Collaborating with the Thomas Hardy Society

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The last blog post introduced why we created GCSE resources, while this one explains how we’ve used them in events with teachers and students.

Knowing that Thomas Hardy’s works lent themselves well to the themes of Diseases of Modern Life, and that the Thomas Hardy Society had good links with educators in the area, we decided to team up to produce two free workshops: the first for teachers of GCSE English Language, the second for students. Dr Karin Koehler, Lecturer in 19th Century Literature at Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, worked with Dr Catherine Charlwood of the Diseases of Modern Life project, to make these events happen.

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With teachers…

Our workshop for teachers, held on 12th April, was called ‘Engaging Students in Nineteenth-Century Prose: Research-Based Resources for Teachers’ and was held at the iconic Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester. Originally built in 1797, (much) later Hardy served as a magistrate at the court, and Martha Brown – whose hanging in 1856 Hardy witnessed – is said to be the inspiration for Hardy’s Tess.

The free seminar directly addressed the potential lack of familiarity with C19th non-fiction texts, and the resulting lack of confidence teaching them, by emphasising the overlap between fiction and non-fiction and hence the possibility of using similar methods to approach them.

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Using Post-Its to capture what students say about non-fiction and the challenges/anxieties in teaching this aspect of the GCSE course

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Never let it be said that the DoML team aren’t passionate about engaging others!

The workshop placed extracts from scientific and medical texts alongside selections from Hardy’s novels and poems. For example, an extract from Mantell’s Wonders of Geology was juxtaposed with the cliff-hanger scene from Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. Teachers were invited to use techniques familiar to them from teaching fiction and poetry to approach the non-fiction.

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Dr Karin Koehler explaining the intermingling of literary and scientific texts in Victorian periodicals like The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts

We were joined by a team from the University of Exeter headed by Professor Angelique Richardson outlining the range of resources for schools developed as part of the Hardy and Heritage project which support the teaching of 19th- and 20th-century non-fiction. PhD student, former secondary school teacher, and Hardy Society member, Stephanie Meek, led teachers through exercises to begin planning ways of using the resources in their own lesson plans and schemes of work, while Head of English at King Arthur’s School, Wincanton, and incoming PhD student, John Blackmore, related the importance of working with the archives of cultural institutions and university researchers to new Ofsted demands for a knowledge-rich curriculum and the interweaving of cultural capital.

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Stephanie Meek leading teachers through tasks

An important factor Steph highlighted was that as a teacher she didn’t know that universities wanted to work with schoolteachers, and I had the same experience. When universities reach out to schools it is rarely to the individual English teacher. If you’re lucky, there is a page with a staff list with email addresses on a school website, so that you can direct your enquiry to the Head of English. Increasingly and understandably, there is often only a school office/reception email. As a plea to anyone in schools receiving invitations to work with a university: please forward them to all of the relevant staff – even if you can’t attend yourself, someone else might like to. It’s all too easy to ‘give up’ on working with schools as the reply rate is always low. However, that can – I hope – change, and those who do reply will always make it more than worth your while!

After lunch, Catherine Charlwood introduced the Diseases of Modern Life GCSE resources, explaining the thinking behind their creation, and how they might support learning in the classroom. Then teachers had to get hands-on, attempting a sample exam question themselves in relation to a source using extracts from art critic John Ruskin’s letters:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 40 to 50.

How does the writer use language to describe  the experience of being on a steam-boat?

[12 marks]

Do please feel free to play along at home using the online source! Be warned: the experience of your child’s new exam syllabus may inspire a worrying respect for your teenager…

In a session called ‘Thomas Hardy and the Diseases of Modern Life’, we put passages from Hardy’s output alongside the GCSE resources the project has created, as well as providing teachers with some C20th or C21st articles as possible points of comparison. On the theme of ‘The health of desk-bound city-workers’, teachers looked at the ‘Preservation of Health’ resource alongside Hardy’s poem ‘Coming up Oxford Street: Evening’ and the 1891 short story ‘On the Western Circuit’; while the satirical ‘The Health of the Labourer’ resource from Punch was juxtaposed with Hardy’s 1883 essay ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘.

