MONTHLY BLOG 44, QUOTATIONS AND IRONY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Quotations should never be mangled and should always be cited honestly, with due attention to context. Yes – absolutely yes.  It’s axiomatic for all scholarship – but also for proper communications. It does happen that words are taken out of context and twisted into another meaning. But it’s never right.

To take an example: if a theatre critic sees a controversial play and writes: ‘The very last thing that I’d say is that this production is brilliant’, then the theatre’s publicity team could put the critic’s name in lights alongside the quotation: ‘This production is brilliant’. Factually, those attributed words are correct. The critic did write them. Yet the truncated quotation gives the reverse meaning to that intended. Both the critic and any members of the audience, who were deceived into attending on the strength of the critic’s recommendation, have grounds for complaint.

Another potential for misunderstanding comes when heavy irony is taken at face value. In one of Shakespeare’s famous oratorical set-pieces, Mark Antony mourns the assassination of Caesar by Brutus and his allies with the repeated phrase: ‘And Brutus is an honourable man’ … [They are all] ‘honourable men’. The stress upon the repeated phrase, like a refrain, urges the Roman crowd to understand that the words mean the reverse of what they apparently say.

By the end, the citizens turn against the assassins: ‘They were traitors: honourable men!1  On the face of it, Mark Antony has given Brutus a favourable character reference. In context, however, he stands condemned, not just as an assassin but as one who has basely betrayed his closest friend and colleague. ‘This was the unkindest cut of all’.

Nonetheless, there is a problem for anyone who uses irony. If the listeners or readers fail to get the implied message, then they will come to an erroneous conclusion. A Roman citizen who left the forum after the opening phrases of Antony’s speech (or who wasn’t listening carefully) could depart thinking: ‘I was sorry to hear of  Caesar’s death but it must be acceptable as Brutus, a man of honour, explained why he had to do it, and Antony confirms that Brutus is an honourable man’.

Irony, then, is powerful but risky. It depends upon an attentive community between speaker/writer and audience/readers which allows the words to be decoded successfully.

For historians, quoting from sources whose authors have long gone, there is always a challenge to understand meanings in their full context. When does a word or phrase in use mean its opposite? And did people in the past always get the hidden message?

When Jonathan Swift published his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), he provided an exercise in sustained irony that revealed itself through the moral enormity of the proposed solution. ‘A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.’ Poor parents would solve their financial problems by selling their children, who would provide good food for the rich. Infanticide? Cannibalism? Class callousness? Swift does not advocate these. Instead, his irony conveys outrage at the poverty of the poor and the indifference of the rich.

Jonathan Swift’s famous use of sustained irony in his Modest Proposal (1729)Why am I writing about this now? Because I am currently thinking about the use of evidence and the dangers of inadvertent misinterpretation. The question really arises when using a lot of sources in a historical collage.

I have just done that in an essay, published in Social History, on eighteenth-century Britain as an ‘Age of Infidelity’.2  It cites at least 75 contemporary verdicts on the state of religion and irreligion. Many are book titles, some are declarations within books, some are printed texts reporting upon speeches and sermons.

A proportion of these works were clearly using overblown rhetoric, uttered in times of crisis. When John Bowlder agonised in 1798 that the British nation’s lack of faith seemed to portend nothing less than ‘the eradicating [of] Christianity in this Quarter of the World’,3  it is hard not to smile. Religion had more staying power than he was ready to admit. On the other hand, Bowdler’s deep anxiety was typical of many committed Christians in the later 1790s, when Britain was struggling in the prolonged war against France. Why such extreme danger? It could only be that God was angry with the nation for its irreligious ways.

Bowdler not only wrote to chastise the people but took practical steps to offer a remedy. He co-founded the Church Building Society, which provided new places of worship in the newly expanding towns. In my Social History essay, I am able to give further information about Bowdler, as he was a particularly notable contributor to the debates. His name on its own attracts interest. Two of his children, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, removed all the saucy bits from Shakespeare, in order to make the bard acceptable for respectable family reading. Their reward was much public ridicule – and the invention of a new verb ‘to bowdlerise’. Such contextual information illuminates the era’s culture wars, in which the Bowdlers were eager partisans.

But, in an essay of approximately 7,000 words, it’s not possible to devote equal attention to the other 74 eighteenth-century contemporaries – laypeople as well as clergymen – who expressed views on the state of religion. It would overrun the restricted length of a scholarly essay – and confuse the unfolding analysis. Naturally, I checked all the sources that I used, for both content and context. And I especially searched for rival tracts, arguing that the eighteenth century was an ‘Age of Faith’ or equivalent.

Is it possible that I missed some exercises in irony? Logically, yes, although I hope not. (Please check my sources, all duly footnoted!) Sustained Swiftian-style irony is comparatively rare. Moreover, people writing on the state of irreligion tended to be heated and passionate rather than coolly playing with double meanings.

What I do claim to have found is not a debate without the potential for irony but instead one which circulated a new eighteenth-century cliché. It stated that the era was ‘an Age of Infidelity’. By this phrase, the commentators did not refer to people’s unfaithfulness to their marriage vows. That constituted ‘conjugal infidelity’, plentiful enough but far from unique to the eighteenth century. Nor did the commentators refer to apostacy: Christians in this period were not turning into Islamic or Jewish or any other religious variety of ‘infidels’.

No, it was the spread of secularisation that was being noted, chiefly in alarm: the advent of a society, officially Christian, where people had the option of not going to church, not following Christian lifestyles, and (even) not sharing Christian beliefs. It is possible that some eighteenth-century references to the ‘Age of Infidelity’ were meant ironically. But, if all that the commentators left were the unvarnished words, then they are liable to be read literally.

Ironists beware. Unless your double meaning is suitably signalled, it will become lost in time.

1  W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (written 1599/1600), Act 3, scene 2.

2  P.J. Corfield, ‘“An Age of Infidelity”: Secularisation in Eighteenth-Century England’, Social History, 39 (2014), pp. 229-47; available via Taylor & Francis publishers online = www.tandfonline.com.

J. Bowdler, Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! (Dublin, 1798), p. 21.

4  For the CBS, now part of the National Churches Trust, see www.churchplansonline.org.

See Wikipedia, sub Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825): en.wikipedia.org.

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MONTHLY BLOG 43, MIS-SPEAKING …AND HOW TO RESPOND

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

When we talk for a living and don’t do it to a written script, there’s always a chance of getting the words wrong. Mostly it doesn’t matter. Phrases can be rephrased, self-corrections swiftly made. The sentences flow on and listeners hardly notice. Yet sometimes a sudden silence tells the speaker that a blunder or infelicity has been noted. Funnily enough, I remember a few times when I’ve felt that sudden frigidity in the atmosphere, but can hardly remember exactly what I said wrong. So my attempt at a confessional is somewhat thwarted by the human capacity for benign forgetting.

For many years now, I have adopted the policy of giving all my lectures and talks from notes. They are sometimes written and detailed, sometimes just in my head. There’s always a structure, often threefold. I began that policy when one of my old friends protested that he was disappointed when I lectured from a fully written script. (Strangely, when I next heard him lecture, he too had a written text). But there’s no doubt that such a practice is much more boring than free-speech. So I threw away my scripts and launched into freedom. It was nerve-wracking at first but then became really good fun. I now positively enjoy lecturing, because free-speaking requires a great mix of relaxation and concentration, which really keeps one mentally on one’s toes. Talk about living in the here-and-now. But, as already admitted, there’s always a chance of mis-speaking.

