Following a short break in posts, caused by a problem with internet access, this is the first in a short series of posts about the Historical Association Conference 2019, held in Chester in May.

Becky Sullivan welcoming people to the conference

On Friday morning, the proceedings opened with a welcome from Rebecca Sullivan, the HA chief executive, who was very pleased to note that this was the biggest HA conference since 2015 in Bristol.  She then introduced the first keynote speaker, Professor Tony Badger, the HA President, who was once described by the Wall Street journal as a man with an instinctive understanding of American politics.  Prof Badger’s talk was on ‘The Kennedys and the Gores’.  He described how families became good friends, lasting 50 years through 2 generations of politics, to the point where Ted Kennedy’s support was vital to Al Gore’s nomination in 2000.  He pointed out that you can use the Kennedys and the Gores to chart the changing fortunes of American liberalism. 

Albert Gore grew up in a rural small town – a very different wold to that of the global superpower, space race and nuclear arms.  In 1938 he had to make his mark not just through speaking on hustings, but by playing fiddle in a country band to draw a crowd at political meetings. John Kennedy, on the other hand, came from a very wealthy background and was a genuine war hero.  He was of Irish Catholic while Gore was a southern Baptist, but at the time public religiosity was not the order of the day. Both had strong wives: Pauline Gore was one of the first women to graduate in law; Jackie Kennedy a style icon.

Professor Tony Badger, HA President

Both Kennedy and Gore were interested in foreign policy, but by the 50s had already differed on South East Asia. Neither was an intellectual, but Kennedy drew academics into his advisors.  Both made the effort to learn, though different ways.  Neither was a member of the Senate Club, which critics thought stymied reform, but members respected its hardworking ministers. Likewise, both found themselves at odds with Lyndon Johnson.  Gore tried very hard to get on with him, but they hated each other. He admired Johnson’s legislative skills but thought he was a cruel bully, and resented his exclusion from administration.  Meanwhile, Johnson didn’t take Kennedy seriously as a senator.  But Kennedy understood Johnson’s power as majority leader, which is why he made him vice president. 

Another similarity between Gore and Kennedy was that both were targets of Hoover. Kennedy was put under watch because of his sexual liaisons, while Gore was put on a list ‘not to be contacted’ as long as Hoover in charge of FBI.  Both also supported civil rights, at least to an extent; they were not hugely active but made the right noises.  Gore felt that the race issue divided his poor white and black constituents and wanted to concentrate on economic issues. Kennedy established good relations with southern leaders and thought he could work with them, though his faith was tested during his presidency.  Gore hoped that LBJ’s civil rights legislation would be softened enough to enable him to give it support, and had Kennedy lived, it might well have been.  But LBJ had different imperatives and in the end it wasn’t so Gore didn’t support it, making him almost irrelevant.

Gore, however, still supported Kennedy’s presidential campaign of 1960 and during Kennedy’s presidency, the Gores were regularly entertained at the White House.  Kennedy used Gore as sounding board, for example over the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Nevertheless, there were tensions between Kennedy and Gore.  The interstate highways policy caused problems because Gore supported them as essential for the economic development of the south, whereas Kennedy thought the policy would cause problems for the north.  There were also problems when the vice presidency was opened up to the floor, and over tax cuts.  Finally, Gore watched with alarm as Kennedy administration was sucked into Vietnam.  He read reports about what was going wrong, and he wanted Kennedy to pull troops out.  Then Kennedy was assassinated. Albert Gore worked closely with Ted Kennedy after Bobby’s assassination, but couldn’t persuade Ted to stand for president.

Gore had allowed himself to support the Tonkin Gulf resolution in August 1964, but he was one of the the first senators to call for a negotiated settlement.  The Kennedys couldn’t come out against in cased they were seen as going against their brother’s legacy.   During the 1970s, the anti-war stance became mainstream and younger senators respected Gore’s expertise in the Nixon years. He became Nixon’s number one target in the 1970 campaign, which focussed on race and evangelical religion and made the south the bastion of republicanism. White southern voters saw the civil rights movement help African Americans, women, gays etc, but not themselves. 