Teachers were generous in their feedback and also gave us useful pointers for where we might take such educational outreach work next. For instance, one teacher noted that “Resources to aid with teaching them eg. Syntax and sentences structures that are characteristic of C19th prose would be highly beneficial to us.” We took on board the idea of sentence structure and made that a key feature we kept returning to in our student day. 86% of participants reported an increase in confidence for teaching C19th non-fiction as a result of the workshop, and a range of quotations from their feedback show how valuable it is not just to work with teachers (HE to school), but to bring teachers into contact with each other (school to school):

“It was wonderful to engage with colleagues in a discussion in each section of how fiction and non-fiction are inextricably linked. Many thanks for a brilliant day. ”

“Some useful links across fiction/non-fiction made, especially regarding how people read prose (journals, magazines, etc. – and the crossover between the two. Will definitely be using all of the resources provided 🙂 ”

“As a non-teacher this day has been so insightful to the curriculum and the resources will be a great tool for inspiration for creating learning sessions. ” (from a National Trust Learning Manager)

“This project was an important part of the Hardy Society’s outreach to schools in 2019,” said Andrew Hewitt, Student Representative for the Thomas Hardy Society. “Our outreach programme includes poetry workshops and writing competitions and more. Our next project involves working with teachers to develop a ‘Wessex’ scheme of work to support the teaching of Hardy in his time and place, and we would love to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved.”

 

With students…

On 7th May 2019, we followed this with a workshop for Year 10 students, called ‘Writing about Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century’, again held in the beautiful Learning Room of the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Central Dorchester. Students from the The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester were joined by peers from Holyrood Academy, Somerset, to exchange ideas and enlarge their thinking. Before the day started in earnest, we played a cracking round of Mind-Boggling Medical History, where some students got to flex their ‘Medicine Through Time’ GCSE History muscles, and others applied critical reasoning to the (seemingly) fantastical statements. Please download the cards from the website to play in your own schools, or homes!

The first session, led by Andrew Hewitt, took students through a series of passages and poems from Hardy on the theme of nature and well-being. Students were encouraged to think critically about what we mean when we say ‘nature’ and to attend to the text at the level of the line or sentence, to prepare the AO2 skills we’d be bolstering throughout the day. All students were given a booklet of extracts to keep them thinking and possibly writing about Hardy, nature and well-being long after the workshop. That said, there was already impressive student knowledge of The Woodlanders in evidence!

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Andrew Hewitt leading the Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy session

Catherine Charlwood then led students through notions of illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine, using foundational quotations from the Diseases of Modern Life project, as well as sample GCSE resources. For instance, students read either the first or second half of an extract from Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1872 Diseases of Modern Life about train travel, and explained to their peers what Ward Richardson’s opinion of trains was and – crucially – how they knew. This encouraged students to teach each other, and to show how they were coming to their analytical decisions.

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Student assumptions/initial reactions to the idea of “scientific and medical writing”

After lunch, Karin Koehler looked at fiction versus non-fiction, this time eliciting Year 10 responses to the separate categories of fiction and non-fiction. Using examples from Hardy’s own writing practice, she showed students how Hardy used non-fiction sources as inspiration for his novels and stories and – by having them analyse a fiction passage first – showed students how the same language devices and careful vocabulary choices are at work in both fiction and non-fiction.

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Post Its detailing student expectations of fiction texts and – separately – non-fiction texts.

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Dr Karin Koehler leading students through fiction and non-fiction texts

 

We were very fortunate to be joined by the Thomas Hardy Society’s Academic Director, published novelist and poet Dr Faysal Mikdadi, who led a creative writing session. Using two brief extracts from Darwin on the humble origins of human creatures and Hardy’s poem ‘An August Midnight’, Dr Mikdadi used a tried and tested way of engaging learners with poetry. He shared the very short prose pieces and the poem with them, asked simple factual questions, extended the questions to a search for surface meaning, elicited deeper meanings from the students and, finally, suggested that they could write their own poem either emulating Hardy’s, reacting to his poem or writing anything inspired by him or by Darwin. As the students composed their poems, Dr Mikdadi, and other adults present, engaged with any who needed support, encouraged those who were reluctant and primed three potential readers to prepare to read their poem. They did so really well. Once the poems were read, students gave positive responses and critical friend suggestions on ways forward.

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Dr Faysal Mikdadi leading the creative writing workshop

In our final session, students and teachers collaborated on answering an AQA exam-style question 3 for Paper 2 (the 12 mark ‘How does the writer use language to…?’ analysis question). While everyone had the same text, describing medical students watching an operation, half the room focused on one section of the text, and half the following section. This way, when we fed back, students got to annotate further and see how peers had approached the task. The questions are below if you would like to replicate this with your own students:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 17 to 27

How does the writer use language to describe the preparations for the operation?

