I have also written about Queer History for the History Worksop Online Journal and have spoken about my approach as part of EuroClio’s podcast series on gender and sexuality in the history curriculum. The links to these can be found below.
Anyone who knows me well could tell you that, while I have always been an enthusiastic walker, I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with maps. Many a school trip has been brought to a halt while I have juggled print-outs and my phone (always lacking either battery life or signal at this point), trying vainly to reconcile the symbols and directions contained therein with the reality of the streets I’m walking through. However, my desire to walk further outside of my comfort zone during the long months of lockdown has led me to make more of an effort with my OS maps and I have dutifully shoved them in my backpack before going out wandering. Needless to say, the results have been mixed, but while a recent walk found me squinting at my map trying to find out where I had gone wrong, as I puzzled over it, the problem I had been mulling over while I walked suddenly resolved itself much more clearly in my mind.
The problem I had been considering had originally emerged when I sat down to re-think the first part of the French Revolution course, where students are introduced to the Ancien Regime and explore the tensions within it that led to its collapse in 1789. I was partly doing so because, after reading Mike Hill’s brilliant work on the topic I wanted to do a better job at world-building in this part of the course. I was also trying to tackle some problems I had seen in my students’ ability to navigate the mental world of 18th century France. My awareness of these problems had been sparked by reading Catherine McCrory’s article in the recently published volume Knowing History in Schools. Her exploration of the ways in which the representation of key historical concepts is inextricable from the process of reasoning with them in the history classroom had made me think again about the ways in which I was using substantive concepts in the French Revolution course. Were some of the problems I had become aware of arising because I had not been planning for their representation, but not considering how students should be reasoning with them in enough detail?
What is my current approach?
My planning for the relevant part of the French Revolution course had been centred around two interpretations, firstly, Alexis de Tocqueville’s claim that the French State had become entirely modernised and centralised by the reign of Louis XVI and secondly, Schama’s argument that challenges to Louis’ government from the 1770’s on were sparked by resistance to his attempts to reform the state. As part of my teaching of these enquiries I had made particular use of substantive concepts like ‘privilege’ and ‘reason’ in order to help students understand the mindset of the Ancien Regime and of the Enlightenment.
In approaching these substantive concepts with the students I had drawn heavily on the research conducted for my MEd. There I had explored how students could use evidence to get a sense of the meaning of particular concepts, explore how they were used, and then place them in a ‘web’ of associated concepts that ‘talked to each other’ in an effort to understand the ‘mindset’ of a period. This had been successful to an extent, in that my students seemed to have grasped the specific meaning of these concepts in the period. Many were also referring to concepts like ‘privilege’ when exploring the nature of, and problems with, aspects of the Ancien Regime such as the three estates system.
However, I was increasingly concerned that idespite some of the strengths of this approach, it wasn’t helping my students to orient themselves in the mental world of the Ancien Regime in quite the way I had hoped. The problem seemed to be threefold: firstly, students were demonstrating a clear sense of what concepts like ‘privilege’ meant in the period, but seemed less confident when navigating the ways in which concepts interacted, changed or superseded each other. Secondly, where conceptual change was explored, as in the case of the shift from more traditional approaches to society and the state to those of the Enlightenment, students tended to assume that change occurred across the board and all at once, not really recognising the survival of older ways of thinking alongside new ones. Thirdly, my reliance on documentary evidence to ‘reveal’ concepts to students was leading to a failure of representation, as only ways of thinking that appeared in these types of evidence were becoming ‘visible’ to my students. Overall, I seemed to be stuck at the stage of ‘representing’ concepts to my students without allowing them to reason with them enough, and this was limiting how far they could be understood by them and was also not reflecting how these concepts actually operated in the period accurately.
How to solve this problem?
This brings me back to my eureka moment with the OS map. I’d been mulling over this problem for some time, tweaking the sequence of lessons, thinking about new ways of introducing key substantive concepts to the students, without really feeling like I’d cracked the problem. It was not until my mind was supposedly elsewhere that I realised that many of the problems I had created for myself had their origin in something more fundamental, in the mental model of how substantive concepts could work in this particular course that I was using when planning it. Rather than getting my students caught up in ‘webs’ of concepts, perhaps I needed to consider following paths or ‘ways of thinking’ through the course instead.
I probably need to explain in a bit more detail how an earth this relates to an OS map. Let’s say for example you are looking at a map of the South Downs way. As you read it, you are going to be privy to a range of information about the route you are looking for, firstly where it goes as it flows up and over the Downs, but also the landmarks that it passes that will tell you you’re on the right track while you’re walking on it. The map will also tell you about the other routes that intersect with it, identifying where paths like the Monarch’s Way or Staine Street join it and leave it behind. (A map-reader with a certain amount of historical knowledge might also be able to connect these paths to the stories of Charles II”s escape route after his defeat at Worcester and the old Roman Road.) There is however, also information that does not appear on the map and which only becomes visible when walking in the landscape, namely the desire-lines or hidden cut-throughs that either were not evident or were not deemed important enough to be included when the map was constructed.
As I looked at the map, I realised that I had possibly found a better framework for how I wanted substantive concepts to work. Unlike the rather static ‘web’ analogy I had been working with previously, thinking about ‘ways of thinking’ as paths seemed to me to be a better reflection of how these concepts actually operated in the period. ‘Ways of thinking’ that drew on the philosophy of the Enlightenment might converge with those that drew on the more traditional ideas that underpinned the Ancien Regime at points. One ‘way of thinking’ might seem to overwhelm another but ‘landmarks’ represented by key narratives or pieces of evidence might be used to help students identify that multiple ‘pathways’ were still travelling through the course. Furthermore, places where these ‘ways of thinking’ joined or deviated from each other could also be identified and questions could be raised about why the evidence the students explored made some ‘ways’ more visible than others.
With all this churning around in my head (and still not convinced as to whether I had experienced a moment of revelation or of madness) there was only one thing to do when I got home. I had to sit down and try to draw myself a map.
I’ll be honest, this took me a few tries to get right, but it represents a model for my use (not necessarily for the use of my students) in adjusting the way in which I plan to work with ‘ways of thinking’ when teaching the part of the course that introduces the Ancien Regime, and explores its collapse in 1789.