The quickest response to a blunder is a quick admission, ‘No, that came out wrongly’ or ‘No, forget that: let me put the point a better way’. Another option is a self-deprecating joke. That’s generally the best way, thawing the atmosphere and making room for a revised statement. Alas, however, the appropriate quips don’t always come to mind immediately. How often does one wake in the middle of the night with the perfect riposte, which had proved elusive during the daylight hours?

(The answer to that rhetorical question is actually: not that much, since I generally sleep soundly. But sometimes …)

In fact, I often mull over conversations after the event, thinking of what was said or unsaid. It’s one way of understanding my partner in life, who is a keep-his-cards-close-to-his-chest sort of person. I appreciate that, since I have the same trait, under an outward show of chattiness.

Anyway, in the course of mulling over my contributions to asking questions in academic seminars, I am aware that there’s a fine line between jokes and jibes that work, and those that don’t. My aim is to make some genial general observation, which is intended to open up the wider implications of the question in hand, before honing in on a specific query. Doesn’t always work, but that’s my aim. It’s not a tactic that I recommend to beginners in academic life; but something that I require of myself as a comparative senior.

On one occasion, I made a sharp remark about the panel of speakers, who were enthusing over historic riots. My aim was to tease them about the contrast between their academic respectability and their admiration for lawlessness (if in a good cause). It was the precursor to my question, not the major point. But anyway, it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Made me seem to be avoiding engagement with the issues at stake – just the reverse of my intention.

These particular panellists reminded me somewhat of my late uncle, Christopher Hill, the eminent Marxist historian.He loved historic outlaws, pirates, highwaymen, and vagrants, as well as earnest seventeenth-century Puritans, who challenged the unquestioning authority of traditional religious teaching in an era when it was difficult to do so. In fact, Hill wrote a book about them, entitled Liberty against the Law (1996) which aptly expressed his appreciation.2  The fact that the worthy Puritans of whom he wrote approvingly would have hated the irreligious and a-religious outlaws with whom they were yoked did not trouble him. From his virtuous life of laborious and enjoyable study, Hill enjoyed the raffish life of the outlaws vicariously. And why not? Many of us have mixtures of Puritanism and libertinage within us. I was too hard on him, in my thoughts; and needlessly sardonic with my colleagues.

Unlikely fellows in the cause of ‘Liberty’: (T) an ascetic Puritan divine, in this case the American theologian/evangelist Jonathan Edwards, from an engraving by R. Babson and J. Andrews; and (B) the highwayman Dick Turpin on his famous steed Black Bess (in a Victorian image).So what should I have done? Worded my point in a more felicitous way, which I would have done, if writing. Or deleted my little joke at their expense? Probably the latter. I was playing the footballers and not the ball. Breaking my own rules for seminar questions. (The point might not be amiss in a review where viewpoints can be explained more fully.) So the occasion – and the disapproving silence from the audience – has taught me something useful for the future.

Lastly, a chance to record a fine response to another example of mis-speaking, this time not by me. The occasion was the book launch of F.M.L. (Michael) Thompson’s urban history of Hampstead (1974). The Mayor of Camden had been asked by the publisher to make a suitable speech. That he did, before ending, ungraciously: ‘But I shan’t read this book’. Probably he didn’t mean to be so rude. Perhaps he really meant something like: ‘But I fear that this volume may be a bit too learned for me …’. Either way, his remark did not meet the moment. It seemed to express a traditional and unhelpful strand of anti-intellectualism in the working-class Labour movement. (Not the entire story, of course, since there is another strand that values engagement with learning and adult education).

Be that as it may, I still remember Mike Thompson’s lungeing riposte, at the end of his gracious speech in reply. Having thanked his wife, publisher and friends, he then thanked the Mayor in his civic capacity: ‘But I shan’t vote for you’.

Well done, Mike. I hope not to mis-speak again. Yet, if it happens accidentally, I hope that I get as neat a riposte.

For more on Christopher Hill (1912-2003) see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27; and within PJC website as Pdf/5.

2  C. Hill, Liberty against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Penguin: London, 1996).

F.M.L. Thompson, Hampstead: Building a Borough, 1650-1964 (Routledge: London, 1974).

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MONTHLY BLOG 42, CHAIRING SEMINARS AND LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

The aim is to get everyone involved in a really good discussion, aiding the speaker and the seminar/lecture participants alike. By ‘good’, I mean critical but supportive. Any criticisms, of course, should be directed at the paper, not at the speaker: as in football, kicking the ball, not the person.

Okay, that sounds pretty easy. How best to promote the desired result? At the start, it’s essential to open the proceedings in an open and genial manner, with a joke, or failing that, at least a humorous tone. Nothing like a murmur of laughter to weld a group together. Then the speaker should be introduced pithily, without notes. None of these lengthy recitations of everything that he or she has ever done, which makes everyone drowsy. And certainly no advance-guessing by the chair of the points that the speaker ought to make – thus stealing (or bodging) the thunder before the show has begun.

By the way, from the start the chair should make a point of visibly and fairly slowly looking all round the room, bringing everyone within an encompassing gaze. And do this more than once. I call it giving the lighthouse beam.

june007
During the paper or lecture, whether good or bad, the chair has to look alert and listen. It encourages the speaker and the audience; and it’s necessary, as from time to time the speaker refers to the chair (perhaps to ask how much time is left). Actually, that’s why I like chairing, as it keeps one wide-awake. Ideally, speakers should have been briefed before the meeting about the length of talk required. But chair should always confirm that at the start; and then gently halt speakers who go on for too long. On a formal occasion, a printed card saying TIME! can be passed to the speaker but, informally, a hand signal usually suffices. There’s always some leeway on these things. If the speaker is part of a panel, then strict timekeeping is essential. In other circumstances, it’s the chair’s judgement call. But don’t allow too much over-running, as the audience gets at first restive and then somnolent.

While the speaker is talking, I usually make a mental list of the key questions raised by the paper. A good seminar or lecture audience will usually spot them all; but it’s a useful backup. Immediately after the paper, it’s absolutely essential for the chair to make some suitable response while people gather their thoughts. It’s always bad news when the chair just says abruptly: ‘Any questions?’ And even worse when there’s a great silence and the chair adds dolefully: ‘Well, I can see it’s going to be a difficult session’. Lead balloons all round.

Instead, the chair should briefly thank the speaker (nothing over the top) and note the range of issues raised by the paper (that’s helpful for beginners). Followed by an ‘opening’ question, to get the discussion going. Not too detailed or heavy; but not a patsy either.

While the speaker answers, the chair should look intently round the room to encourage people to signal that they have questions. This is the really crucial bit. If at all possible, the chair should sit up, or semi-stand, leaning against a chair or table, to free the sightlines. Then the lighthouse beam can skim lightly over everyone there. Preferably with a smile. People usually give very imperceptible signals – a nod or lift of the hand. It’s rather like the sly nods and winks at an auction, though fortunately not quite as covert.

