Newcastle upon Tyne

I’m not a very good northerner. Looked for the weather in advance on my phone. “Newcastle” – no entry. “Newcastle on Tyne” – no entry. Duh. It’s Newcastle upon Tyne. I didn’t bring coals there, but I did bring my historian’s tendencies, and was enchanted.

Those bridges over the Tyne! Each one is different.

Tyne Bridge (1928) and Swing Bridge (1876)

Quayside: Millennium Bridge

Walking underside of High Level railway bridge

(Being from California, I made sure to catch the palm tree in the Millennium Bridge shot. I have no idea what a palm tree is doing by the Tyne. Vacationing, I suppose.)

I expected an emphasis on industry in Newcastle, but didn’t realize the old city would be so beautiful. There has been a lot of attention given to the shopping district, emphasizing the commercial nature of the area. I just happened to stumble upon not one, but two, covered arcades.

Central Arcade

Grainger Market

Grainger Market

The architecture is that traditional-modern mix that I love so much in contemporary British cities. I am particularly partial to this view from  the bridge overlooking a much older area down below near Quayside:

Over old town rooftops

I discovered two local heroes. One I found in St Nicholas Cathedral: John Collingwood Bruce. He was easy to find, since there was a big sign next to his sarcophagus. He was a schoolmaster and local historian — an effigy of a schoolmaster is certainly special! Apparently it’s because of him that they knew how to restore the castle next to the cathedral (yes, it’s the New-Castle), and it’s because of him we know so much about what we now call Hadrian’s Wall. His book on the Roman Wall is here.

John Collingwood Bruce, St Nicholas Cathedral

Rare lectern to survive the Reformation – John Knox may have used it – St Nicholas Cathedral

Annunciation, St Nicholas Cathedral

I notice now as I post these that all my shots are leaning to the left, as, indeed, do I.

Which brings me to the other local hero, Charles Grey, who has a huge monument erected to him in the middle of the shopping district. He is lauded there as author of the Reform Act of 1832, although really he presided over its passage, since he was Prime Minister 1830-34. He also presided over the abolition of slavery (I didn’t realize till I looked it up that the government compensated slave owners).

But for those of us who drink tea, of major importance is that he is the Earl Grey. Surely Captain Picard was most politically correct in his choice of beverage!

I travelled, of course, on the bus. On the way up, I took route 21X from Durham – X trains are express, so some of it was by motorway. On the way back, though, I took Angel 21 local bus, which went right past the Angel of the North:

Angel of the North, seen from the Angel 21 local bus

This is a sculpture by Antony Gormley, installed in 1998 in Birtley, and it’s quite an attraction. People driving can pay to get close to it. I liked seeing it from the bus. But then, I like seeing most things from the bus….

More photos…

Durham. Always Durham.

What is it about Durham?

Stairs in castle

It certainly isn’t the 106 steps up to my room in Durham Castle, where I’ve always wanted to stay but could never get in (yay fall sabbatical!). It’s 106 steps down too.

It isn’t a connection with H.G. Wells. Despite the exhibit at the Palace Green Library in 2017, there is no connection between Durham and H.G. Wells, William Briggs, or anything else I’m working on. (That exhibit was created by Simon James of Durham University. He is an expert on Wells as a literary giant, but I cannot conceive of any justification that I could use to contact him.)

It’s not that Bill Bryson, an American writer, fell in the love with the place, made his home here, and even became chancellor of Durham University. I’m a fan, but not that big a fan.

So that’s not it.

Maybe it’s the look of the place, with the old town perched on a hill between two rivers, providing stunning views:

Wear River

Framwellgate Bridge

Maybe it’s the cathedral, burial place of St Cuthbert, comforting in its pre-Gothic design, and home to a cozy evensong in the choir stalls.

Maybe it’s the fact that there was a fulling mill here. In fact, there were two. The weirs on the river are because of them. One of them was in a building that used to be an archaeological museum, and is now used to store objects. It’s on the river path, which you can walk, as I’ve done many times.

Maybe it’s the way I can go into The People’s Bookshop, as I chanced to do today, and spend an hour chatting with the seller about UK and American politics, H.G. Wells, and what the future holds.