The first key thing I wanted to include in my map was a moment of orientation in the mental world of the Ancien Regime. There were three distinct ‘ways of thinking’ that I thought were particularly relevant, those that underpinned the structures of the Ancien Regime, those that characterised the Enlightenment and finally those that were prevalent in popular culture. As I introduced each path, I wanted to plan for a moment where students could get a sense of the characteristics of the pathway being introduced and how it might relate to the other ‘ways’ and to the landscape of the Ancien Regime as a whole. I had already used the narrative of Louis XVI’s coronation to introduce some of the characteristics of the Ancien Regime and some of the historical debates I wanted students to engage with when I had previously taught the course. Taking a further cue from Mike Hill’s work on worldbuilding therefore, I decided to extend this in order to help students orient themselves on the other two paths. The narratives I chose were the story of Robespierre’s inaugural speech at the Academy of Arras in 1784 as an introduction to the mental and social world of the Enlightenment (and as a way of introducing a key character) and the story of ‘Princess’ Madeleine Pochet during the Flour War of 1774, as a way of introducing the ‘popular’ way of thinking in the Ancien Regime.
Planning to introduce the different ‘ways of thinking’ with these narratives also allows me to make it clear to the students that they have an existence prior to the moment they appear on our map. The mapping metaphor further compelled me to consider carefully at which moments the different paths would join our main route and at which points they would deviate from each other. Here the ‘ways of thinking’ that underpinned the Ancien Regime would be the path that would be followed first and the landscape that it passed through would be the structure of its government and society. Once established, the pathway of the Enlightenment could be introduced and the ways in which these two ‘ways of thinking’ interacted and conflicted could be explored, especially in the face of the economic challenges facing the Ancien Regime. Finally the popular resistance that exploded in response to the reforming efforts of the Controller Generals would serve to introduce the third ‘way of thinking’ I want student to follow; the mindset of popular resistance and revolt. Likewise, using the mental model of a map allowed me to plan more carefully for moments of deviation, where the ‘way of thinking’ associated with the Enlightenment appears to be the predominant pathway from the summer of 1789, but with the opportunity for the return of the other two ‘ways of thinking’ to the route in 1791 and 92.
The second problem that this model allows me to address is the issue with students assuming that the introduction of a new ‘mindset’ inevitably means the destruction of the old one. Having the model of converging ‘paths’ has the potential to assist with this. An example on the map I constructed was the moment of convergence during the crisis of 1787-89, where key events such as the failure of the Assembly of Notables, the Day of Tiles and the calling of the Estates-General for 1789 could be used to highlight the persistence of all three ‘ways of thinking’ through this moment of upheaval. Thinking carefully about some of the ‘landmarks’ on the route could also help me problematise convergence. In my previous teaching of the course I had already used a range of the ‘registers of grievances’ compiled in the run-up to the meeting of the Estates-General in 1789 (including unofficial documents such as the ‘women’s cahier’), to explore mindsets at this particular turning point. Now, as a landmark for all of the different ‘ways of thinking’, they could have an additional function for exploring how far convergence had occurred and to consider the reasons why the pathways were likely to deviate from each other.
The ‘landmark’ represented by the ‘registers of grievances’ compiled between 1788 and 1789 also allowed me to consider how my map might address the third and final problem I had identified for the use of substantive concepts in this course; the reliance on documentary evidence and the limitations of ‘visibility’ of certain ways of thinking within it. I had already made some plans to address this problem by taking my cue from cultural historians of the period like Robert Darnton in considering how t help my students ‘read’ key moments of revolt in order to illuminate the ways of thinking that underpinned them. Events like the Flour War, the Day of Tiles and the Great Fear could therefore act as landmarks on my map for the ‘way of thinking’ that characterised popular attitudes in the period and would assist with the visibility of this path. Additionally, placing this ‘way of thinking’ as a path running through my map could also help me make this question of visibility available for my students to interrogate. Their familiarity with the ‘way of thinking’ that characterised popular attitudes as a path through the period could allow us to explore why this path was less visible in documents like the registers of grievances of 1789 and why it seemed to have completely faded from view by the time the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and of Woman) and the constitution of 1791 were emerging. The constructed nature of the map I had drawn up for my students to follow through the period would then become more clear.
Does this map lead anywhere?
Two questions are now particularly relevant. The first one is whether this model will work at the planning stage but collapse on contact with reality. My current belief is that the map I have drawn will be better as a guide for my own planning than something to be shared with my students, but the approach it outlines to integrating concepts or ‘ways of thinking’ into my teaching in the coming year, and whether this helps to address some of the problems I have identified, can only be tested in the classroom. The second is whether focusing more on ‘ways of thinking’ rather than substantive concepts has any applicability beyond the very specific period I’m working with here. My hunch is that it might; I can certainly see how it might be applied to other moments of intellectual challenge and change in our course on the English Reformation, and also how it might be applied to ‘ways of thinking’ associated with imperialism, nationalism and resistance in our British Empire course. For the moment however, it would serve me well to remember the lessons that most walkers are familiar with, which is that a route set out at a kitchen table can only really be tested by walking it.
It has been just over two years now since I wrote a blog about teaching LGBTQ+ history on the cusp of our allotted ‘history month’. At the time I was mainly responding to my frustrations with some of my own practice as I had become ever more aware of the gulf between how I was talking about this history in my classroom and what people researching in the field were doing, and even more crucially, how they were thinking.
I wasn’t really expecting for queer history to become one of my major curricular preoccupations, but soon people started (understandably) asking me questions about the things I had written and in order to feel qualified to keep pontificating I had to keep reading and thinking. (This became ever easier to do as I entered into lockdown with little else to distract me and absolutely no self-control when it comes to buying books online.) The upshot is that, while I stand by a lot of what I said in the blog I wrote back in 2018, there are a couple of ideas which I think could be pushed further, and some new pathways of thought upon which I’ve started tentatively walking. As time has gone by my interest in queer history has also begun to seep into my views about the curriculum as a whole in ways that haven’t quite resolved themselves in my mind yet. Therefore, the ideas discussed below represent something like a ‘difficult second album’; being a summary of the ways in which my thinking has developed over the past two years, without much of a clear resolution for many of the themes in sight.
Sex, gender and sexuality as substantive concepts.
Back in 2018 I was already thinking about terminology as a vexed question, alongside the related issue of the changeability of the concepts with which queer history deals such as sex, gender and sexuality, across time. The more I have read in this field, the more much of it seems to be characterised by a persistent grappling with language and the charting of how the terms and boundaries we are used to; heterosexual/homosexual, masculine/feminine, licit/illicit shift like sand dunes from century to century, from society to society and sometimes dissolve altogether. It can be hard to find a foothold in this landscape and as teachers, I think we have a role to play in the long-running debate within the field concerning how far absolute fidelity to the experiences of the people of the past should be compromised in the cause of being intelligible to a modern audience.
