NACBS sessions

More session reports! (I know, you’ve been waiting — but I do this so I remember the sessions.)

Petitioning and the Politics of Nation, Gender, and Empire shows the problems with titling panels, as it was really more about the process of petititoning the government, not so much politics or any of the sub-factors.

Laura Stewart’s “Petitioning Practices in Early Modern Scotland” looked at how political petitioning (petitioning in order to criticize the government) and ordinary supplications interact, in this case as regards the Covenanter government of Scotland in the 1640s, an era surrounding the English Civil War. Although it’s hard to quantify the total number of petitions, case studies provide a variety of significances, including whether a petition can be considered libel, what language supplicants used in their petitions, and how government critiques can provide a foundation for a petition.

Richard Huzzy and Henry Miller’s “The Rise and Fall of Petitions to the House of Commons, 1780-1918” was a good example of the kind of research you can do with a grant, in this case from the Leverhulme Trust. They were able to sort and recategorize thousands of petitions and numbers of signatures. Between 1833 and 1918 Parliament received 950,000 public petitions on 29,500 different issues, and their charts showed spikes in certain years. The categories included colonies, ecclesiastic, economic, infrastructure, legal, social, taxes, war. They had broken down colonies but I was sad to see that “education” wasn’t its own category, as that might have been helpful for my work. They noted certain politically organized pushes for petitions, which were clearly used to mobilize support on certain issues.

Ciara Stewart’s “Petitioning against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective” helped me understand the foundational idea of many papers. It’s important to narrow the focus to a single argument with depth of sources. To me, petitioning against the CDA would have been its own paper, but it’s clear now that I’ve attended the conference that this is not the best way. By focusing closely on the Ladies National Association in Ireland and its composition, then comparing it favorably to the English LNA, Stewart was able to prove that the Irish branch should be taken more seriously. The paper avoided the usual discussion of whether the CDA was a good idea or not, though it did mention the reasons for supporting petitioning against it: the double standard it promoted by not examining men, the fact that the examinations were forced, and the arguments about the likelihood of police grabbing women to examine even if they had committed no crime (“protect your wife and daughters”). Previous historiography had sidelined the Irish LNA, and I recalled that the purpose of most papers is to oppose previous historiography. I tell students that this is an “although” thesis (“although we’ve been told that the Irish LNA was just a side branch, it was actually significant”).

In my case, then, an example might be “although the focus of historical study for higher education in the Victorian age has been on universities, extension courses, and the examination system itself, correspondence courses for degree exams were a significant means of advancing education among the lower middle classes…”

The session I was looking forward to the most was next: The Educational Institution as a Category of Analysis in Modern British History. The chair, Peter Mandler, noted that education has been a missing element, long neglected in British social history, although it is well-served now. Emily Rutherford’s “Opposition to Coeducation in British Universities 1880-1939” had a thesis that I would summarize as “although the historical focus of gender in universities is based on women trying to gain access to higher education, there are important elements in resistance to it, particularly personal comfort levels and administrative constraints”, including the role of donors. The wishes of donors (she cited donors who wanted to support single-sex institutions) could be at odds with the wishes of administrations. In some cases, like that of Queen Margaret College at the University of Glasgow, it was wasteful to teach women-only classes, and the argument was made that biases against women would mean lower marks for them than if their exams were mixed with men’s. (Later in the Q&A a concern was raised about the cost to working-class boys of middle-class girls dominating classes.) The speaker also introduced the interesting case of Edward Perry Warren, an art collector and scholar of the idealized male Greek life cycle of homosexuality, who funded a male lectureship on the condition that the lecturer live at the college and there be a passage between his house and the boys’ lodgings.

Laura Carter’s “Locating Self and Experience in the History of Secondary Education in the UK: The View from 1968” discussed a project that followed baby boomers and their perceptions about their education into adulthood, and meant to extract education from the history of social change. Many of the students, as adults, regretted missing opportunities while they were in school, but none regretted attending a modern secondary school. Although when asked about moving up socially, those from manual worker families cited money and luck as primary factors, and non-manual labor families cited education, all named education as the key to self-improvement. Also interesting was that among those who didn’t go to university, men cited external reasons (like jobs), while women cited family responsibilities which prevented them.