[12 marks]

 

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 28 to 39

How does the writer use language to describe the operation?

[12 marks]

 

Students approached this task with confidence, and – with reference to the mark scheme on the PowerPoint throughout – upped the ante in their written responses. Giving feedback on the experience of the whole day, we were delighted to read students note such things as

“It has given me the idea that English is more than just analysing language”

“I wanted to take English Literature for A-level and this has given me more inspiration to do so.”

“It’s made me more open to explore historic events through English texts rather than through history textbooks while at school.”

“It has made me think of multiple ways to answer GCSE questions”

Survey data further revealed that 87% were now more interested in the Victorians; 87% more interested in English; 69% more interested in books and literature; 94% more interested in the history of medicine; and 69% more interested in the relationship between literature and science. Never have I enjoyed compiling survey data more!

All of the facilitators agreed that we’d been fortunate to work with such an impressive group of young people, and we’re very grateful to both the Thomas Hardye School and Holyrood Academy for participating and for their work in helping students attend. Thanks must also go to the staff of Shire Hall who provided a fantastic service on both occasions, and who come highly recommended as a venue. Be sure to keep an eye on the Thomas Hardy Society website for future educational outreach initiatives and events: the above hopefully shows quite how important such work with schools is, as well as what fun it can be for all concerned!

 

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Post-seminar delighted/relieved collaborators. L-R: Dr Catherine Charlwood, Dr Karin Koehler, and Andrew Hewitt. All three are proud members of The Thomas Hardy Society.

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Creating Research-Based GCSE English Resources: How Scholars of the Nineteenth Century can Help Schoolteachers

Are you a Victorianist or a scholar of the nineteenth century? Did you know that under that new 9-1 GCSE English Language syllabus (taught from 2015) – for the first time – asks students to analyse unseen C19th non-fiction? Those kinds of texts which researchers work with day in day out are now needed for teachers and students of GCSE English. And there are a lot of them! There were 706,255 entries for English Language in 2018 (according to Ofqual).

AQA (the most popular specification) and OCR both have an exam in which students are faced with an unseen C19th non-fiction text paired with a C20th or C21st one on the same topic. While examples of modern texts are readily available, how are teachers supposed to find the time to search out C19th sources? Having taught this course myself, I know well how frustrating such a hunt can be when you’re already pushed for time. Given that the Diseases of Modern Life project already works with an interesting and eclectic body of C19th non-fiction texts, we thought we would use the research resources database we are preparing to select a range of appropriate texts which could then be fashioned into classroom-ready GCSE English Language resources as they would appear on the AQA exam paper: complete with an initial explanation, line numbers and glossary. The resulting corpus of resources is now freely available online within the Faculty of English’s Outreach pages, with the texts in downloadable PDF form (just click and print for that last-minute revision session!).

 

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The Diseases of Modern Life resources page on the English Faculty website. Downloadable PDFs of C19th sources are easily available on the right.

 

Our hope is that teachers – and students – will use these resources to gain familiarity with C19th non-fiction writing, in all its weird and wonderful guises. All of the sources are based on the project’s research interests, but range from doctors explaining anxiety; to how to design a girls’ school; to advice for mothers on clothing children; to the problems of pollution in the newly industrialised urban city. There’s plenty of fun to be had in reading about nervous medical students watching their first operation, Punch’s satirical take on the Duke of Richmond toasting the labourer, or Ruskin’s utter hatred of steamboats – ‘the most disagreeable floating contrivance imaginable’.

The main aims of these resources are:

  • to help teachers by providing the resources they need
  • to allow students to build up their reading speed for C19th non-fiction – only by exposure to more texts can they get used to them (and the exam allows only 15 minutes to read the unseen C19th source AND the paired C20th/C21st one AND the questions)
  • to allow students to practice the skill of literary analysis tested by Assessment Objective 2, by giving them samples to annotate and criticise

 

The Diseases of Modern Life project was delighted to run a stall at the inaugural teachers’ conference at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty on 27th April. This wonderful event allowed teachers to experience two lectures from faculty academics, hear about the different resources available from the Bodelian Libraries, the Ashmolean museum, Oxford’s Faculty of Education and Oxplore. With free lunch and a tour of Hertford College to boot, it was a pretty incredible day – thank you to Rebecca Costello for inviting and hosting us.

