Becoming a Public Historian: Issy Coleman

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Issy Coleman about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

IC: I chose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard dissertation because, truthfully, I did not want to write another standard history essay. As history students, we have written countless essays during our undergraduate degree, and therefore I felt the Practice-Based Dissertation would give me the opportunity to try something new. It would push me out of my comfort zone, enable me to be creative and original, and develop new skills. I got a taste of what ‘public history’ entailed in the second-year core module ‘History in Public’, as well as the special field unit ‘Remembering Transatlantic Enslavement.’ Both units were hindered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, they were interesting and therefore I knew I wanted to explore the public history field further.

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

IC: My public-facing project is a blog on two important histories of Black popular protest in Bristol: the St Pauls disturbance (1980) and the fall of the Colston statue (2020). My blog has several entries on these two events, exploring the themes of race, law and order, and activism. The idea is that each entry allows me to look at different angles and perspectives, placing different lens’ on the history of these two significant events. One of the main goals for my public-facing project was to open the conversation about these two histories. In order to achieve this, I integrated an interactive ‘Padlet’ feature onto my website whereby users could contribute and converse about the topics discussed.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

IC: I think probably because the removal of Edward Colston’s statue is so recent, these are two histories that have not yet been explored together, so my hope was to tread new ground with an original idea and analysis. Additionally, since arriving in Bristol to begin university in late 2018, I have been fascinated by the city’s history, particularly that of transatlantic enslavement. I have since felt passionate to explore the other angles of the city’s history.

Screenshot of Issy Coleman's blog page

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IC: I really enjoyed the process of creating, designing, and editing my website. I felt very proud to see my ideas come together in one space.

JM: What did you find challenging?

IC: I found it difficult to strike a balance with the language and tone of my blog posts. I tried to limit the use of jargon to make my blog accessible to the widest possible audience as well as maximise user engagement and understanding. I also found writing my report was difficult at times. Previously in my degree, I had never had to reflect on my practice or speak in the first person. It felt particularly strange to acknowledge the aspects of my work that didn’t go so well.

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

IC: One problem that I encountered, which is a pertinent issue for public historians, was gaining access to authorised images of the St Pauls disturbance (1980) that could be used on my website. This was made even harder with the pandemic, as I could not visit archives to see available images. In hindsight, this is something that I should have considered earlier in the process.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

IC: I have learnt how important and relevant public history really is. Understanding the past is a gateway to understanding the present, and public history offers exciting and creative ways that that this can be done.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

IC: Based on public history related literature, collaboration is at the core of the discipline. Therefore, I think that public historians must not only continue to collaborate with each other, but also the general public. It is the public that is at the heart of this strand of history, and so to be successful we must ensure that we are constantly communicating and engaging with them.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IC: I would probably say start early with creating your public-facing project. From my own experience, creating the website took much longer than I had anticipated. You need to factor in time for things to go ‘wrong’, for example I had serious technical difficulties with my website that I hadn’t really accounted for within my schedule of completion. In addition, this probably applies for both the standard dissertation and the Practice-Based one, but choose a topic you are really interested in. The dissertation is an 8-month process and therefore you need to remain interested in your topic throughout. I think it would be hard to stay motivated otherwise.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

IC: The blog can be found here.

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

IC: For anyone contemplating whether to choose the Practice-Based Dissertation – go for it! I am so glad that I took this unit as opposed to the standard 10,000-word dissertation, and I know so many people that wish they had chosen it.

 

 

Becoming a Public Historian: Josh Hillman

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Josh Hillman about his project.

 

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

JH: Whilst I’ve mostly enjoyed essay writing at University, the prospect of undertaking a piece of work that enabled me to showcase a different set of skills really appealed to me. Also, the possibility of producing a project that could help educate and influence people outside of University gave a purpose beyond merely completing my degree, which really motivated and inspired me.

Portrait of Josh Hillman

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

JH: The project I created was a website about the Second Iraq War and British Terrorist events. The site combines the use of short documentaries, information pages, interactive quizzes and learning tools in order to educate people about the links between British action in Iraq and events of Islamic extremism. The site’s main goal is to exist as an online ‘lesson’, meaning the content is presented in a format whereby the site user is guided through the site, building their knowledge and understanding as they interact with the content.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

JH: As well as these events and issues being particularly interesting to me, my project aims to achieve multiple objectives. Firstly and most importantly, it counters racist and Islamophobic narratives that currently exist in society by exhibiting how British military and political failures have contributed to creating a society whereby the risk of Islamic terrorist attacks are a reality. The project also contributes to the field of history by placing the Second Iraq War into ‘history’, as we reach a time where it becomes removed from current affairs. Doing so is important due to both secondary school and University students no longer benefitting from having a lived experience of the events.