Sussex University Chapel

William White’s “‘A Symbol of all this University Doesn’t Stand for’? The Place of Religion in Post-war University Life” had an implied thesis, of course: “although historians cite the removal of religion from student life during the 1960s, conflicts over chapels and religious buildings on campus show much student interest in Christianity”. We should be asking why new chapels were being built all over if religion was in a downturn. White wisely printed out his slides, rather than projecting them, to demonstrate the modernist architecture to which many students objected on aesthetic grounds. He also noted that the student body was changing in the 1960s from more local attendance to students who were more mobile, national in their  perspective, and residential since they came from elsewhere. Thus residence halls were another architectural feature of the era. The new welfare state was, in effect, taking over from local churches, with chaplains in the NHS and religious programming on the BBC. Christianity saw a resurgence after the war, and there was an ecumenical movement.

Commentator Laura Tisdall noted that we need to take school out of the “history of education”. The history of education is not seen a real history, and needs to be integrated into modern history. It’s been neglected, she said, because the subject is embedded in teaching training colleges and departments of Education rather than History, that there’s a sense that we know it already since we’ve all been to school, and that it is associated mostly with the history of childhood (which has seen a proper resurgence). University history is even more neglected, and further education is positively marginalized. So although I enjoyed the papers, the commentary was even more important in sorting out where my work fits in History as a discipline. I have struggled with History of Education societies, which seem to be composed of educators who dabble in history. What I’m doing, as I’ve mentioned, is more traditional history — education just happens to be the subject.

Dorothy L. Sayers by Granger

The last session I attended (other than my own) was just for fun: Aspiring Writer and Aristocrats: Renegotiations of Elite and Mass Cultures, 1890-1940. Abigail Sage’s “Print Media and the Aspiring Writer in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” examined periodicals like Young Man and Young Woman which encouraged potential fiction writers with advice columns. She even quoted HG Wells as saying he was  part of a whole generation of aspiring writers. Mo Moulton’s “Murder Mysteries, Socialist-Utopian Science Fiction, and the Mediation of Elite and Popular Cultures in the 1920s-1930s” looked at Dorothy L. Sayers and Muriel Yeager as representative of conservative modernity, both reflecting pessimism about human nature. I learned a lot about the character of Lord Peter Wimsey (whom I’ve seen on TV but never read), and about Yeager’s relationship with Sayers, and about Sayers’ interest in Christianity. Wells was mentioned here too, as a utopian author, with Yeager saying she opposed his views, but certainly The Time Machine is as dystopian as anything she wrote, so she must have meant his later work on socialism. I am, however, beginning to wonder whether one can present a paper on writing during the 1890s without mentioning Wells!

The very last session (last session, last day, and I was the last speaker) was the one I was in: Popular Culture and Popular Education in Victorian England. Anne Rodrick’s “‘Lectures Both Scientific and Literary’: Organizing Mid-19th-Century Lecture Culture” discussed the General Union of Literary, Scientific, and Mechanic’s’ Institutes and how they debated the best ways to provide lectures to the public. She compared their efforts unfavorably to the American Lyceum system, and showed how particularism and provincial concerns prevented a well-organized lecture culture. Martin Hewitt’s “Providing Science for the People: The Gilchrist Turst 1878-1914” explored how the Trust developed and promoted popular science lectures, and also noted some problems with development. While the lectures were highly successful due to their high quality, low ticket price, friendly connections with local authorities, and massive advertising campaigns (even door-to-door) to get people to attend, in the long run it was difficult to sustain. There was also some question as to how many attendees were actual rural or manual laborers, and complaints that the low cost made it difficult for other lectures to get an audience. My own paper, “‘Preposterous and Necessary’: H.G. Wells, William Briggs, and the University Correspondence College” focused on the development of the UCC as a viable method for lower-middle-class people to study for the University of London examinations and earn their degrees. I argued that distance education like that offered by the UCC was essential to the success of the examination system, although I need to work further on that approach. I was asked no questions, and got the sense that my paper was too broad, more like a class lecture rather than a research report (I had, in fact, written it for presentation rather than publication). I made slides but there was no adapter for my iBook to connect to HDMI, and tech support didn’t show, so I was glad I’d made sure my visuals were illustrative rather than essential. I came out feeling I have a great deal of work to do to get close to the quality of the other papers I saw, but that’s a good reason for going, yes?

 

 

NACBS first day and Providence

We started early today, and I saw a number of excellent papers.

I attended the session on Popular Fiction and Representations of Politics and Empire in Britain, 1880-1950 because it overlaps the period I’m working on and, let’s face it, in addition to his scientific and pedagogical writings, HG Wells did write some fiction.

