Tuesday, 26 February 2013

more Manchester modernism

Following up to my post the other day about the Manchester Modernist society - the Manchester Centre for Regional History at MMU tweeted today about two more useful sites for Manchester modernism:

- The John Rylands Library (University of Manchester) digitised documents and webpages about mapping Manchester, especially the 1945 Manchester Plan.

I first read about the 1945 Manchester plan in a huge blue book on the oversize shelves of the local studies in the central library. It proved a fascinating diversion when I was getting tired during my archive and newspaper research. The proposal to knock down the Victorian town hall is often quoted as the most striking feature of the plan, but what also struck me was the desire for a long European-style boulevard running through Manchester.

- manchesterhistory.net pages about the Hulme crescents.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Metroland and modernism

I'm a fan of the Manchester Modernist Society and their magazine.

They recently tweeted a link to Modernism in Metroland, which is a great website detailing the modernist buildings along the Metropolitan railway. I especially like the post-war houses, with their stark white minimalism, bold but because of their size, still unassuming and in keeping with the brick vernacular (though this was disputed at the time).

Modernism in Metroland struck a particular chord with me because I've just led a book group with our postgraduate history students, focusing on Betjeman's Metroland. (I picked it merely for the reason that it was on TV recently, but it fits in with wider reading and planning I've been doing in relation to the history of new towns and slum clearance).

Diamond Geezer's uniformly excellent blog and resource about London districts and geographies visited all the stops and locations for metroland back in 2006, and again more recently. See also his flickr collection of photographs.

The discussion in the book group centred around the following topics and questions:
  • the film as a piece of art and poetry and architectural criticism, with history and historical images as an add-on rather than as a study of the history of those places along the line; the more extended pieces of 'filler' were in fact part of the poetry but in visual form (the view from the bottom of the train with the tracks passing underneath; the soap bubbles running down the cars being washed) and their closeup nature reflected psychedelia.
  • how those members of the group who were old enough to remember it the first time saw Metroland differently from those who were watching it from a 21st century viewpoint. The older members of the group recalled how the presentation and style wasn't as strange or dated as it seemed to the younger students, but then they recalled how their generation had regarded films such as Gone with the Wind as oddly stilted and outmoded in 1973. But then, with hindsight, they also recalled how the early 1970s were, for them, an era of women's lib, Greenham common, left-wing politics and progressivism. All therefore could recognise how Metroland was...
  • nostalgic. We appreciated Betjeman's vital role in the nascent preservation movement of the 1970s, seeking to preserve the vernacular and the outmoded. Yet the choice of subjects was centred around a particular form of nostalgia - for the 1930s suburbs, and indeed for the fields and countryside and rural idyll that the suburbs were built over. Betjeman's sense of relief and repose at the end of the line, with its (misleading) view of fields, was palpable. There was also a hint of nostalgia for empire, with the focus on the decaying imperial exhibition building, and the failed tower project that became the site of Wembley stadium. 
  • We also commented on his portrayal of women - the ladies who lunch seemed ridiculed in his view, though they were stridently ignoring his presence in the room. The terminology used about women and their place in society was very much of the 1970s (though again this was being challenged at the time).
  • The English eccentric also featured heavily in Metroland: the eccentric touches to the houses (the stained glass, the castle in suburbia, etc); the birdwatcher in the park (the older members of the group thought he would have been seen as weird even then); and of course Betjeman himself, standing next to Humpty Dumpty, and other stage props representative of another source of English eccentricism, am dram.
  • Suburbia - Betjeman's focus was on the big stand alone piles that provided the model for the swathes of 1930s terraces, but in fact were completely different from them in purpose and situation, being set in their own estates, a remnant of a gentry villa past. 
  • Vernacular architecture - some of us loved the whitewashed sleek lines of modernism that intruded in among the red and brown brick; others hated it. 
  • Would a programme like this be commissioned today? The younger students thought not, but some of us pointed out the similarities and parallels with Jonathan Meades's recent programme on Essex, which also had the arty feel and singular grumpy old man presenting straight at camera and at odd angles, with a touch of irony. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

useful local history websites: Manchester

These are some of the most useful websites about Manchester for more 'notes and queries' type history information:

I'm also quite impressed by the Band on the Wall's local history section on their website.