One of the paths I think we might take is to treat not only the rich language of sex, gender and sexuality in past societies that is different to ours, (mollies, urnings, tribades, third sex) as substantive concepts, but to extend the same treatment to terminology that seems familiar to us. This involves using ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the same way we do terms like ‘peasant’ or ‘revolution’; approaching them as language that contains and expresses very different sets of assumptions across space and time, which were deployed by historical actors and are used by historians in very different ways.
This is not that original an idea, various people engaged in thinking about how histories of empire, migration, and underrepresented groups have made a similar cases about the language of ‘race’, ‘culture’ and ‘nationality’. Additionally, it is not a line of thought I could have engaged with had I not dusted off my old MEd thesis, which mainly relied upon the rich discourse on substantive concepts undertaken by history teachers like Fordham and Hammond.
In terms of the utility of using substantive concepts when teaching queer history specifically, I think that using ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’, (among others) in this way has the potential to act as a thread we can use to guide our students through the labyrinth. Making language that seems familiar to students strange again has the potential to give them a better idea of the specific beliefs of a particular period. Even more importantly, pursuing the language of sex, gender and sexuality through time and watching its meanings shift and change can offer the students a route in to the central questions with which queer historians engage, such as how and when identities and communities form and why persecution varies across time. I would also argue that following this thread even further, paying close attention to language in this context, also reveals something to students of how historians think, particularly those engaged in fields that are underrepresented in the curriculum such as social and cultural history. In this case, queer history can offer a route via which wider vistas of historical thought might be entered into.
The importance of context and not burying your ‘bad gays’.
One of the unfortunate effects of becoming more knowledgeable about a field is that looking back on your previous efforts to include it can make you wince. One such moment of chagrin I have experienced relates to my early attempts to include queer history when teaching Weimar and Nazi Germany at KS4. I’ll confess that I was working largely off the cuff at the time, so my inclusion of the topic amounted to little more than a few references made to Magnus Hirschfeld, and a mention of the sexuality of Ernst Rohm. The latter, in particular provoked a storm of questions from students, understandably confused as to how a gay man could hold a senior position within the Nazi Party. I can’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but it was probably little more than a platitude as my knowledge of the context in which both of these figures operated was seriously incomplete.
Fast forward to 2020 when I decided to dig out my copy of Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. (This was largely down to the fact that his name has increasingly been popping up in conversations on history teacher twitter.) On re-reading, one of the key phrases of his that jumped out at me was the idea of ‘silences of resistance’. This immediately grabbed me as it tied in to something I had already identified as an issue back in 2018; the idea of queer history being characterised as a story of continual progress, but also to my increasing wariness of queer history being presented as an uncomplicatedly ‘heroic’ narrative. This, combined with my reading about Anne Lister, (whose thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre caused me to grimace), and to the very enjoyable ‘Bad Gays’ podcast, made me think about moments where I had unwittingly perpetuated this kind of ‘silence’.
My consciousness of the limits of my knowledge of the period had led me to embark on a project of creating a set of resources for teaching the queer history of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany. This was a priority for me as it is a hugely rich period in queer history due to its place as one of the crucibles of modern queer identity, the vibrancy of the communities and campaigning organisations that were formed there and their role in the tragedy of the republic. One of the elements of my work that made me uncomfortably aware of the limitations of my previous teaching however, and especially of how I had previously navigated the question of Rohm, was the theme of the central dispute over the nature of homosexuality within Weimar Germany’s queer community.
I was familiar enough with Magnus Hirschfeld as a pioneer of the gay rights movement; a position he based (very broadly speaking) on an argument that homosexuality was an innate and natural phenomenon. I had no prior idea that in this he struggled not just against the homophobia of the German state and society but also against rival campaigners such as Adolf Brand and his ‘masculinist’ movement. This movement challenged Hirschfeld by seeking to present (male) homosexuality as a positive choice that would avert the ‘feminisation’ of German society and celebrated militarism and nationalism. Suddenly Rohm had a context which made it possible for him to exist as both a gay man and as the leader of the SA, and not necessarily to operate in a continual state of cognitive dissonance in doing so.
I use this example as it brought home to me one of the key reasons why ‘adding in’ queer history to existing topics has to be something undertaken with care and attention to context. My lack of awareness of the range of opinion within the queer community of Weimar Germany made Rohm an unaccountable outlier; a misconception I then passed on to my students. By extension, therefore, one of the risks of treating queer history solely as a narrative of heroic struggle against oppression, (and also of focusing specifically on key individuals shorn of their broader communities and context) is that it presents a two dimensional view that fails to do justice to diversity within historical queer communities. It also crucially, fails to adequately deal with individuals and groups that don’t fit into this story, and thereby threatens to end one silence only to perpetuate another.
Evidence and ‘ephemera’
Of all of the lines of thought that I have been exploring over the past couple of years, this last one is the least developed. It has emerged only recently from my awareness of the discussion going on around how suitable our standard approaches to historical evidence and enquiry in general are when encountering African history in particular. Following these discussions on Twitter and reading Mohamud and Whitburn’s latest article in Teaching History has provoked me into thinking about how some of these questions might relate to the distinctive nature of the evidence base for queer history.
In many ways this ties into my preoccupation with language. Queer history, (along with many other disciplines like cultural, intellectual and emotional history) is frequently an exercise in ‘reading between the lines’. Of even greater interest to me at the moment however, is the nature of queer history in the modern era. Modern queer history, (alongside the histories of other marginalised groups) was constructed not primarily within institutions such as universities, but by communities struggling to preserve their pasts against general hostility and indifference. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this means that a large part of the evidence base involves ‘ephemeral’ artefacts that would not be habitually used as evidence in mainstream explorations of political or economic histories (in the classroom at least). One of the things I want to think about therefore, is not just how this evidence base might be approached with students, but also how it might be used to help them think about the choices that are made about what evidence should be preserved. It strikes me that an opportunity is presented here to help students think about the construction and interpretation of history not just in the context of academic study but also by communities and groups who tend to be seen as being on the margins of historical thinking.
So two years down the line what do I have to show for my continued preoccupation with queer history? Well, a whole shelf dedicated to the books that I absolutely had to buy for one, quite a few pretty technical blog posts and the opportunity to have loads of interesting conversations. Primarily I have gained a whole set of new questions to explore. One of the things that strikes me is how far these questions have not just been prompted by reading within the discipline, but by conversations that have been had about the curriculum, with and by other history teachers, especially those engaged in trying to represent neglected histories within it.
This leads me back to one of the thoughts with which I began this my changing ideas about queer history in the curriculum. It increasingly seems to me that the project of representing these histories, queer history amongst them, has the potential not just to expand the range of knowledge with which students can engage, but also potentially to alter the way the discipline is approached and constructed within schools.