Screenshot of Britain, Iraq and Terrorism website

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

JH: Having the ability to work on a project that led me to using many different skillsets (as well as learning lots of new ones) first and foremost made the project extremely enjoyable. The Practice-Based Dissertation also gives you much more freedom than the standard 10,000-word dissertation. Whilst there’s still the requirement to produce an output, how you go about that is completely up to you. The combination of this freedom and this new way of working really motivated me and made me feel like I was working more like I would in a job as opposed to how people traditionally work at University, and as a final-year student that feeling was the most enjoyable thing about doing this style of dissertation.

JM: What did you find challenging?

JH: The same freedom that made this project so fun also presented a lot of challenges. Creating a website meant that the amount of information I could have potentially included was endless and having to limit myself in what I produced was difficult. This was made harder by the fact that the Practice-Based Dissertation also requires you to write a 5,000-word report on your project and trying to ensure I balanced my time out in a sort of even manner between the two was also challenging.

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

JH: The main problem I found with the creating of a Public History project was the legality of using images/video from other sites or authors as part of my project. When creating my documentaries, I really wanted to use real footage of the events I was describing in order that my videos were engaging and interesting. This meant spending a lot of time finding footage that was copyright free, and also making sure that I provided attribution for absolutely everything that required it. Obviously this took up a decent amount of time – meaning that I really had to learn to allocate time in my planning to dealing with unforeseen obstacles.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

JH: From creating my project I’ve really come to appreciate the value of Public History. The majority of people learn their history not from academic journals or books but from websites, exhibitions and TV etc, meaning that these projects are extremely important in shaping and influencing peoples perspectives and understandings. As a result of this, I think University History students should do more to interact with Public History.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

JH: I think Public History needs more historians presenting their expertise in the shape of Public History projects. Doing so would improve the amount of materials available for the public to engage with, and as historians we surely want as many people to know as much about history as possible! If I were to give any advice to public historians, it would be to expect the unexpected when creating a project, as new information, issues and challenges can arise at any time and change the way you create your project.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

JH: Work out the purpose of your project early on. Therefore, once you start designing your project and content, you can always refer back to your purpose to help you shape your work. Also, there is great value in engaging with other people who are doing the PBD as you can see what good ideas and challenges they also have, which can help improve your own project.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

JH: The website is available at this address: www.britainiraqterrorism.co.uk

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JH: I think I’ve covered everything I had to say. Thank you!

Becoming a Public Historian: Nicola Howard

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Nicola Howard about her project.

 

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

NH: I decided to do the Practice-Based Dissertation after really enjoying throwing myself into the second year Public History Project for assessment during lockdown (for the core second year unit, History in Public), where I created a campaign displaying the history of the university’s new Temple Meads Campus. I achieved the best grade of my university career thus far in this assessment, and realised I really enjoyed thinking about how I could communicate history to the public through design. I jumped at the opportunity to do something so fun and creative as my dissertation.

Portrait image of Nicola

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

NH: I created an Instagram account called Fighting Fake History to raise awareness of the issue of fake history on social media. To compliment this, I also created a website where you could find out more about the project and the creator.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

NH: I realised very early on that I wanted to address the dangers and the nature of fake history online as I saw many examples happening around me. I felt like it was a branch of fake news that isn’t very well explored, and mostly goes unchallenged as social media users don’t usually critically analyse every post they see. I wanted to reach the young adult age range, so I made an Instagram account to connect this information to them.

Logo shows a magnifying glass, and the text 'Fighting Fake History'

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

NH: I enjoyed creating for my Instagram account the most. A lot of hours went into researching and deciding a colour palate and design style that would excite and entice my audience. I also created a logo for it, which made it feel like a real brand. It was really satisfying when these elements started clicking together.

I also really enjoyed the fact that my style of intervention was totally unique, as it did more than just point out different fake histories but also raised awareness of the dangers of habitual, uncritical engagement with material on social media.

Screenshot of Instagram posts from the Fighting Fake History handle

JM: What did you find challenging?

NH: I found balancing the workload challenging, especially as I changed my output idea quite close to the end. When it came to posting on the Instagram account, I wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked due to also trying to write my report and fulfil other uni/extra-curricular commitments. If I were to go back I would have definitely tried to make these decisions a little bit earlier on, but sometimes these things just happen and creative inspiration comes at awkward times!