Spinning the Web has some good digitised sources, for example extracts from Edwin Butterworth's extensive annals of Oldham. The images of the beautifully written originals contrast greatly with (and are a great improvement upon) the grainy microfilm that I am used to scrolling through in Oldham Local Studies.

Though again, is looking at these images from the comfort of my own computer a better experience than getting the 409 bus to Oldham, wading through the microfilm while genealogists search for their great grandfathers in the parish registers next to me, then having my packed lunch sitting on a bench in the small garden outside the library and art gallery?

Do you know of any more useful local history websites that I should know about?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

workshop activities that work: part ii

I've had good responses to my self-reflection on workshopping, so I thought I'd share another workshop activity that has worked well for me. As we know, teaching is often a case of trial and error, and more often than not, our best laid plans don't work out, fail to engage the students, confuse students, etc. However, this activity has worked every time I've tried it.


Students often have trouble identifying historiographical debates, and also in choosing relevant books for their topics. Also, some students often approach the task of reading a book by starting at the very beginning, and reading it page to page, cover to cover, without actually reading for gist or getting a broad idea about what the book is generally about. The index and contents page are often neglected. A whole reading list therefore causes anxiety.

big pile of history books

This exercise aims to teach students to 'speed read' historiography. It's a case of pointing out the obvious, but as I've found, the students have found it very helpful.

'Learning objectives':
  • to understand the diverse range of approaches that historians have taken regarding Britain in the 'long eighteenth century'
  • develop the skills of speed-reading, reading for gist, getting the main points and approaches of a book quickly.


I bring in my collection of the following books, and encourage students to bring along other 'survey' books from the reading list. I place them all in a big pile on the desk, often with a flourish and a big loud 'flump'. This act of theatre is especially important, as we rely so much on electronic journals today, and our 'learning resources centre' seems keen to hide all the books in favour of making the space one big computer room.
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989);
  • Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1982);
  • Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth-century English Society: Shuttles and Swords (Oxford, 1997);  
  • Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (London, 1992);
  • E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, 1968);
  • J.C.D. Clark, English Society, 1688-1832 (Cambridge, 1985);
  • John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (1989)

I also bring copies of a few reviews of the books from history journals. 

This scares the students, who expect that I'm going to expect them to read them all in a week.
(p.s. in the back of my mind I recall my reading lists and library habits from when I was an undergrad, but never say anything, not least because I did read them from cover to cover rather what I should have done, that is, trying to get the general points and approaches first).

Then I distribute the books on the different tables in the room, and encourage the students to move round in a musical chairs style, spending 5 mins or less on each book, noting the following features:

  1. the picture on the front cover (v. important)
  2. 'the clues in the title' - key words in the title and subtitle of the books
  3. the main topics in the contents page; chronological? political? thematic? 
  4. dates and chronologies covered. Do they explain anywhere why those dates?
  5. first page of introduction and last couple of pages of the conclusion.
  6. put them in chronological order of publication. How do the later books refer to the earlier books? (clue = normally in the first few pages of the introduction - or use the index).
  7. if time, look at some of the journal reviews of the books.

She's discovered what J. C. D. Clark was going on about


- students instantly compare and contrast the different approaches;
- students get the point that historians have different periodisations according to the approach and argument they are using;
- (obvious but not always remembered) point that historians have different approaches: social, political, economic, cultural, etc.
- history is a debate that changes over time, and it is important to note the date of publication of secondary sources.
[This also helps with students who do 'drive by scholarship' using google books and the library's aging collection, so that they end up quoting old histories published in 1912 alongside new histories, without discriminating between the two.]

