love a good dust up because it makes history look simpler, and also encourages them into a view of history that it is all about dust-ups between titans: which in my view is bad history. Interesting what Leah says; history is in my experience far more civil than economics, but conferences (and actual research) are generally far more civil than people are sometimes forced to be in print. In environmental history everyone is so civil and supportive we could arguably do with a bit more dissent!

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