Al Gore didn’t go straight to politics, but when he got into Washington he travelled home each weekend to hold meetings in his constituency, keeping in touch with the voters.  He steered clear of presidential politics.  The Gores didn’t back the Kennedy family in the 80s, as ‘Kennedy liberal’ was a term of abuse.  When Al Gore ran for the senate in 1984, he wouldn’t have his photo taken with Ted Kennedy.  But by 2000 they were on the platform together, with Gore having got to know Kennedy from sitting next to him in the senate.  When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, Al Gore described him as a champion of Americans who had no voice. 

Prof Badger concluded his lecture by noting that the problems faced by these politicians were no less significant than those faced now, but unlike now, the two families didn’t foster anti-intellectualism and think that a soundbite was a substitute for effective legislation.

The HA conference combines several Continuing Professional Development strands for teachers with general interest lectures for ‘armchair historians’.  The first session that I attended was given by Hugh Richards,  from the Huntington School in York, on helping GCSE students who are swamped by the new GCSE.  In fact, he concentrated on the challenges facing students who need to write essays in an exam, such as self-regulation, recall of information, deploying information and even getting started.  He pointed out that teachers are being asked to beat a system that is designed to differentiate the students, and advised deliberate practice, breaking down the big tasks. He also suggested that  students shouldn’t be attempting the big tasks, such as long essay questions, straight away because they are designed to asses a GCSE student who has done the whole course.  They need to be able to do all the component parts of the task and we need to break that down for them. 

Hugh Richards

Hugh took a sample ‘how far do you agree’ question and broke it down in to its constituent bits:

  • Knowledge
  • Structured response
  • Vocabulary
  • Multiple viewpoints
  • Understanding the question
  • Judgement

His school, like many others, had giving students essay frameworks, but this can make them too used to the ‘life rings’, meaning that they can’t manage without them when they are in the exam and faced just with a blank page.  Instead, he recommended basing teaching on the 3 elements to self-regulated learning:

  • Cognition
  • Metacognition
  • Motivation

He then outlined a couple of teaching techniques which helped to raise achievement for all pupils. 

The first technique was the use of spiderplans – a spider diagram that plans an essay and one of several different visual plans for different types of question.  He argued that spiderplans worked because they are based on a blank sheet of paper rather than a grid or scaffold, so they can easily be reproduced in the exam.  Students draw a circle in middle of the page and focus on putting question in their own words. Then they add points around it, giving them a well-structured response.

The next technique was to get the students to ask themselves ‘What mistakes might I make?’ These mistakes might be different for each student, so it helps them to reflect on the feedback they have received for completed assignments and use it to improve their essay plan.

Once this has been done, the students submit their structures to the teacher, who puts them on the board in a table so that the students can compare different possible structures, for example, answering by decade, by theme, groups of people.  You can ask them which structure they like best and why, because exposing the thought processes makes them reflect on the effectiveness of the different approaches.  It exposes the historical thinking and helps them to see why there might be problems. You can vote on the most effective, which makes the learning point clear but it hasn’t been done by giving model answers.

The next step is to consider as a group the evidence for one structure.  You can then ask again what mistakes they might make. They often remember the mistakes better than their successes, so we need to turn this to their advantage.  Another advantage of this technique is that it avoids wasting their time writing a whole essay that is then wrong, which is demoralising.  He advised asking students cross out their work when it was wrong, to avoid them revising from incorrect material.    

 Looking down, and south, from the A685.   © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Looking down, and south, from the A685.
© Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I seem to have been doing a lot of travelling lately, whizzing up and down the country on the pendolino and tootling across country on local trains.  I am, in the words of Doctor Seuss, a north going zax so frankly the journey through the valley in the Lakes where the west coast mainline and the M6 run alongside each other was infinitely preferable to the more familiar journey south towards London, although passing a trainload of mummified cars wrapped in bandages on a siding outside Oxford was a novelty.  The reason for all this travelling was academic, for once.  Early summer is conference season.  My twitter feed has been full of conference tweets for several weeks, which can be really interesting.  Several twitter hashtags have looked interesting enough to cause me to find out what the conference was that I was missing, and some of them I’ve really wished I could attend.   It’s a while since I gave a paper at an academic conference, so it was good to get back into the swing of things with trips to Reading and Newcastle.

