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Historian in Focus: Dr Alix Green

  • Date

    Thu 4 Jul 19

Dr Alix Green

Dr Alix Green is a historian of contemporary Britain whose work focuses on government and political culture.

Alix’s PhD focused on using history in public policy development, having completed her BA and MPhil degrees in History at Clare College, Cambridge. She also has a long-standing concern with historical practice and the roles and responsibilities of historians in public life. Her book, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government reflects these interests. 

She founded the Public History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London and is currently serving as the Royal Historical Society’s Honorary Co-Director of Communications.

She is currently leading a collaborative project on using business archives to inform company strategy, working particularly closely with the John Lewis Partnership Heritage Centre.

Why did you choose history as your degree?

I didn’t initially! I couldn’t decide what to do at university and changed my mind once before I arrived and then again within a week of starting a degree in English. I then switched to history after two years of studying German and Hebrew; we were reading a lot of nineteenth-century literature and I realised I was wanting to know more about the contexts in which the works were written.

Once I switched to history I took a wide range of modules but my dissertation was on nineteenth-century German-Jewish identity. Then for my MPhil I developed that topic further, looking at the first group of Prussian rabbis to have access to a German university education and how they shaped religious practice but also debates about Jewish emancipation.

When I came back to academia many years later, I changed tack completely – I now work on contemporary Britain – but I’ve never lost interest in this period of German-Jewish history.

Did you have anyone who you looked up to as a young person and who particularly influenced your studies, perhaps a teacher, parent, public figure?

My mother, Ludmilla Jordanova, taught History at Essex from 1980 to 1993 and she remains my mentor and inspiration. I admire the way she writes about the craft of history.

Her style is expressive and sophisticated but always clear and engaging; she includes her readers in the conversation. When I am writing I often have her style and approach in mind as a model. Her commitment to teaching and to the importance of history in public life have definitely influenced the kind of historian I have become.

How do you find a balance between being a researcher and an academic at the same time?

It’s hard to separate the two. The things we discuss in class often spark something I want to look into further, or I’ll come across a source or a journal article for research that would be good for teaching. I hope I can communicate to students what it’s like to do historical research and why it matters.

It can be difficult to keep in touch with an ongoing research project during term time. An important part of my job is public engagement so that can be where research and other academic work overlap.

When senior managers from the local NHS Trust approached the department about marking the closure of a local hospital, it was great to work with students and colleagues to organise a heritage open day last year. We gathered oral histories and took images of photos and other items relating to the hospital that people had brought along.

Projects like that have all kinds of benefits – for academic researchers, for students, for the community. They do take a lot of time and effort, but as a department it’s right that we’re open to getting involved.

Can you give us more insight into a current research project you are working on?

I’ve been working for around six years now with Judy Faraday, who manages the John Lewis Partnership’s archive and heritage centre. At the moment, we’re in the middle of a project using the company archives to look at the Partnership’s approach to pay in historical context to help inform how the present-day business operates.

I’ve just published an Open Access academic article about when John Lewis was blacklisted by the Callaghan government in 1977-8 for its pay policy, but I’ve also discussed my findings with the senior team responsible for that policy today. I’m now working on a short film to share more widely with Partners throughout the business.

At the same time, Judy and I are working with a group of business archivists from companies such as Transport for London, Boots, HSBC and the National Theatre to encourage historians and archivists to collaborate on projects relevant to those organisations today.

What made you interested in public history? Were there any specific events that triggered your interest in it?

I worked in policy and government relations for a number of years before I did my PhD. I realised at one point that I tended to be the one in the meeting who asked historical questions, such as how we had arrived at a particular point or why a decision was taken when it was.

I’d also noticed that that kind of perspective was not routinely sought by decision-makers and so, potentially, decisions weren’t as informed as they might be.

I studied for my PhD part-time while working full-time as a policy adviser at the University of Hertfordshire, before moving across into the School of Humanities as a Lecturer. I still think the ways history is put to use behind closed doors – such as in government or in business – are as important for historians to engage with as the more obviously public representations of the past.

I find that a lot of history students do not know what they will focus on after graduation or have not picked a career path.

What would your advice be to them?

Some of the most interesting and successful careers are built through trying something out, taking unexpected opportunities, changing plans, stepping sideways or returning to study.

I’m a different kind of historian for having had a first career in policy. But I was also a different kind of policy adviser for having trained initially as a historian.

Don’t underestimate the value of a historically-attuned mind or the relevance of the skills and mental habits of a historian. Carl Becker’s 1931 Presidential Address to the Association of American Historians, Everyman His Own Historian, may feel its eighty plus years (it’s not an easy read) but his argument that ‘it is impossible to divorce history from life’ remains relevant.

Your degree is a great platform to build a career because, whatever you do work-wise, there will always be an element of thinking historically.