Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 4. Methods and Evidence.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 3 – Methods and Evidence 

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. 

What next? 

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.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1eoPPwq8x4diSfmbChA4EE9zBzBUK7Wd_?usp=sharing

Bibliography: 

Barker and Scheele, Queer, A Graphic History (Icon Books, 2016) 

Beachy, Robert,  Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Vintage Books, 2014) 

Beccalossi and Crozier ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Age of Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Choma, Anne, Gentleman Jack, The Real Anne Lister (BBC Books, 2019)

Peakman ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Symonds, J.A. A Problem in Greek Ethics (Project Gutenberg, 2010) 

Weeks, Jeffrey What is Sexual History? (Polity Press, 2016).

A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1V-PomTz9dDxYa4i4YlkOC8EBdhFdPr7nqLUdUVh2hV8/edit?usp=sharing

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 3. Terminology.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 2 – Terminology 

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.

The next post in this series, on methods and evidence: https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=302

A fully referenced copy of this post can be found in the folder below.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1SZQSxZlDa2i0Q3DzvdpwJ3Cfo7HJsBycZERMOlOFhuk/edit?usp=sharing

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 2. Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

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. 

The next post in this series, on terminology – https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=295

A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jkxI4X806RR92V4Halm4vmRLpUhpDw1n0XpMepeWehI/edit?usp=sharing

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 1. The Shape of the Discipline.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer 

Part 1 – The Shape of the Discipline. 

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.

The next post in this series on sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=288

A fully referenced copy of this post can be found in the folder below:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1LiF4Ag2FuiXpETjNxcOguNmL8cSymeR6?usp=sharing

‘Seeing the whole board’: The case for a more diverse history curriculum. 

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.

Being ambitious with LGBT history 

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 that  in 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 

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The Timeline

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. 

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An example of one of the concept maps – focusing on the Early Modern period

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.

Links to the resources: 

es to gender and sexuality in the uk – a timeline

medieval attitudes to gender and sexuality

early modern attitudes to gender and sexuality

18th and 19th century attitudes to sexuality and gender

Suggested Reading (And Listening):

Peter Ackroyd – Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day 

Matt Houlbrook – Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 

Rebecca Jennings – Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain 1945-71

Lilian Faderman – Surpassing The Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present 

Brian Lewis – British Queer History: New Approaches and Perspectives 

History Is Gay Podcast: https://www.historyisgaypodcast.com

You’re Dead to Me – LGBTQ History with Greg Jenner, Dr Justin Bengry and Suzie Ruffell: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07nwyfm

Looking at Monticello (over and over again).

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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. 

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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. 

http://www.baas.ac.uk/monticello-application-form/

On world history and a more ambitious curriculum (a response to the Secret Teacher that got out of hand).

At high-stress points of the term, I tend to avoid the Secret Teacher columns. (Whoever said ‘misery loves company’ never experienced the convergence of mock-marking, GCSE clinics and Year 9 reports – under these circumstances I will only tolerate re-runs of the Great British Bake Off and the sweetest, most diaphanous music.) However, when I saw the subject matter of last week’s column being shared around Twitter I couldn’t resist reading it as it touched on discussions I had been having with other teachers as well as complaints I had been making to my long-suffering friends and family. After reading it, I decided to procrastinate by posting some of my thoughts on Twitter. Now, even with the character-limit being extended, I still don’t think I fully explored the points I wanted to make, so as It seems that people are still talking about the article,

I thought I’d have another go at explaining why I took issue with it.

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(For reference, here it is: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/may/26/secret-teacher-history-bias-school-fear-student-future )

Why this is an important discussion to have.

I can understand some of the frustrations that this type of article can provoke – the type of picture it paints of History classrooms leaves out some of the brilliant work that is being done. A quick glance at the archives of Teaching History from the last six-months throws up at least 4 articles discussing work being done that is explicitly directed at bringing to the fore previously ignored subjects of historical study or complicating ones that are already prominent. However, any historian is going to pose the question, ‘just how typical is this?’

The most recent Historical Association survey reported that a quarter of schools that responded had reduced the length of their KS3 to two years (and I’d be willing to bet that the proportion has gone up in response to the demands of the new GCSE’s) and even for those that have kept a three-year key stage 3, curriculum time for History is still limited. If we look at the demands of the National Curriculum, (from which many school are theoretically exempt – though quite a few continue to follow it with minor adaptations) in that time students are expected to cover:

1) The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509
2) The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745
3) Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901
4) Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day – this must include studying the Holocaust.
5) A local history study
6) The study of an aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066

And finally,

7) At least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments.

