Friday, 29 March 2013

In which I sit through a conference session (British version)

I've just come back from the Social History Society's annual conference, which this year took place at the University of Leeds. You can see the twitter feed here: storify.

It reminded me again of the wonderfully amusing rant written by Larry Cebula, originally on the Chronicle of Higher Education's 'conferences and academic travel' forum, and then reworked into a proper article in that paper.
Original forum post link 
Reworked article link

Larry's main point was about the tendency for historians to read their papers out loud, word for word, in conference sessions. When social scientists, and indeed scientists, hear that this is standard practice at history conferences, they usually throw their arms up in horror and confusion: 'what? you read out your paper word for word? you don't just extemporise from the powerpoint slides?' Larry also comments on the usual death by powerpoint, or other crummy presentation flaws.

However, I don't think he is saying that historians shouldn't read their papers out loud. There is much skill involved in phrasing a sentence *just so*, and structuring a paper cleverly to lead the hearer around a complex argument, that cannot be memorised, not least by a nervous presenter. Penelope Corfield, in a blog post about 'the best and worst academic lectures I have heard', suggests something similar.

So this is not a call to get rid of the papers and the notes. It is rather a plea for future conference paper presenters to write their papers as they speak, and not as they write.

There are two sorts of history conference papers on paper: the read-out journal article, and the presentation. Conference papers should be the latter not the former.

Journal articles are necessarily dense and complex and full of caveats and clauses and footnotes and are meant to be read and read again. Conference presentations are to be heard only once, and so should catch the audience's ear (and eye) easily and clearly, but without dumbing down or the hesitation of no script or just reading off a dull powerpoint.

This is also a call for the seasoned conference goers to reject the old convention of dry reading of written journal article style papers as normal and acceptable. Postgrad history students perhaps start reading their papers, eyes down, because that is what they see established academics doing. Postgrads might have presentation training where they are taught how to speak and project to an audience, but I suspect there is less emphasis on what goes in the paper itself. So they replicate that awful 'reading out of a journal article I wrote silently in a library, and have to skip a paragraph here and rush through a few pages there before the chair cuts me off' mode that unfortunately still can be seen in a history conference near you.

The key to writing a successful conference paper, I think, is that it shouldn't be written at first. Start with your thoughts and speaking out loud: introduce the topic broadly to a wide audience with a bit of historical context and historiography (and MAPS!), then cut to the chase, illustrated with a few clear examples. Add some rhetorical questions to make the audience think, or, even, some jokes. Some of the best papers I saw at Leeds were by postgrad students with a clear speaking style and a very clear structure. Less is more.

And practice the technology beforehand! Another tip for nervous presenters, as passed on to me by Ruth Mather from her supervisor Amanda Vickery, is to put your notes in a binder of clear plastic sleeves, so that you can easily turn the pages back and forth without dropping them all in a big pile on the floor. And smile!

Friday, 22 March 2013

What are history seminars for? Employability, #badacademia, or just history?

Two stories have hit the headlines in the Times Higher this week:

1. Steve Starson's complaint about having to give up a seminar in his history course to teach first years how to write a CV;
2. academics' response to Michael Gove's categorisation of 'good academia' and 'bad academia'. The debate among #twitterstorians in particular hinting that Gove regards such skills as critical thinking, enquiry-based learning and student presentations as #badacademia.

 This has struck a chord with me today, as this week's teaching has been a bit of a trial (it's week 9, the students are getting stressed about their assessment and the upcoming exams and their lack of careers etc etc), and I've been doing some self-reflection about whether the changes I have made to my teaching style are working.

Last year, I converted my 3rd year special subject module, 'Popular Protest, Riot and Reform in Britain, 1760-1848', into a blended learning module, with an emphasis on enquiry-based learning. Also, I collaborated with our academic skills tutor who was studying for a PhD into 'inclusive learning'. He was a great help in trying to solve the age-old problem of students not talking to each other, or, conversely, dominating the discussion.

As a trial, we developed a new assessment for the module. Instead of the usual essay, students are assessed on their discussion and inclusivity skills during a seminar. They prepare a short piece about a primary source and its use to the historian, but the emphasis of the assessment is not on presentation but on discussion and on their skills in including everyone in the conversation.

The marking criteria and details can be found on my teaching website:

 Last year, it worked really well. Students who were normally quite weak in their writing skills excelled in discussion, and the intellectual level of debate was high as well as a conscious effort by everyone to have a balanced and inclusive conversation with their peers. The students, though challenged, seemed to enjoy it. The academic skills tutor thought it a success too, and integrated it into his research results.