Or that the Oxfam bookshop has the best selection in town. Or that the food here is excellent, with the variety one expects in a college town. Or that it has so many secrets, and boasts the third university in the country after Oxford and Cambridge. Or that there’s such a mix here of working class and university people. Or the way everyone asks if you’re alright. Or the way I can joke around, because they do too. Or the conversations I’ve overheard on buses and in cafes. The one where the kids talked about how they were afraid to come to America because of guns, or the one where the man on a new date with a woman was talking about whether he could discuss his past or not, or the many I’ve heard of older couples just sitting in the front window up top on the bus and talking about whatever they see:

“That’s a nice house, isn’t it?’

“Yes. Didn’t Mary have a house like that?”

“In Sunderland, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I think so. Only hers was yellow.”

“Oh, yes, I remember.”

“It would be a lot of upkeep, though, wouldn’t it?”

Or the fact that the community theatre has the chutzpah to do Alan Bennett. (Yes, of course I went.)

Whatever it is, I come back.


More photos…



Briggs and a little book

Some of my research posts are password protected. Students, colleagues, and friends are welcome to email me for the password at

Traveling in the online era

The first time I came to England, my mother made reservations by post to let a small flat in Kensington. There were letters, back and forth, on onion skin paper, sent in airmail envelopes with blue and red dashes at the edges and lots of postage. She also sent letters to people there she knew, letting them know we were coming and arranging visits and tea.

Today, I decided that since I was early for my train from Midhurst to London, I’d have time to go to the British Library this afternoon. I paid for my train ticket by sliding my credit card into a machine, a card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee and has a chip so British machines can read it (we don’t have Contactless yet in America, as I explained to a Bus 60 driver). I got on the train, took out my laptop. I prepared to tether my Pixel so I could get a connection, but it wasn’t necessary – free wifi took a minute to connect. I went to the British Library website, logged in with my credentials, discovered that the book I want could be ready in 70 minutes, and made a request to see it today in Humanities Room 1.

I then texted my wonderful friend Jane using my international phone pass. Jane is teaching in London, and we arranged for dinner and late museum tonight.

I interrupt this story for a 20 minute lecture by HG Wells on how communication patterns are bringing the world together in 1931:

And throughout history with the development of roads and more efficient writing, with money as a means of commerce, the development of shipping also, you find the signs of communities increasing. And in the last hundred and fifty years there has been an enormous development in the facilities with which men can get at man. We have passed from the semaphore to the electric telegraph and the wireless. We have passed from the stage coach on the muddy high road to the aeroplane and the swift steamer.

And now we have passed into a world where communication is so fast that I can type a blog post about communication while on a train, put HG Wells himself in it, and have it public in minutes. (I can also ask that readers not be surprised by his voice – contemporaries noted it as “squeaky”, and I have decided — with help from my colleague Simon in Midhurst — that Wells’ speaking voice was not the source of his extraordinary appeal.)

Why the census enumerator crossed the road

Although the location of the house of Horace Byatt has been a mystery to me for some time, I might have seen things a different way by looking at old maps. I think, I really think, I’ve got it!

My visit to the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester had a few goals: find any records of the Midhurst Grammar School that might indicate which house the governors were leasing for Byatt, and look at old maps to see whether the location my students had guessed was a likely house in 1880. (I also hoped to find out about Mrs. Allin, but that’s much harder — it’s not like anyone collected the letters or diary of an ironmonger’s wife.)

While still in Midhurst, I looked across the street (literally) at a pink house that from the road looks like it’s in South Pond — it has the name South Pond Cottage on it. I walked past it on my way to the bus (turns out the closer stop is behind me — I’m so good at that.) The house looks really old. And I wondered: how was that house counted in the Census of 1880? (this is the sort of thing, of course, that people often wonder when looking at houses…)

Then I took one of my very favorite bus rides, from Midhurst to Chichester on Bus 60, the blue and green two-decker (£8 return – this is a wealthy area).