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Teachers discussing GCSE resources with Dr Catherine Charlwood. Photo credit: Nathan Stazicker

 

The most common response I’ve heard from teachers is “we can easily find C20th or C21st sources, but the C19th ones? They’re the problem.” And this is where those who are already working with C19th non-fiction on a professional basis stand to make a real intervention into what happens in the classroom. While you, staunch BAVS member, might be pals with the Pall-Mall Gazette, friends of the Fortnightly Review or a wizard with the Wellesley Index, this is specialised knowledge which can be taken for granted in universities but would form the basis for a beautiful collaboration with schools. So if you’ve ever considered putting your research to work in the national curriculum, the new 9-1 GCSE English Language syllabus gives scholars of the nineteenth century a great opportunity to do so. Victorianists, assemble!

 

In the follow-up blog, I’ll explore how these resources provided the inspiration for a collaboration with the Thomas Hardy Society and two workshops: one for teachers of GCSE English Language, the other for students.

 

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Where do our resources come from? Dr Catherine Charlwood points teachers in the direction of the project! Photo credit: Nathan Stazicker

 

 

Event: Free Workshop for GCSE English Language Students!

On Tuesday 7th May, Diseases of Modern Life will be back in Dorset this time to talk to students on the theme of Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century. Using our free GCSE resources, we will situate Victorian ideas of health within the context of local literary legend Thomas Hardy’s writings, and encourage students to explore the links between fiction and non-fiction, as well as how preparation for English Language can aid you in English Literature (hint: it tests the same skills!).

The workshop will take place at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester, and the full programme can be seen below. We have sent invitations to all schools local to the area, but if you happen to be able to come along then please email catherine.charlwood@ell.ox.ac.uk to book places for your students – we’d be delighted to welcome you.

This workshop is the result of a collaboration between Diseases of Modern Life and the Thomas Hardy Society, specifically Dr Karin Koehler of Bangor University, Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, and – especially for the creative responses session – published author and Academic Director of the Thomas Hardy Society, Dr Faysal Mikdadi.

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 WRITING ABOUT ILLNESS AND WELL-BEING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

7 May 2019 

Free English GCSE Students Workshop
at Shire Hall, Central Dorchester

to help prepare students for unseen non-fiction prose element of the GCSE exam

10.00-10.30am Arrival and registration
10.30-10.45am Welcome and overview of the day

·         Why we’re here: learning objectives and expectations for the day

·         How we’ll approach the topic of illness and well-being: what topics we’ll be reading about and discussing, and a chance to raise any concerns

10.45-11.30am Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy

We will discuss a selection of poems/passages from the work of Thomas Hardy about the interactions, positive and negative, between people and nature. This will be our starting-point for thinking about what role nature might play in people’s well-being (globally and individually).

11.30am- 12.15pm Illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine

We will introduce a selection of non-fiction texts highlighting typical nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being – for example, the impact of sedentary lifestyles in urban settings and different theories about mental health – and explore some of the challenges for a 21st-century reader of understanding, analysing, and responding to such texts.

12.15-1.00pm FREE LUNCH
1.00-1.45pm Fiction versus non-fiction

Drawing on more examples from Thomas Hardy, who used non-fiction sources as an inspiration for his novels and stories, we will consider the relationship of fiction and non-fiction (which were less separate in nineteenth-century culture than now) to inform the analysis of nineteenth-century prose. How is reading a scientific or medical text different from reading fiction or poetry? How is it similar? How can English Language help you with English Literature and the other way around?

1.45-2.30pm Responding creatively to nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being

We will prepare creative responses – e.g. poems, short narratives, drawings – to the anxiety about the disconnection of nature and humans, in Hardy’s day and in ours. What links the nineteenth century to the present?

2.30-2.45pm Afternoon break

Refreshments provided

2.45-3.30pm Practical exercise

The day will end with a practical session in which participants and facilitators will collaborate on preparing an answer to a mock exam question featuring an unseen extract of nineteenth century literary non-fiction.

3.30-3.45pm Feedback
3.45pm Workshop ends

 

Teachers and students of English Literature at GCSE, IB or A Level might also be interested in the Thomas Hardy Society Essay Competition, which has a deadline of 30th April. As well as a £50 Amazon voucher, you could end up being published in a Thomas Hardy Society journal!