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

NH: The reason why I changed my project close to the end was to solve an issue of reach. I was originally going to create three infographic posters to display this information on a website, which I could circulate online. However, to reach my target audience, I didn’t think this was an appropriate medium, nor one with much shareability to spread the message. To overcome this, I researched different platforms and changed my output to Instagram and a website to increase accessibility.

Logo reads 'Question What You See'

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

NH: I have learnt to have more confidence in my skills and ideas as a historian. Often, the essays and assessments you write throughout your undergraduate degree just get suspended on blackboard for eternity. The practice-based dissertation, however, brings your ideas alive and to the public. I learnt to embrace this and step outside of my comfort zone.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

NH: I think social media could be used more as a tool to connect more young people to history in engaging ways.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

NH: Try your best to make what you do as unique as you possibly can. For me, this involved making an intervention into something that no one else had done and it was really rewarding.

Also, keep asking questions to yourself about why you are doing things the way you are, as it will help inform your report.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

NH: You can find out more about my project by following the Instagram account and reading through the posts!

@fightingfakehistory

 

Becoming a Public Historian: Kate Sudakova

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit.

The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Kate Sudakova about her project.

A little bit about Kate: “I am from the small city of Astrakhan which stands on the Volga river in Russia. Astrakhan is known as the Russian capital of caviar. Since I was born, I was surrounded by people who knew everything about sturgeons and caviar, my parents and my grandmother. My family has been involved in aquaculture and sturgeon breeding for more than 20 years. I spent my childhood on a fish farm and learned a lot about fish that have been on our planet since the age of the dinosaurs. So, when the opportunity to create my own project arose, I had no doubt about the topic of the research. I wanted to carry on the legacy of my family and help save these unique and amazing species.”

 

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

KS: Since I started studying history at university, I always wondered in what ways I could use my knowledge in real life. In the second year I had a brief introduction into the public history but due to COVID I couldn’t fully engage with it. Nevertheless, I’ve finally found an answer to my question and was eager to try myself in producing something valuable for a non-academic audience. When I found out about the Practice-Based Dissertation I understood that it was my chance to make a real contribution and apply my knowledge in practice.

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

KS: My project is a combination of environmental history, public history and environmentalism. I addressed the problem which I’ve been familiar with since my early childhood – the problem of sturgeon extinction in the Volga-Caspian region. My research and practical output focused on the USSR industrialisation, construction of hydroelectric power stations along the Volga river, in particular, and discussed its effects on the natural habitat of sturgeons. With my project I intended to introduce a fresh look at this problem, from a historical point of view.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

KS: The Caspian sturgeon makes up 90% of the world reserves of various sturgeon species. To the present moment, connection between the USSR industrialisation and sturgeon extinction has not been explicitly highlighted. The majority of people consider poaching the main cause of the problem,  while damming of the Volga river produced an almost equally detrimental ecological effect. With my project I wanted to raise awareness about this critical situation.

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: To be honest, I enjoyed everything! From the research to the practical implementation. From the very beginning I understood that with my project I could really make a difference and tell people about a very important problem. I myself learned a lot and was terrified with the scale of the issue. So with every document I read, I was convinced that I was doing the right thing with producing this project.

JM: What did you find challenging?

KS: Probably the biggest challenge was the lack of information about the topic in English. As a native Russian speaker, I did not have a problem with understanding but translating the material into English was quite difficult and time consuming. I conducted two almost 2-hour interviews, both in Russian, and had to translate almost everything to include several parts in my documentary.

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

KS: I had one major problem at the final stage of my practical output production. I had some help with video editing and the document was too big to be downloaded to any cloud storage. This meant that I couldn’t check it and upload to YouTube. Finally, I decided to ask a person who did the editing to upload the film using my YouTube account and, fortunately, everything worked out great.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

KS: I’ve learnt that everything can be solved and there is no need to panic or worry. Just sit and think about all possible options, one of them will always work.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

KS: I genuinely think that public history should be taught more on history courses. I myself was briefly introduced into the field only during my second year. If history students knew more about it, I’m sure that much more of them would want to explore it and become public historians. On the practical side, I would say that my main recommendation is not to overthink when it comes to the practical output. Always keep in mind that the audience is non-academic and not everything a historian understands would be clear to a non-historian.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: My main advice is to find a topic which you’re really interested in. This way you will enjoy every aspect of your practice-based dissertation and will produce a truly amazing project!

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

KS: Through the website I produced, which you can find here!

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KS: I want to encourage third year history students to take the practice-based dissertation because it is an unforgettable experience where you could actually see how history can be useful outside the university walls.