(For those eagle-eyed Early Modernists among you, the title of this blog is indeed inspired by Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons, a book I read at a very impressionable age and from which I’ve never quite recovered.)
One consequence of the marginalisation of the queer community and its history throughout much of the 20th century has been the development of historical methods that draw on distinctive sources of evidence. The pre-modern history of sexuality can be explored through a similar range of sources that might be consulted by social historians, such as pamphlets, trial records, literary sources, eyewitness accounts etc, with all of the strengths and weaknesses these sources of evidence possess. However, the marginalised and officially proscribed nature of some expressions of sexuality and gender identity can lead to specific questions such as whether the presence of a particular group in historical records means that they are emerging at this point, or that they are a pre-existing community that has suddenly been subjected to increased official persecution.
As for the modern history of gender and sexuality, alongside other groups whose histories have been sidelined, many of the first historians of modern queer life operated in the context of their community rather than within formal institutions of historical study. The need to preserve this history has led to the development of substantial archives based on what might be described as ‘ephemera’, such as flyers, zines, articles of clothing and makeup which preserve aspects of the social, political and emotional lives of community members. Many of these archives have since been absorbed, at least in part, into established institutions of historical study, but their community origins have had a significant impact on what was preserved.
The other consequence of the marginal nature of the writing of queer history has been the prominence given to oral history. This is also linked to the practice of consciousness-raising in activist circles from the 1970’s and the community context in which much of the writing of modern queer history was initially conducted, which lent itself to the trust and dialogue which allowed historians to successfully record personal accounts. Whilst it is not free of specific disciplinary problems that historians have to navigate, the use of oral history by queer historians of the modern era has ensured that a wide range of voices and perspectives have been preserved
How could this work in the classroom?
As in the case of terminology, some of the distinctive disciplinary questions posed by the types of evidence queer historians use can present us with opportunities in the classroom. Interesting approaches linked to pre-modern evidence might include using them to try and partially reconstruct the attitudes and perceptions held by the people of a particular period. Sources such as trial records might also be fruitfully examined as negotiated texts, exploring how the different participants in the record view questions of gender and sexuality and whether those views clash or are resolved.
The hugely diverse range of evidence used in modern queer history has significant potential for interesting history teaching. Enquiries focused on ephemera could include questions such as ‘what can a t-shirt tell us?’ This would not only help the students explore the particular part of modern queer history that was the subject of the enquiry, but would also expand their perceptions of what historical evidence can be. Likewise, including oral testimony into lessons could serve to introduce voices that the students might not otherwise hear, but could also lead to interesting discussions about what this kind of evidence might reveal and how it might be shaped by the joint participation of speaker and interviewer.
Hopefully the above has given you a rough framework of the discipline of queer history, an outline of some of the key themes it includes as well as a few ideas! The best next step, when considering how best to include it in your curriculum, is to engage with some of the scholarship linked to particular periods or questions. I am happy to give specific recommendations and I have put a list of the books I used to write this primer below. I also have begun to put some of the resources I have developed into a folder on my google drive, which you can download, adapt or critique as the inclination takes you, and the link is below.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw, in modern Europe at least, the emergence of the idea that someone could have a ‘sexual identity’; from this came an eruption of new terms, some invented by the sexologists and social scientists investigating sexuality and some from the communities they studied. Many of these terms, such as homosexual, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, transgender are ones we still use today. Others, such as ‘urnings’ and the ‘third sex’ have fallen out of use along with the concepts they sought to express.
This illustrates one of the problems with describing the queer past, the language we use (and the ideas that are smuggled within it) emerged out of a particular historical moment. It is not language that many of the people of the past would have understood or used to describe themselves. This becomes more serious when we consider that language often expresses and indeed shapes experience, imposing our terminology wholesale on the past therefore is likely to result in a distorted understanding of how sexuality actually operated.
How then can we talk about gender and sexuality in the past? While on occasion the evidence may supply historically specific terms that the people in the past used themselves such as ‘mollies’, more frequently terms are imposed upon the people of the past by hostile observers or no specific terminology is available at all. In many cases too strict an avoidance of using modern terminology can lead to the distortions that emerge from a lack of clarity. A good example of this is provided by the case of the efforts to commemorate the life of Anne Lister.
In 2018 the York Civic Trust unveiled a plaque honouring her at Holy Trinity Church in York, however the wording of the plaque, which described Lister as a ‘gender-nonconforming entrepreneur,’ quickly provoked controversy. It was felt that, in their desire to avoid using the term ‘lesbian,’ which Lister herself had never adopted, the Trust had in fact erased the multiple sexual and romantic relationships with women that were a key part of Lister’s experience and self-perception. The challenge then is to walk the tightrope between using modern terminology that forces us into inaccurate descriptions of sexuality in the past, and not being able to meaningfully describe it at all.
How could this work in the classroom?
The question of terminology might initially appear to represent yet another barrier to discussion in the classroom, however, if dealt with directly, it can instead act as a route through the labyrinth.
If possible, the people of the past should be described in terms that they would have used and understood, however, these terms may not be available and even if they are, may be completely obscure to students.
In these cases, I tend to employ modern terminology with caveats. This involves making it clear to students that while we might describe this person or community in a particular way today, this would not have been language that the people of the time would have used and indeed, using it might prevent us from fully understanding their experience. This approach resolves the issue of starting off with language that might alienate the students, but it leaves the door open for the use of evidence that demonstrates ways in which the experience of people from a particular period was more complex than we might expect and for discussions to be had about how we might best describe their lives.
While avoiding both anachronism and incoherence, using modern terminology strategically, but making its limitations clear can also offer opportunities. The question of how the language we use shapes our view of the past is one that has relevance across the subject, but which can seem forbiddingly abstract or complicated to discuss with students. Opening up a discussion about what terms we use, their strengths and their limitations in relation to queer history can therefore be a useful way of accessing this historical debate in a manageable way.
Theme 1 – Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories
The idea of sex, gender and sexuality as concepts that are shaped by the societies in which they operate, and which therefore can be altered as societies change over time is one that can have a big impact on how you approach teaching these topics. Its consequences should lead you to be wary of taking certain approaches, but can also bring opportunities.