Arriving at the Records Office, I engaged in the usual formalities: leave a deposit for a locker key, fill out forms, present identification that shows my address (so they can chase me back to California if I steal anything), promise not to use pens or bring in liquid, etc. But the Records Office is also a nice place: tea and coffee, nice bathrooms, chocolate bars for sale (yes, this last does prejudice me in their favor, I admit).

I filled out a request slip for each of three items, because they can only bring you three at a time. Unlike the big libraries, you don’t have to wait. You choose a table and note the number on your slips, putting the slips in a clear plastic box. A wonderful quiet gentlemen retrieves the items when you’re not looking and brings them to your table. Then when you’re done, you put your items back on the counter and put more slips in the box.

While waiting for my order of all issues of The Midhurst Magazine and Midhurst Heritage, I looked at the shelves on local studies, finding several books on Midhurst. One was a very old “The Official Guide to Midhurst and District” (1915) with the cover detached and tied with string. It noted the school was reopened in April 1880 under Horace Byatt, but it didn’t say where he stayed in the meantime. There were also some books with old photographs. The magazines having quietly arrived, I looked through them. Many articles were by Bridget Howard, historian for the Midhurst Society. (I did not have to grieve that I’d been too cowardly to contact Ms. Howard – my landlady Sarah had done so on my behalf that morning, and although Ms. Howard was out of town, she was able to tell Sarah that she didn’t know anything about my mystery.)

Midhurst Heritage had a piece on Wells by a Lawrence Price, with nothing I don’t already know. It also had a completely unrelated item about there having been a mill at South Pond. The pond, in fact, is artificially dammed (which actual makes the strenuous efforts to reclaim it for nature kind of interesting). I thought what I always think when someone says “mill”: could it possibly have been a fulling mill? This was the area of my graduate work: medieval fulling mills. I can’t resist one. The magazine said that it was originally a corn mill. Foot fulling had apparently taken place near the stream leading to the river from South Pond (cue the usual shocked remark about fullers using urine — the acid broke down the fabric fibers, just like in Roman times). Apparently fuller’s earth was brought from Cocking, which I’d passed on Bus 60.Then in 1634, the “Lord of the Manor allowed a master clothier from West Lavingham to convert the South (corn) Mill.” There was a fulling mill here! No wonder I love this place. I made a special effort this evening, risking my life standing at the side of the road, to peek over the bridge and see where the weir pours water into the stream from the pond.

You can’t see evidence of old fulling mills really (it’s not like there are giant waterwheels dotting the landscape), so I journeyed back to the 19th century. While waiting for the school’s account books to be brought out, I consulted the head archivist, laying my case before her. I had brought the pages from the census of 1880 (with Wells’ name circled), and a copy of the map I made with the likely houses. She suggested more maps, and introduced me to Katie, who then spent much time pulling out large maps of Midhurst from various times and laying them on a gigantic table.

At first, I looked at these maps to see if they matched mine from 1895, the closest I’d been able to get to 1880 using the digitized Ordnance maps at the National Library of Scotland website. I was looking to see whether the little cluster of buildings on that map, the possible location of census record #89 as determined by me and my students, had been torn down, and therefore could perhaps have been a larger house in 1880. So we looked at maps from 1972 and 1985. The buildings looked different, but that just meant they’d been renovated recently, not that it was a big house in 1880.

But then I started thinking while looking. What if, just what if, that old pink house I saw at the pond were thought of as being located on South Street, rather than Chichester Road? The maps from 1972 and 1985 had the words “Chichester Road” south of the pond. I knew from the fulling mill information that the stream had been there then, which, as Katie noted, is a natural boundary. Now street names in England do change as you go along. The question is where that change took place, or rather where the census enumerator thought it took place. If, just if, the old pink house were on South Street, then the census taker could have crossed the road at the pond/stream bridge, and counted the pink house as record #87.

To the south of the pond, landlady Sarah assured me that those houses on the right side not only weren’t built till 1892, but that they are technically in a different parish: West Lavingham. And indeed, the map Katie brought out from 1874 did not show any houses south of the pond. It would have made logical sense, given the boundary of the pond/stream and the change of parishes, for the census taker to have turned around at the end of the pond.