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Workshopping: reflections on 'flipping' my seminars

My colleagues and I have, over the past couple of years, been replacing the traditional 1 hour lecture- 1 hour seminar format with a 'workshop' of 2 or 3 hours. Of course, many of us have been teaching practical skills and 'interactively' for years, if not our entire careers, but we have come to the conclusion that we have to spell it out for our students more explicitly, both through the timing of the sessions and the activities in them.


We're shifting from seminars to workshops because, among other reasons:
  1. demand for increased student contact time with staff is a feature of questions at open days, the NSS, and the media;
  2. due to budget constraints and other factors, seminar group sizes are getting larger
  3. students unfortunately do not always prepare enough reading before the seminars to make discussion among them useful or continuous.
No3 results from several reasons, including:
a) the structure of their degree (at UH, students study 4 modules per semester), meaning they are doing 4 different preparations (often in different subjects) and physically cannot read more than two articles or book chapters for each module each week;
b) work and caring commitments mean studying is not the major part of their daily timetable; leading to -
c) students not regarding 'student' as the major part of their identity, even less so 'historian'.

Here's my opinion: it is much more difficult to teach a traditional seminar with over 15 students. 20 is possible, but 25 is impossible. Workshops, on the whole, enable teaching of over 20 students much better than the traditional seminar format.

Sometimes do you feel like you're lecturing to an empty room?

What is a 'traditional' seminar? - Well, generally it means a discussion, both in small groups and the whole group, about set reading for that week (perhaps answering a list of questions) and often ending with a debate about a larger topic framing the reading. What happens in a large group is that the quieter/less prepared/unprepared/disengaged students can get away with not speaking because the over-confident/loud students dominate the sessions, or, conversely, most students remain quiet and the discussion falters. Of course there are groups now and again that encourage each other and peer pressure actually enables a 'good' seminar, but usually that's not the case.

bored students, though from an American stock image collection, so not mine


A workshop can be part of a 'flipped' classroom. 'Flipped' has various meanings, but I take it to be recording content-heavy lectures and uploading them online for students to watch in their own time before the workshop. There is no 1 hour lecture (with students silently making notes) in the face to face contact time.

The workshop itself includes:
  1. a range of 'activities' for students to complete in the workshop, both singly and in groups. These include: working on a close reading of a couple of pages of the secondary source set for that week; working on a range of primary sources and researching their authorship, context, meaning, etc using for e.g. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; defining a series of keywords, then writing up a short summary of the topic using the keywords, and so on and so on.
  2. short lectures (often ad lib and off the cuff) in response to student questions and discussion
  3. structured discussion and debate, using small group preparation with cues and documents before the 'full group' debate.
  4. encouragement to continue discussions online on a blog or wiki or twitter.
None of this is new or radical, of course, but the students often need to be alerted to this different structure so that they get into the mindset of the workshop rather than expecting a lecture + seminar. And the workshop differs from a seminar because it structures or in the modern parlance, 'scaffolds' different thinking activities relating to history and critical enquiry in a much more obvious way than the sometimes drifting flow of a seminar discussion does not.

workshopping involves moving furniture

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned in teaching is that students don't always connect the same dots that we as academics connect automatically. This includes, with less academically able students, the connection between reading more and understanding the material. This may be a legacy of a textbook-based approach to history at school, as well as other factors (including taking the path of least resistance). One of the more amusing revelations that I've had from student evaluations on the workshops is: 'I didn't like the fact that workshops involve more preparation and work than seminars, but in the end I realised I was doing a lot more in the workshops than I normally would in and outside the seminar. I therefore understood more and recalled more'.

