Monday, 29 April 2013

Sometimes the water flows downhill!

Sometimes The Historian can seem like a bit of a grump. Public policy? It's usually done pretty badly. The news agenda? Dominated by commentators who can't remember yesterday, let alone post-war Britain... and rarely know much even about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Austerity? Don't even get me started.

But every now and again a little shaft of light pierces though the gloom. That was the case on Saturday, when I had the honour to chair a research degrees training day at my home institution.

The speakers were great - sharp about the use of the internet for research, interesting about the nature of blogging, really fascinating about the use of social media to disseminate students' research. The non-academic speakers, from the Royal Literary Fund not least, were also superb - focused, helpful, useful, to the point. I felt like a bit of a dinosaur in a way, because when I started with research, I had to get great big dusty tomes out of the Bodleian and shoot paper slips down Harry Potter-style holes in the wall. Now it's all changed, as the audience (full itself of writers and thinkers) appreciated. Research has become something protean, a blurry, moving set of boundaries that are in flux all the time. It's much less easy to pin down: but it's much more exciting.

The barriers to understanding are many. Academic writing that obfuscates more than it enlightens. Academic feuding that seems to go on for decades, long after the initial issues have been long forgotten. A grasp on research ethics and research efficacy that sometimes seems slippery at best.

But sometimes, somehow, through all the dissauding torrents of controversy, via what passes for Higher Education 'policy', despite all the slog... sometimes the waters of new knowledge do flow. If that's right, it's a critical insight at a depressing time, and a welcome boost to sagging morale.

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