The experiment was praised by external examiners and by other colleagues as a great way of widening our repertoire of assessment, something that we're always being encourage to do, to move away from the usual pattern of essay + exam.

So I was happy to run the assessment again this year. But this year, perhaps predictably, not all of the students were as enthusiastic as their previous cohort. It especially troubles the quieter students who don't like to speak out in the seminar, especially among other students they don't know very well. Understandably, they prefer traditional written methods of assessment, that are tried and tested and have more concrete 'learning outcomes'.

After all this experimentation (and see my previous post about flipping seminars), I also (perhaps heightened by my own reading of the two THE articles, and thinking back on my own undergraduate education) started to wonder whether I had experimented too far. I do empathise with students who came to university to study history by reading books and writing essays, rather than doing all these practical exercises about how to 'do' history and, moreover, doing other activities which don't at first hand feel like 'reading history'.

Is history monastic or collaborative?

Have I gone too far? Have I been pushed too much by an employability agenda to over-emphasise skills of working in a team, working with unfamiliar people, presenting and discussing, problem solving, inclusivity and just group work altogether? Should students just be learning history rather than having to worry whether they are being inclusive or not? Am I wasting too much 'contact time' in all this classroom management and activities rather than passing on historical information and expertise?

Students can be surprisingly conservative in their learning; especially when they know that getting a 2:2 is not enough to get a chance at a job interview today, they want the predictability and reliability of lecture + tutor-led seminar, assessed by a 2000-word essay and 2 hour exam, rather than the experiment of assessed seminar discussion and short workshop activities testing less tangible skills.

As I argued previously, I still believe that students can learn more through 'doing history' (#badacademia???) in practical exercises rather than just sitting through an hour-long lecture and regurgitating the facts in a stilted and tutor-led seminar. The academic skills tutor has also found in his research that 'inclusive' learning helps raise student attainment.

Yet it is hard and doesn't always work, especially when you're having to encourage inclusivity among a large class who have different friendship groups, experiences, expectations of higher education, and their own challenges.

At the heart is the debate about what a history degree is for (and therefore what it should consist of). Should we as history lecturers emphasise employability and 'transferable skills' - indeed, one of the first questions we get at open days from parents and potential students is: 'will a history degree get me a job? Why shouldn't I do a vocational subject like business instead?' Or should we just stick to teaching just history, 'good academia'?

Of course, it's a case of doing both, and helping develop the 'badacademia' skills of problem solving and critical thinking through historical practice, rather than separating it out, as Steve Sarson's experience feared, into 'cv skills' and 'history skills'. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Yet, I'm still finding getting that balance right difficult.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Plotting all the places in Papers Relative to the Internal State of the Country, 1819

I've just tried out BatchGeo as a quick way of plotting my spatial data.

Just create a csv file of locations and associated data, copy it as a table in their website, and then it plots the points for you, in a nicer and more user-friendly way than, say, google fusion tables. It's exportable as a kml file too.

So here are (most of) the places mentioned as meeting sites in Papers Relative to the Internal State of the Country, 1819, the appendix to the parliamentary committee which provided evidence to support the passing of the Six Acts after Peterloo.

View Papers relative to the internal state in a full screen map

Obviously most activity was centred on Manchester and its surrounds, with other activity in Huddersfield-Leeds-Halifax, and also some reports of meetings in Newcastle and Paisley. The pattern perhaps tells us much more about the relative state of active magistrates and military leaders across the country. It is certainly not definitive evidence of all the places where radicals reacted to Peterloo but rather an indication of where loyalist authorities felt most threatened and which letters were selected by the government as proof that the Six Acts were needed to suppress 'sedition'.

Here is the map as done in google fusion tables:


Here are the locations of the Carlisle radical union, who requisitioned a meeting on Coalfell Hill on 11 October 1819, to protest against what happened at Peterloo and to call for radical reform. [source = Carlisle Patriot, 2 October 1819, but unfortunately there are no house numbers, and 'Caldewgate' covers a whole area of working-class residential and workshop filled streets].

View Carlisle Radicals October 1819 in a full screen map

Exported as a kml file, and put on a warped map on google earth, we get this:

Carlisle radical union, October 1819

I would have expected the majority of the radicals to have been situated in Caldewgate and Shaddongate, with more on Botchergate, as these were the rapidly expanding working-class areas outwith the walls, but in fact several radicals lived within the walls and were spread throughout the city.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Protest history workshop #3, Cheltenham, 2/3/13

TNA, PL 27/9
'Sarah Short refused to sign this Examination before me, R. Wright'. Manchester, 5 May 1812.
TNA, PL 27/9.