Reading’s Early Modern Studies Conference was great fun. 410px-Codex_Mendoza_folio_2r Last time I went to Reading University I was on a two week accountancy training course and I hated every minute of it.  Reading was nothing like as unpleasant as I remembered it being, which just goes to show how much your experience colours your memories of a place.  The accommodation was lovely, although the lack of full wifi coverage if you couldn’t (like me and several other people) log into Eduroam was a distinct drawback. Because of my graduation, I wasn’t able to attend the whole conference, but on the Monday afternoon I very much enjoyed Maria de Jesus Crespo Candeias Velez Relvas‘s paper on ‘The Perception of the World in the Sixteenth Century’, as it took me back to undergraduate days of studying The First Hundred Years of the Spanish in the Americas and writing my dissertation.  I still find the impact of the Spanish conquest on the mainly oral tradition of the Aztecs and Inca’s fascinating and I recently downloaded the digital Codex Mendoza app!

The parallel sessions on Monday afternoon were all in seminar rooms, so I was somewhat surprised to find myself delivering my paper on Tuesday morning in a large lecture theatre.  My panel consisted of Richard Hoyle talking about ‘The King and the Poor Northern Man’, myself on ‘Ballads and the Public Sphere in Sixteenth Century England’ and Jonathan Arnold on ‘Music, Morality and Meaning: Humanist Critiqus of Musical Performance in Early Modern Europe’.  It seemed to go very well. I had to leave Reading mid-afternoon on the Tuesday in order to get home for my graduation, so unfortunately I missed Jennifer Richards’ plenary that evening.

One of the interesting things about delivering a paper to most conferences and seminar series is that people seem surprised when I sing a verse or two of a ballad. Not so at the Voices and Books conference, where breaking into song mid-paper is normal!  I have really enjoyed all the Voices and Books meetings that I’ve attended, and they helped to cement the idea that I had early on in my ballad studies that we need to think of ballads as songs that were sung and read aloud.  It is a truly interdisciplinary network, with supportive scholars from music, history, drama, literature and language all sharing ther ideas and bringing their expertise to the table.  I can honestly say that I’ve come away from the conference with more ideas than I could possibly carry out in the rest of my working life, so I want to say a big thank you to the ever-smiling network organisers Jennifer Richards and Richard Wistreich for all their hard work and their inspiring example!

Voices and Books his was a really busy conference with parallel sessions and plenaries filling the days, leaving little space for tea and the wonderful food that was provided.  Having started the second day of the conference at 9.30am, I left the conference dinner the moment that I finished my main course through sheer exhaustion (in a good way) at 9.30pm, and, disappointingly, before the chewy strawberry pavlova.  My family would testify to how tired I must have been to walk away from a meringue!  And, by the way, the conference also had far and away the best food of any that I’ve ever been to, what with Thai beef salad; wild rice with currants, chickpeas and herbs; mini Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish; lemon posset; and dipped strawberries.

There wasn’t a single session that didn’t include fascinating papers, but the plenaries were particularly excellent. Heidi Brayman Hackel spoke on the relationship between hearing and speaking and the the role of the dumb-show in early modern drama.  Anne Karpf was truly inspiring when she talked about restoring the voice, pointing out that even oral history tends to priviledge the recorded or transcribed voice over the act of speaking itself, making me wonder again how to weave in to my  studies the ballads collected from the oral tradition.  I was struck by her comment that the first voice we hear is the maternal voice which we hear in the womb and can even feel its vibration – it made me wonder if the maternal lullaby works in a similar way to skin-to-skin contact for babies? Perry Mills, talking about performing early modern drama with a company of boys, reminded me of everything I miss about teaching.  And then, of course, there was Christopher Marsh and the Carnival Band demonstrating how to write a hit song in the seventeenth century – the first plenary session any of us had been to with a beer break in the middle!  Apparently the Carnival Band had been given free reign to interpret the songs  as they saw fit, and I noticed that they had chosen to accompany them using major and minor keys rather than modal harmony.  Apologies also for the state of my photographs of them, as my camera didn’t cope well with the limited light!