Taking concepts like sex, gender and sexuality as historically changeable does make the approach of focusing on ‘great men’ (and some women) of queer history less meaningful. This is something that has caused controversy within the academic field. Early historians of homosexuality and activists for gay rights pointed to figures from the past who they identified as homosexual such as Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great to counter negative stereotypes about (primarily male) homosexuality. Similarly activists in the 1950’s and 60’s also sought to ‘reclaim’ figures from the past in order to counter reactionary historical narratives of the growing acceptance of homosexuality as symptomatic of the West’s social and moral decline. This approach was challenged from the 1970’s onwards on the grounds that social context was crucial in understanding sexuality and gender identity throughout time. Therefore a figure like Alexander the Great and one like Oscar Wilde, for example, were living in societies that were so different that attempting to present their sexuality and gender identity as essentially the same was at best meaningless and at worst actively anachronistic. This has created a tension within the academic field between the necessity for a ‘usable’ past and the need to avoid anachronisms that will filter down into the classroom; as a general rule however, it does mean that care should be taken when discussing individuals living in very different societies or historical periods.
Nevertheless, approaching sex, gender and sexuality as social categories that can change over time does allow for the possibility of studying the distinctive nature of how they operated within particular historical periods and for investigating why and how they changed. Historians like Carolyn Dinshaw have therefore engaged in research on contexts like the medieval world, exploring the complex set of codes and beliefs that governed expressions of sexuality and gender identity across different communities in ways that are far removed from modern preconceptions. Others have focused on periods of rupture and change, examining phenomena like the emergence of communities of homosexual and/or gender non-conforming people in London or other European cities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the focus has been on trying to uncover how the individuals involved saw themselves, but also on whether anything like a ‘modern’ understanding of homosexuality had emerged. Notions that sex, gender and sexuality are changeable not only across time but also across cultures and geographical regions, alongside the adoption of postcolonial approaches, has also had a significant impact on current research. This has led to attempts to understand the role colonisation has played in shaping notions of sexuality and gender identity both in imperial centres and colonised regions and to study the history of gender and sexuality of different societies on their own terms.
How could this work in the classroom?
The first consequence for teaching queer history in the classroom relates to historical figures. They should be placed clearly within their context, which means that broad overviews of queer history that focus on timelines of key individuals should probably be avoided. This does not mean that rigorous and meaningful enquires can’t be developed with particular individuals at their heart, nor that people from different historical contexts can never be used to illustrate change over time, however it is crucial that things like differences in the way that people described and presented themselves, acted, the language they used and the ideas they invoked receive close attention.
One of the chief opportunities that emerges from exploring sex, gender and sexuality as concepts, subject to change across time, is the prospect of exploring why and how these changes occurred. Enquiries tracking change and continuity across long periods of time, exploring how different models for understanding gender and sexuality influenced by religious beliefs, state intervention, the growth of communities, medical perspectives and the emergence of identities and political activism could be highly illuminating; similarly ones focusing on differing rates of persecution and acceptance. More focused enquiries on particular turning points such as the criminalisation and decriminalisation of homosexuality, the growth of communities in urban settings, the impact of medical developments, political conflicts and key legal changes all have significant potential.
Likewise, exploring the distinctive ways in which sex, gender and sexuality were expressed in particular historical periods also opens up opportunities for enquiries focused around similarity and difference and historical evidence that could build up a richer and more nuanced picture of societies in the past. Focusing on evidence in particular could also raise questions of interpretation, opening up discussions about the challenges presented by historical evidence that was produced by individuals with very different ways of seeing the world to ours.
The tension between avoiding contorting the people of the past to fit modern expectations of sex, gender and sexuality and not going so far in the other direction that it is impossible to talk about this topic at all can be resolved in part with careful planning. Another useful method for resolving this tension is to make some of the key disciplinary questions a focus within your lessons. One of the easiest ways of doing this is by highlighting the terminology you use.
Sometimes, as a history teacher, you get lucky; realising that you want or need to include a particular historical subject in your curriculum, a quick google or consultation of the edutwitter grapevine yields rapid results. Into your lap falls a silver-bullet of a book, containing just the kind of material you’re looking for stitched into an exciting interpretation that you know the students can really get their teeth into. The enquiry takes shape in your mind’s eye before you’ve turned the final page. Sometimes however, your life is not going to be made quite that easy sometimes, there is no one miracle book. Or, if there is, while reading it you are struck with the nagging sensation that this is just one window into a complex disciplinary world, and in order to do justice to it, you must open more.
This has been my experience when thinking about how to include queer history in my curriculum. Not only does the discipline contain a dizzying array of scholarship covering multiple time periods and locations, which is written with varying levels of accessibility, it has also been shaped by distinctive theoretical debates and by its own dramatic history as a field of study. When I have been asked therefore, about how to approach including queer history as a whole, or particular topics within it into a secondary history curriculum, my response has often resembled a lengthy reading list.
This may have had its uses, but I am conscious that it’s not always the most helpful response considering the time-pressures we are all under. I am equally conscious that the topic-specific works that I have encountered and use might refer to particular questions, theories or debates that shape queer history, but do not always fully explain them to the uninitiated. I therefore set myself the task of condensing some of the things I have read into something like a primer, aimed at other history teachers. This would set out a short history of the discipline and outline some of the key themes that emerged from that history that might have to be navigated when teaching this subject. Below is my attempt at doing so. It is not by any means a complete account, but I hope it might serve as a first stepping stone for those of you who have started thinking about queer history and how you might include it.
A Very Brief History of Queer History:
One of the key tools someone writing the history of a phenomenon needs is the language necessary to describe it. The modern language of gender and sexuality can be broadly said to date from the late 19th to the early 20th century; a development that allowed the first steps to be taken in exploring its history.
Key individuals involved in this movement such as Krafft-Ebing, Karl Ulrichs, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld would have primarily described themselves as ‘sexologists,’ participants in a field that sought to combine scientific and social enquiry into the topic of sexuality. However, as part of their work writers like Ellis and John Addington Symonds began to look to the past to find examples that they thought resembled the individuals and groups they were studying, or began to record the histories of the communities they were engaged with; in the case of Magnus Hirschfeld, compiling extensive archives in the process. These individuals however, were not operating with the working methods or aims with which a contemporary historian might approach this material. By and large these men thought that they were uncovering a ‘natural’ phenomenon that was rooted in human biology. As such, it was assumed that the categories of sexuality and gender that these writers developed out of the evidence in front of them might be subject to some historical change in their expression (the most historically aware writers like Symonds did emphasise the difference between their society and societies that they saw as having more accommodating or even celebratory attitudes towards certain forms of male homosexuality, especially Classical Greece), but in their essential characteristics they remained the same. Being homosexual in late Victorian Britain or in Weimar Berlin was therefore broadly the same as being homosexual in Renaissance Italy or Medieval England.
They had their reasons for thinking this way, while these ideas still operated within a binary sense of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ expressions of sexuality, ideas of the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality and variations in gender identity and a sense that these phenomena had existed throughout human history could also act as powerful weapons in the hands of activists. These could be deployed against the prevailing narratives of Church, State and medical establishment that homosexuality and variations in gender identity were unnatural perversions of normal, healthy human behaviour that had to be suppressed or cured. However, the presumption that variations in sexuality and gender identity were fixed natural phenomena also had the potential to turn any attempts to write a history of them into a dead end.