Becoming a Public Historian: Haley Jensen

In this new series – ‘Becoming a Public Historian’ – Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit.

The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Haley Jensen about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

HJ: Initially I chose the practice-based dissertation because I thought it would teach me practical skills for working after graduation, as I didn’t see myself going on to pursue a PHD in history. Also, your project could actually influence and teach people outside of academia something about history which kind of motivated me to take this unit!

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

HJ: My project is a website on Phillis Wheatley and the high society people she met when she travelled to London in 1773. Wheatley was stolen from West Africa as a child, sent on the Middle Passage, enslaved and sold to a rich family in Boston as young as seven or eight years old. Despite the horrific trauma and racism she suffered, she became an internationally recognised poet. My project aims to celebrate her success by showing her famous interactions with well-known figures like Benjamin Franklin to highlight how successful she was.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

HJ: I am from America and moved to the UK for university, and as a nerdy history obsessed kid, I loved learning about revolutionary American history. I would read kids’ books, watch tv shows, and force my friends to play a game of tag where one side was ‘redcoats’ and the other side being ‘patriots’. So as a kid I knew a lot about the big men from the period like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benedict Arnold, and even military generals. Looking back, it’s upsetting that I couldn’t name any women or enslaved people from this period. The public history of the 18th century is totally biased to not include the stories of women and people of colour. I read a post online about Phillis Wheatley and became passionate about learning about her. She was so successful and it is really upsetting she’s not well-remembered or honoured in public history. Initially my project was aimed to educate American school kids about Wheatley, but as the year went on this changed to be made for general 18th century history fans, as her story is so important to tell.

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

HJ: I really had a lot of fun with this project that I don’t think I would have had with a traditional dissertation. There is so much freedom in how each project is undertaken. For example, my website includes portraits of the people she corresponded with. It was kind of a fun challenge finding these pictures, it felt like a little art history in my project so very different from normal essays. I then included letters that mention Wheatley or were written by her. These were kind of hard to find, but cool because I got to engage with history I don’t normally do in my degree. I found letters from Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, who I loved learning about in high school but didn’t learn about in my degree, so it’s cool choosing different aspects of history in your blog. I loved being able to have a creative outlet designing my blog, like picking different colours, formatting stuff, and being artistic, which I would not have with the traditional dissertation.

And as a side note, I emailed my final project to my middle school history teacher, and she said she would now teach her class about Phillis Wheatley which is so awesome! This project is cool because you can reach a bigger group of people outside of university!

JM: That IS cool! What did you find challenging?

HJ: Time management was kind of difficult with this project, I loved working on my website. So would spend a lot of time on that as opposed to writing my 5,000-word essay. The website always felt like there could be additional information added, new people added under who she met, even new pages on the site added, and formatting changes to be made. It was a fun creative outlet making the website, but I had to remind myself to focus on the essay as I was spending too much time on the website!

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

HJ: Yes! I came across issues within a lot of existing public history on the internet about Wheatley. So basically, when Wheatley was a young teenage girl enslaved, she wrote a poem called ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, in which she expresses gratitude towards her enslavement as she became Christian from it. Therefore, a lot of online blogs on Wheatley reinstate this and imply she was a supporter of slavery. This is totally untrue; the blogs completely ignore her other writings like a letter to Lord Dartmouth, where she expresses the pain her family felt when she was kidnapped and her love of liberty. My website tries to amend this historical inaccuracy by showing her connections to abolitionists and the letter to Lord Dartmouth.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

HJ: I learned a lot about myself! I really enjoyed this project and felt passionate about public history and its inspired me to pursue a masters next year in a degree related to public history! I would not have known I wanted my life to go in the direction of public history without the project!

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

HJ: Personally, I would advocate for more projects on Phillis Wheatley, but I am biased ha-ha. I am no expert, but there seems to be a shift on right now within public history to being more inclusive of different people’s history and more respectful of different backgrounds. Like overall a shift away from the ‘big men’ in history I mentioned at the start of the interview like Washington. All of this makes this unit even more exciting, like within my group we were all covering diverse topics. From really local history about the Colston Statue, Windrush’s legacy, to global history with post war black American history, and the US’s involvement in Chile.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

HJ: I’m sure next year will be different with in person learning, but we had Zoom chats with all group members who were doing different topics. We created a group chat on Facebook to message for advice when things come up. That was super useful so I might recommend that!

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

HJ: Here is the link to the website!

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HJ: No that’s all! Thank you so much for interviewing me!