Usually, the questions are taken in the order that they come. But, if there’s a long list of respondents, then it’s helpful to call people from different parts of the room. That draws everyone into the discussion.

Very rarely indeed, there are rude or out-of-order questions. The chair should then intervene, extracting the element within the question that can be answered and telling the speaker to ignore the rest. Or, if the question is completely out of order, the chair should simply say so. That is more likely to happen in political meetings than in academic gatherings. And even then, it’s rare. Other problems sometimes occur with poorly phrased or incomprehensible questions. The speaker is entitled to look to the chair for help, so be ready to paraphrase the question into something answerable.

Discreetly, the chair is conducting the discussion; and should have a range of questions up his/her sleeve to throw into the pool, if the questioning flags. Difficult depth-chargescan be used especially against the good and the great, who shouldn’t be let off too easily.

Beginners, however, should not be given too hard a time – enough to test them but not to destroy. It’s good to intervene with some supportive words, if they are seriously floundering, though the debate must be allowed to flow.

In terms of manner, the chair should be genial; but not too ‘in’. It’s best to avoid calling people to speak by their first names or, even worse, by unfamiliar nicknames. Such references make the group seem too cliquey and seriously deter newcomers. When calling people, I refer to them by location: ‘A question at the back’ and ‘Now a question from this side of the room’ and so forth. Not the sartorial references favoured by TV chat-show hosts: ‘the person in the blue jumper’; ‘the woman with glasses’, which are too impersonal.

It should go without saying, in free-flowing academic events, that speakers should not be called in order of academic seniority. The old-style seminars, when the professors speak before everyone else, in rank order, can still be found and even appreciated as a rarity. But that’s what they should remain.

Lastly, the question of tone. The chair must be friendly but not over fulsome. That just sounds sycophantic. At the same time, the chair must be critical but not too sardonic. As an auto-critic, I wince at memories of the times when I’ve tried to be sharp but just come over as waspish. The sardonic remark that isn’t funny really isn’t funny. Luckily these moments (only few, I hope) get lost in the flow. It’s the paper or lecture that gets remembered. Where is the next academic gathering to chair? I’m ready with my lighthouse beam.
june0081 See PJC BLOG no 27, February 2013: ‘Asking Questions’.

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MONTHLY BLOG 34, COPING WITH WRITER’S BLOCK

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

You’re suffering from writer’s block? A common ailment. What to do?? The first and best answer is: don’t hit the bottle. It’s only too true that alcohol makes you think that things are going better (at least for a while) whilst concealing the fact that things are getting much worse. Eventually, you become so stalled that there’s no way out, other than a bleak confession of failure.

The prototype is Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (1936).1  Beautifully written but  painful reading for all his admirers. Many famous writers have gone down this alcoholic route, almost invariably with disastrous results.2  On the other hand, recent research suggests that moderate amounts of booze for those who are not habitually heavy drinkers may unleash creativity and lateral thinking (at least when solving questions about word-associations).3  Great. Have your bright ideas with an alcohol buzz in your spare time. But be warned. Don’t sit down to unblock your history-writing, which requires concentrated reasoning over a good span of time, with a glass and bottle at hand.

october007Next bit of advice is to stand back from the blocked task and ask yourself: do you really want to do it? (Of course, this question may be resolved if the answer is that you have to undertake whatever writing is involved – say, to complete a course or to gain a qualification. In that case, skip this paragraph). Writer’s block is sometimes a deep auto-message to say that you should be doing something else. When I am advising friends on coping with this problem, I often start by giving them permission to drop the task entirely. A small but far from negligible percentage respond with sighs of relief. Their brows clear; they find a civil way to terminate their writing commitments; maybe they publish what they have done already; and then they do something else, often very enthusiastically, tapping into lots of thwarted energy.

But that’s not the case for everyone. Many want to complete the task but can’t find the time, space, self-organisation, or inspiration to proceed.  It’s not a good state of mind to inhabit for any length of time, since it’s often linked with vexation, self-chiding, and various degrees of despair. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote two brilliant books of a trilogy, agonised for years over his prolonged failure to produce the missing third volume.4  Blocked writers particularly wince when innocent bystanders ask cheerfully: how’s the writing going – why isn’t it done yet? So the following comments are addressed to those who, when given permission to drop the writing, respond with irritation that they do really want to do the task but can’t even bear talking about why it’s not getting done.

I’ve been in that situation myself – fortunately, not often but enough times to know what a mental closed-circuit can result. One method that helped me was the technique of writing freely, in unstructured prose, a private memo to myself about the problem in a stream of consciousness, or Streamo, as I call it. No-one else need ever see this screed. It’s good to start simply by trying to work out for oneself: what is particularly troublesome about this assignment? Is it XXX? No, not really. What about the problem of YYY? or ZZZ? Perhaps, yes; perhaps, no. Writing as fast as possible. Musing to oneself. Not worrying if sentences aren’t perfectly grammatical. It can often take a long time, circling around, dredging thoughts from deep within, trying to pinpoint what factor or factors are causing the block.

Once I had stalled because I’d reached a tricky question, whose answer I couldn’t resolve. There was a genuine intellectual point at issue. The problem was that there was not one simple response but a plethora of interconnected ones. After lots of scribbling, I realised that I was worrying wrongly about the lack of one striking answer. Instead I could offer many. With a sigh of relief, I deleted all my scribbles. In the blocked chapter that I was writing, I inserted a new sentence, saying something banal like: ‘This is a complex problem, for which there is not one simple answer’. After that, bingo, my prose flowed again. Sometimes I smile when re-reading that text, to think of all the grief it caused me. But it had value. The technique of Streaming is not only useful for unblocking but also for planning new projects. So my Streamos, which I mainly delete once projects are launched, are not as substantial as first drafts but rather constitute first drafts of inspiration. They are useful as mechanisms to coalesce disparate strands of thought. Try writing one as fast as possible, preferably on-line, and see if it helps you.

(Solo meditation, for intellectual blockage, tends to be more useful, in my view, than the talking cure, which often works well in other circumstances. Vocalising writer’s block as a ‘problem’ risks giving it an unwelcome life of its own. It invites thoughts of the renowned grand projects which remain forever anticipated but forever postponed.5 )

Actual history writing, of course, moves much more slowly than the fast and furious pace of memos to oneself. So it’s important also to think about the long-term context of regular writing. Obvious things like: get a desk or working area and, ideally too, a room,6  where you are happy to spend a lot of time; find lighting that focuses a concentrated pool of light on your working areas; try ear-plugs for heightened concentration; institute good filing and storage arrangements for notes, drafts etc.; and of course implement a rigorous back-up system after every batch of writing; plus find a goodish span of time to write, on each occasion (less than two hours is unproductive); and a personal start-ritual.

Different writers have their own preferences. The prolific Charles Dickens used to patrol his house, checking that everything was in order, and then arrange the items on his desk in a specific order, before sitting down to write. Each to his/her own. Many make do these days with the sequenced rituals of switching on computers, ipads etc. But find your own preferences; stick to your sequences; and don’t open email during writing stints.