Increasingly savage persecution across Europe and in the United States put paid to most attempts to study gender and sexuality there during the early decades of the 20th century. It was only following the end of the Second World War that the situation improved enough for western scholars to look at the history of gender and sexuality anew. Yet new philosophies, social theories and historical methods had emerged in the meantime, and these made the perspectives of the historians returning to the history of gender and sexuality very different to those of the pioneering theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century.
The first influence came via ‘history from below’. Interest in the histories of groups that had been neglected by a narrow focus on politics and social elites grew. This, combined with a new focus on the history of social structures and daily life meant that it was increasingly acceptable to conduct research into the experiences of ‘marginalised’ communities in the past, of which sexual minorities formed a part. Alongside this development within institutional historical study, people involved in the increasingly active movements for gay and trans rights in the 1960’s and 70’s began to record the histories of their communities as a way of preserving their past and asserting their identities and dignity, in the face of widespread indifference and hostility. The resources these groups would collect and the work they undertook would eventually go on to inform ‘formal’ historical research.
The second influence was the emergence of social constructionism. Sociologists and sexologists began to reject the idea that gender and sexuality are ‘natural’ categories and are therefore broadly similar across human societies and throughout time. Instead, they argued that gender and sexuality were primarily shaped by their social context and that they could therefore vary hugely. This lit a fire under the study of the history of gender and sexuality as it opened up the possibility of exploring variations in how they were experienced and expressed within particular eras and also how they were subject to historical change.
As the conditions for conducting research on the history of gender and sexuality became more favourable, the theories underlying it and debates within the field became more sophisticated. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s controversy raged over whether gender and sexuality should be seen in natural ‘essentialist’ terms or as entirely socially constructed. From the 1990’s however, historians influenced by queer activism that rejected attempts to ‘assimilate’ into heterosexual norms and by poststructuralist theories, added new perspectives. ‘Queer studies’ or ‘queer history’ put the divisions that had organised much of the research that had gone before such as ‘natural’ and ‘social’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ and ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ under the microscope. The result was not only a sharp rise in the use of scare-quotes, but also a sense that ‘mainstream’ gender identities and sexualities could be objects of study as much as those that deviated from them, and an increasing focus on historical questions such as where the idea of binary gender and sexual identities had come from. Historians have also increasingly taken for granted the possibility of individuals and groups having multiple identities and have explored sex, gender and sexuality as social phenomena that are performed in different ways in different contexts.
These trends have continued into research being conducted today, which has also borrowed heavily from intersectional theory, studying how sex, gender and sexuality sit alongside other categories like race and class. Postcolonial approaches have also been deployed more frequently, studying how gender and sexuality have been experienced across the world, but also how European colonialism and globalisation have affected this.
What does this mean for my classroom?
The history of queer history has led to the development of a complicated discipline, however these complications also bring opportunities. In the next three posts, I am going to outline three broad themes that emerge from, and shape this discipline and explore how you could navigate them in in your classroom.
Thanks very much to Dr Emily Rutherford for lending her expertise in response to several of my questions while writing this post, her help in clarifying several key points was hugely appreciated.
Firstly, when I used the word diverse in my title, that was to get your attention. I used it because it’s become the generally accepted term when discussing including comparatively neglected stories in our history curriculums. However, I actually prefer to use the word ‘representative’ for reasons which will hopefully become clearer as you read on. I’m therefore going to switch between using ‘diverse’ and ‘representative’ a bit and will sometimes use them alongside each other to avoid confusion.
To start with, this post isn’t about social justice. That’s not because I don’t care about it, nor because I think that all the arguments that people make for diversifying the history curriculum on those grounds are invalid, but I do think that these arguments tend to dominate the debate. I want to focus now on an alternative case for making our history curriculums more representative or diverse, that I don’t see being advanced nearly as frequently.
What is that argument? Well, my fundamental point is that teaching more diverse/representative history is teaching better history.
My most important priority as a History teacher is that my students walk out of my classroom with a better idea of how society in 16th century England worked, the causes of the Indian Great Rebellion of 1857 or of the impact of the ideals of the French Revolution, than they had when they came in. I have found that ensuring the content I cover reflects the diversity of the people involved in each of these cases assists me hugely in achieving that aim; indeed I’m increasingly of the mind that it may very well be essential to it.
The first reason why it is so important is because including diverse individuals, perspectives, places and events in the History we already teach is one of the easiest ways of preventing our students from coming away with misunderstandings, or making generalisations about the periods that they’re studying.
So it is worth my while, when I’m looking at society in early modern England, to include consideration of the presence of people from across Europe and the wider world working, trading and settling down, the moral panic caused by an epidemic of female cross-dressing in Jacobean London or the underworld of the gloriously named ‘she-intelligencers’.This is because including these people alongside the familiar parade of peers, parliamentarians and puritans tells my students something interesting about how a wider range of early modern people lived and thought. But crucially it also does a lot to puncture the reflexive assumption that history is essentially a march towards the sunlit uplands of ‘now’ and that therefore all preceding eras were necessarily ‘worse’, less enlightened, less tolerant and less socially diverse than our own.
I’ve also found that making the history I teach more representative has also been very helpful in improving my students’ historical reasoning. So for example, when I got utterly fed up with students seeming to think that a row over greased gun cartridges was the only cause of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, I adjusted the following lesson to include a significant chunk of time looking at the experience of Indian rulers such as the Rani of Jhansi. This meant that by the end of it they were talking in much more depth about a greater range of causes: including the Doctrine of Lapse, power struggles between the East India Company and the Indian elites and residual loyalty towards the Mughal rulers.
The key here is that, by making the content we teach more representative of the individuals involved in historical events; their impact and the range of attitudes and motivations they had, we’re giving them the knowledge they need to see more than just a narrow perspective of events.
This in turn gives them the tools they need to understand a historical process in much greater detail and to ensure that the arguments they form rest upon stronger foundations because they cover a much greater range of the actors and actions that shaped events. To borrow a phrase from ‘The West Wing’, they can now ‘see the whole board’.
Beyond what we already teach.
Ok, so here’s where it gets a little more controversial, because as good as making the history you already teach more representative is, I think we need to go further still. When we’re planning our curriculums I think we could stand to ask ourselves the questions, are the things we are choosing to include the best and most revealing stories that we could be telling about particular eras, and what are we losing by choosing to exclude the narratives that don’t make the cut?