The first paper was “Popular Fiction and the Politics of Anti-Socialism, 1900-1940”, by Liam Ryan, so it was a little later than my period. The main idea was that some popular fictions, particularly mysteries and spy thrillers, pushed a conservative agenda. We can tell this by how socialists are treated in the works. For example, in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the hero helps thwart a Bolshevik plot (I think he meant anarchist — the book is 1915) , and characters are mocked for their working-class sympathies. Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey is scornful of socialists, and Agatha Christie’s plots ridicule “champagne socialists”, with plots that reveal socialist characters to be secretly wealthy, and socialism as an error of the young. Questions following the paper delved into why it isn’t ok to be rich and socialist (and why Bernie Sanders gets criticized for that), how the authors are middle-class so they’re also making fun of artistocrats also, and how high brow characters can be aligned with lower-class characters, since neither is self-conscious.

James Watts’ “Flora Annie Steel, Henry Rider Haggard and the Use of Fiction in the History of Imperialism” asked questions about the popularity of fiction, which might be read as factual. Steel had lived in India for almost 20 years, so one might take her as an authority, and Haggard’s character Allan Quartermaine, although presented in fictional settings, reads like real life. They also contain tropes I hadn’t thought about: luxury represents moral corruption, bad acts lead to bad ends, financiers are duplicitous.

Nupur Chaudhury’s paper was changed from the program, where it said she would talk about representations of Indians in Kipling. She also spoke about the depictions of Indians in women’s periodicals as well, especially the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Although she proved clearly that these sources demonstrated prejudice against Indian culture a la Edward Said, I felt the thesis was factual rather than interpretive.

The moderator, Jeffrey Cox, commented on the papers, and noted a teaching problem with texts that use objectionable language. How do we teach texts that contain misogyny and racism, when students (and others) object to the use of language? He mentioned, for example, a new version of Huckleberry Finn, where all instances of the word “nigger” have been changed to the historically incorrect “slave”. (Although he said this edition was by Gates, I think it was Auburn English prof Alan Gribben.  I just used Gutenberg’s version and came up with 214 instances of the word.) Looks like teachers are working well on this one.

Christopher Bischof’s “Curios and Curiosity: A Teacher and the World in a Sutherland Community, 1899-1930” introduced me to William Campbell, a Scottish schoolteacher who liked to collect things but had little money. Apparently the history of collection usually focuses on the finding of objects rather than their use, but here the collection is significant in that Campbell got people to donate things, and shared his collection with the community. The paper also sought to debunk prevailing ideas of Scottish precociousness in democratic education, but pointed out that Campbell went through the pupil-teacher and teacher-training system originally adapted from England. It also highlighted the long-standing interest of Scots in the larger world.

I then learned some food and nutrition history I hadn’t planned on, because the two other papers cancelled. Lacey Sparks’ “Low-Hanging Fruit: Interwar Nutrition Education in Britain and Africa” introduced me to the programs, based on science and women teaching women, designed to increase nutrition in meals. I found it interesting that in Africa, this could be difficult because fresh food was not always available. Thus tinned food, which was being discouraged in Britain for its lesser nutrition, was encouraged in Africa.

At the lunchtime plenary, Mark Ormrod of the University of York spoke on “England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550: Aliens in Later Medieval and Early Tudor England”. There were several fascinating aspects to this paper — I had planned to eat instead of taking notes, but took notes anyway. The work presented is based on the data shown at englandsimmigrants.com. Ormrod traced the rights and laws pertaining to immigrants, noting that until about 1500 trustworthy immigrants had rights. I was surprised to learn this included the “jury of half tongue”, where half the jury had to speak the language of the accused. (I imagined what would happen if we did that now in this country.)

He also showed how well immigrants were integrated geographically — there is no evidence of ghettoization despite periodic outbreaks of prejudice or violence (this was not true of Jews, who had been expelled in 1290 — only converts were tolerated). By the 1450s, economic changes meant that immigrant workers (many of them craft masters and merchants) were seen as a threat. The Statute of 1484 during the reign of Richard III created alien taxes, reduced immigrant rights, and implemented more stringent standards on their products. Even so, there was still plenty of inclusiveness, though more so before the Reformation than afterward. The connections to Brexit anti-immigrant sentiment, based on economics, is obvious. For my students, this would be a theme: when the middle classes are economically threatened, they have less tolerance for immigrants.