What else? Another very important way of keeping the flow of writing going is to undertake regular exercise of the repetitive kind. Swimming, riding, running, walking, yoga, these are all good. The subconscious mind can work on problems, in a non-linear way, whilst the body is absorbed in such activities. And the fresh air is an ideal antidote to the confinement of sitting for long hours at a desk, gazing into a screen. Dickens was also a great walker. But again, it’s really a case of each to his/ her own. If your preference is for an explosive sport, then go for that. Exercise of any kind is much better than nothing. But repetitive and rhythmic exercises (avoiding the obvious innuendoes here) are particularly good for unblocking, especially if sustained for at least half an hour – daily.

Lastly, to write history, you need not only something to say but also good and relevant evidence to intermesh with your analysis. That means a whole lifestyle choice. You have to do the research as well as find time to write. It’s a wonderful thing, if you have the will, the interest, and a subject that enthrals you. If you have these things, then go for it but keep running/ riding/ swimming/ regularly alongside the scholarship, and scribbling a Streamo whenever you have an intellctual problem to solve. These methods  will unblock a block, if you have one; or, better still, prevent it from forming in the first place.

Burning Bush, Winkworth Arboretum © Antony Belton, 20131 F.S. Fitzgerald, The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vol. 2: The Crack-Up with Other Pieces and Stories (Harmondsworth, 1965), pp. 39-56.

2 See e.g. D.W. Goodwin, Alcohol and the Writer (Kansas City, 1988).

3 A.F. Jarosz and others, ‘Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol Intoxication Facilitates Creative Problem Solving’, Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (2012), pp. 487-93. c

4 Published posthumously from his notebooks: see P.L. Fermor, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, ed. C. Thubron and A. Cooper (London, 2013), following A Time of Gifts (London, 1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (London, 1986).

5 The most celebrated fictional example remains Dr Casaubon’s ‘Key to all the Mythologies’ in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871/2); and a real-life case was Lord Acton’s projected ‘History of Liberty’, two chapters being published posthumously in J.E.E. Dalberg-Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays, ed. J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence (London, 1907).

6 See inevitably V. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own: An Essay on Women in Relation to Literature (London, 1929).

7 For creativity and work routines, see M. Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (New York, 2013) – even if in reality there may be variations from day to day.

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MONTHLY BLOG 32, REACTIONS TO MAKING A HISTORY DVD

 If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

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 Having made the hour-long History DVD Red Battersea 1809-2008 (2008), what reactions did we get? The production team quickly became aware that Battersea CLP, among all Britain’s local constituency parties of all political persuasions, has done something unique. We’ve written a collective autobiography in mid-life, as it were. And we have done so on DVD, integrally combining script with images.

Since launching the DVD into the world, we are often asked not why we did it – but how? In response, a small panel of Battersea members have given DVD showings to other Labour constituency parties, to student film societies, to local community groups, to Heritage associations, and to academics, who are interested in twentieth-century social and electoral history. Attention is focused upon the technical as well as the intellectual challenges of constructing a filmic narrative from a mixture of research, images, beliefs, and memories. Here follow the discussion-points about sound and images that audiences often raise:

Voices: Why did we choose to tell the story in many voices rather than via one main narrator? The DVD uses a collage of voices from unseen narrators, led by the utterly distinctive voice of actor Timothy West. But he does not hog the soundwaves. We have a plurality of voices, some from professional actors and many from the Battersea community. Each narrator picks up the baton seamlessly, but some figure as witnesses, hence speaking as themselves. Even in those cases, I wrote their scripts, in order to avoid the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of real-life diction and to keep their remarks brisk. I did, however, write all such individual statements very carefully, following my witnesses’ natural speech cadences in the prior interviews.

As a result, the DVD does not have one lead narrator who keeps striding into and out of the frame, blocking the view of the historical evidence. That style has been fashionable for many years. Look at very many TV history series – and the Labour Party’s own Party history, which features Tony Benn. The aim of using a lead narrator is to familiarise and personalise. But the style can quickly become dated and liable to parody. Moreover, details of the narrator’s clothing, expressions, hair-styles, and body language can easily distract viewers, both first time round and then on later reruns, from the history that is being shown over the narrator’s shoulder. By no means everyone agrees. In my personal view, however, the narrator-striding-into-camera technique will eventually become obsolete – but perhaps not quite yet.

In contrast, expressive voices, blended together from unseen narrators, remain much more timeless. For my purposes, they also give a fair evocation of a collective movement. It is true that one or two of our local volunteers found it hard to sound natural when recording. Chronic mumblers had to be excluded. But most speakers took to the task very readily and, if they fluffed the first take, were happy to try again. Bearing in mind the need for clear communication, I had tried hard to make the script ‘read-aloud-able’.

One of our Battersea professional actors Su Elliott gives great advice on voice production for radio. Mimic the emotions with the face, even while unseen, she counsels. As one of our travelling panellists, she sobs convulsively in the character of the Mock Turtle, while giving as great a visual look of Lewis Carroll’s (and Tenniel’s) doleful beast as anyone could wish – always to much audience appreciation. Actually, none of our DVD speakers had to be that sad, even when Battersea Labour has to admit to reverses and failures during its more than hundred-year history. We are here for the long term – and march on!

Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland with the Gryphon and Mock Turtle (1865).Matching images to script: People in general express great appreciation of the visuals within the DVD. Credit here goes especially to the picture research of graphic designer Suzanne Perkins and to the film research of the producer/director Mike Marchant. Together they found masses of previously unknown material. Brilliant. It’s a great encouragement for researchers to realise exactly how much remains to be discovered (or sometimes rediscovered) in local archives and film libraries. Visual material is now getting a proper share of attention, transforming how history can be presented. That’s now being taken for granted, although there are still some bastions to fall before the incoming tide.

The question, however, that most intrigues our DVD viewers is not where we found the material but how we continually matched the flow of images to the flow of the script. When making a film, the two go seamlessly together, although both can be retouched later. But a DVD works by aligning a sound-track to a vision-track. Each can be worked on separately. Quite a different production style.

My July BLOG has already explained the no-doubt obvious point to the technically-minded – that the sound-track takes the lead, because it sets the crucial time parameters. The images then followed, many being researched to order. Mike Marchant would telephone saying: ‘Hello, I need two minutes worth of visuals on XXX’. After an initial feeling of exasperation (‘No, I don’t think about history like that’), I would respond more calmly: ‘What images would help viewers to get the point, especially if it is an abstract one?’ Often we sorted things immediately. At other moments, we struggled. Throughout, Mike and I strove for variety within our house-style, using a range of images (photos, film clips, video footage, texts, captions) to prevent a feeling of sameness.

Trying for visual diversity was good fun, especially for me. Eagerly but amateurishly, I would request various film manoeuvres (zoom, fade, etc), while Mike had the hard work of achieving that effect without the full panoply of film cameras, sound technicians, lighting engineers and so forth. I often felt guilty when he later revealed the time it took to respond to each casual request; but I’m sure ultimately that he enjoyed the challenge.

What struck me most was the vivid realisation of how easily, in a DVD production, the story can be made or marred by the alignment/ non-alignment of the image- and sound-tracks. We tried not to be too literal. Viewers don’t need to see an industrial plant every time we mention the heavy industries that used to line the Battersea river-front. It’s patronising to assume that people have no visual memory-banks of their own. Even a picture as striking as Whistler’s Smokestacks needs to appear just at the right moment.