If the census enumerator did count the pink house on the pond as #87, then record #88 is the big house on the corner (called South Pond House now and then, except in 1985 where for some reason it’s the White House). And #89, house of Horace Byatt and family and servant and a lodger named H.G. Wells, would be the house next to it.

Unlike the bizarre collection of little buildings immediately northward, this house (now 6 South Street) is the perfect size for that many people, and it’s nice enough to have been appropriate for a house leased by the Midhurst Grammar School to shelter its new headmaster while the school and his family’s quarters were being completed. It makes far more sense than the little buildings around the courtyard, even if all the buildings are intact.

It makes the commercial signage visible in the 1906 photo of King Edward’s visit, which I’ve been peering at suspiciously, irrelevant — those little buildings could indeed have been shops.

So after lunch (no document retrieval between 12.30 and 1.30, please) Katie got all the maps out again, plus an older map from 1840, and I looked for the pink house. Was it there before 1880? If so, it was there in 1880, because it was still there in 1897. Yes! It was there.

By this point the record books of the school had magically appeared at Table 17. I looked through the huge tome, the Midhurst Grammar School Cash Book 1877-1902. (I wish I had pictures, but a photo license cost £11 and I’m cheap.) On 25 January 1880, £10 was spent “in aid of allowance for Rent for Masters Residence”. Similar entries noted Byatt’s quarterly stipend, and one very interesting entry noted £5 for “Mr Horice [sic] Byatt for Prizes” after two £2 2d entries for “examination expenses”. Was this the money Wells earned by taking his exams? The entry for February 1883 indicated the examination expenses were for the College of Preceptors, so likely yes. But that rabbit hole had to be set aside for the moment. There was nothing about the location of Byatt’s house, there or in any of the other financial records. But it was worth checking.

Even without such verification, I’m pretty sure that Byatt, family, and Wells stayed at what is now 6 South Street. Nowadays, South Pond Cottage is definitely on Chichester Road (and worth over a million pounds, according to Zoopla, somewhat more than 6 South Street). But if I’m right, 6 South Street deserves a blue plaque to go along with the three Wells plaques in town: on the grammar school (now the South Downs Authority), on where he lodged in 1883 over the sweet shop (now the Olive and Vine), and on the chemist’s shop where he apprenticed (now a dentist’s office). And here it is:



Midhurst 2018

I have arrived in England, specifically to Midhurst to see whether I can solve some mysteries and, of course, enjoy the West Sussex area. Downtown last evening:

This morning I will venture to Chichester to the West Sussex Records office, to take a look at old historical society magazines and fine the photograph of Horace Byatt.

As a reminder, the two Midhurst mysteries are:

  1. Where did Horace Byatt, new Midhurst Grammar School headmaster, live? This was where HG Wells would have lodged with his family while the school was being rebuilt in the first half of 1881. (see here)
  2. Did Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, know HG and recommend him for an assistant post at the school when he returned in the fall of 1883? (see here)

For the first, I have walked the street again with my old map, and will keep looking at the houses. One biography says it “overlooked South Pond”, though that seems to be possible from several of the two-storey houses on South Street. I am staying across the road, on what is now Chichester Road (but could be seen as further South Street) at Two Rose Cottages with landlady  Sarah, who is being most helpful. We’ve determined it can’t be any of these houses, as they were built after 1890.




A boring education

A recent story about college students in the San Diego Union Tribune was pretty interesting. Here’s an example:

Students want schools to adjust to their needs, interests and lifestyles, and to do so quickly.

“I’m always having to adapt to education rather than having education adapt to me,” said Ella Chen, a sophomore at UC San Diego.

The restlessness is widespread. Nearly 40 percent of the freshmen surveyed by the university in 2016 said they were frequently bored in class.

The article goes on to say that students want “more hands-on, experiential learning”. (I have this for history: my students interpret primary source documents like historians do. But I think what they mean here would require a TARDIS.)

One of the main purposes of education, especially the education of young people, is to acculturate the student into the broader society. You can change the processes of formal education, but the motive for these systems is the same. In the case of university, there is an additional set of purposes having to do with the development of the intellect, particularly in connecting fields of knowledge (à la Cardinal Newman).