The big education history session was Education and Empire: Networks in the 19th-20th Centuries, with Gavin Schaffer moderating.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson’s paper, “Enlisted Orientalists: Autodidact Soldiers and Educational Networks in the Raj” told how soldiers were ill-prepared for their stint in India, and that their education, for both colonial knowledge (local culture) and imperial culture (knowing how British rule worked) was gained mostly from each other. Although colonial knowledge was presumed to lead to social mobility, the case of a man named Lambert showed that even taking exams on local languages didn’t guarantee advancement. There was a concern not to educate soldiers too much. I was somewhat disappointed that, for my work, there wasn’t more on the exams themselves, but I was taken with the idea that learning local language wouldn’t move you along anyway when the elites had studied classical languages at university, but I would need a lot of work to demonstrate this.

Hilary Farb Kalisman’s “Colonial Crossings: Educational networks across Britain’s Middle Eastern Mandates” showed that too much unregulated education could cause revolts. The idea of the American University of Beirut was to create an educated elite for government employment through university inside the mandates (previously colonies). It instead led to a rise of the effendi, young, urban, educated, partially-westernized discontents.

Darrell Newton’s “Gaining Firsthand Fear: Colonial Students, Racialism, and the BBC” looked at West Indian students in Britain and their issues with prejudice, including being rejected for housing. The BBC tried to create some radio programs to discuss issues of racialism; some were successful, others were sidelined.

By the time this session was over, I was stiff from sitting, and needed to walk. Besides, there are three second-hand book shops within walking distance. So I headed toward the river and educated myself about Providence. First I found something I’m more accustomed to seeing in England: a World War I memorial. It’s part of a revitalization project as Providence reclaims its riverfront (I have a soft spot for any city that claims its river). It’s a large, well-designed memorial park:

Providence River

 

Irish Famine Memorial, Providence

 

Holocaust Memorial

 

First World War Memorial

Base of First World War Memorial

 

I walked over a pedestrian bridge (there are several) back into downtown to find those bookstores. And now I began to understand why people love Providence. It’s one of the cleanest, nicest downtowns I’ve seen. A few potholes or broken pavement, but for the most part very well-tended, growing while keeping its centuries-old traditions.

I get it now. And I only bought four books, but at three different shops. Got back to the conference in time for the reception and planning for our panel. A very good day.

 

More photos…

Historiography and tracking backward

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

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.

History of education: classics vs science

Because my work on distance education in the 19th century is so closely connected to the History of Education, I’ve been working on understanding that sub-discipline a little better. I have also been thinking about whether working in the History of Education for the late 19th century overlaps with Victorian Studies (another discipline) in a meaningful way.

My research took me to Alice Jenkins – Mathematics and Liberal Education in Victorian Cambridge  (2009), a paper delivered at the CRASSH conference ‘Changing the Humanities/the Humanities Changing’ (July 2009).

Victorian Studies is considered an interdisciplinary field, and I’ll cover that in a later post. From this video, it’s clear that there are hazards to looking at Victorians themselves for examples of interdisciplinarity, because they excelled in a range of disciplines but didn’t use what we would call an interdisciplinary approach. 

The talk focuses on the argument about curricula in Victorian universities, which I’ve been studying for a paper I just submitted to a journal.  In that article, I briefly discussed what C.P. Snow later called the Two Cultures Debate between classical curriculum and the newer science/mathematical curriculum (see The Rede Lecture, 1959). Classics and mathematics were the original Cambridge Bachelors Degrees, and were seen as combined into a common culture that represented a foundation of knowledge. But rather than representing a common culture, these degrees may have represented Cambridge justifying its own creating, using a narrow method to discipline the mind for future duties. Was it really necessary for stuents studying classics to sit exams in maths, and vice versa?

Tripos exam 1842

Some people criticized the focus on Tripos maths as “partial and inadequate”, but Cambridge defended it as broad. Jenkins uses one controversy to illuminate the issue: the “Slaughter of 1841”, where 25 of 130 students failed the maths exams and had to leave without a degree. The Senate House crowd booed the examiners, and the controversy became public. Half the students had been forced to take the Maths Honours exam just so they could study Classics (a nod to educational reformers), and two examiners that year had decided to raise the Maths standard without notice. Colleges became angry because they lost good Classics students.  Only one letter in The Times supported the examiners’ efforts to keep standards high – newspapers in general deplored it, and questioned the condition to pass Maths in order to study Classics.