Now call me cynical, but while the examples of possible areas of study for this last requirement include Mughal India and Qing China, I reckon that a lot of schools emulate both schools I have taught and try to tie it in with the topic of empire mentioned in requirement 4, In many cases, this involves a study of the slave-trade. While I think that this should definitely be included and should be taught in the balanced, critical and complicated way urged by the Secret Teacher column, I also think that it is a massive missed opportunity to have that as the extent of study of the history of the wider world.

What’s the issue with the article then?

So I agree with the secret teacher that our curriculum is unbalanced, but where we part company is that I don’t think they’re ambitious enough. They propose the inclusion of the more negative aspects of the British Empire and a study of its continuing impact in countries that were once part of or were in some way affected by it, which is fair enough. But the question I posed (rather mischievously) on reading the article last Saturday was ‘does this still not make Britain and its history the measure of all things?’ To go into a bit more depth; while I don’t think that this is the Secret Teacher’s intention, the changes they propose could still result in a strange one-sided curriculum in which the histories of other countries only come into view with the first, threatening glimpse of British ships on the horizon and then, even once independence is gained, their story is still seen through the lens of the country that once colonised them.

The crux of the problem I think is contained in the argument from ‘relevance’ that is contained in the article – our curriculum should be widened because it is inadequate for giving students understanding of contemporary political problems like the Windrush scandal or the situation of Palestine. Now, I think arguing from relevance is a really poor justification for the study of History in general (Who decides what is relevant and how do we know that things we deem relevant now will continue to be so?) but here I think it really leads us astray. By arguing that we should broaden our curriculum to include more of the history of the wider world on the grounds of relevance alone we ignore the broader and much more important argument that it’s pretty bad history not to!

If I look at the points outlined in the National Curriculum and many of the non-statutory examples given, I can find a good argument for the inclusion of all of them, until I stop and consider what is being left out because they were kept in. I think that the Becket Dispute, the Break with Rome, the Glorious Revolution and the Liberal Reforms are all interesting and historically significant things about British history that students would benefit from learning about. But at the expense of the Silk Road, the international climate crisis of the 17th century, the French, Haitian and Russian Revolutions? I’m not so sure.

In an ideal world, this is the kind of argument that History departments would be having on a regular basis, with the relative significance of Anglo-Saxon England, the Seven Years War and the Ottoman Empire and which should therefore be included in the curriculum being fiercely debated. But I think that problem is that places that do this are probably the exception rather than the rule, not due to any lack on enthusiasm or commitment, but because of a mixture of statutory requirements, time pressures and department time (understandably) being focused on reacting to new exam specifications. The Key Stage 3 curriculum therefore, carries on being lopsided and the history taught within it is still explored through a primarily British lens, not out of conviction that this is the most significant and interesting type of history to teach in the time given, but through lack of any other options.

So what would I do? In the meantime, I agree with the Secret Teacher that the history of empire and its impact should be complicated (not fo the sake of relevance but because to do otherwise is to distort history). However, I would want to go further in striving to try and bring in international links in the other British topics and, more importantly, to make that ‘world history’ requirement count by exploring the potential options widely and teaching them on their own terms. Finally, I think that it is important for history teachers to continue critiquing the present curriculum and, for those not bound by it, planning alternatives that consider a wider geographical thematic and chronological approach, not on the grounds of ‘relevance’, but because there is a lot of interesting and significant history out there and while we can’t hope to include it all, we should certainly have a long and rigorous debate about what we do choose to teach.

A History Teacher’s Playlist

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I have currently been struggling to post anything on this blog. in part this is due to a perfect storm of having three exam classes and two major administrative responsibilities coming to a head at once. Overall, I have not been dealing with having to spend my time chasing passport details and sending off event plans with very good grace, but one of the upsides is that I find admin work goes much more smoothly with a decent playlist in the background.

Music while working can be a vexed subject, I’ve known colleagues who regard their earphones as a necessary accessory while marking, whereas I require monastic silence otherwise the temptation to focus on anything but what is in front of me becomes too much. On the other hand, I’ve found that Cerys Williams’ show on 6 Music adds a lot to my enjoyment of any Sunday morning lesson planning I need to do. Finally, for any jobs that don’t require much mental engagement, such as form-filling, making displays or the Sisyphean task of getting my files in order, music is an absolute necessity.

So seeing as I don’t have much else of note to contribute at the moment and as it is currently Record Store Day (sorry if this is news, as I reckon most places will be closed now). I have put below my semi-organised, by no means comprehensive but guaranteed to make filing go faster ‘History Teacher’s Playlist’.

