Dr Alice Violett
Book thoughts and PhD archive

#storypast: Common People, by Alison Light

As promised last week, this week’s blog is about the ‘Storying the Past’ session me, Helen Rogers, and Simon Briercliffe ran at the Social History Society conference, concurrently with a Twitter conversation.  We didn’t actually end up discussing the book itself that much in the end - instead, there was a lot of conversation over the wider issues the construction of Common People and the format of the session raised.  More information about Common People can be found on the Storying The Past blog.

One big area of debate was about how we write history.  We identified that Common People (like the other books we’ve read for Storying The Past) differs to ‘academic’ history in its use of story and narrative (there was some debate over the definitions of these words too!).  Some people in the room felt that we already do write history as stories - we can’t help but set the scene or present anecdotes in a narrative format.  Others questioned why we can’t just go ahead and be more like storytellers - the answer being the perceived need to conform to certain ways of writing in order to be a ‘serious’ historian.  One brave soul in the room had successfully written a PhD in a particularly story-ish format.  For my part, I’ve been sticking to the archaic ‘rules’ because I don’t want to fall foul of an unsympathetic supervisory or viva board and rewrite the whole thing.  I’ll come back to this in a bit, but the time it takes to do anything and the pressures for output in academia seem to preclude taking risks or trying something different.

Another issue we discussed was how attached historians feel to their subjects.  I, for one, really liked how Light was honest that she didn’t really feel emotional about the ancestors she had never met, and didn’t want to make them seem more special or important than they really are.  It made a change from the mawkish sentimentality of geneaology programmes and adverts where people get really upset over what they discover about their relatives.  Some people in the room made good, counteracting, points though - for example, if an ancestor was killed in a well-known conflict, that would understandably provide a connection to the horror of said conflict, as well as sadness about a life cut short and the suffering caused to their more immediate family.  This reminded me of the ‘Everyday Lives In War’ film I blogged about last year, where people recounted the stories about the First World War that had come down through their families. 

There was also some disagreement with Light that family historians are ‘ineluctably part of the group’ they’re researching - I, for one, feel pretty damn attached to my only children by this point!  It was also suggested that, counter-intuitively, family historians can be more objective about their subjects precisely because they are concerned with producing rounded pictures of their ancestors, with as much information as possible.  Perhaps if you’re researching a stranger, you’re less inclined to put in all that effort.  Definitely something to ponder!

Towards the end of the session, there was some heated debate about the use of Twitter during the session/previous Storying The Past discussions which were purely online, as well as the immediacy of the internet more generally.  I found I couldn’t concentrate on both the Twitter feed and the conversation in the room at the same time, in the same way that I can’t listen to music and read at the same time - I tune one or the other out.  A few people commented that the two were a bit disjointed, with the people in Twitter not always knowing what was going down in the room.  However, I disagreed with someone who asked if Twitter was in danger of replacing conferences.  I found that by having a ‘live’ session and a Twitter conversation, we not only included people who don’t use Twitter in the discussion, but also people who couldn’t get to the conference for whatever reason.  I love conferences, but they’re a drain on money and energy, and they’re not on all the time, so Twitter is a great way to keep academic conversations going when we’re all at our different institutions and ensure people aren’t excluded if they don’t have the money, freedom, or health to attend a conference.

There were also some people who disagreed with the immediacy of social media, expressing a preference for incubation of ideas until they produce a piece of work with their final conclusions.  This is where the pressure and time of academia come in.  Right from the beginning of my PhD, I’ve been told to cultivate an online presence so that people know who I am and what my work is about.  If I hadn’t posted work-in-progress blogs (which I hopefully made pretty clear weren’t the final thing!), people wouldn’t know what it is I’m doing exactly.  Besides, conference papers are also work-in-progress - I see blogging as another way of getting half-formed ideas across, again because nobody is constantly at conferences.  Hopefully by doing this, I’ve made some people interested enough to buy a book if I ever write one!  It takes a really long time for a book or a journal article to come out, and maybe I just don’t like delayed gratification that much - I want people’s feedback on my ideas now, dammit!  I guess I’m also ‘showing my working’, and that ideas about history don’t just come to you fully-formed, which might be the impression with a book where the writer hasn’t recorded the process.  A blog is also a good place to put short bits of writing that have turned out not to fit into your study any more, but are too short to become journal articles, so that they don’t go to waste.  I think times are a-changing in academia.  I wish blogs were more widely regarded as ‘impact’!

I enjoyed being involved in the ‘live’ session - it was really rewarding to see something I had contributed to attract so many people and spark so much discussion!  Given the opportunity, I would do it again.  Even if I couldn’t be at a conference where a Storying The Past discussion was being held, I would definitely get very involved in the Twitter feed.