Creativity and history: tales from the blarchive

Laura Sangha

This summer we are marking the ten-year anniversary of the many-headed monster blog with a collection of posts that highlight older material in our blog archive (or our ‘blarchive’, as Mark has christened it, to the great and growing pain of the other monster heads).

In my piece I want to pull at a thread that has run through our output over the years, that is, posts that sit on the fence between history and fiction.

Are you a fan of analogies, however laboured? Read on!

Of course, there isn’t really a fence betweenthese two spaces. Or at least, if there is, it was only erected recently, and in fact it’s pretty shoddy work, full of gaps and holes, plus one part of it blew down in a winter storm a few years back, while another is so deeply lost in the undergrowth it’s no longer effective, or even particularly visible. But anyway, let’s not get lost in the encroaching greenery trying to pinpoint the boundary, but rather, let’s consider the fruitful relationship between history and fiction by revisiting some of our related content.

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the many-headed monster is 10: looking back

When Brodie and Mark quietly announced the birth of the many-headed monster to the world in July 2012, little did they know how big their baby would grow or just how many readers and contributors the behemoth would ensnare. But it’s been quite a ride.

four photos of the monster heads when they were young
monster heads when they were young

It’s possibly obvious to our readers, but we have never had a strict editorial line, preferring the blog to develop organically and to lead us in whatever direction seems promising. We share a consensus that we want to reach broader audiences than journal articles and academic monographs can, and that the types of history that we discuss, the format, and particularly the tone of our writing is intended to be accessible and engaging for non-specialists, but beyond that, there aren’t really any rules. Indeed, until we four co-authors met late in 2021 to discuss how to mark our ten year anniversary we’d never had an editorial meeting, rather we very satisfactorily conducted matters via email, or a scatter of shared google docs for when we were feeling fancy.

This informal approach is perhaps one of our great strengths. For one thing, it keeps editorial and administrative duties to the barest minimum. Just as importantly, it has allowed us to develop ways of publishing content online that retains the quick blog post format, but which expand and adapt it for different purposes. At its simplest, this might mean breaking a longer post into more easily digestible chunks and posting each chunk individually across a week or a fortnight, as Mark did with his posts on the application of theory to the history of food and drink.

More distinctively, our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ quickly became a feature of our output. These are both finite and current/long-running collections of posts focused around a particular theme or topic. Laura’s posts on the history of the Tudor Southwest is an example of the former, and our co-authored series ‘On Periodisation’ of the latter.  

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Paper Trails CfP: ‘Hidden Voices’

Laura Sangha

You may know that last year saw the triumphant release of the first cluster of publications for Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections. Paper Trails is a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) published by UCL Press: a fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. The BOOC offers space for contributions both from practitioners who study the past, as well as those who make the study of the past possible. So if you are an educator, librarian, historian, curator, collections manager, archivist or just someone interested in critical histories as well as reflections on practice, sources and materials – read on!

Paper Trails image

I am privileged to sit on the editorial board of the BOOC and in our most recent meeting we had a noteworthy discussion about how to describe the innovative format to others. One of the things we worried at was the extent to which we wanted people to think of Paper Trails as being a bit like an online journal – so for instance, when we add our second, new cluster of publications, we could call this a new ‘volume’ or a new ‘issue’ of the BOOC, and allocate numbers to different articles accordingly. By making an association with such a well-established format we could familiarise the BOOC concept, and I suppose the comparison could in some way lend it more academic ‘legitimacy’. Continue reading

Spotlight on Undergraduate Research: The Student Research Portfolio and the Georgian Ghosts Project

This guest post ties in with our traditional mid-September focus on teaching resources and pedagogy. Here, two Warwick Faculty of Arts undergraduates introduce us to an innovative interdisciplinary group research project that may provide inspiration for tutors elsewhere.

Jessica Barton and Dan Smith

This year at the University of Warwick, the Faculty of Arts introduced the Student Research Portfolio (SRP), which encouraged second- and third-year students to explore a topic, to develop their research and teamwork skills, and to produce an output. By allowing students across disciplines to work together, the SRP challenged its participants to step beyond the limits of their undergraduate degree and its typical forms of assessment. As the scheme was completed entirely online, students were also able to strengthen their digital skillset. We were part of one of the SRP groups, and worked on an outcome entitled The Georgian Ghosts Project. It was inspired by a ghost story from eighteenth-century Cork, Ireland, which has survived in a manuscript housed at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester [1].

Most likely written by the prominent Methodist Hester Ann Rogers (1756-94), the manuscript records the dramatic conversion experience of a candle-maker called Cadwallader Acteson. He is haunted by the ghost of his deceased mistress, assaulted by a ‘hellish monster’ with long claws, and finally reassured by a heavenly voice promising redemption. Along the way he navigates knotty relationships with various women, most notably the ghostly mistress, a scheming maidservant who convinces him to attempt the murder of his wife, and the long-suffering wife herself. The story provides a thought-provoking perspective on eighteenth-century religion, gender roles, and the potentially perilous results of household tensions.

Portrait of Hester Ann Rogers. Wikimedia Commons
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more many-headed monster resources for teaching

Mark Hailwood

Is that the sound of term hurtling towards us once more? I’m afraid so, UK readers. As tutors scramble to get their courses ready – against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic, let’s not forget – we thought it might be helpful to highlight the many teaching resources we have available in the many-headed monster archive.

Back in 2017 Laura Sangha put together a comprehensive list of all the resources we had on the blog at that stage, and you can see that here.

Below is an addendum to that list, highlighting a few materials we have added since.

Good luck this term, I’m sure we will all need it…

New Resources

Language Learning for Historians of Early Modern England
This guest post from John Gallagher is packed with suggestions for students – and staff – looking to develop their language skills alongside their studies.

Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic
Brodie Waddell reflects on teaching an MA module on microhistory. Includes advice on online teaching, and a free-to-download module handbook.

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource
If you are looking to decolonise your early modern teaching this year, Laura Sangha’s seminar plan for a session on ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’ is shared here.

#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online
Whilst this series of posts was focused on non-teaching types of online working, it does contain lots of good advice and ideas about things like online meetings that will still be applicable to many of us this academic year.

If you have any resources you would like to share, please do add links to the comments section below.

Decolonising and Black British History: a teaching resource

Laura Sangha

If you are thinking about decolonising your history module this year, this seminar plan [pdf] might be of use to you. It’s based around ‘Black Lives in Early Modern England’, but with minor tweaking of the reading and primary sources it could be adapted for most modules, whether pre-modern or modern.

John Blanke (detail from 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll).

The seminar aims to introduce students to some key concepts whilst also encouraging them to think about methodology and historiography. It combines synchronous and asynchronous activities, and is equivalent to four hours of synchronous seminar time (it’s designed for my Special Subject which in non-pandemic years is taught by means of 2 x 2 hour seminars a week).

In this post, I want to share some of my recent experiences which provide some context to where the seminar emerged from.

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Serendipities of Online Community

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online) Mark Liebenrood (@markliebenrood) reminds us that serendipity is not the preserve of archival research: it can be one of the great strengths of online scholarly communities.

Mark Liebenrood

A few months ago I hit a small obstacle in my research. Reading through borough council documents for information about a museum closure I came across an acronym, apparently for a trade union, that was unfamiliar. My usual approaches to online searching got me no further, and this was made more complicated by the acronym itself being a common word (ACTS). The trade union’s identity was a minor detail, but I still wanted to know it if possible. So I did something I don’t think I’ve done before, which was to put out a request on Twitter with the #twitterstorians hashtag. My tweet got just one retweet, but to my surprise in less than an hour I had several helpful replies, one of which had the answer. Although I’ve seen others ask questions on Twitter many times, this made me realise how potentially useful that huge online community can be. Continue reading

How are we going to teach in Autumn 2020? A survey of UK historians

Brodie Waddell

It has been clear for several months now that start of the new academic year is going to be very different to any we’ve been through before. The Covid-19 pandemic means that there will be huge changes in all areas of academic life, but perhaps the most visible change will be in teaching, where ‘remote’ teaching online will much more common. Where face-to-face teaching is happening, it will have to be ‘socially distant’, in smaller groups and possibly with masks or other protective equipment.

However, one thing that is far from clear is the planned balance between these two modes. Unlike many North American universities, virtually no UK university has publicly announced that they will be ‘online only’ in Autumn. Instead, almost all of them have made vague announcements about ‘blended’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixed’ modes, which will include both online and face-to-face teaching in varying proportions.

In order to get a firmer sense of where we stand, I’ve done a quick informal survey of scholars based in 26 different UK history departments, asking them what proportion of teaching they are planning to conduct face-to-face. This included Oxford and Cambridge, five London universities, a bunch of provincial pre-1992 universities, and a smaller number of post-1992 institutions. I have not named any of the individuals or institutions because none of these plans have been publicly announced, and anonymity allowed them to give more candid answers.

Unsurprisingly, there were a wide range of answers, many of which cannot be easily quantified. Nevertheless, one common response stands out… Continue reading

‘You’re on mute!’ How can we make online meetings better?

Laura Sangha

I’ll keep this brief, I know you probably have a [Teams, Zoom, Skype, other] meeting to be at. Probably more than one. Is it about deferrals? Transition to online teaching? A viva? Personal tutoring? Decolonising group? Accreditation? Supervision? Wellbeing? Exam board? Deep dive lightning talk extraordinary forum workshop reading group paper sand pit?

Before this year I had attended online meetings for work on only a couple of occasions, but now it’s a rare day that doesn’t contain a couple of online meetings. Everyone I talk to in these meetings tells me they are spending too much time in online meetings. I am beginning to feel like each minute I spend staring at a pixelated reproduction of the shape of my colleagues is equal to a minute I will spend lying awake in bed, unable to switch off my fevered screened-out brain and escape into unaware oblivion (or at the very least a bizarre lockdown dream).

Evidently online meetings are inescapable, and they are likely to be for quite some time yet. But before resigning ourselves to our fate, a bit of reflection might be useful. Continue reading

Cultivating a (Virtual) Conference Community

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online) Marianne C.E. Gillion (@mcegillion) reflects on her experiences as the co-organizer of a large virtual conference.

Marianne C.E. Gillion

Among a certain segment of early music historians, there is a standard formula of farewell: “I’ll see you at MedRen, if not before”. This is a reference to the annual Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference, which for the past 48 years has been independently organised by volunteer host institutions across Europe and the United Kingdom. For many, MedRen is a highlight of the conference calendar. A frequent comment is that meeting together with anywhere between 175 and 375 early musicologists makes delegates—whether they work in universities, have careers in other fields, are members of the growing academic precariat, or are students—feel slightly less alone.

The importance of this community was one of the driving forces behind the decision to move the 2020 edition online when the physical meeting was cancelled. We on the Organising Committee (James Cook, Adam Whittaker, Thomas Schmidt, Andrew Bull, and myself) had spent eighteen months planning to welcome our delegates to the University of Edinburgh from 1–4 July. In only 3 ½ months, we attempted to create a virtual environment that would facilitate the unique combination of scholarship, music, networking, and sociability integral to MedRen. Thanks to the support of our presenters and delegates it succeeded beyond our expectations: with 470 participants, it was the largest conference to date, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

As in other fields, and highlighted in this series of blogposts, MedRen 2020 provoked debate concerning the benefits and drawbacks of the online format. Continue reading