Free Teacher Workshop: Engaging Students in C19th Prose

On Friday 12th April, a team of researchers will present a free workshop designed to help teachers of GCSE English Language engage their students in nineteenth-century prose. AQA, the most popular exam board, now have unseen nineteenth-century literary non-fiction as part of Paper 2 of GCSE English Language, so getting today’s 15-16-year-olds on board with nineteenth-century non-fiction has never been more important!

The workshop will take place at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester, and the full programme can be seen below. We have invited all teachers local to the area, but if you happen to be able to come along then please email catherine.charlwood@ell.ox.ac.uk to book a free place – we’d be delighted to welcome you.

This workshop – and its upcoming partner event, a workshop for GCSE students themselves on Tuesday 7th May – is the result of a collaboration between Diseases of Modern Life and the Thomas Hardy Society, specifically Dr Karin Koehler of Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull. For the teacher workshop we are delighted to be working also with a team of three researchers from the University of Exeter, headed by Prof Angelique Richardson.

 

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ENGAGING STUDENTS IN 19TH-CENTURY PROSE: RESEARCH-BASED RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS

 12th April 2019

Free English GCSE Teaching Workshop for Teachers at Shire Hall, Central Dorchester

 

11.00-11.30 Arrival and registration

Tea and coffee will be provided.

11.30-11.35 Welcome and Overview of the Day
11.35-12.20 Fiction and Non-Fiction: Reading Nineteenth-Century Prose with Thomas Hardy

Based on the example of Thomas Hardy, who used non-fiction sources as an inspiration for his novels and stories, this initial session will show that fiction and non-fiction were less separate in nineteenth-century culture than now.  It will suggest that by acknowledging the close relationship between fiction and non-fiction, we can make the analysis of nineteenth-century prose less intimidating and more engaging for pupils.

12.20-1.15 Free lunch
1.15-2.15 Hardy and Heritage Project – Resources for Schools

Professor Angelique Richardson, Stephanie Meek, and John Blackmore will introduce educational resources developed at Exeter University, related to the teaching of nineteenth- and twentieth-century non-fiction. Short presentations will be followed by the opportunity for conversation and Q&A.

2.15-2.45 Diseases of Modern Life Project – Educational Resources

Dr Catherine Charlwood (St Anne’s, Oxford) will introduce resources for teachers and students developed as part of the European Research Council funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ project.

2.45-3.00 Afternoon break

Tea and coffee will be provided.

3.00-4.00 Thomas Hardy and Diseases of Modern Life

Dr Catherine Charlwood, Andrew Hewitt, and Dr Karin Koehler will lead a workshop that explores how teachers might draw on the important local heritage of Hardy’s writing to teach nineteenth-century non-fiction. This session will also look ahead to a follow-up event planned for students on 7 May.

4.00-4.30 Feedback and Ways Forward

The day will end with a session in which we discuss what sort of resources and input teachers would like from universities and cultural organisations such as the Thomas Hardy Society and the Hardy Country Consortium.

 

Teachers and students of English Literature at GCSE, IB or A Level might also be interested in the Thomas Hardy Society Essay Competition, which has a deadline of 30th April. As well as a £50 Amazon voucher, you could end up being published in a Thomas Hardy Society journal!

Podcast: #Ruskin200 – Ruskin, Science and the Environment

You can listen to our #Ruskin200 podcast here. As well as telling you more about what’s in store at our 8th February conference and lecture, it also offers three scholars reflecting on how Ruskin has shaped their work.

 

  • Prof John Holmes (University of Birmingham) talks about Ruskin and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

“Perhaps Ruskin holds something for us now that perhaps twenty years ago we were less aware that he would hold for us”

 

  • Dr Fraser Riddell (Trinity College, University of Oxford) explains how Vernon Lee responded to Ruskin’s ideas

“Lee identifies in Ruskin three modes of transformation in how we live”

 

  • Prof Fiona Stafford (Somerville College, University of Oxford) considers the importance of trees to Ruskin throughout his life

“[…] the contemporary emphasis on economics over other types of value [Ruskin] would have been very troubled by”

Podcast – Victorian Light Night: Collaborating with Cheney School

Today we released a podcast detailing our work with Cheney School as part of Victorian Light Night, which you can listen to here. You’ll hear the students read their work, and talk about their winning designs, which can be seen below.

Thanks to Dr Lorna Robinson and Cheney School for making this collaboration possible, and to the students who made it such a success!

