Back in 2010, about 10 months after starting my PhD, I posited the question of how we define ourselves as professional historians. At the time, I suggested that the best definition for me was as a British Military Historian. This was based on my research interests and where I saw myself going career wise. I suggested that how we define ourselves was often based on career decisions and the need to compete for jobs.

Now that I have a job, where do I stand with this? Firstly, my job in part defines me. My job title, Aviation Historian, specifies the area that I work in as I am employed, in part, to ‘Conduct and publish research in the fields of Aviation and Air Power History’. However, even this is sketchy because the term ‘Aviation’ conjures up visions of aircraft and a technological bent to my research. This could not be further from the truth. As an historian, I am more conceptual in bent. My interests lie in organisational and conceptual aspects of the RAF’s history rather than its technology. Indeed as I noted here, I have slowly moved towards the fields of social and cultural history concerning the RAF. In this respect, the term Aviation is a bit of a misnomer. Indeed, this is why ‘Air Power History’ appears in my job specification when I made suggested amendments to it not long after I started my job.

However, my job has also redefined me in another way. While I am still ostensibly, an academic I do not work in a traditional academic setting i.e. a university. So where does this leave me? Well, there is only one answer; I am now a Public Historian. Public history is invariably applied to those activities that take place outside of an academic setting such as museums, archives, film and TV etc. Of course, this now means me as I am working in the museum context. This is an interesting challenge and one that I relish as I very much have a forward facing role that is designed to help inform and shape public knowledge in a number of ways. I continue to undertake academic study and engage with academia as part of the public sphere. However, I also act as the face of the museum where it is applicable. For example, I am often called on to conduct interviews with the media, which is an interesting experience. I am also often called on to give lectures at the museum (watch this space for more news on this front) and at outside venues. It is an interesting challenge trying to maintain the balance between academic and the public side of my role.

Another label that has changed more recently that of being a PhD student. This is on the way out as in May I passed my PhD pending the completion of some corrections. This all means that I am in a transition phase as I move on into new areas as well as finding a new research topic.

All I would say is that as much as we try to define ourselves, we should never forget that sometimes circumstance steps in and does that for us. This is no bad thing.


4 thoughts on “How do we define ourselves? II

  1. Ross,

    I think any time we place a label on ourselves we immediately are stuck with trying to define ourselves in terms of it. This is highly problematic as when we constantly change our positions, we are keep trying to redefine our who we are. So, titles are a means of someone else being able to place you inside a box that they can understand.

    So, even though, I do not know you, I would tend to put you into my box labelled, Public Historian who happens to specialize in concepts of Airpower, works at a museum and holds a PhD. But, with that said, I am sure you could field just about anything I threw at you.



  2. Hi Ross

    You make some really interesting points, particularly regarding the definitions of an ‘academic historian’ and a ‘public historian’. With the issue of public engagement so high on the agenda of most HE institutions these days, how this distinction between ‘public’ and ‘academic’ history will change in the future will be interesting to see.

    For my part, I’ve always been interested in how we define a ‘historian’ (I wrote a recent post on this: In my view, being a historian equips you with certain skills and abilities which a lay person does not possess when it comes to the analysis and dissemination of history. That you might happen to specialise in a certain subject/country/era or work in a certain setting is less defining then your status as a professional historian, in my opinion.

  3. Luke,

    I think we are forced by circumstance to define ourselves. Our jobs force us too. Descriptions help people understand what we do, however, they are not always that clear and as your note, we are constantly changing. It is increasingly the case that we move on in jobs. Your definition of what I do illustrates that. I am happy with either moniker as both give me a degree of freedom to operate within the field and I enjoy the opportunities it affords me.

  4. Heather,

    Your are right. Lines are becoming increasingly blurred. Indeed, I still consider myself an academic. I just one who works in a different type of institution. With the exception of teaching I do many of the same roles as a university based academic. Indeed, in place of teaching, my job description lists exhibition as my other key roles but I still doing research and admin like any other academic. I think university based academics will increasingly have to come to occupy of public space as we seek to inform debate of key issue but I think this is something that many of the best lecturers have been doing for many years. It is just much more explicit now.

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