Smokestacks by James Whistler (1834-1903) is a composite evocation of the industrial landscape of the Thames south bank at Lambeth/ Battersea in the 1880s.On the other hand, it’s very good to show a striking image just before it’s mentioned in the script. Then as the narrator stresses something or other, viewers share a sense of realisation. Whereas if the images follow just too late, the reverse effect is achieved. Viewers feel slightly insulted: ‘why are you showing me an XXX now, I already know that, because the narrator has just told me’.

So Mike Marchant and I spent ages together on fine-tuning the synchronisation. Generally, we managed to hide the late changes; but alert listeners to the DVD sound-track can pick up one or two jumps in continuity that we couldn’t conceal. Damn!
Finally, questions about bias. How can Battersea Labour present its own history without excessive political bias? How can individuals in our research team study their own political pasts without personal bias? Did our answers on those big questions satisfy our audiences? We also get asked: What’s next from Battersea Labour? There’s so much to say on all those points, that I’m keeping my answers for later BLOGs.

Copies of the DVD Red Battersea, 1908-2008 are obtainable for £5.00 (in plastic cover) from Tony Belton = tonybelton@btconnect.com.

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MONTHLY BLOG 31, ON SCRIPTING AND CO-DIRECTING AN HOUR-LONG HISTORY DVD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013) 

At first, it seemed simple. Based on research by myself and a keen group of historically-minded comrades, I gave an illustrated public lecture in June 2006 to mark the centenary of the Labour Party, with special reference to Battersea. There was much interest and applause, followed by the seductive enquiry: ‘Why don’t we make a DVD?’ Yes, we trilled collectively. Let’s do that. Rashly, I agreed to take the lead.

And we did it. In December 2008, we hired a screen in Clapham Picture House for a public viewing of the finished product: Red Battersea 1908-2008. Over 120 people turned out for the event. We got lots of praise, as well as some inevitable criticisms. Although the script runs right up to contemporary politics (in 2008), it hasn’t dated too much. So during the last four years, Battersea Labour Party has sold or distributed over 1,200 copies (more than many an academic publication) and still counting. Not bad going.

Red BatterseaBut very hard work. If I’d known at the start what it all entailed, I’d have declined to take on the octopus task of script-writing, co-directing, and organising lots of other people. Especially as I was doing all this in my so-called spare time, as a busy academic historian. Not that I can complain about the Battersea comrades, who shared in the research, the editing, the performances and the design of the DVD cover and publicity. The voices on the DVD are all those of local activists and residents, led by the celebrated actors Tim West and Prunella Scales. One and all were positive and very patient, during the 18 months of protracted effort.

Three points of note follow for budding historians, who might want to script and direct a lengthy video or DVD on recent history. The first is obvious. You have to have something to say and an authorial point of view. I provided that, happily enough, but my approach didn’t please all those who had collectively urged the making of a DVD. Nonetheless, it was apparent that scripts can’t be successfully written by committee. I tried to make the authorial tone as relatively cool and objective as possible, although obviously the DVD starts with a presumption of broad sympathy with the Labour Party. And there are a number of points within the grass-roots-based script that I think stand the test of time. (View it and see).

Much more tricky for me was the second point that I’d highlight: the need to find continuous visuals to accompany the script. Of course, I’m used to giving illustrated lectures. Most academics are these days. I generally enjoy documenting a point visually and also playing counterpoint to my words with a contrasting or joking image. That’s not the same, however, as providing a continuously flowing stream of relevant and non-repetitious visual materials for an entire hour. I loved working with my co-director Mike Marchant. He was the techie of the outfit: the co-director and producer who actually made the film. Wonderfully creative and utterly meticulous, as film-makers have to be. At times, however, I found Mike’s requests for ‘another two minutes of images’ to demonstrate this or that historical point very trying, since I think from the script to the visual, while he was really wanting non-stop visuality to come first – or at least to have equal parity with the script.

We worked it out eventually. As in the case of all collaborative effort, we had to find ways of communicating in terms that we could mutually understand. Mike, like many film-makers, took the view that ‘you can’t be too literal’. If you mention a cow, you show a cow. I thought that was far too patronising, protesting: ‘but people know what a cow looks like’. He also much preferred moving pictures to stills, whereas I’m quite happy with stills. On that we agreed to compromise, since we obviously had no early twentieth-century film footage. Mike managed very creatively, by zooming in and out of still pictures, and by moving them across the screen. He found some marvellous mid-century film footage (but The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), although named after a key feature of Battersea, turned out to have no local material). Mike also took his own videos of the current scene to illustrate past history. His busy, hooting traffic scene from Balham High Road went well with Peter Sellars’s famous joke about ‘Bal-Ham, gateway to the south’, as we introduced the areas within the Battersea constituency.

Much the most complex question with reference to the visuals related to illustrating abstractions. Here Mike at times protested. He wanted all discussions of abstract points removed from the script. But I couldn’t accept that, either theoretically, or, more importantly, in practice. I was writing about the impact of Battersea upon Labour (with lots of great visuals of the old industrial riverfront) but, equally, about the impact of Labour upon Battersea. That included discussing, for example, the party’s early debates between Fabian gradualists and revolutionary Marxists. Eventually, we illustrated those arguments by superimposing a picture of Rodin’s Thinker (1902) upon a contemporaneous map of pre-war Battersea. In context, the compound image works well enough. But this example highlighted our constant debates between the visually-led and textually-led approach.

july006The third and final point relates to the challenge of bringing a historical script up until the present day, without making the conclusion too dated. I decided to make the narrative gradually speed up, with a more leisurely style for the exciting early years and a more staccato survey of the later twentieth century. That manoeuvre was devised to generate narrative drive. But one result was that various sections had to be axed, late in the day. Hence one serious criticism was that the role of pioneering women in Battersea Labour Party, which had appeared in the first Powerpoint lecture, was cut from the DVD. It was a shame but artistically necessary, because too long a retrospective review undermined the narrative momentum. (With the later resources of my website, I could have published the entire script, including axed sections, as a way of making amends).

Another problem was making the ending ‘timeless’. As script-writer in 2007, I made the right decision to be relatively cool about Tony Blair, then Prime Minister and now a much less hegemonic figure. But other time-neutral changes proved to be technically tricky. For example, I had a sentence, which declared correctly that ‘the MP is Martin Linton’. But Labour might not hold the seat for ever. (Indeed, it lost in 2010). Therefore I asked Mike Marchant to cut the verb ‘is’ from the recorded sentence. Ever helpful, he agreed. But he told me later that cutting such a short word took him many hours, since the fiddly task had to be done without any loss of sound-continuity. Listening to the DVD now, one would never know that the sentence had ever referred to anything other than ‘the MP Martin Linton’.

All last-minute cuts to the script were, in theory, absolutely forbidden. The production sequence requires the sound-track to be laid down first and the image-track to follow. We did do that in outline. However, Mike Marchant allowed numerous late revisions to the script, basically because I was a beginner – and we both realised that in practice some of my original ‘bright ideas’ didn’t work. His creativity, meticulous dedication, technical virtuosity, and infectious gusto helped with the endless viewings and reviewing that we undertook together. At times, we were exasperated, though luckily not both at the same time. The result was that, working part-time, we took a year to create a DVD, which could have been made by a large team of experts in two months – though probably not with the same commitment.

