Does my reflexivity embarrass you?

Lisa McKenzie and Me, WCSA conference Washington, being Reflexive
Lisa McKenzie and Me, WCSA conference Washington, being Reflexive


You can now access the open version of the online resource I produced for the history department at Sussex,  Reflexivity and History .  You should be able to log on as a guest.

This post is about teaching reflexivity, and indeed teaching reflexively. However, in the way that messy discussions in history spill into one another this is also in many ways a continuation of my response to the Modern British Studies conference at Birmingham. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot are the implications of what happens when we put our personal into our political (or professional).  I’ve warned about what I see as the dangers of over-investment, entitlement and exploitation in the last post.  But I do need to have a word with myself.  As a historian of identity I know that the self is a central part of my work, of all of our work.  But I want to suggest that we should accord the role of the self, and the implications of that, the same careful thought as we do with the rest of our work.  It is not enough to state our personal engagement, we need to think about what it means.

We recently introduced an individual reflexive assessment to sit alongside group presentations at each of the three stages of our degree at the University of Sussex.  The responses of students and faculty raised far more interesting questions than the assignment itself was initially designed to explore. We ask students to think through the implications of the decisions that they made about how they do history. These might be historiographical, methodological or thinking about the significance of the discipline in the current political, social and economic context.  It might be autobiographical.  It might be biographical – working through a particular historian’s approach.  It might be working through the implications of a type of evidence.  Reflexivity (not just thinking about what your do – but thinking about why it matters) is at the heart of all historical scholarship – but, give it a name, tell students they really can do whatever they want with the task (as long as they do it well) and people start to get really nervous.  Yet, if you have ever written, or read a good introduction you have been engaging with reflexive history.

I thought I’d share my introduction to reflexivity for first year history students on a core course called The History of Now, and then share my favourite piece of recent reflexive writing.

Whichever direction students take in these tasks, this assessment is not an easy ride.  We are asking them to analyse what Mark Bloch described as the historian’s craft; a combination of labour, ideas, context, and self. I wanted to make sure that students, and colleagues, understood that a reflexive essay is not a diary or a description of how they produced a project.  It is an opportunity to really think about your role and position within the discipline, and indeed the discipline’s role in your life.  This does of course rest on the idea that the discipline has some role in your life beyond its quantifiable assessment potential.  And yet assessed you will be. Perhaps reflexivity is so uncomfortable for people because it absolutely foregrounds the faultlines of what we do when our teaching and learning are a commodity.  Reflexivity invites an acknowledgement of the pleasure, or unease, of making and writing History.  But I think it can also be a dissident intervention.  In a world were we are endlessly quantified, through evaluations, league tables, even the metrics we measure our blogs in, then reflexivity can be an act of reclamation and resistance. You do need to know your limits though. Reflexivity can involve thinking about the ways in which your sense of self, or your identity, informs your choices about historical methods, and approaches.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Because it seems that when we start talking about ourselves, people really do get a bit uncomfortable.  Or perhaps when some of us start talking about ourselves, some other people get a bit uncomfortable.

To try and pin this down I organised a roundtable of different members of the department to talk about a piece of reflexive writing and talk about how it had helped them in their own work.

I talked about Getting By: Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa McKenzie.  Partly because it is my current favourite book, and partly because it helps us shake up the relationship between historical writing and History as a discipline.  McKenzie is a sociologist. Part of Reflexivity is, after all thinking about why something clicks with you so much that it speaks directly to you even when it isn’t your story, or even in your field.

So why?

Massive thank yous to Kitty, Anne and Peter at TLDU at Sussex Uni for filming and chopping up bits of the Reflexivity Lecture and Roundtable as part of Technology Enhanced Learning. The resources are being used in a new moodle based VLE to be attached to any module in the History department that uses Reflexive Essays as a form of assessment.  I’ve included a list of some of the readings from that site in case they are of interest.  It might be interesting for people to comment with their own favourite examples too??

Bibliography and suggested reading on Reflexivity in History

Bloch, Marc The Historian’s Craft, (Manchester, 1992), p40-53

Bolton, Gillie Reflective Practice and Introduction Section1 (Sage, 2001)  p11-15

Annelien de Dijn, “The Politics of the Enlightenment: from Peter Gay to Jonathan Israel”Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 785-805
De Cearteau, Michel chapter 11, ‘Walking in the City‘, The Practice of Everyday Life, (1984)

Hitchcock, Tim, Writing a New History from Below

Hunt, T. (2011). “The Importance of Studying the Past.” History Workshop Journal 72(1): 258-267.

Jenkins, Henry, Mcpherson, Tara and Shuttac, Jane (eds) Hop On Pop, (Duke, 2003) 3-6, 11-14 (section on Accessibility)

McKenzie, Lisa Getting By, (Policy Press, 2015) Introduction 1-18, (especially 1-9)

F. Mort, ‘Intellectual pluralism and the future of British history’, History Workshop Jour., lxxii (2011), 212–21,tpp.218–20;

Robertson, John The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 (Cambridge, 2005), Introduction, 1-51

Rudwick, Martin The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (1988)

Robinson, L. and C. Warne (2014). “Investigating the sixties at a sixties institution: teaching as historiography.” Historical Research 87(235): 154-177.8)

Steedman, Carolyn Landscape for a Good Woman (London: Virago, 1986),

Summers, ‘“A continuing supply of history”: thoughts from the archive’, History Workshop Jour., lxxii  (2011), 249–55.

Weeks, Jeffrey, Making Sexual History, (Polity Press, 2000), 2-5 (section on Transformations)

Yow, Valerie ‘Do I like them too much’ in Perks & Thomson (eds) The Oral History Reader,  (Routledge, 2008) 54-73

2 thoughts on “Does my reflexivity embarrass you?

  1. This is absolutely what I have been looking for! Thanks so much for sharing this. We do a ‘Writing and Documentation of Practice’ with performing arts students, and it is a very interesting (& not unproblematic) process. I have found it fascinating as someone coming from a history of art background. (I wrote about some of the ideas here: )
    I have found, however, that in asking students to be reflexive, it often requires extra supports, as it can involve asking them to write about and reflect on potentially problematic experiences in their lives. Are extra supports needed around reflective work, do you think? Thanks again!

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