In this blog post, Jake Dannatt discusses his experiences on the ‘Making History Public’ module with Dr Ryan Bramley, a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield.
Third year History BA undergraduates at the University of Sheffield study ‘Making History Public’ - a course designed to allow students the opportunity to produce a piece of public history. Dr Rosie Knight, a Lecturer in American History, ran the module in 2022-23.
The piece of public history that Jake produced was a short documentary film, ‘Wath Main Colliery - Then and Now: A Miners' Memories’ (2023), which centres on an interview with his granddad, Adrian Hughes - a former Miner and Deputy at Wath Main Colliery (in Rotherham, South Yorkshire).
During his time as an English Language and Literature undergraduate, Ryan also created a documentary about mining, ‘Born of Coal’ (2015), which asked former miners and their families whether their sense of community in post-industrial Barnsley had changed since the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.
As two people who have come to university from a working-class background and ended up making documentaries about our hometowns during our time here, we present this two-way interview exploring the importance of engaged learning opportunities at the University of Sheffield, such as those made possible by the ‘Making History Public’ module.
Making History Public
Ryan: Firstly, could you tell me a little bit about the 'Making History Public' module? It wasn't part of my undergraduate programme, but from what I've heard already, it sounds fantastic!
Jake: The Making History Public (MHP) module was easily my favourite throughout my time studying History at Sheffield. Aside from the dissertation I completed, MHP allowed for the free reign you don't often see in university.
You are often limited to a strict, but varied selection of modules, which of course is practical for both staff and students. However, there is a lack of capacity to pretty much do what you want. MHP achieved that. It took an age-old discipline and allowed us to bring it into the modern world, but more importantly into the eye of the 'non-expert'.
Public History is an increasingly popular form of history, and I think it is something universities should adopt as a key aspect of their programme. Sheffield seems to have achieved this somewhat already.
Ryan: And how was it that you decided to make a film for this module; and not just any film - but a film about mining heritage?
Jake: The idea to produce a short history film/documentary for my MHP project was partly connected to my dissertation. I was already working on the Miners' Strike and has conducted several oral history interviews. Oral history is something I felt captured a topic such as the strike in human terms. It allows the historical agent to tell their story, rather than someone else narrating it for them.
With a dissertation however, there is the limitation of written accounts not painting the full picture of an experience. It can't specify the emotional state of the story teller, which is often just as important as the words being spoken.
Mining in general is something ex-miners feel is being lost in our memories. For a local mine in my hometown, Wath Main Colliery, there is little evidence of where the mine used to sit. It's been a topic of debate amongst 'Wath Mainers' for years of how their past livelihood is being forgotten. There has been no effort from the local authorities to keep the legacy of Wath Main alive.
This is where the basis for my film originated. It acts to inform a younger audience about their local history, but also goes some way to restoring the agency and legacy of an older generation.
Engaged Learning and Teaching
Jake: Do you think there should be a wider range of modules in universities which give students free reign in terms of what they can study/produce? I feel MHP has really achieved something in terms of giving students a tool to be creative.
Ryan: Yes - I absolutely do. And I'm not the only one! For quite some time now, the University of Sheffield has had a strong contingent of educators committed to the idea of 'Engaged Learning and Teaching' - defined by as "possibilities offered by learning and teaching projects which emphasise public facing, co-produced knowledge as central components". 
In fact, it was the University's Engaged Learning Network - then known as 'Engaged Curriculum' - which gave me funding to produce my own documentary film about mining heritage in South Yorkshire, 'Born of Coal' in the summer of 2014 - between my second and third year of studying an English Language & Literature degree.
I'm not ashamed in the slightest to admit that your film is more technically brilliant and aesthetically pleasing than my attempt, but being able to create a film gave me and my supervisors an opportunity to explore how embedding creative practices, like filmmaking, could contribute towards a more comprehensive learning experience if embedded within our University curricula.
Funnily enough, I was just reading a recent report from the University's Engaged Learning Working Group - led by my School of Education colleague, Tim Herrick - which makes a strong case for extending the sort of flexibility in learning and teaching in modules like 'Making History Public' to more degree programmes. The University is now planning how to offer these engaged learning opportunities to all students, and testimonies like your own really do speak authentically to the importance of making this possible.
Jake: Why do you, as an academic, think it's important for the memories of 'normal people' to be heard within the discipline of History (or any other discipline for that matter)?
Ryan: The term 'normal people' is an interesting one - it reminds me of a certain Pulp song that's a little bit before your time (and technically before mine, too!)
Probably the best way I can answer this question is by looking back on another 'engaged' student experience of mine. I did a one-off project module on the late, great Barnsley writer, Barry Hines (of 'Kestrel for a Knave'/'Kes' fame). David Forrest and Sue Vice, the two lovely lecturers who ran the module, got us to read a book called This Artistic Life (2009), an anthology of previously-unpublished poems, short stories and essays written by Hines.
At the beginning of the book is this beautiful passage Hines wrote about working at the University of Sheffield as a Yorkshire Arts Fellow in Creative Writing (1972-1974), looking out at the city from his 9th-floor office in the then newly-built Arts Tower:
"As it happens, the view from my window is very inspiring. What? they say. Those horrible blocks of flats, all those mucky factories and all that smoke pouring out? Those ramshackle houses down there, that faceless council estate?
Well yes I say.
Most people live and work in places like that. And I can't think of anything more important to write about. Can you?"
I think we need to be careful when representing the stories of others, though - particularly from our relatively privileged position as University students and academics. And that's what I love about being able to make films for some university assignments - as you said earlier, the person gets to tell their story, rather than having it narrated by somebody else.
In relation to mining heritage in particular, it means that those vital memories can be passed down to younger generations in an accessible form. That's so important for places like Wath, and your film is part of that now!
Then and Now - What Next?
Ryan: Having now made 'Wath Main Colliery - Then and Now: A Miners' Memories', are you thinking about making any more films in the future?
Jake: When I was making the film and finally completed it, I enjoyed it that much that I sort of wished I'd pursued something like that further during university. It's something I'd definitely love to be involved in if the opportunity arose, but I would see it more as a hobby since I don't really have the developed skills for producing film. Although making more is how one develops those skills I suppose.
While it may not be in the form of a film, I would love to continue working with my grandfather and his ex-colleagues in maintaining the legacy of their somewhat 'forgotten' careers. There are plans to restore the land where the shaft caps are situated (shown in the film) and build some sort of memorial so members of the public can visit them and learn about the local area.
Further to this, the boating club at Wath Lake is organising a mining memorabilia room, showcasing mining lamps, clothing, photographs and (fingers crossed) my film. While I most likely won't be making another film anytime soon, the 'Making History Public' aspect of this project will be maintained in other forms.
Ryan: Thanks Jake! That ‘Mining Memorabilia’ room at Wath sounds fantastic - and a great home for your film, too. It’s been so interesting to hear what you’ve learned by making this film, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching.