History and Consultancy: Opportunities for Early-Career Historians
November 16th 2012, University of Manchester
The latest History Lab Plus workshop was held on November 2012, at The University of Manchester. Titled ‘History and Consultancy’, the morning was split into two sessions: ‘History and Policy: Why and How?’, and ‘Public History: Working with Cultural Institutions, Community Groups and the Media’.
In ‘History and Policy: Why and How?’, Prof. Bertrand Taithe (Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester) started by talking about the many years that he has been involved with NGOs. He described a different type of network from the ones we are perhaps used to where it is clear that, as an academic, you are in a position to influence or suggest modifications to particular policy, but you should not over-estimate the impact you may have. Your role will probably be viewed as impartial, but one that can open up research questions in an imaginative way. For Prof. Taithe, his work as a consultant has impacted on his own research in that involvement with NGOs refreshes his own research agenda, and makes him ask the ‘so what’ questions more readily. He discussed the importance of realising that meaningful involvement with a particular network will take years (because you will need to earn credibility and trust), and that informal meetings over a drink can be as important as formal events.
Dr Eleanor Davey (Overseas Development Institute, and Research Associate at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) of the University of Manchester) then spoke about her involvement with universities from ‘the other side’. One of the first points that she made was based around the importance of learning different professional languages. We all know that there are expectations about how to write for academic publication, and the same applies to non-university organisations. Sometimes academics can be ineffective consultants because they do not adapt to a new type of language: sometimes academic prose can alienate and fail to engage different audiences. If it is your ambition to become an effective consultant this will involve a very time-consuming evaluation of your own communication style. Dr. Davey then talked about the hugely positive impact historians can have: they are there to articulate the importance of historical understanding.
Picking up on this theme, Dr. Stephanie Snow (Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester) then talked about the ways in which her historical research (funded by Manchester PCT, and co-authored with Emma Jones) has been used as a valuable resource by the Department of Health’s Equality & Diversity Committee. It was clear that by challenging the assumptions of the present and the past, by identifying long-term patterns or problems within the NHS her work led to a series of recommendations. One of the central points made by Dr. Snow was that institutions should not react to crisis and instability, but plan for it and manage it. This insight stemmed directly from her historical research into how the NHS is organised. Dr. Snow also explained how her position as an ‘impartial’ and independent researcher helped her suggestions gain recognition within the NHS. A powerful outcome here is that Dr. Snow is lucky enough to see how her research and consultancy has influenced policy directly, for the benefit of many.
In the second session, ‘Public History: Working with Cultural Institutions, Community Groups and the Media’ Dr Kate Bradley (School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent) began by talking about how to develop a media profile. It became clear that it is difficult to be strategic about media work, because the nature of the industry is so different to academia. The importance of pitching ideas succinctly was discussed, and some of the pressures involved were outlined (including a nice anecdote about working on live radio). If you are thinking about getting involved in media work, it is important to get in touch with your university press office, and try to build up experience and contacts. Your university may encourage you to do this kind of work as it raises the profile of the institution. As for presenting technique, Dr. Bradley talked about preparing a clear message (you may only have thirty seconds to speak, so it may be worth learning your lines), and doing a sensible amount of research before an interview. Normally you know what questions you will be asked, so you should have time to research a full and accurate response. Echoing the first session, the big message is that it will take some time and sustained effort to establish yourself as a media-savvy historian, but there can be plenty of favourable outcomes in the end.
Next up, Dr Scott Anthony (University of Cambridge) talked about his transition from journalism to academia, and offered some thoughts on his work on the history of public relations. Echoing Dr. Bradley’s earlier comments, Dr. Anthony stressed the importance of the ‘one line pitch’ to journalists, and also to understand that journalists will have specific agendas of their own which you will have to work around. He demonstrated how particular forays into the media can be perilous, citing how his discussion of a long-lost Nazi document led to some rather hysterical headlines in the national press. After listening to Drs. Bradley and Anthony, it seems clear that if you are happy with the risk of your work gaining its own life and momentum in the mass media – for example, we can have little or no control over editing broadcasts, or headlines – it may well be something useful for you to pursue.
Fiona Cosson (Manchester Centre for Regional History, Manchester Metropolitan University) finished the day with a talk on her work on community oral history projects, with her research focus being on community and nostalgia. She has worked with community groups on a variety projects and whilst finding this rewarding she also mentioned the fact that this is very time-consuming work (especially with the need to transcribe interviews). The need to build networks was stressed, as was the need to be adaptive to different interview situations.
Overall, acting as a consultant can clearly be a valuable and rewarding experience. If you manage to gain credibility as an impartial ‘expert’, then you can make suggestions that may genuine influence change, improve policy, or respond to public interest in a particular aspect of the past.
All speakers agreed that there is a need to be adaptive, strategic and open-minded about how you approach consultancy. In itself, this could be a valuable part of the development of your own career as a historian. It may also make you re-evaluate your own research.
Although consultancy work can be rewarding, meaningful and exciting, approaching people and institutions away from your own university can be time-consuming and will be frustrating at times. With this in mind, working out exactly how your work as a consultant fits into a broader vision of what you want to get out of your career is very important. You must be prepared to ‘play the long game’, and perhaps view your development as a consultant as a five year process: you need to be patient and selfless in giving up what may be your spare time meeting with people, but you should also be a little selfish in thinking about how you can make the process benefit your own career trajectory.
Jonathan Hogg, University of Liverpool