 

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First place projection design. Photo credit: Ross Ashton

 

Helena Kahn 1

Second place projection design. Photo credit: Ross Ashton

 

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Third place projection design. Photo credit: Ross Ashton

 

Victorian Speed of Life: The Video

Having suitably intrigued you about the projection shown on Victorian Light Night and/or made you sorry you missed it, we are excited to share video footage of “Victorian Speed of Life”, the light and sound show which arose from a research collaboration between Professor Sally Shuttleworth (and the Diseases of Modern Life team), and Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, aka The Projection Studio.

The show is designed to highlight areas of Diseases of Modern Life research on the experience of the pressures of life within the Victorian period. Of the many represented, see if you can spot sequences relating to the rise of the railways, (over)connectivity via the telegraph, environmental pollution, and the retreat to sea or countryside (places which, in turn, became overcrowded sites of pollution). And if you find today’s advertising annoying, there’s a nice sample of Victorian medical adverts here to reassure you that this particular strand of information overload was shared by your ancestors… Enjoy!

Oh what a – Victorian Light – Night!

On Friday 16th November Woodstock Road was a hive of activity for “Victorian Light Night”, part of both the national Being Human Festival and Oxford’s own Christmas Light Festival. The Radcliffe Humanities building (known by many as the former Radcliffe Infirmary) became the canvas for a unique light and sound spectacular created by the Projection Studio in conjunction with the Diseases of Modern Life project and TORCH.

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The stage is set for the inherent theatricality of the Radcliffe Humanities building… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

The looped five minute show transported audiences from the rolling green countryside to the mad dash of Victorian mechanisation with its attendant steam, symptoms, and stresses. From the invention of the telegraph to the cholera contagion, the rise of patent medicines to cure the ills of modern life to the overcrowding of  previously peaceful seaside resorts, ‘Victorian Speed of Life’ was a whirlwind tour of the many difficulties facing our ancestors.

Torch Event by Ian Wallman

Beginning the influx of Victorian advertising: the public choose their poison, ahem, I mean, patent medicine.  (Photo credit: Ian Wallman)

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Advert Overload! Source me some of that Neuralgine… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

 

In St Luke’s Chapel visitors played two research-informed card games: Dr Sally Frampton’s Mind-Boggling Medical Histories and Dan Holloway’s Mycelium. There was also a projection of work by students from Cheney School. Members of the Diseases of Modern Life team had previously been into Cheney School to present ideas about Victorian communication technologies and how the nineteenth century saw radical changes in the ways that people got around (the railways) and transmitted their thoughts and feelings (the invention of the penny post, the telegraph). In discussion, we thought about how these developments might be mirrored in modern-day use of such things as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype. The Cheney students produced artistic responses to this presentation which ranged from poems, to pictures, to a song and even a 3D model of a Victorian zoetrope with a modern twist!

We also presented prizes to the winners of the projection competition, whose designs based on the ‘speed of life’ were projected onto the building by The Projection Studio. Seeing your artwork on the front of a three-floor building is quite the honour!

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Winner of First Prize in the Projection Competition 12-year-old Freya Blundel receives her prize from (L to R) Ross Ashton of the Projection Studio, Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Catherine Charlwood. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

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Freya’s winning design featuring timepieces through the ages saw the building awash with colour. (Photo credit: The Projection Studio)

 

Inside the Mathematical Institute, we had a whole host of different activities and a series of flash talks offering an insight into the variety of research happening on the project. Members of the public also enjoyed creating their own weird Victorian Christmas card, following the strange trend for bizarre images – such as a frog dancing with a beetle, or a stone-dead robin – gracing the the front of Victorian festive post.

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On the left we have Dr Alison Moulds with her ‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ stall, while on the right visitors have a go at ‘Messaging Madness’ as they tap out and decipher messages in Morse Code. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

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Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown entertains a full house for her talk ‘A Victorian Christmas: Pies, Puddings & Indigestion!’ (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

 

The evening wasn’t just about light shows, talks and activities though… In a collaboration with science troubadour Jonny Berliner, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown and David Pirie danced to a song about Dr Taylor-Brown’s research.

‘The Stomach is the Monarch’ is a song and dance performance inspired by Victorian understandings of digestive health. Does being hungry make you grumpy? Have you ever said “you’re so cute I could eat you up?” Modern science is proving that our stomachs and minds are inexplicably intertwined, but the Victorians got there first!

Dancing the lindy hop, Emilie and David drew huge crowds of gastric health and history of science enthusiasts (and maybe just a few Strictly Come Dancing fans) as they brought research to life.

