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 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…

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