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.    

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This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

I went back to work on Wednesday, when my children went back to school.  Most of my work this week has been on transcriptions of manscripts from the British Library but I’ve also read some secondary material. I’ve carried on working today, because despite my intentions to spend three whole days immersed in my primary material, it didn’t quite happen – I ended up doing a favour for a friend over two lunchtimes instead.  Anyway, palaeography is a challenge which, for the most part, I quite enjoy.  I have to admit that I don’t do enough of it to be fluent at it, but once I get going I find a lot of it reasonably straightforward, if a little slow.  That is, until I reach the point where I can’t make out a word, at which point I feel like throwing the computer through the window.

On Thursday, my work was pleasantly interrupted by a trip to Preston FM to talk about the Historical Association.  I was very nervous that morning, but when it came to the broadcast I surprised myself by quite enjoying it.   I must say thank you to the station for inviting me and to presenter Hughie Parr for creating such a relaxed atmosphere that we talked for twenty minutes!

Two kings and two queens from the Uig, or Lewi...

Two kings and two queens from the Uig, or Lewis chessmen at the British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’ve been to London and back for a meeting of the branches and members committee of the Historical Association.  We finished earlier than expected so I spent an hour and a half in the British Museum.  I had a look round the Mexican gallery, as always, as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the transmission of culture in Aztec Mexico and the impact of the Spanish Conquest.  I could spend hours looking at the turquoise mosaic pieces.  I looked at the Sutton Hoo exhibition, wandered through the Enlightenment gallery and found the ‘Cradle to Grave’ piece very moving.  Then I went to the Egyptian gallery, as my eldest son is doing a school project on the ancient Egyptians at the moment.  I bought him a few postcards.  Finally, I went to say hello to Noggin the Nog.  Sorry, the Lewis chessmen.  I love them.  I can’t play chess, but one day I will have a replica Lewis chessmen chess set.