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Dr Emilie-Taylor Brown and David Pirie mid-performance of ‘The Stomach is the Monarch’, to music by Jonny Berliner. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

 

Throughout the evening, visitors enjoyed carefully curating an outfit from an array of props in order to have a photo taken at the Victorian Photo Booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. After a long evening of engaging with the public, we let our beaver buddy – the mascot of St Anne’s College – fulfill her dream of wearing a top hat.

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‘Tis important to be a dapper creature. Especially if you represent St Anne’s College. (Photo credit: Decadent Times)

 

Thank you so much to everyone who came out to Victorian Light Night – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

All about those ballads (ft. Oskar Cox Jensen)

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen is an Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the History Department at QMUL, an expert in British song of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a novelist. And that list isn’t even exhaustive… Importantly, he is also a singer of ballads: and he’s recorded a couple for us – make sure you click the links below to listen! Here I (CC) talk with him (OCJ) about the intersections between balladry and nineteenth century notions of health.

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Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen. Photo: Niina Tamura

 

CC: Now while I’m happy with what ‘ballads’ are, Oskar, I was wondering if you could define ‘broadside ballads’ for us?

OCJ: OK! That sounds like a simple question, so I’ll pretend it is, and say: any set of singable verses printed on a single-sided piece of paper. In Britain, these began in 1550 and continued until around 1900. The songs of the people, in short, made accessible by cheap print – you could buy a single song (on a ‘slip’) for a halfpenny, and a ‘broadside’ sheet, often with several songs printed on the same side, for a penny – a price that remained stable for centuries. Crucially, we’re talking about a medium here, not a genre, because all kinds of songs found their way onto these sheets.

 

CC: Where would these ballads be performed and who would likely be in the audience?

OCJ: In the first instance, on the street, by ballad-singers. This was how people learnt the tunes: by ear, from the person – man, woman, or child – who was selling it. In cities and towns, and in the country, especially at fairs, races, and markets, groups of pedestrians would gather round singers on street corners, first to listen to, and then to buy the song. These printed sheets thus became the blueprint for amateur performance: in the pub, at home, at work . . . Of course, many of these songs had begun life in other contexts before becoming broadsides, so many of the words – and the vast majority of the tunes – had already been performed in theatres or pleasure gardens, or even less likely occasions such as the church, the parade-ground, the opera, or the country dance. Records indicate that, although the bulk of street audiences was made up of the poor of both sexes, and the young in particular, ballads were also heard and purchased by the middling and the elite – though these people would be far less likely to admit it! The same songs could often be accessed in other ways too, so that a street ballad might be encountered in a respectable journal or a concert programme. We’re really talking about an almost universal musical culture here: ‘pop music’ in its widest sense, something I’ve come to think of as ‘common song’.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘In a Fog’!

 

CC: I think of ballads as often comic, or bawdy, but Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is poignant and quite heart-rending. The woman ‘Plying her needle and thread – / Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!’ put me in mind of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (1789) who ‘Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’. In your work, how far have you found that ballads have more of a political or social purpose than we might first think?

OCJ: Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is a great example – there are lots of ‘broadside ballad’ editions, but the first edition, published with the musical score for voice and piano written by one J.H. Tully, appeared in an 1844 issue of Punch magazine, and was subsequently sold on its own for two shillings and sixpence, a price that put it out of reach of the masses, few of whom were musically literate anyway. And yes, it’s heart-rending, though I’ll admit that, for me, the original tune rather overdoes the sentimental tone in a very typically Victorian way!

But, to answer your question: so far as professional historians have been interested in ballads, at least since the 1960s and the work of E.P. Thompson, it’s been for their political and social purpose – academics have always been drawn to the ‘issues’ addressed in these songs. My own work on ballads began with a political question: in Napoleon and British Song, my first book, I look at more than four hundred ballads and their culture to try and get at popular politics at the lowest level during the Napoleonic Wars. And since the sixteenth century, ballads have always been used to contest the controversies of the day. In the Victorian period, this is still going strong, so everything from cruelty to animals to Catholic emancipation is written about in song – often very, very badly. One thing political activists rarely learnt was that a song was neither a sermon nor a stump speech, so that the best and most affecting political songs are those that tell a personal story, rather than advancing an explicit argument. That’s something both Hood and Blake sometimes got right: start with the individual, not the abstract.