Personally, I was very fortunate to have been initiated into the art of film-making by Mike. I wouldn’t do it again; but overall the experience was a positive one. The great tragedy was that the DVD turned out to be Mike Marchant’s swansong. We were unaware that he had a fatal cancer, which was diagnosed just as we were completing the final touches. As a result, we had to rush the finale and credits. Mike did come to the showing at the Clapham Picture House in December 2008 and was cheered by the plaudits. He died the following summer. Once he told me that he didn’t like doing things unless he could do them well. And the DVD confirms how splendidly he lived his own philosophy.

july007Copies of the DVD Red Battersea, 1908-2008 are obtainable for £5.00 (in plastic cover) from Tony Belton = tonybelton@btconnect.com.

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MONTHLY BLOG 28, ANSWERING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/ LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

march008
If post-seminar questions are less memorable that the papers or lectures which precede them, then the answers tend to be even less anecdotable. I can think of only a handful, among thousands of intellectual encounters, which remain in my memory.

Nevertheless, answers in an academic setting (as in a political one) need to meet certain criteria. They can enhance a good presentation. And wrongly handled, answers can backfire and, at worst, they can ruin an apparently successful paper or lecture by failing to rebut a fundamental criticism.

Hence the overwhelming rule is to reply rather than to evade the question. Nothing is more annoying to an audience when it detects that the presenter is intellectually absconding. If the speaker can’t immediately answer (it happens to us all), the best reply is: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off-hand; but I will check it out and get back to you’.

On rare occasions, it is acceptable to prevaricate. Queen Elizabeth I was once in a political quandary. In response to the strong advice of a parliamentary deputation in 1586 that she execute her close relative and fellow monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth equivocated by giving them what she herself honestly termed as an ‘answer, answerless’.

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In other words, she would not say.2 Yet very few scholars find themselves walking the same sort of political highwire upon which Elizabeth I walked coolly for years. Academic waffle is thus best avoided. I have done it myself but always felt suitably remorseful afterwards.

The academic cut-and-thrust is instead predicated upon an open exchange of views and, if need be, a frank confession of an inability to answer immediately, rather than a fudge-and-mudge.

But, while too much evasive verbiage can be disappointing, too much brevity can prove equally annoying. One terse response that I can remember came from Balliol’s Christopher Hill. It was in a series of interviews with senior historians,3 in which some staple questions had been supplied by the organisers. As the interviewer, I was allowed to improvise but also requested to cover the basics. Accordingly I asked politely: ‘Would you like to explain your methodology?’ It was a relevant question, since Hill had been sternly criticised in 1975 by his fellow historian J.H. Hexter for the alleged sin of being a ‘lumper’. Even more damagingly, Hexter accused Hill being seriously unprofessional by quoting selectively from the sources, to support his big argument.4 ‘Lumpers’, by the way, lump everything together to form one big picture, while ‘splitters’ (of whom Hexter was a pre-eminent example) demur and say: ‘No, hang on – things are really much more complicated than that’.

Nonetheless, when invited to comment, Christopher Hill replied, gruffly: ‘No’. Like many of his generation, he bristled at the very word ‘methodology’. I laughed and continued to the next question, which was a mistake on my part. I should have changed the wording and tried again. In the event, the unsatisfactory exchange was cut from the final version of the interview. Not that there was any doubt that Christopher Hill was a ‘lumper’. Many (though probably not most) historians are. Yet Hill did not accept that he distorted or read sources selectively. In my view, it would have been best for him to restate a firm rebuttal of Hexter. But Hill would probably have responded, not ‘who cares?’ (he did), but ‘read my books and judge for yourselves’.

march009
Single-word replies, of the ilk of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, should thus be avoided as a general rule. They generate an initial laugh, especially when following an over-long and tedious question. Yet single-word replies are not playing fair with the questioner or the audience. They appear to give but don’t really. It is ok to start with a single brisk word, on the other hand, provided that the speaker then justifies that verdict.

So … not too short but also … not too lengthy. In my experience (and it’s a fault that I share) most answers are too long. It’s tempting to give a reprise of the paper or lecture. But that’s a mistake. A crisp reply: to the point, and nothing more, is best. Also gives time for more questions.

Three specific tips for respondents. When first listening to a question, it can be difficult to grasp the real point and simultaneously to formulate a good answer. The best way to cope is to start with a ‘holding’ reply: such as ‘That’s an interesting question’ or ‘I’m glad that you raised that point’. During the brief postponement, it’s amazing how often a reply formulates itself in one’s mind. But it’s best to use many variants of such ‘holding’ replies. It sounds too saccharine if every question is welcomed with the same apparent rapture. Incidentally, the reverse also sounds false. A former MP of Battersea was prone to start every reply with ‘I welcome your criticism’ even if none was offered. It eventually became something of a joke, which was counter-productive.

A second tip is to have a sheet of paper discreetly to hand and always to jot down a short note, summarising the topic that’s been raised. Having that reminder is especially useful in the event of two-pronged questions. When answering one half of a query, it’s too easy to forget about the other half. A short note concentrates the mind. In the long run, too, awareness of the points raised is personally invaluable. A free consultation with experts. Soon after every public presentation, I turn the list into a personal debriefing, noting all points that need clearer explication next time; and especially noting all criticisms of my main argument, so that I can decide how to refute them next time (or, sometimes, to amend my own case).

Which brings me to the third and most important piece of advice. It’s fine to give way graciously to challenges on all sorts of points, especially if one is in the wrong. Yet if the critique is focused upon the absolute core of one’s argument, it is essential to stand fast. I once heard the historian Lawrence Stone, another well-known ‘lumper’, confront a fundamental criticism of his latest publication.5 He began frankly: ‘Oh, dear, I think I’ve been holed below the water-line’. Then, with a cheerful laugh (shared with the audience), he rallied, with words to the effect that: ‘Your evidence/argument, although important, does not invalidate my central case’. Stone then, on the hoof, thought through his response to the fundamental (and valid) criticism, without rancour or any sign of being flustered. It was a sparkling moment.

Sometimes, there is not one single ‘right’ answer; but a there is a right process of debate. That’s the aim. And it’s nice to win the argument as well. Which means keeping on one’s toes intellectually. Having given the presentation, don’t relax too soon. Keep replies crisp and pertinent. And, basically, enjoy the dialectic. Out of reasoned argument comes … knowledge.

march011
1 From Icon Archive, at www.icongal.com: downloaded 22 February 2013.

2 Elizabeth I’s non-reply was nonetheless gracefully worded: ‘[I] pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless.’

3 ‘Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield’ (1986), in series DVD Video Interviews with Historians, available from London University’s online store: www.store.london.ac.uk.

4 J.H. Hexter, ‘The Historical Method of Christopher Hill’, Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct. 1975, repr. in J.H. Hexter, On Historians: Reappraisals of Some of the Makers of Modern History (1979), pp. 227-51; with riposte by C. Hill, ‘The Burden of Proof’, in Times Literary Supplement, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 1333.

