NACBS: Pedagogy, Piety, and Persona

I am here in Denver for the North American Conference on British Studies, which I have not attended in many years.

It was an interesting trip. By the time I got on the plane, only middle seats were left. That’s OK – it’s just me – so I took the first one that had room for my bag above it. The pregnant woman on the aisle got out so I could get in. The guy at the window seemed irritated and aloof. He stared out the window. I chatted a bit with the woman (she was returning from a trip with her hubby, a “babymoon”, which is apparently a last childless trip), and then I just read my book (Arabella of Mars, as influenced by the Steampunk convention). The flight attendant came by with snacks, and the woman said no thanks. I took mine, and the guy took his, grumbling about the woman on the aisle, that she could have got hers – someone would eat them. He was clearly hungry, and devoured his snack then stared out the window again. When we landed, I’d read half my book (it’s really good!) and the woman let me out, saying she needed help with her bag (looking vaguely behind her – I figured her husband must be in the back of the plane).

We got off the plane, and the guy beside me had her bag and was sort of walking near her. I’d been sitting between a married couple the whole time. Some babymoon.

Things got scarier at the hotel. The NACBS is just a group of innocuous historians, but another group was there too, a conference of Colleges of Arts and Sciences. The place was crawling with deans: assistant deans, associate deans, new deans, old deans. They were in the lobby, the elevators, the restrooms – it was an infestation. I started to get hives. This helped:


Then things got much better when I got to say hi to my UCSB mentor, J. Sears McGee, without whom my life would not be as good as it is. Then the sessions began:


There are only two sessions here on teaching. The first featured Nina Reid-Maroney from Huron College in Canada, who had helped create a transAtlantic undergrad research project called Phantoms of the Past, where a group of their students went to England for a week, and a group of students from Huddersfield came to Ontario. The class connected two “sites of memory” (not sure why they’re called that rather than commemorative), Skelmanthorpe Weavers Cottage in England, and Eldon House in Ontario. The point was to emphasize how the slave trade connected the two countries. Then Neil Brooks discussed assessment, and how such projects present problems for traditional assessment, since you need students to have to room to create work that’s meaningful to them, and that may result unexpectedly from being exposed to new things.

The other presentation, by Susannha Ottaway of Carleton College in Minnesota, focused on going “deeply digital” in a class studying workhouses in the 18th century. She had a team of grad students and others help undergrad students create Digital Humanities work, which was also used by the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum.

Both projects had “public facing webpages”, and both required students to use technology. For the Transatlantic course at Huron, the faculty were challenged by students not being willing to use Twitter and other social media, which surprised them. I suggested using more academic/work sites like the ones used by the workhouse project (Omeka, Twine, WordPress) instead, to separate students’ personal from their academic personae.

Although I certainly couldn’t imitate anything like either of these projects (we’re talking serious grant money here), I did gain one thing I can use. The workhouse project used their grad students to create a finite research archive for students. If I did this myself, and had students working in individual ways using the same general resource, I could prevent a huge problem I’ve had with my open-ended Honors Contract projects. My students, having never even seen a library database, have no idea how to research a topic of interest to them, and they don’t tend to stick to it enough to learn. I’ve had too many Honors Contracts fail, and a set evidence base might be a solution. Yes, it will cost them some independence, but I think the skill set is more important.


The lunchtime (lunch was odd, because it was Mexican – I’m from California but it was good anyway) keynote was Ethan H. Shagan of UC Berkeley on The Knowledge Problem in the English Reformation. This was  bit problematic for me because I was trained as a medievalist when it comes to theology. Shagan is interested in the history of religious belief, and how that belief is defined. The central argument of the Reformation was about the source of knowledge for religious belief.

A key text was a book called The Leviathan and the Air Pump, where Hobbes and Boyle fought it out later, in the 17th century, over what constituted knowledge. Hobbes rejected empiricism as knowledge, since it is subject to interpretation. This is similar to William Tyndale during the 16th century, who believed that fides historica (“historical faith”) is mere opinion, because it’s believed only if there’s convincing evidence. Real faith is “feeling faith”, which needs no empirical proof and is intrinsic, being located in the heart rather than the mind. Catholic Thomas More, conversely, claimed that all faith is historical anyway, and does rely on authority outside the individual. He claimed Tyndale was in fact empirical – he just believed Luther’s authority over that of the Church. The difference seemed to be that “feeling faith” is felt by the individual – the tenets of the faith apply to the individual personally, while “historical faith” is more general. (My difficulty was that I couldn’t see the argument as being much different than Bernard of Clairvaux versus Peter Abelard, the 12th century theological smackdown).

Because Protestantism was so difficult for practitioners, a middle ground was sought that helped reconcile the extreme views, with Jesuits and Arminians contributing to compromises. And my favorite part of the talk was actually one thing the speaker said, that the “act of writing history deploys evidence to make knowledge claims”. That may help my students better understand what we do.


Here Elise Garritzen of the Univeristy of Helsinki shared her preliminary research on paratext as evidence for Victorian historians being divided into professionals and amateurs. Paratext means stuff in books other than the text of the book itself; this includes frontispieces, prefaces, and (her focus) title pages.

Her data, from examining 131 history books during the late Victorian era, showed interesting patterns. If one defines a “professional” historian as one with a professorship (since doctorates were uncommon), then the professional historians filled their title pages with lists of their “credentials’. These included mentions of their college, degrees, honours, etc. – 14% of them listed six or more types of “credential”. Amateur historians, even if they had credentials, tended instead to emphasize their previous publications. Female historians also didn’t list degrees and honors (few had access to such things) but used their husband’s name or family at first (Mrs. J.R. Green), then once they were known switched to their own name (Alice Stopford Green). (I wasn’t sure about this point, since the first Green book was 1894 and the second 1908 – there was rather a lot of suffragism and feminism in between that might also have influenced such a name change.) Professional historians also never dedicated their books, and never posted a photograph of themselves in the front. Thus historians used title pages and other paratext for self-fashioning a persona that marked the division of the discipline.

Why did I care? Well, the fact is that I only have a Masters’ Degree (I began in a PhD program and took 3 years to write a thesis, but that’s a whole other story). I want to publish in history. But am I a professional? I have a professorship of sorts. I publish in my own name. But I would not be likely to list my degrees and certificates on a title page – I’d be more likely to list previous publications. In Victorian times, that would mark me as an amateur.

Tattered Cover Bookstore (worth the mile walk!)

I did listen to a couple of other talks. I use Linda Pollock’s book Forgotten Children in my lectures, so was happy to listen to her talk about repentance as a personal and political norm for male elites in the 17th century, delivered brilliantly at breakneck speed. A number of today’s politicians should take it to heart. I also heard a discussion of cows and morality that dealt with the history of science, understandings about animal behavior, and the ethics of factory farming (right before lunch), and Rosalind Carr’s presentation on politeness as a factor in the British takeover of New South Wales. I just missed what looked like a fascinating discussion of transporting turtles across the Atlantic in 1866.

Traveling here (I have friends in Denver but am not in love with the city) I am reminded that I am not traveling in England, which I’d rather be doing. But if I’m not, it’s nice to be here with a bunch of historians who wish they were traveling in England, too.