In Work Experience for Historians, second-year students carry out a history project in
conjunction with an external organisation. The details of the project itself are up to the student – this year, some of us catalogued and researched in archives, some people worked in the heritage sector making museum displays, one student taught History to high school students, and one student even made leaflets for a local church. As you can tell, the range of placements was very diverse!
The module starts off in the first semester, as the whole work experience group gets together for a seminar to talk about the module itself and to start coming up with some project ideas. At the end of the first semester, there is a presentation session in which everyone presents their project plans, and what they hope to learn from the placement.
The majority of the module then takes place after the Christmas break. Most people start their work experience projects in January, and spend one or two days a week on the placement over the next few months.
My project consisted of a blog called ‘Cooks: The Histories Behind the Brands’, which I created for local kitchenware retailer Cooks of Trentham. This shop sells a wide range of brands that have long and interesting histories – some of them stretching back as far as the eighteenth century – and so it was great to have the opportunity to research into these brands and tell their stories to customers.
Writing the blog was an interesting experience as it involved writing in an accessible way for a wide audience, and thinking about what ‘the public’ – customers of Cooks who are interested in kitchenware products, but don’t necessarily care too much about history – would find exciting.
Moreover, writing history that was essentially for the purpose of selling products threw up some ethical questions that I had not really needed to think about before when writing university essays. The kind of history written at university is generally, in the words of Keele’s ethos, written in “the pursuit of truth”, no matter how positively or negatively this truth reflects on particular individuals or companies. Writing history to commercially promote brands, on the other hand, involves writing invariably positive narratives, and often leaving out negative events that may have happened in these companies’ pasts. Managing the blog’s commercial interest and the historical interest was often quite challenging – sometimes these two interests conflicted, throwing up difficult decisions about what to include and exclude from blog posts.
At the end of the second semester, the majority of the module’s formal assessment takes place. The work experience projects themselves are not actually assessed – rather, students are asked to write a 2,000 word academic essay based on something to do with their placement. In my case, this involved writing about the ways in which brands present their histories to the public, and especially how narratives of their past are often carefully crafted in order to promote a particular brand image.
Other essay topics written about by students this year included the way in which history is taught in schools; the role of commercialism in archives; perceptions of childhood with reference to child-centred displays in a museum; and the place of castles in the tourism sector. Just as the range of placements and projects was diverse, we had a lot of scope with regards to what to write about for the assessment, so in the resulting batch of essays there was an interesting and varied mix of topics.
Finally, the module ends with presentations from everybody on how their project went, and what they learned from the experience. In the case of the 2014/15 module, we had this presentation session a couple of weeks ago. It was really interesting to hear if the plans laid out in people’s presentations in the first semester worked out as intended, or if their projects panned out differently.
Work Experience for Historians is a challenging module that encourages students to ask interesting questions about the place of history in society; its interactions with commercial sectors such as heritage and tourism; and the differences between academic and ‘public’ history. It is also a very rewarding module. I think I speak for the whole of this year’s group when I say that we all took a lot away from it – research skills; valuable experience that can be put on our CVs in the future; valuable contacts with archives and museums; and so on. In the end-of-year presentations, many students even said that they will be returning this summer to the organisations where they carried out their placements, to continue volunteering on projects there. Work Experience for Historians is a brilliant module, and I’d definitely recommend it to anybody thinking of taking it.