I’ll explain what I mean by telling you a story from when I was at my previous school, about the time I got a bit carried away whilst reading a book and completely overhauled my Year 8 teaching.
The KS3 curriculum (unfortunately only two years of it) was a pretty straightforward chronological sweep through British History, which meant that by the start of Year 8, they hit the 17th century. Now during the summer in which I was asked to have a go at revising the scheme of work for that part of the course I also happened to be reading a pretty revolutionary book called ‘Global Crisis’ by Geoffrey Parker. This book is a global history of instability in the 17th century, and it’s particularly interesting in that Parker uses scientific data to prove that there was a disruption in the climate at the start of the century and then tracks how chaos ensued across the world for the subsequent 500 pages.
Now I was pretty blown away by this; it was one of the most exciting arguments I’d read in quite some time and that wasn’t necessarily because of its topicality but because it managed to stay true to the specificity of each separate regional crisis, while arguing that there was a pattern that still made some kind of sense of the whole.
The result of this was that when I sat down and looked at the coverage of the 17th century in our scheme of work I did begin to wonder, while the Gunpowder Plot and the Great Plague were all pretty interesting to study, were they really the absolute best stories I could be telling about a century that also included the collapse of China’s Ming dynasty, the Thirty Years War, the near fatal weakening of the Mughal and Ottoman empires, and especially where these events could be seen as part of a pattern of social and political unrest of which our own Civil Wars were a part?Was our curriculum really true to the 17th century?Was it a representative account?
So I cut out Guy Fawkes and the plague doctors and replaced them with lessons that explored the 17th century as an era of crisis which was expressed in a British context, but where these national events were part of a broader story. I did this because I thought that it gave students a better idea of what the 17th century was all about. Now it’s possible that I might equally have realised that aim with a detailed depth study of political radicalism across different groups and social classes during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum, or an enquiry on the rise and fall of the witch-craze. However, the important thing was to sit down and ask myself those crucial questions about how fully I was representing a particular era or historical process or problem.
And that’s the key point, we have limited curriculum time and a whole host of other restrictions including the demands of the National Curriculum and exam board specifications, so it’s incredibly important that we use the freedom that we have wisely; and that requires making difficult decisions about what to include and almost more importantly, what to exclude. The reason why I focused on diversity is because I think it is a constituent part of faithfully representing what history is made up of, both as a body of knowledge and as a discipline that is constantly uncovering, re-interpreting and, let’s be honest, arguing furiously over interpretations made and stories told.
And as a teacher, what I have increasingly tried to do is to consider, is this the most important story I could tell about this historical period or is this just what is familiar to me? Now I’m not knocking familiarity, I’ve just finished my first year as HoD and believe you me I have no intention of going back to my school and ripping up all the schemes of work we currently use, firstly because I’m very tired and secondly because I don’t want to have a riot on my hands.
But when there is time and you do sit down to think about your curriculum in more detail I would argue that making it more representative of the complexity of the past will do wonders for the students’ knowledge and understanding of it, and will do greater justice to the discipline itself.
A couple of years ago I was taking a group of Year 12 students around the National Portrait Gallery when, unusually, I found myself lost for words. We had reached the 17th century gallery and I immediately made a beeline for my favourite portrait of the Duke of Buckingham. My audience was expectant and I was all ready to embark on my spiel, when I realised I wasn’t quite sure how to introduce him. The snappy, attention-grabbing thing to do would be to describe him as ‘James I’s boyfriend,’ but something made me shy away from that. The nagging inner voice that gave me pause was not one of the ingrained wariness that sadly still limits full discussion of LGBT history in many cases, but was something much harder to ignore. This was my inner historian saying ‘hang on a second, would the Duke of Buckingham, and James I for that matter, have understood their relationship in the way you want to describe it?’
As it stands, most teaching of LGBT history in the UK tends to be done during LGBT History Month. As with Black History Month, in an ideal world there would be better integration of these topics in the curriculum year-round, but with the continual pressure on curriculum time, it remains a valuable space for us to introduce stories that would otherwise not be explored. However, because of the limited time available and its separation out from the rest of the curriculum, a lot of the resources out there (many of which are very good) focus on securing representation by introducing key historical figures linked to the LGBT community. Additionally, because of some of the issues with interpreting the evidence left to us concerning pre-modern ideas of gender and sexuality and the constant danger of anachronism, most available resources focus on more recent developments in LGBT history. The danger of this is that it feeds into an idea that a sort of ‘Dark Ages’ prevailed before the turn of the 20th century; a belief that carries its own distortion of history.
As I was planning the resources that we use for our History+ enrichment programme this year, I resolved to try and be a bit more ambitious. I decided to develop some resources that would allow me to include a broader swathe of the history of gender and sexuality in the UK , that would introduce some of the fascinating questions that historians working on the history of sexuality and gender grapple with and, most crucially, that would be as rigorous as the sources and resources I design for my students as part of their ordinary history lessons.
The first key problem I wanted to address was the sense that the history of gender and sexuality is somehow set apart from the wider history curriculum, to be looked at once a year and then set aside. To approach them this way obscures the fact that ideas of gender and sexuality in the UK have had as rich and important a story of change and continuity as the religious beliefs, political structures and economic systems that are explored in the wider curriculum. It also ignores the fact thatin many cases these attitudes and beliefs have had as significant an impact on the lives of the people of the past as have the developments already mentioned. History teachers have done a lot of work complicating the narrative of progress that students expect when covering topics like the Civil Rights Movement in the US. I wanted to give students a similar insight into the complexities of change in attitudes to gender and sexuality.
The obvious thing to do was to draw up a timeline, but I wanted to develop it further so that it showed the fluctuation in rates of persecution over time and the context in which it occurred. I therefore drew up my timeline around a central red line that became darker at points where persecution increased. However, as I did not want the story I was telling to solely be about persecution, I also wanted my timeline to reflect how attitudes to variations in sexuality and gender have been conceived differently over time. The reading I had done had revealed a complex web of attitudes which I had to try and simplify down so that they worked with the resource I had planned. Historians of gender and sexuality will no doubt wince at the generalisation, but I eventually came up with five concepts that broadly described attitudes to differences in sexuality and gender identity. These were respectively ‘sin’, ‘crime’, ‘community’, ‘pathology’ and‘identity’ and I used my timeline to indicate when these ideas emerged and how they ran alongside and sometimes replaced each other with different coloured lines on my timeline. My hope was that this resource would allow students to visualise change and continuity clearly and also to ask historically grounded questions about ‘why’ change did or did not occur, identifying key turning points, exploring why persecution was higher at some moments rather than others and why and how ideas about sexuality and gender were reformed and replaced
Another key debate in LGBT history is the question of terminology that tripped me up in the National Portrait Gallery, ‘how far can we use contemporary terms like ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ and‘trans’ when talking about people from the past? The first thing to bear in mind is that most of the terms we use would be completely unfamiliar to people living even in the early decades of the 20th century. Even more importantly, the idea of an individual having a clearly defined sexual-orientation and ideas about the relationship between sex and gender that we take for granted are primarily products of the 19th and 20th centuries. Projecting this terminology and the ideas that underpin it onto people of the past may sometimes seem necessary for clarity, but in order to make the diversity, fluidity and unfamiliarity of how the people of the past thought and acted I wanted to develop some resources that would allow me to bring these questions to the fore. I therefore used the events I had included in my timeline to develop three concept maps, focusing on the medieval, the early modern and the period covering the 18th and 19th centuries, allowing students to dig into these periods in particular and centring the concept maps around some key questions that would allow students to explore the differences between the beliefs of each period and of their own.