I was bored in a number of my classes, at all levels of my education. The solution was to extract from the class what I could, and supplement its content on my own. That’s a life skill. I was also in a number of classes where I wasn’t bored, but other students were. An old saying goes, “this isn’t boring — you are bored”.

While I spend a whole lot of energy making history exciting for students, but the fact is, some are bored. I share my passion for the subject, but that isn’t enough for some to get engaged. Once could understand this through research on student character traits (persistence, resilience, grit), and respond appropriately. But it is so much easier to blame teachers, and the system. I recently saw this dissertation online: Understanding Disinterest: How Online Undergraduate Students Perceive And Respond To Disengaged Faculty Members. Setting aside the improper use of the word “disinterest” (it means lack of bias), here is another low-sample study (N=8) claiming a larger significance. It assumes a gap in research on how students perceive online teachers (a gap I believe is filled by faculty evaluations). The study uses transactional distance theory, or rather the parts of it that fit the argument, to conflate teaching skill with enthusiasm. It shows low student success for professors who don’t demonstrate the kind of actions that will motivate students.

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Many years ago I was in a group of “stakeholders” choosing among Course Management Systems for the college. We had a student contingent, and they were most insistent that they wanted just one thing. They wanted all their professors to input all the deadlines for all assignments into one central calendar system, so they could stay on task. At the time, this would have been daunting for faculty, and would have massively increased their workload. Nowadays, the adoption of the college-wide (state-wide if you’re a community college) LMS insists that this be done, and professors do it. And yet, despite answering what students said they needed to be successful, so many are not successful that we need massive state-wide student success initiatives.

While I have no problem adjusting to student needs (cogent information, skill-building assignments, fair grading, access to help) I do have a problem adjusting to their wants. Diagnosing their desires as a social problem that needs to be solved degrades the purpose of college.




History of Education: finding out about a sub-field

For the subjects I’m researching, in addition to knowing more about Victorian Studies, I also need to look into the sub-field of the History of Education. Victorian Studies is arguably a sub-field of Literature (see previous post), and I thought History of Education would be a sub-field of History. But after looking around, I’m starting to suspect it’s more a sub-field of Education.

First I looked at the organizations that study this sub-field. There are two groups of scholars that call themselves the History of Education Society. One is in the U.S. It publishes the History of Education Quarterly, and belongs to the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE). To find out more about their perspective, I looked at the current list of officers. Their degrees are primarily in Education and Educational Leadership, although a couple have History B.A.s or M.A.s.

The other History of Education Society is in the U.K., out of the University of Glasgow. Their committee has full biographies posted at their website, so finding out about them was easier, but unlike the Americans they don’t tend to list their degrees. For those I could find, the pattern seemed similar: History first or second degrees, Education for the PhD. They publish History of Education (making it difficult to separate from the American History of Education Quarterly in a database search) and History of Education Researcher.

Then I looked at the journals themselves. For the British contingent, History of Education journal is published by Taylor and Francis, one of those publishers who does not provide open access. I am, however, able to access most articles through the EBSCO database at my college library. 

The American History of Education Quarterly is published by Cambridge University Press, and also available through EBSCO. 

More information is revealed by the content and focus of the actual articles, of course. In addition to seeing articles from such journals pop up when doing subject searches, I like to browse the contents of journal issues. It is usually possible to read the titles of all articles at the website of the journal publisher, even if it’s hard to access the articles themselves. I could tell that for the British History of Education, there are a number of articles focused on British educational history, some on adult education, and several on methodology, which is helpful. So I’m subscribing to the new content announcements so I can keep up (many journal publishers let you do this). The History of Education Quarterly seems mainly focused on American educational history.

