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Impact is not just coming, it is already here. Rant and rage, it’s a fact of academic life. In my view that’s (mostly) not such a bad thing. As a researcher I want my work to reach broad audiences, though I recognise that attempting to measure the impact of research is a fraught exercise with potential perverse effects. Our physicist friends tell us that observing a phenomenon changes it, and even “quality metrics” are pretty bad at capturing the kinds of value produced by culture. Scholarly work not only has intrinsic merit, but its “real world” effects or applications can take decades to manifest.

Yet like it or not, impact assessment is upon us. This means that historians need to spend a bit of time getting their head around what it means and how it might shape their work. And to my mind, there’s good political and disciplinary reasons for doing so.

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In the Griffith Review Great Reads newsletter this week I give my hearty endorsement to a piece by historian Paul Kramer in the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What use is history at a time like this? In this beautifully written and tightly argued piece, Paul Kramer of Vanderbilt University reveals that history is not only in political discourse and accounts of causation, but also in the ways individuals narrate their own lives. Kramer outlines what historians are especially good at: showing how current distributions of power emerge from past alignments, helping identify alternative paths, and cultivating empathy for others both past and present. However, talking about the ‘lessons of history’ is elitist and technocratic, so Kramer encourages historians to carry out their work in public and in collaboration with all kinds of citizens.

Neoliberalism works by disconnecting us from our past, from the natural world that sustains us and from each other. History can and should do the opposite. That’s why it matters so much at the moment. In the face of disconnection, it traces lines of connection and forges bonds of solidarity.

The Chronicle piece is behind a pay wall but here’s an open access link to it on Kramer’s own blog.

Way back in the far-away-world of 2010 I was invited to attend the tenth of a series of symposia on Knowledge and Space sponsored by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung in the Studio Villa Bosch, Heidelberg.

It was one of the most stimulating academic events I’ve yet attended. Although I had by then already begun to read outside the discipline of History, I had been doing so in a somewhat haphazard and unguided manner. It was the 2010 symposium in Heidelberg that really opened up my eyes to the conversations about knowledge, space, mobility and technology taking place in Science Studies and Geography. At it I met several scholars whose work has deeply influenced my own and encountered new horizons for my research.

Now some of the papers from this event have been published as Mobilities of Knowledge (volume 10 in the Klaus Tschira Knowledge and Space Book Series). Together they examine how the geographical mobility of people and (im)material things has impacted epistemic systems of knowledge in different historical and geographical contexts. Thanks to Springer and the Klaus Tschira Stiftung the volume is available online and as open access(Other volumes from the series are available here)

My piece considers the changing appointment practices of universities in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and its empire. It points to the importance of private knowledge and highlights the cultures of trust that shaped an academic geography that was both expansive and exclusionary.

But it should be the last thing you read. Check out this fantastic list of contributors! Read the rest of this entry »