This represents little more than a starting point, but my hope is that I will be able to use some of these resources to make my teaching of the history of sexuality and gender as historically rigorous as my teaching of the history of the Reformation or of the Cold War; both during LGBT History Month but better still, throughout the rest of the year.
As for the next time I visit the National Portrait Gallery with a group of students, I’m still going to take them straight to see the Duke of Buckingham, but we might have to linger a little while longer in front of it, while I explain that it’s all a bit more complicated and interesting than they might have imagined.
When I was a child, I had the habit of aggravating opticians. My eyesight has always hovered uneasily on the border of needing glasses, which meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting with a plastic frame on the bridge of my nose, having different lenses tested. To everyone’s impatience, as the process continued I often found it hard to perceive which lens was better, how much of a variation was there between sharpness and blurriness?
I have been reminded of that experience repeatedly during this past week, which I have spent as a member of the Monticello Teacher’s Institute, spending my days working in and around Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation and my evenings in Charlottesville. When I told people where I was going to be spending this week I was met with a few raised eyebrows, because, while Charlottesville is a pretty university town surrounded by historic sites (an environment I am familiar with) it is also the place where, almost a year ago, neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched with swastikas through the streets of the town in a rally to ‘Unite the Right’and murdered one of the brave students who went out on the streets to protest their presence and injured many others. The neo-Nazis reason for being in this town was historical, in that they wished to protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee.
If History can be a battlefield in Charlottesville, then a case could be made that Monticello is in the thick of the conflict. To the credit of the wonderful staff in Monticello’s Education department, we were not allowed to forget this from the start. On the first evening, before we were allowed the privilege of a private tour of the main house (We were even allowed to take photos!) and the chance to drink wine while sitting on the lawn, the first words we heard were those of Madison Hemings, as he told the story of his mother, Sally Hemings’ life in the new exhibition devoted to her. This exhibit, through a combination of light effects, Madison’s words and a simple figure, managed to not only powerfully evoke her story but illustrate how much it was lost to history, leaving us with no words of her own, nor any possessions that could be definitively attributed to her. The contrast, when we entered to main house, absolutely full of the material evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s curious mind and comfortable standard of living, was stark. This was not all we talked about, when we stood on the terrace later in the evening and swapped stories about our schools and how far we had traveled to get here, but it was part of the conversation from the beginning.
During the following few days we took three more tours of Monticello, each with a different focus, we spoke to two different experts on the period, visited an archaeological dig on the site and swooned over (in my case at least) the documents held in the University of Virginia’s special collection. There was even an episode where, in the process of enacting a lesson activity on the history of the Declaration of Independence, I, as the only resident Brit, ended up reading the preamble to the Declaration on the lawn of Monticello, much to the amusement of the assembled Americans. With each new perspective introduced, it was as though I could hear the click as a new lens was placed in front of my eyes through which to view the site and those who inhabited it.
Unsurprisingly, for a group of teachers, we had a lot of conversations about it, some more formal ones in the classroom that acted as our workspace, other more causal ones over pizza and beer in the University of Virginia dorms. As someone operating at a further remove from the question to the American teachers I found myself deeply impressed with the seriousness with which they tackled the issues involved and how open they were prepared to be when discussing politically fraught history with each other and with their students. While I am aware that the self-selection involved in applying for the fellowship at Monticello means that the teachers I worked with may not be the most representative bunch (though I would argue that there was an awful lot of diversity of experiences and attitudes there) and while I find ill-founded assertions in the press that British teachers routinely abdicate their responsibility to teach subjects like empire and the slave trade thoroughly irritating, I do think we could still stand to learn something from teachers in the US in this respect.
It was unsurprising that the main difficultly I had when deciding what teaching resource to construct over the course of the week was making a choice about what to focus on. But, as a group, I’m confident that the range of projects that we ended up constructing, from exploring the question of who built Monticello, Jefferson’s differing attitudes to the French and Haitian revolutions to the life of Sally Hemings, was due to the diversity of perspectives we had encountered before we narrowed our focus down. It was also striking how the sense of place affected our planning, my own project on Jefferson and traditions of British radicalism, including his relationship with Thomas Paine, owed a significant part of its inception to the records of Jefferson’s library. (I hope that the resources I made will be of use to anyone teaching the AQA unit on Power and the People and I will be letting everyone know when it is put up on Monticello’s digital classroom.) The crucial factor seemed to be that, whether we chose to address the question of Jefferson as slave-owner and Monticello as plantation directly in our lesson-plans or not, we all benefitted from having thought about it. If you think about it, this shouldn’t really be a surprise because (and forgive me for getting a little high-flown here) if you genuinely love History then you should want to know everything about it, should be prepared to leave no stone unturned, no questions or doubts ignored. After all, does a committed musician shy away from a difficult piece because it hurts her hands when she plays it through the first few times? Do conservationists not commit their lives to endangered species, knowing that their efforts may be in vain? I don’t see why we should expect any less of ourselves, nor why we should not try to instill this ethic into our students.
To put it in less dramatic terms, one of the many things that I have taken from my week in Monticello, has been a further confirmation of my belief that we should always strive to make the history we teach more complicated rather than less. Because (and here it comes, the inevitable pay-off of the metaphor) with History, it seems to me that it is only when you are looking with double-vision that you can say that your sight is truly clear.
I was able to take part in this fellowship because of the generous funding from the British Association for American Studies and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The experience was made as good as it was due to the brilliant work of the people in the Monticello Education Department. The fellowship is open to any British teachers who teach American History or Politics and there are two sessions in July and August, so it does fit into everyone’s summer holiday. If you are interested in asking any questions about the fellowship I am happy to talk about it at any time.