5 See Lawrence Stone (1919-1999) and J.C.F. Stone, An Open Elite? England, 1540-1880 (1984); and alternative view in S.E. Whyman, ‘Land and Trade Revisited: The Case of John Verney, London Merchant and Baronet, 1660-1720’, London Journal, 22 (1997), pp. 16-32.

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MONTHLY BLOG 27, ASKING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

What?

What? what? what? Always good to ask questions. Not always easy to manage a good one. In the debates following the thousands of public lectures and seminar papers that I’ve heard, a few examples stand out.

One was simplicity itself. It caught out a senior figure on a point of detail that refuted her argument – which she should have known but didn’t (or had forgotten). The question took five words: ‘What about the Quebec Act?’ Under this legislation (1774) Britain allowed freedom of worship to the French-speaking Quebec Catholics and enabled them to swear allegiance to the British crown without reference to Protestantism. It was a major factor in preventing the potentially rebellious province from joining the American colonial revolt. This flexibility ran contrary to the speaker’s stress upon the immovable Protestantism of eighteenth-century British state policy. There were various possible replies, such as: it was the exception to prove the rule. But she fell silent and the chair took the next question. Since then, I often think, when listening to a lecture: Is there a Quebec Act equivalent knock-down? Often there isn’t. But, if there is, it should always be done with great simplicity.

Another was a question that I asked after a public lecture (not necessarily the best; simply one that I remember). In fact, interventions from the floor are much more forgettable than the preceding oration, which is one reason not to worry too much about what to ask. In this case, a polemical speaker had castigated all historians who used anachronistic terms instead of sticking exclusively to the language of the relevant past period. Then, oblivious of his own strictures, he defined the eighteenth-century European states (including Britain) as ancien regimes. But – whether ‘ancien’ be translated as ‘old’ or ‘former’ – this descriptive term is clearly retrospective. From the floor, I argued that the historians’ art entails not only studying past societies but also communicating their findings about the past in the language of a later day. So yes to linguistic care and attention to definitions; but no to linguistic obscurantism and a quest for the impossible. Otherwise historians of pre-Conquest England would have to delete all words derived from Norman French; historians of the pre-speech era would have to grunt; and so forth. In the light of his own retrospective terminology, would the speaker like to reconsider his criticisms of others? He replied; but, it was generally agreed, not convincingly.

Those two examples reveal two possible approaches to asking questions: either working from prior knowledge; or generating a debating point from the content of the talk. Both approaches are equally valid. The point of asking questions is constructive: to probe the case that has been presented and to extend the collective discussion. A good debate helps speakers by giving them a free consultancy, allowing them to refine their arguments before bursting into print. And ditto: good discussions help listeners to stretch their minds; to learn how to joust intellectually; and to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Obviously enough, beginners giving their first paper should be treated comparatively gently, but not to the extent of allowing serious errors to pass unchallenged. And senior performers should be given the compliment of a bracing set of questions, which they will expect.

Most enquiries start from a wholesome quest for further information or clarification. What did you mean by statement A? How do you define concept B? Did you also check source C? … How good is the evidence for X? Can that proposition not be tested against Y? And what are the implications of Z? All of those approaches are useful. Another substantial range of questions focus upon the speakers’ methods of classification, selection, or organisation of research material. Challenges are especially required if the criteria have not been well explained in the presentation. Social classification systems, in particular, always benefit from debate, whether focusing upon class; ethnicity; nationality; or any other special identities. One phenomenon that is often under-studied is the extent of intermarriage between ostensibly different groups: ask about that.

Meanwhile, a minority of questions, which are often the best, take the form of a conceptual or philosophical depth-charge or counter-argument. Listen to the general argument and think: could the reverse or something very different be the case instead? That may mean playing devil’s advocate. But, intellectually, ‘opposition is true friendship’, to quote William Blake.1 Above all, it’s good to listen closely to the speakers, in order to identify their often-buried fundamental assumptions – and then challenge those. It’s rare that such interventions fail to stimulate. Sometimes speakers are surprised; sometimes indignant; but they are generally gratified to have been listened to with serious attention.

2013-2 Marriage Heaven and Hell 1790 Bodl p.20

From William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Bodleian Library copy, 1790, fo. 20)
showing the writhing serpent of knowledge and the enigmatically faded words ‘Opposition is True Friendship’

My former supervisor, Jack Fisher, the economic history guru of LSE, was famed for provocative depth-charges, which he signalled with the opening words: ‘I know nothing about this but …’. However, his formula is best used sparingly. I have heard others bodge the same tactic, leading audiences to wonder why such a self-declared ignoramus is wasting everyone’s time with fatuous questions.

Given the above range of possibilities, postgraduate students should be encouraged to start with short, punchy wholesome-quests-for-information. In that way, they get used to the invariable stir of people turning round to look at the questioner, which can be disconcerting for beginners. Then, in time, students should progress to making longer enquiries and eventually to offering counter-arguments. My own system also requires that, after the first term at a new seminar, postgraduates ask at least one question per term, rising to a specified larger number as they move through their four years of study. That instruction sounds a bit mechanical. But it’s actually easier to ask a question when one has determined beforehand to do so. Otherwise, a lot of time is spent dithering: shall I, shan’t I? Yes, go for it.

Coda: I’ll end with a personal anecdote on heckling. It’s not something that I often do. But once I heckled, unintentionally, and found that I had posed a great question or, rather, prompted a great response. It happened in the early 1970s, at a public debate in the University of London’s Beveridge Hall, with perhaps two hundred dons in attendance. Two eminent historians, Keith Thomas and Hugh Trevor-Roper, had jousted fiercely in print about seventeenth-century witchcraft. They were invited to a special debate to continue the argument. But face-to-face, as often happens, the antagonists were very polite to each other. The occasion as a whole proved to be a damp squib.

There was, however, a moment of excitement. One of the speakers, referred rather contemptuously to ‘useless old women’ and, without intending to do so, I found that I had cried out ‘Shame!’ Everyone around me recoiled. The speakers said nothing. But the chair of the meeting, the historian Joel Hurstfield, responded with aplomb: ‘Madam, contain your just indignation!’ His old-fashioned courtesy effectively rebuked my uncouthness. Yet he upheld my complaint, accepting that the tone of the debate had been too dismissive of the women accused of witchcraft. Immediately, the people around me smiled with relief and reversed their physical recoil. The debate was resumed, and I don’t suppose anyone else remembers the exchange. Nonetheless, I have waited ever since (both in politics and as an academic) for someone to heckle when I’m in the chair, to see if I can respond as brilliantly. It hasn’t happened yet; but maybe one day … In the meantime, let there be questions: what? what? what?

1 From William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), fol. 20.

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MONTHLY BLOG 26, WORST AND BEST ACADEMIC LECTURES THAT I’VE HEARD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Apart from the routine lectures that form the bread-and-butter of an academic’s job, we constantly give special lectures and/or papers. These presentations are made to a miscellany of research seminars, public meetings, specialist societies, academic conferences and other outlets, at home and overseas. From the early 1970s onwards my private log tells me that I’ve given almost 300 of these extra performances.