Charged with being at the Luddite attack on Burtons' powerloom mill at Middleton, Lancs, on 21 April 1812, this woman made a defiant act of resistance by refusing to sign the record of her examination by the Manchester magistrate Ralph Wright of Flixton Hall.

But is this protest? Did it work? Can protest be individual? What is the difference between protest, collective action, resistance and opposition?

can we include all types of opposition within the term 'protest'?

These were questions we had asked at the first workshop on 'new approaches to the history of protest' back in 2011, and returned to last weekend at the third workshop at the University of Gloucestershire.

I started off the day with some reflections on the spatial turn in history (see extended version in my HWPP paper) combined with some questions about the legacy of E. P. Thompson, given that there are so many commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Making of the English Working Class.

The first session was headed by Iain Robertson, who spoke of the performance of protest in crofting landscapes in the Highlands. He spoke of the sheer physical presence and affective charge of being in place, evoking Nigel Thrift's idea of the 'spatial dance' with other human and non-human actors. Highland resistance took its modes and meanings from work, and work was the protest performance.

Iain was the first of many that day to bring up the issue of memory, and contested memories relating to space and to rights and liberties relating to place. This was even more evident in Simon Sandall's paper on protest in the 17th century Forest of Dean, which raised much heated debate among residents of the Forest about whether the free miners had a right or a privilege (the residents argued the latter). The debate was a reminder of the deep-seated and emotionally loaded sense of place.

David Mead, sandwiched in between this debate on memory and place, gave a contemporary view of the law today, especially in relation to occupation and kettling. His points were highly resonant of protest past and showed the massive continuities in both the law and how it is interpreted and enforced by forces of law and order. Legal constructions define:
  • place specific restrictions, 
  • rights of access, 
  • ownership, 
  • space dependent regulation, 
  • surveillance. 

Mead also addressed the issue of public-private places and spaces, as highlighted by Anna Minton and Owen Hatherley in their works about 'malls without walls' and how they restricted protest in seemingly public spaces. Yet he also showed how protests could use spaces to their advantage, as at Greenham Common, where the women were effective because they were out of place.

The second session focused on topography and the phenomenology of protest. Nigel Costley examined West Country protest, particularly the Warren James rising and Tolpuddle. Janette Martin showed how itinerant Chartist lecturers used their journeys and their experiences as a vital part of engaging with the communities they visited and their own perceptions of radical utopias. Steve Poole considered the radical landscapes of 1790s intellectuals, notably John Thelwall's The Peripatetic (1793) - (amusingly categorised on googlebooks as 'sports and recreation').

The third session was a postgraduate focused session, testimony to the new research finally coming through in the history of protest. All were micro-studies, and based on the idea of 'militant particularism'. Paul Griffin talked about the spatial politics of Red Clydeside explicitly within these terms, though also with the combination of internationalism. Ruth Mather charted the Queen Caroline affair in the North West, and how it was expressed as a locally-based movement. Francis Boorman zoomed the focus even further into one street, Chancery Lane in London during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, showing its integral role as sites of radicalism and loyalism.

The final session thought about protest events that might not be categorised strictly as radicalism or even as protest. John Martin considered resistance to the food production campaign during the Second World War in Hampshire. Linking to David Mead's earlier paper about private-public spaces, James Baker examined the innovative and unusual forms of protest during the 'Old Price riots' of 1809, especially in reaction to the increasing number of restrictions placed on the audience during their month long protest to the rise in theatre prices and the installation of private boxes. James mentioned David Sibley's 1995 book, Geographies of Exclusion, which informed, consciously or unconsciously, many of the papers of the day. Nick Mansfield finished with a paper on common soldiers and whether desertion and other actions of the military should be considered as protest and resistance.

Carl Griffin ended the day with a series of questions and challenges for us all:
  • after three workshops on 'new approaches to the history of protest', have we found any 'new approaches'? The consensus that was that we need to build on the work of previous historians, but that the 'new approaches' are from the new blood coming into the field.
  • are we right to delineate this as 'protest history', when most participants in protest would not have identified themselves as 'protestors' and most historians working on the topic would not categorise themselves as 'protest historians'?
  • The conclusion was that there was no one protest history, but lots of good work. In the late 1990s, few scholars would admit they were working on protest and resistance, apart from a few brave souls, but now we have a whole room of scholars and are seeking many more.
Future plans for the workshops will be announced soon. Anyone wanting to join the network and participate, do get in touch with me. The official website will be updated soon.