NACBS: Second day!

My first session today was clearly for fun: Historians Read Detective Fiction. Well, I meant it be scholarly – it said it was about the “Golden Age” of detective stories, which I naturally assumed was the late 19th century. But no! It’s the interwar years, apparently.

Since no one “had technology” (as the chair put it) we listened to short papers without visuals, which was fine. Although the first paper by Michael Saler was in the program as being about Dorothy L. Sayers, it was actually about Raymond Chandler, and the theme seemed to be this: we see post-Great War detective stories as being based in modernist rationality, but actually there is a great deal of irrationality about them, and an invocation of magic in the use of words, particularly Chandler’s more bizarre juxtapositions (“as eyebrowless as a French roll”). Such writing was an attempt to “re-enchant” modernity through language.

Statues in front of the Sheraton Denver on Friday…

Elizabeth Prevost‘s paper on Agatha Christie in Southern Africa was about a book I haven’t read, The Man in the Brown Suit. Christie wrote it after returning from her only trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where she and her husband had witnessed African landscapes and the revolt of white workers against the De Beers mining company. Her book, with an independent heroine who solves the mystery, was cast as the reclaiming of female independence through imperial travel.

Laura E. Nym Mayhall’s The Struggle for Meaning: The Press in Golden Age Detective Fiction examined the role of the press as a character in the novels, noting connections at the time between journalism and crime fiction. But of greater importance was the role of aristocrats in both (I must remember in my own work that which I think is the thesis is likely just the point of lesser and more specific importance). With the decline of the upper class as a political power after the Great War, aristocrats were cast instead as celebrities. Newspapers and magazines reported on their marriages, divorces, and public disgraces, and people ate it up. The main example in detective fiction, of course, was Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey,  an aristocrat traumatized by the war but setting things right (with the press a frequent character). Her focus on newspapers within the genre was a great way to narrow what could have been a huge subject.

Commentary on the three papers included the use of travel narratives to pad a book, the inappropriateness of Christie’s European but nativized “little brown baby” at the end of the book, and a contention that the lines between genres mustn’t be ignored.  A more interesting point was that it’s possible that the idea of entropy, a “discourse of degeneration”, is likely more important than any artificial difference between modern and anti-modern. That makes sense to me as fitting with the post-war malaise.

Historian Peter Stansky, who attended the session, was delighted that such literary examinations were being done by historians, noting with sadness that despite the moniker British Studies, few literary scholars attend. There was some discussion about whether what these scholars were doing was considered “history” given the literary focus, and audience members with experience did comment that some historical journals would not accept such topics.

… changed clothes on Saturday

Since there were no 19th century sessions on the menu, I indulged myself in Doing British Studies in the Age of Brexit and Trump, an examination of what the hell we’re supposed to do now. Having been in the UK for the Brexit vote, and here in the US for the Trump vote, and having predicted the results of both, I feel a connection. While there were no solutions, historians clearly felt a responsibility for holding on to Enlightenment rationality, and participating in civic life. There was also serious concern about university administrators and lack of defense of academic freedom. The “Trump effect” was felt by university scholars in England, Canadians trying to recruit emigrating talent, and American progressives. While there was some discussion about whether 2016 was the start of a new epoch, the most useful advice was the call for historians to use their skills to keep pushing truth.

The lunchtime (burgers!) paper was Yasmin Khan on The British Departure and South Asia’s Partition of 1847. Its focus, like many of the revised histories of the British empire, blamed Britain for harm, this time in its inaction. The violence in South Asia following independence has apparently been considered just an India issue, since the British had left (or were leaving). It was, after all, Indian-Indian violence. The British government elites were divided about leaving, and used the possibility of violence as a justification for both staying (to mitigate it) and leaving. The British military was ordered to protect British and Europeans only. Brits who returned to the UK felt they were powerless to help, especially in the Punjab. Government inquiries were either not called for, or were dropped. If the narrative of Indian imperialism was the story of a civilizing mission, the violence on partition seemed to show its failure, which may be why Britain has refused to own partition as part of British history.

I’ve learned (and this talk was an example) that there is much emphasis these days on revising approaches to transAtlantic slavery and to the British Empire.  Luckily, the examinations of both topics at this conference were complex and informed by advanced scholarship, rather than pushed by agendas of retribution or self-righteousness. The other concern I’ve had in recent years, in both American and British historiography, has been the acceptance of emotions as a valid area of historical inquiry. But here, the papers that worked with emotion were all examining it from an objective point of view (Pollock’s paper from yesterday on repentance is a good example).  The quality of all the papers I’ve seen here is incredibly high, which was noted at the reception tonight by visiting scholars. And with the reception held at the Denver Art Museum, who could complain?


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.

OERs again

I’ve posted a number of times on Open Educational Resources, and mentioning these might help explain why I subject the entire issue to serious criticism, a small sigh, and a raised eyebrow.

And now? I’m even more skeptical, because now my own institution is pushing them. I think it was Alan Levine who first turned me on to the idea that state legislatures in the U.S. want OERs because it saves them money — they can decrease their education budget if everyone’s using “free” textbooks.

CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s easy to see who makes the money with a textbook – the publishers, then the authors. With OERs it’s harder to see. In this case, it’s the state saving money, or pulling it from education. In other cases, it’s more commercial. I remember how happy I was, many years ago, when MIT released hours of lecture on YouTube. Then I discovered a company that had built a “shell” for this content, adding some discussion boards and a document that looked like a syllabus. As an instructor, you bought access to their platform for the semester, and used it like an LMS, with all the content comprised of MIT’s “free” videos. The company got money, but not MIT, not the professor. It seemed wrong then. It seems wrong now.

So now my question is, cui bono? Who benefits from OERs?

Lest you think I’m just a grumpy old prof, I don’t have to whine about my own institution’s intellectual property policy. It was developed in the first year we offered online classes (1998) by my prescient and exceptional colleague, Louisa Moon. She saw immediately the potential for online classes to be taken over by institutions, and taught without the faculty member being needed at all. One could develop a class, and the college could decide to take it and have “staff” teach it instead.

So our policy not only preserves ownership by faculty of the things we create, but even our sabbatical policy says we keep ownership so long as we don’t make excessive use of campus resources when creating stuff. I think that’s fair.

However, I work at a public community college. We do not have the same issues as universities, with their endowments and grants. But we do have a recent push to adopt OERs, and I’ve argued against it as a requirement. Not that I like textbooks (just search “textbooks” here on my blog to see how much I despise them and the whole publishing model), but if there aren’t even good open textbooks for History, there must be other areas where nothing good is available. So for me, the four priorities for using OERs are:

  1. The academic freedom of the professor in choosing what to assign
  2. The quality of the materials
  3. Whether commercial entities benefit from their use
  4.  Everything else discussed in this unit: the 5 Rs, open licenses, etc.

I guess that’s a little different than what this unit intended.