There are disadvantages to and constraints on the workshop. One is that the amount of preparation and organisation needed by the tutor as well as the students is much higher. Sometimes it feels like being a school teacher, drawing up detailed workshop plans, handouts, recording lectures online, constantly working out what activities might or might not work (something the Learning and Teaching institutes' training/PGCert in Higher Education teaching often were reluctant to actually provide for aspirant teachers). It also needs room in the university timetable to be able to schedule a 2 hour or 3 hour slot in one room (not always possible), and indeed to be able to have a decent room (with the physical room to move chairs and tables around, and for both staff and students to move around, again, not always possible with centralised room booking). However, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Learning how to be a historian


As well as the excellent teaching reflections by Melodee Beals on her blog, these two threads on the Chronicle of Higher Education 'In the Classroom' forum have been particularly useful:
Help me flip my classroom
Is this a flipped classroom?

I was particularly struck by the comment made by 'Ranganathan':
And the flipped classroom isn't just for idiots. [i.e. the misconception that inverted teaching is 'dumbing down']. Really. I was a history major at a top SLAC [selective liberal arts college] and I did all the reading and had professors who were amazing lecturers. I did seek out books on topics that interested me. I love to learn, and I learned all kinds of cool facts and theories from these classes.

But in retrospect, I realize those classes didn't help me learn how to DO. It wasn't until our capstone class that we spent any class time critiquing the readings. Aside from a few brief library tours, we never learned how to do research. I graduated with a degree in history but I don't pretend to know how to be a historian and until I started working in academia, would've been hard pressed to tell you what a historian does.

Lecture has its place, but so do classes which use time for application. Want to transmit a lot of content? Lecture. (Although the research tends to show that content transmitted does not equal content received.) Want people to be able to actively DO something? Well, there's a reason Driver's Ed and CPR classes have required hands-on practice.

Although in the American context, it reflected many features of my own undergraduate education in history. Yes I attended some great lectures and was taught by the key researchers in their field, and yes I felt highly satisfied that I had learned good history. Yet, as in the case of the quotation above, it was only later during my DPhil research and especially when I started teaching, that I realised that in being trusted to 'work it out for myself', I hadn't been shown systematically all the tools I needed to become a good historian. Furthermore, because I hadn't been aware of those skills and tools, I never learned to practice them.

So it's not a cop-out or dumbing down that we help students to think and to do by structuring their learning in a workshop format, that we make them identify the parts of a journal article that discuss historiography, that we get them to think out loud about the questions they need to ask when confronted with a previously unseen primary source.

A worked example of a workshop plan


Here's an example of what I've done for a 3rd year seminar on food riots in the 18th century.

The 'Learning objectives' include knowing the historiography of crowd disturbances (especially George Rude's search for the faces in the crowd, and E. P. Thompson's influence on the study of food riots); and understanding Thompson's model of the moral economy. I recorded the lecture online for students to watch prior to the workshop, and these are some of the activities we did in the workshop:
  1. in groups, and with one student moving from group to group each time, define the following words, using the first few pages of Thompson's 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd' article: mob, crowd, riot, 'rebellions of the belly', Rostow's social tension chart.
  2. Then also in groups, work out a) what protest tactics occurred during a food riot; b) a definition of the moral economy model.
  3. All the responses wwere typed up on the screen by me, with a recap and clarification and mini-lecture about the influence of Rude and Thompson on later historiography, and an exegesis of the text of the Riot Act of 1714/15.
  4. Then (while students had a break to eat some lunch), work out which elements in three primary sources illustrated the model of the moral economy: 
a) 'Hints to Forestallers, or a sure way to reduce the price of grain!' by Isaac Cruikshank, 1800
b) 'The Riot, or half a loaf is better than no bread', Cheap Repository Tract, 1795-8
c)The True Briton, 4 August 1795, account of a riot in Carlisle

True Briton, 4 August 1795, extract

5. After a quick fire round of 'what questions do you need to ask about a primary source?', students answered the questions about each source.
6. the session ended with a general discussion about the advantages and faults of the moral economy model,  including considering whether it could be applied to the anti-slavery campaign and to modern protests, e.g. against bad financial practices in the City. The question of women's participation in food riots also came up (something that I'd forgotten to put in the original plan).

So what activities do you find works well in a workshop format? Any other ideas?