By April The Times had changed its view. Did it mean the end of a unified culture? There is no evidence that those passing both classics and maths were culturally rounded anyway: the exam results show students only took Firsts at one or the other, although some were bad at both, and one was exempted from the maths tests because he was a peer. Students from both curricula did mix, and benefited from knowing each other, which might have created a common literary or interdisciplinary culture regardless of the curriculum. Cambridge (Trinity especially) remained the defender of maths in a liberal education long after others had abandoned this idea. The conflict did force universities to defend their curricular objectives, and may have encouraged Parliamentary intervention. It certainly encouraged public debate. 

 Jenkins notes that the scholars involved did not acknowledge that the entire curriculum perpetuated class and gender distinctions. I am disturbed by this comment. It seems to be necessary to acknowledge the fuzzy thinking of people in the past when it comes to class and gender, as if these issues were ignored during the Victorian era. Just because we now frame everything through gender and class does not mean that others did — it’s a form of presentism I think is distracting to historical studies. Besides, Victorians not only questioned gender and class norms but often worked against them, even if particular individual Victorians did not. That’s the same situation we have today, so I’m not in favor of woke-shaming.

Ghosts, urban identities, and evidence

Many people enjoy the Victorian era because there are ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon as part of the popular culture. There’s a reason why “haunted houses” are in the Victorian style, and the popularity of public lectures on psychic phenomenon and supposed practice of post-mortem photography (which could be bogus) indicate a fascination with the other world. 

So how do historians handle such subjects?

I took a look at a presentation from last year by Dr Karl Bell of the University of Portsmouth called Urban Mindscapes: Exploring Supernatural Cartographies and Victorian Urban IdentitiesIt was a paper given at a workshop: ‘Approaching Inner Lives: Thinking, Feeling, Believing, 1300-1900’ (University of East Anglia, 28 March 2017).

Dr Bell began with a ghost story of sorts: in 1869, the Feathers Hotel in Manchester drew crowds when it was rumored to be haunted. His theory is that ghost tales like this represent a narrative re-mapping of the urban environment. A story of a ghostly haunting fills in the blanks, imagines activity in places where there is no activity (one expects continual activity in a city), and rebels against urban planning. Ghosts, of course, do not recognize modern developments, and won’t abide by spatial orderings (data, maps). It’s as if ghosts live in a different space that is superimposed on our space.

So the thesis is that a nebulous imaginary city co-exists with the real city. But this thesis has holes: ghost stories don’t create an actual alternate meaning. So how can historians probe interiority without evidence? We can find reports of Victorian hauntings, but how can we prove a thesis about this theory of imaginary cities? Dr Bell has drawn upon non-historians like deSoto and deFevre. These thinkers would say that people re-walking the city (knowing their own shortcuts, for example) may not have been conscious that they were re-mapping the space, but that doesn’t mean the alternate city isn’t there.

For historians, this lack of evidence draws fire in the same way as fields like psychogeography – are wanderers really re-mapping the city? Psycho-anything is based on internal feelings, not verifiable events. Historians are accustomed to looking at society, and large groups of people, but looking at individual experiences turns us into either biographers or psychiatrists. But we can study activity: communal ghost hunting, like with the Feathers Hotel incident in Manchester, or 2000 people showing up hoping to view Bermondsey ghost, are verifiable events.

So stories of ghost sightings are difficult to use as evidence, but people’s response to the stories is explicit and can be studied. It’s often only through external manifestations that one can see the internal anyway (it’s not like biographers actually get inside the mind of their subjects). Instead of doing interdisciplinary work with sociologists and psychologists, one can focus on historical method as one would with any other topic.

As a historian, I have no problem with studying the reactions of people to any sort of event, when that can be documented. Sometimes, though, evidence of reactions is hard to find. Often I have students who want to work with propaganda, particularly war-time posters, as evidence. They’re great sources, but they cannot be used to prove that people did what the posters wanted them to do (buy war bonds) or feel the way they were encouraged to feel (hatred toward the enemy). That would have to be proven with other sources, and it would be very difficult to show that a particular poster generated a particular effect.

With cause and effect in general in disrepute (thanks partly to post-modernism), it becomes necessary for historians to divide what can be documented from what cannot, or at least what sort of evidence can be used to prove something. Ghost stories show this particular difficulty, and the historians’ solution, very well.