Any articles I cannot get through the library’s subscription databases, I can often acquire through our wonderful interlibrary loan librarian, who can get me almost anything! I can often discover in WorldCat who might have a particular item (there are two universities within an hour’s drive). I recently spoke with a student who didn’t realize that students may use interlibrary loan, but they can — that’s what it’s for, whether at community college or university. When I was an undergraduate, I used it all the time. Books came to me at the library after about a week, and photocopied articles came in the mail (nowadays you can often get emailed an electronic copy). I needed some pretty strange stuff back then, as I do now, often from British articles. But the brilliant librarians at Cal State Bakersfield got me those too — they printed them out on the teletype machine. In graduate school at UCSB, these old tomes would arrive at the ILL desk and I would lug them over to the photocopy machine. These days I can walk a few steps to the scanning machine at the college library. But I do miss the sound of the teletype…


Sidenote: Teaching students to do research is a daunting task at a community college. There are few History majors and no methodology classes. We also need to teach the many other skills required for basic historical thinking and analysis. Part of my sabbatical is to create posts that detail my historical research work as a way of demonstrating the process. I’m still working on how to index all this…

Victorian Studies

To begin my work on Victorian England, I need to examine the field of Victorian Studies. Unlike History, area studies of all kinds are newer disciplines, and I often have difficulty figuring out what they’re trying to do. Every discipline has its own methodology and its own literature – that’s what makes it a discipline. Now that I’m moving away from working with online pedagogy and educational technology, it’s necessary to make sure I am aware of the milieu in which I’m operating.

Although by no means intended as an introduction to the subject, Martin Hewitt’s “Victorian Studies; problems and prospects?” from 2001 has nevertheless provided me a good entrée. Noting the expansion of books and graduate programs in Victorian Studies, the article nevertheless critiques the lack of interdisciplinarity on which the field is supposedly based. Hewitt notes several other concerns, including historians uncomfortable with the word “Victorian” and the dominance of presentist topics (gender, women, imperialism) that use the Victorian era just for examples. But a bigger issue is the fact that historians and literary studies have not really combined in an interdisciplinary way, even while conference panels may be multi-disciplinary. Apparently the most comfortable and useful pathway for Victorian Studies has been the “cultural history” of the 1980s and 90s, although it took awhile to shake off the perception that it was elitist. This was interdisciplinary because it used methods like Foucault’s analysis of culture (p. 141). 

But cultural history does not create a disciplinary field that is consistent and has an “agreed focus” (p. 142). The result is that there is no common scholarship, and Hewitt notes a lack of “key texts” (p. 144). This helps me because I couldn’t figure out what those key texts were when I was looking for a way into the historiography of Victorian Studies. Hewitt sees the historiography as fragmented, limiting the impact of important works. Previous historical works also tend to limit biography to a few “semi-canonical” men, such as Carlyle, Mill, and Ruskin (p. 145).

In literary studies, Victorian Studies has become a “sub-field”, and the many journals of Victorian Studies tend to be dominated by literary analysis . When I subscribed to Victorian Studies journal and Nineteenth-Century Studies, I noticed immediately that the editors were almost all from university English departments. As I read the articles, I kept rolling my eyes as the authors seem to plumb the text of Victorian novels for meanings that were obscure, presentist, imaginative, or all three. I found most striking Hewitt’s point that such studies focus on the reading as it takes place in the current reader’s timeframe (ours). The articles use the present tense, as if the characters in the novels are here with us now, while a historical article would use past tense (p. 148).

History, Hewitt notes, is constructive and materialistic, while literary and cultural studies are idealistic and interpretive (p. 149) – I would say “imaginative”. Focusing on the text ignores the history. This is why I dissuade students from constructing theses that seem to show the text as possessing causation (“propaganda led people to hate the enemy”) – we cannot prove such a thesis historically, although it is possible to prove that the text might have been meant to do something, or that something might have caused (or influenced, more likely) a work to be written.  

Hewitt’s agenda includes developing a solid historiography, and creating new research based on larger ideas. His prescription for historians (he’s one too) is to broaden the field to include more ideas and their production, combining more approaches. Since the context and environment of the era is embedded in the text, the process is one of sense-making. At least, I think that’s what he’s saying – he loses me when he talks about “syncretic hermenuetics” (p. 153). His focus seems to be on creating intertwinings of text and practices to create something truly interdisciplinary, where the “text becomes means rather than object” and the focus is on the impact (and reproduction) of the text (p. 154).