Queens, Witches, Cavaliers and Heretics:

The Elizabethan Session – The Shores of Hispaniola, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Spells Death
The Tallest Man on Earth – King of Spain
Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – Henrietta Maria
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Three Witches
Sproatly Smith – The Mermaid of Marden
The Unthanks – Magpie
The Clash – English Civil War

Opening here with one of the albums I love the most, the product of eight folk musicians being locked in a house for seven days and given the brief of writing songs about the Elizabethan period. It remains one of my greatest regrets that I missed the premiere of the album at Hatfield House, but the album is good enough in any context . I found picking individual tracks difficult but I’d start with the searing opening indictment of the Elizabethan slave trade and then the spare and melancholy ballad of Christopher Marlowe, finishing with the fabulously dramatic evocation of the conviction of Mary Queen of Scots in ‘Elizabeth Spells Death’. The next two tracks on the playlist have much less historical pedigree as they relate to no particular kings of Spain or heretics that I can identify, but the beautiful guitar playing on ‘King of Spain’ more than makes up for a lack of historical specificity. ‘The Violence’ is another album I’d recommend in its entirety to all Civil War fans, but Henrietta Maria is the standout track in my opinion, even making this confirmed Parliamentarian a bit sympathetic towards its titular character. ‘Three Witches’ manages the trick of being a really affecting evocation of the feelings of accused witches as well as an excellent intro to the underlying economic causes of witchcraft accusations, which is quite an achievement. As to the final tracks, though ‘The Mermaid of Marden’ is a bit of a curio, dealing with a Herefordshire folk-tale about a bell made in honour of St Ethelbert and allegedly stolen by a mermaid, I like it too much not to include it here. As for bringing in The Clash’s ‘English Civil War’ to round this section off? I have absolutely no excuse beyond wanting to up the tempo a bit.

Sailors, Factory Workers and Scientists

Arbouretum – The Highwayman
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – Song for Caroline Herschel
Johnny Flynn – Barnacled Warship
The Transports – Us Poor Fellows, The Ballad of Norwich Gaol, I Once Lived in Service
Bellowhead – Rigs of the Time, Roll Alabama, New York Girls
Seth Lakeman – Race to be King, Solomon Browne
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Nailmaker’s Strike pt 2
The Unthanks – Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk
Lady Maisery – The Factory Girl, Palaces of Gold

I’ve grouped these songs together as they reflect more of an 18th-19th century world, though the opening track travels through time from highway robbery through to space travel in a way that only prog-folk can manage. Some of the standout tracks in this section come from an album called ‘The Transports’ which, with narrative interludes, effectively communicates the overview of early 19th century economic crisis and transportation to Australia through the depth of the story of a single family in a way that I can only envy. Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman are really good at describing the Atlantic world of the 19th century with songs about dissolute sailors, whalers and Liverpool merchants funding the Confederacy while also making you want to dance. As for the final three tracks, they brilliantly evoke the losers of the industrial revolution through songs about strike action, domestic violence and the widening gap between rich and poor (the purity of the singers’ voices on these tracks mean that they’re also really nice to listen to, for all their grim subject matter).

Protests, Revolution, War and Migration

The Young’Uns – Cable Street, Bob Cooney’s Miracle
The Destroyers – Rasputin’s Revenge
Gogol Bordello – 60 Revolutions per Minute
Seth Lakeman – Tiger
Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin – The Painter
The Young’Uns – These Hands, The Hartlepool Pedlar

The BBC Folk Awards and I were in complete sympathy in regarding ‘Strangers’ by the ‘Young’Uns’ as the best album of the year, the first two tracks I’ve taken from it are based on the individual stories of people who fought respectively at the Battle of Cable Street and in the Spanish Civil War. If I’m honest, the second two tracks have very little do with the Russian Revolution beyond a throwaway reference to overthrowing Tsars, but I can’t listen to them without drumming my fingers on the desk at the very least so they’re going in. Again, individual stories come to the fore in Seth Lakeman’s song about Exercise Tiger and the rehearsals for the D-Day landings (and there’s even an interview with the man who inspired the song on the album from which it comes) and Hannah Martin’s song inspired by her German grandfather’s experiences during WWII. This is carried on with two more tracks from the Young’Uns, the first of which is extremely topical considering recent headlines about the treatment of the Windrush Generation, while the latter manages to talk about Michael Marks in particular and migration in general all in one perfectly crafted song.