At the same time, I am a seasoned listener to presentations from fellow academics. During my career, I must have heard many thousands. Trained by my incisive supervisor to have a critical response up my sleeve, I decided early on always to ask a question. Which I do – almost invariably, provided that the event allows for audience participation. Preparing a range of potential questions, from a dolly to an underwater torpedo, keeps the mind focused. It’s not hard to respond to a good paper. But what’s the best way to critique a dull or weak or off-beam interpretation, without being rude or dismissive? It’s a good challenge.

Over time, the standard of papers and lectures has undoubtedly risen. People are more professional and time-keeping is much more reliable. There are things that still could get better. Talking from notes (but not reciting a list of points on a screen) is much more engaging for the audience than reading aloud from a prepared script. William Hogarth long ago indicated how boring a droned lecture-from-text can be.

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

On the other hand, it can be hard for beginner-historians to manage without a script. They generally have to convey a great deal of factual information and quotations, which have to be accurate. So there is scope for progression. I usually recommend starting with full scripts but then, with greater experience, expanding the amount of free-speaking.

Ultimately, however, it’s not the style of an exposition but the content that counts. The two worst presentations were similar in format and outcome. Both were intended sincerely, by speakers who were so entranced by their material that they had lost sight of the need to explain it.

One was a seminar paper, given by an eminent professor of eighteenth-century political history, who decided to branch out into the history of political thought. As a first foray, it was not a success. Announced as ‘The Debate between Edmund Burke’s Conservatism and Thomas Paine’s Radicalism’, Professor Ian Christie itemised at length the differing views of these two hegemonic political thinkers. His conclusion was unequivocal. It consisted of the simple observation: ‘Well, there you are! Burke was right’. A deep silence fell. I felt very sorry for the chair. We struggled to coax a debate from the speaker. But he merely replied: ‘Well, you’ve heard Burke’s views’. The unsatisfactory session drew to an early close. Alone among those present, the speaker remained serenely happy.1

A second dreadful session was of the same ilk. A famously combative professor of the fifteenth-century English economy offered a seminar paper on ‘Continuity in History’. The title was one that I found especially attractive, since I love macro-sweep. Obviously others agreed, because crowds assembled. Tony Bridbury’s paper, however, consisted of a close exposition of the fifteenth-century history of the Paston family, buttressed by readings from the well-known Paston Letters.2  There were no new insights. We were supposed to understand that family life and the small concerns of daily existence are universal preoccupations. Even that point, however, was not stated explicitly. Nor was there any conclusion, other than a gleeful: ‘You see? Nothing changes’. The following discussion spluttered briefly but got nowhere.
2013-1 Paston Letters

A first select edition of the Paston Letters was published by John Fenn in 1787, with new edn by A. Ramsay (1849)

Was there anything that the seminar chairs could have done to retrieve these situations? Perhaps they might have organised rival groups from the audience, to argue the respective cases for and against the core propositions. That manoeuvre would have been possible in an established class, where the course director has more control over the format. In a seminar, with a changing attendance from session to session, it would have been more tricky. But worth a try. Certainly more positive than the disgruntlement that actually prevailed.

Needless to say, the seminar/lecture norm has always been much better than either of those examples. And I have heard many very good and some completely outstanding presentations. How to pick one from the pack?

My choice is a master-exposition by the historian E.P. Thompson. His first degree was actually in English at Cambridge. On this occasion, he regaled an adult education conference in Preston with a lecture which combined the English-literary technique of close-reading with a historian’s detective work and attention to context. It showcased Thompson’s distinctive style at its very best.
E.P.Thompson

E.P. Thompson at Glastonbury Festival 1986, by Giacomino Parkinson,from www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk.

In Preston, the lecture began with his quiet reading of a poem by William Blake: ‘The Garden of Love’ from The Songs of Experience.3  Thompson then launched into his analysis, entirely without notes. At the end, he recited the poem again, with added emphasis. The result was startling. In the second reading, all the meanings and allusions within the poem sprang intensely to life. It was like stepping from a monochrome world into a world of vivid colour. Whether his general exposition of Blake was sustainable remained to be tested when, later, Thompson published his Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law.4  But, as a single lecture, it was exemplary in its entirely original mixture of literary detail and historical breadth.

The thirty-odd people who had assembled on a cold November afternoon in the mid-1980s for a routine local-history conference were challenged in true Blakeian style ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’. It was an inspiration that revealed what a great lecture can do.
2013-1 Blake garden of Love

1 This session, chaired by John Dinwiddy, occurred in the later 1970s. Subsequently Ian Christie (1919-98) amplified his study of the ‘intellectual repulse of revolution’ in his Ford Lectures, published as I.R. Christie, Stress and Stability: Reflections on the British Avoidance of Revolution (Oxford, 1984).

2 This session, chaired by F.J. Fisher, occurred in the early 1970s. In other contexts, A.R. Bridbury (1924- ) was happy to detect change: see variously his Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages (1962; reissued Brighton, 1975); The English Economy from Bede to the Reformation (Woodbridge, 1992); and his Medieval England: Its Social and Economic Origins and Development (Leicester, 2008).

3 W. Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’’, from his Songs of Experience (1794).

4 E.P. Thompson (1924-93), Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993). For more on EPT and bibliographic references, see my earlier Blog/14, dated Dec. 2011.

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MONTHLY BLOG 1, WHAT SHOULD A NEW GOVERNMENT DO ABOUT THE SKILLS AGENDA IN EDUCATION POLICY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2010)

Clearly, an educated and skilled population is a ‘good thing’, socially, culturally, democratically, and economically. Why then is it a mistake to define education as a process justified by – and organised around – the inculcation of skills? The answer is that people cannot learn fully from skills taught in a vacuum. At best they have a half-knowledge of what to do – and at worst, they are have forgotten – which means that later they have to learn the same skills all over again.

This state of affairs leads employers to snort: ‘I can’t think what students are taught in schools/Colleges/Universities’ and ministers to promise ever more skills-training. But it is not working, because, from the best of intentions, the teaching processes have been deformed and are not delivering properly.

Labour meanwhile tinkers with the governmental command structure. In June 2007, out went the Science/innovation office within the Department of Trade & Industry. And out went the Further and Higher Education section, within the Department of Education & Skills. In came a merged new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). But in June 2009, lo! all-change again. Suddenly, the DIUS and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) were subsumed into a mega-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Depressingly, the term ‘Skills’ persists throughout the upheavals, while terms such as Education or even Science sink below the froth.

Vocational education faces similar upheavals. In 2008, the current Commission for Employment & Skills (UKCES) merged the old Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) and the National Employer Panel. Again ‘Skills’ are trumpeted from on high. But if no heed is paid to the need to learn and develop these attributes within a framework of knowledge on the job, then the mantra, however often repeated, can’t work successfully.

What is to be done? My answer is: ask the educators who actually do the job. And then free them to teach not lists of abstracted Skills, which are forgotten, but a range of developmental capacities in the content and context of a deeper Knowledge, which works.

EDUCATION CONSULTANCY AVAILABLE: on all issues relating to Higher Education, including how to finish a PhD thesis, how to teach Skills effectively, and how to boost research achievement.

In this context, please see also CorfieldPdf/16.

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