In determining which texts have been underutilized, Hewitt notes many that I am engaged with, including essays, lectures, and newspapers – forms of communication not intended to be high culture. His ideal Victorianist study combines elements from history, anthropology, ethnography, literary criticism, sociology, and art history (p. 155).

I believe that the goal here is to provide a more well-rounded, thorough, and (by implication) realistic understanding of the Victorian era. I am at a loss, however, to explain why it is necessary to do this through the methodologies of disciplines other than history. I don’t think I realized that I am a history snob until I began reading Victorian Studies journal, and finding myself enjoying it while at the same time becoming exasperated with the lack of evidence beyond popular texts. The field strikes me as similar to steampunk: an enjoyable romp through Victoriana to fulfill present (and presentist) needs by drawing imaginative connections. (I feel the same way about the new genre of “creative non-fiction”, about which I will write more later.) I in no way believe that the historical method can provide as accurate a portrayal as going back in a time machine, but history is adaptable enough to take on the perspectives, if not the methods, of other disciplines and use them effectively. I think I would have understood a plan for a new Victorian History better than I understand a plan for a more cogent Victorian Studies. 


Hewitt, M. (2001). “Victorian Studies: problems and prospects?” Journal of Victorian Culture6(1), 137–161.

Tagging for SLOs

As part of my sabbatical, I have promised to not only blog openly as a historian, but also to connect these writings to my college’s SLOs.

An SLO is a Student Learning Outcome. Now, before you roll your eyes, be aware that when the History department was given the task of creating SLOs for all our courses years ago, we were given significant latitude. In our wisdom, we decided to make our SLOs skills-based rather than content-based. Instead of saying what content would be covered, what names and dates and events students had to learn, we would base our SLOs on what skills we wanted students to practice as historians.

We came up with five originally, although it’s really two sets of four, one for General Education Humanities (that’s #5 substituted for #3) and one for General Education Social Science (the reverse).

Other departments, which creating scaled-down lists of their course outlines, have had significantly more trouble developing assessments showing what students can do, which was the point of the SLOs in the first place. Our method gave instructors significant latitude in determining how to assess the SLOs. For example, a student could demonstrate that they can interpret the thesis of a secondary source by doing so with any secondary source they’re given, rather than a particular source.

Some said we were cheating, because our SLOs can apply to many courses (all courses really, except that some instructors liked to make their own when they created a new course). I think we were brilliant.

Here they are, as I’ve renumbered them for my own purposes, with my comments:

1. construct a historical thesis that could be supported by selected primary sources from the era covered by the course

This is the most crucial task of a historian, any historian. A thesis must be interpreted and be able to supported by evidence. Otherwise you may be reading history, but you aren’t doing it.

Chasse with the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty, 1180–90

2. estimate the correct era from which a primary source derives

I’m not sure this is the best way to phrase this skill, but if you look at writing or art from the 12th century and think it’s from the 18th century, there’s a problem.

3. interpret the thesis of a secondary source

It’s no use constructing your own thesis if you cannot understand the historiography — the writing of history that came before, and what points were being made. This is especially true because your thesis will no doubt overturn someone else’s, or at least, explicitly acknowledge it.

4. articulate the causal and/or consequential elements of an event from the era covered by the course

Post-modernists will object to the term “cause” — I myself, having read Keith Jenkins, prefer “explanation”. But the idea is that knowing which events influenced other events is the key to historical thinking. This skill makes facts and chronology fall into place, rather than having to study and memorize them.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

5. analyze cultural expressions as evidence of an historical theme

This one has been the most difficult for students — it’s the humanities SLO. It’s the rest of the triad represented by #1 and #2. Historians in the humanities must be able to use sources (including cultural expressions like artworks, architecture, literature), set a source in its context, and use cultural sources as evidence of ideas. Otherwise, they’re doing social science instead.

The best way, I think, to organize my demonstration of the SLOs in my own work is simply to use them as tags, but WordPress has made that rather difficult (if you don’t use a tag all the time, you have to type it in manually). So instead I’ll use categories. Then later posts can be called up by SLO for demonstration purposes. So I’ll be doing that soon…