I said at the start of this post that I didn’t have much that was interesting to say, but through the process of writing this I have found that there is something more than a pleasant listen that can be taken from this. There is something in well-written songs, particularly those from the folk tradition, that manages that sharp focus on the narratives of individuals while also evoking the world in which they lived that we sometimes struggle with. So maybe next time I’m sitting down to plan with some music in the background, I might take some cues and see if I can’t craft a lesson that works like a song.

On the pleasures of historical thinking

It was late afternoon last Sunday and I was celebrating the start of the holiday by  Abraham_Bosse_Salon_de_damesstrolling happily around the Left Bank. In our excitement, we’d made our usual mistake of forgetting to stop for lunch earlier in the day and so we stopped to buy a baguette in a nearby boulangerie, tearing it into chunks and eating it as we walked. I was, as you might imagine, feeling rather satisfied with this turn of events, and my happiness was only increased because I had a fund of anecdotes the politics of bread in the Ancien Regime with which I could regale my poor companions.

I’m not starting with that particular anecdote in order to brag (and I extend a heartfelt apology to all those just finishing term), but because it ties in to something I’ve been thinking about recently, and that is how enjoyable historical thinking can be. The enjoyment of possessing historical knowledge and exercising it through the process of historical reasoning is a latent element to a lot of recent writing by history teachers (and I’m sure is present in other disciplines) but it is not usually made all that explicit. So, as a way of seeing out the year, I am going to write for a little while on the pleasures of historical thinking.

Let’s start back in Paris. Now one of the reasons why I frantically booked a weekend away in this city rather than any other in the dark days at the start of end of November was because it is my historical ‘turf’. Most history teachers reading this will have one, some will have more. It is that place where, due to historical knowledge acquired patiently over time, there is rarely a corner, street or wall that does not ‘resonate’ for you, that does not call up some anecdote or thread of reasoning from your memory. And it’s enjoyable, it is great fun to walk past the Louvre and have your mind call up the events of the Day of Dupes, through St Germain and the Marais while thinking about the socio-economic division of Ancien Regime Paris and to stand in the Palais Royal and to recall the events of the 12th July 1789. (It is especially pleasurable when you have a long-suffering captive audience who is forced to listen to every stray historical thought that occurs to you.) Now the subject matter might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve seen enough colleagues’ faces light up and suddenly reveal a fund of anecdotes at Ypres, Gettysburg, Hampton Court and numerous other places to know that the process is by no means unique.

You might point out that it is hardly surprising that I would enjoy wandering around Paris during my time off. However, the pleasures of historical thinking can also be found in more mundane places. I’ve made a concerted effort to read more historical scholarship this year after a bit of a fallow period and the hour or so a day that I have spent with a book, acquiring new knowledge and engaging with historical argument, has become time that I have looked forward to. Discussing that reading with students and watching them become confident enough with the historical literature they’re reading to be able to argue and even joke about it has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job this year. And even in the more day-to-day aspects, many people reading this will know of the pleasure of planning and executing a lesson in just the right way to illustrate a particular concept or instil a particular piece of knowledge. Many of you will also look forward to the lesson in which you know you’re going to talk about that particular event or roll out that particular story that you think is amusing, interesting and important to the matter at hand. (I have never yet had a disappointing reaction to the story of Ralph Morice and the swimming bear.) These joys that come from historical knowledge and the ability to inhabit a discipline are not less keen than the pleasure a musician feels when they first nail a piece, or a writer when they perfect a sentence, even if they are not always discussed in the same terms.

So why is this important? Well personally, I find it important because I’ve had one of those terms which has led me to google the dread phrase ‘routes out of teaching’ and it has mainly been these small historical pleasures that have kept me from browsing through the search results too seriously. More broadly I think it is important because while we, quite rightly, talk about the importance of history, its value in itself and for a range of ancillary purposes, we perhaps don’t talk enough about the enjoyment that you can gain from it. By this I don’t mean ‘entertainment’, the study of history can contain humour and anecdote and surprise, but must also contain a good amount of wrestling with complex intellectual problems and the consideration of events that are puzzling, bizarre and occasionally horrifying. But in its totality, the work of acquiring knowledge, calling it up once it has been acquired and applying it to some interesting intellectual problem can and does involve a significant amount of enjoyment, it can make you see battle lines in an empty field, bread riots in a baguette and worlds of possibility in a pile of newly acquired books.

So on that rather upbeat note, I hope everyone enjoys their well-earned break. I’m going to pour myself a drink, resolutely refuse to check my school email and, at some point during the post-Christmas fug, I’m going to remind myself of the pleasures of historical thinking that can take place equally the streets of Paris and in my classroom on a gloomy Thursday afternoon.