By Tim Overkempe, Living Pasts student 2020-I
As a historian, it is often our aim to make the past ‘alive’: telling stories as if they are being told to the reader personally and describing historical events as if one is actually there. This course, with the matching title ‘Living Pasts’, serves as an ideal training ground for such a task. In this short review, I will briefly reflect on the opportunities that this course has to offer and possible difficulties that may arise.
Let me start with the positive aspects of this course. First, there are many different tools and technologies available to enhance the projects you are working on. As an addition to your disciplinary education, this gives great insight into the possible ways of presenting and valuing your research outcomes. Besides that, the instructors are very skilled and can help you with many technological skills: programming a website, editing a video, setting up a VR-experience, you name it. This way, one does not only get in touch with different possible tools, but learns to implement them in their own research project and context. Second, there are some seminars which emphasize entrepreneurship and societal relations with regard to the projects you’re working on. For example, there are many guest-lectures from experts outside of academia (e.g., civil servants, entrepreneurs) and there are close ties with the Utrecht Archives, which is involved in the general structure of the course. This way, students get in touch with different stakeholders outside of academia and learn to connect their research projects to organizations that exist outside of the university. Third, there is an interesting aspect in the form of interdisciplinary project groups. This offers an opportunity to train yourself as a student in communicating and working together with people from other scientific disciplines, as well as determining your own role in the interdisciplinary process. As you will find out, the research projects wherein post-graduates get involved are seldom reserved for one particular discipline. Instead, project groups are often composed of different experts with their own academic background. During this course, students can get an idea of interdisciplinary collaboration and explore their roles in the project teams.
Now, let us turn to some of the challenges that may arise during the course. In the first place, as a historian, you are often quite unique. The positive aspect I just described above – that of interdisciplinary group formations – can be interpreted as a blessing and a curse. To explain this: although the course is centred around a historical topic – ‘Living Pasts’ – the course is by no means directed towards historians. Instead, you will meet people from a variety of disciplines: from social geography to informatics, and from chemistry to liberal arts and sciences. As a result, it will be a challenge to communicate efficiently and successfully to your fellow students. You might feel that they sometimes lack the necessary research skills and foreknowledge and wish that they had a more nuanced attitude towards historical narratives. However, if you succeed in handling this challenge the right way, it serves as an ideal practice to collaborate with people that are less familiar with the topic in question, making you the ‘expert’ of that particular area of the project. The second difficulty arises from the first, namely making compromises in the actual presentation of historical facts. As I just mentioned, although the topic of the course is historical, the course itself is not a history course, and neither are the students enrolled necessarily historians. This might come as a surprise when working on the projects in your team. In history courses, students are trained (and severely punished if not) to represent historical facts adequately. That is to say, one cannot make up things that are not substantiated via, preferably, primary sources and an extensive list of secondary historiographical literature. However, this course is different. Of course, students should still possess a certain amount of historical consciousness and be aware of possible speculation. But, the difference is, they are allowed to step away from it – they are allowed to use fiction. Personally, I found this to be a very interesting aspect of the course. Not because it felt like ‘cheating’ or getting away with things easily, but because it forced me to think about which particular facts I wanted to present in my project, and which not. Instead of focussing on historical adequateness and factual representation, one has to reason from their intended audience for the final project. However, as the difficulty remains, one might have to make sacrifices in the presentation of historical facts. The final challenge I want to mention is the weight that comes to lay on your shoulder when joining this course as a historian. You can feel alone as the sole historian in the interdisciplinary team; this puts quite a burden on you. Often, you are seen as the ‘fact checker’ in the team and you might feel responsible for nearly all the matters regarding content. After all – the topic is historical. However, all these burdens are in essence illusory. It is important not to forget that you have your fellow students who can help you out, and they are often way more informed than you might think. There is no need to underestimate your teammates’ abilities and flexibility in creating a successful final result.
In conclusion, this course offers great possibilities as well as some challenges. On the positive side, there are offered many different tools and technologies to make history ‘alive’. The course is also useful in its emphasis on entrepreneurship and societal relations and its process in working in interdisciplinary teams. Concerning difficulties, you are probably one of the few historians participating in discussions that concern historical issues. Additionally, you might have to make compromises in presenting historical facts and feel the burden of being the only one responsible for the historical output of the team. However, if you successfully face these challenges, it will be a great lesson learned for future collaboration. Therefore, this course serves as an ideal training ground for you as a historian to experience academic collaboration in interdisciplinary teams and trains you in connecting historical research to society in the form of entrepreneurship and collaboration with organizations. Even the mistakes you might make and possible difficulties you encounter are valuable. Reflection is an important and integral part of the course, which makes the insights gained during the course even more valuable. As a historian, one is encouraged to reflect on the team collaboration, final outcomes and overall process of the projects. This way, the individual learning process of every student is inherently connected to the course, and will make you realize its value as a training ground even more.