On Friday I talked about ‘Reinterpreting  the Sixteenth Century English Ballad’, giving a brief airing to my theories about tonality and knowingness, but my main point was that ballads were good for spreading news because they were passed from person to person and used tunes that were easy to pick up and remember.   I decided to demonstrate this by having my very own Gareth Malone moment and getting the conference delegates to sing!  I had been having kittens prior to the conference – as a teacher I used to get children to sing all the time but I’ve never tried it with adults, and if they didn’t go for it and join in I would end up looking rather daft.  Fortunately, they almost all joined in with varying amounts of enthusiasm and learned the first verse of ‘The Hunt is Up’ very  quickly.

At the conference dinner on Friday evening, Jonathan Gibson asked if I might be able to sing a verse of a ballad during his paper the following morning, which I was pleased to do.  So  after retreating from the dinner I went back to my hotel, where I attempted to learn the tune of Wilson’s Wild, while feeling the bass and vocals of ‘I-I-I-I-I’m not your stepping sto-one‘ vibrate through the floor.   On the final day I particularly enjoyed Jonathan’s paper, Naomi Barker on traces of orality in Italian keyboard music and John Gallagher‘s paper on the teaching of foreign languages.  I’m very interested  in the idea of learning a language through singing its songs, so that’s something we’re both going to look out for.

So I’m home, brimming over with ideas, just as my institutional login is about to run out.  Ho hum.

I have finally sent off my commonwealth chapter to my panel, ahead of my meeting with them next week.  I’m in a slightly different position to normal in that I was able to send it with a message telling them where I wanted help and where I hoped to expand it when I come to re-write it in the summer.  I identified two sections where the writing was flabby and repetitive, where some serious editing will be needed, but on the whole, I think it has something to say, at last.  That something is about radical ballads and the activities of ballad collectors, which isn’t how I expected the chapter to turn out when I started work on it last September.  It has been the hardest chapter I’ve had to write by far.  I’m glad that it turned out to be about the manuscript collections of ballads, because compared to the broadside ballads they’ve had much less attention.  I think that they are interesting in their own right, because someone chose to collect them and made the effort to write them down.

The rest of the week has been split between secondary reading for my final chapter on ballads and the news; cataloguing and analysing more ballads; and preparing my paper for the Print and Materiality Seminar Series at the John Rylands Library next week.  The paper should be fun because for once, I actually get to sing!  On Sunday last week I recorded a couple of the ballads I’ve been working on recently, one of which took three and a half minutes and the other was more than twelve!   I’m going to keep recording them as I work on them from now on, with the aim of having them all recorded by July.

Next week is half term, so I expect to have some days out if the weather permits, instead of working all week.

The British Library, London

The British Library, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week has been rather different to normal.  Foolishly, at 8am on Monday morning I was at Preston station in the hope of travelling to London, but the storm rather got  in the way.  Instead of arriving in London at 10, it was lunchtime when I got there, so I missed a few hours’ work in the British Library.  It was an interesting few days, anyway, looking at commonplace books and music manuscripts for my work.   I was back up north on Wednesday evening with a keen awareness of how much more time I need to spend in the BL.  Then on Friday I spoke at the History Lab North West workshop on interdisciplinarity, Beyond History.   I talked about the overlap of musicology and history in my work, especially about how sometimes the music of the ballads adds a whole extra layer of meaning to the texts.  It was nice to talk and sing  to a mixed audience rather than just historians.

My plan is to spend some time next week revitalising my journal article, then with a bit of look when I go back to the commonweal chapter after a couple of weeks’ break, it might be a bit easier to face.