 

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The Beggar Girl 1802
2010,7081.835,
AN962980001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: Thomas Hardy grew up with a knowledge of local ballads, but also saw them slipping out of the dominant culture. In this famous passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he marks the contrast – the chasm, even – between Tess and her mother, Joan:

‘Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.’

Oskar, what do you see as the place of ballads within Victorian society and culture, and why do you choose to perform historical ballads today?

OCJ: Hah – instinctively, I cringe when I read Hardy setting up that dichotomy: no offence to the guy, but he’s buying into this typical later-nineteenth-century fiction of the oral tradition and the rural peasant that the famous song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Francis Child, Lucy Broadwood et al.) fashioned into something of a political ideology that, taken to its extremes, ends up in dangerously fascistic-sounding territory. There was no such thing as purely oral transmission of ballads, at least not after the Elizabethan era: songs circulated in print and by ear together, and flowed endlessly between the town and the country. Probably Joan’s folksy old ballads began on the London stage, even if that was the Jacobean stage, and in that sense nothing had changed by the Victorian period.

But I’ve strayed off-topic again. For Victorians as for previous generations, ballads acted as an essential, lowest-common-denominator form of cultural transmission, enabling all classes in all places to access the same products, in its most basic possible form: cheap print on cheap paper, with an orally-transmitted vocal melody. But as literacy levels increased, technologies developed, ‘stamp’ taxes on newspapers were abolished, and the general standard of musical proficiency rose, ballads became less necessary. Once everyone could engage with politics in the more in-depth form of newspapers and meetings, and get their music from the halls, street bands, domestic pianos and the tonic sol-fa movement, the broadside ballad lost its purpose: there were simply better, cheaper ways to access both music and information, and I see this as a very good thing!

So the last thing I want to do is be nostalgic about broadside ballads: when it comes down to it, they were a compromise born of necessity, not an ideal form of song. By choice, I personally write and perform my own songs, accompanied by guitar or piano, informed by the amazing musical developments of the last two hundred years . . . I perform historical ballads, then, because I study them. They were incredibly important: for fully three hundred years, they constituted the dominant form of cultural participation for the majority of British people. And I don’t believe we can begin to understand what that meant without singing and listening to them: they weren’t simply words on a page, but dynamic, interactive things, to be performed and heard. They come alive in performance, it’s the only way to grasp their strengths and limitations, and get a sense of how people might have reacted to them. Also, I will admit: the best of them, the ones that could cut through the noise of a busy street and electrify a crowd, are really, really satisfying to sing.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘The Wonderful Pills’!

 

CC: I guess that ballads, or street songs in general, can tell us about how medical or scientific culture filtered down into popular culture and general parlance. Is there a noticeable trend as to when health concerns become more or less prevalent among the ballads you’ve studied?

OCJ: A good question – and a tricky one! Firstly, I’d take issue with that phrase ‘filtered down’, it’s far too passive. Ballads aren’t about things slowly and neutrally trickling down to the consciousness of the masses: they’re provocative, active instances of popular engagement with important issues. If they’re top-down, then that’s because someone has made the decision to take a cause to the masses, and either thinks it will interest enough people to sell, or is important enough to subsidise by printing thousands of songs for free. If they’re written at street level, then they’re indications of the populace demanding to be part of a more elite discourse.

If there’s a chronology here, then it’s one of terminology: you say ‘health concerns’, which is really interesting. Since the Tudor origins of ballads, there have been songs about plague, disease, quack doctors, miracle cures, and dodgy doctors. What distinguishes the Victorian period is probably the vocabulary: the shift of this discourse from a fundamentally superstitious to a scientific basis. That was a slow process, of course, and certainly medical language was adopted in song before an informed medical attitude took hold, so that a lot of Victorian ballads in this area are really reactionary, employing old conventions of quackery, suspicion of experts, and spurious anecdotal evidence, in order to resist what people saw as authoritarian, imposed innovations in public health. But then, you could say that remains the same to this day, with the songs replaced by blogs and tabloids . . .

 

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The Young Ballad Singers c.1790-1798
2010,7081.2456,
AN1018624001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: When does balladry begin to disappear as far as you can see? Does it get chased out by such things as advertising jingles and the rise of recording technologies?

OCJ: I suppose I’ve already touched on this, in that the Victorian period really is the end of balladry as a significant cultural form, though some street singers persist into the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas, the north of England, and Ireland. It’s less about being chased out than natural evolution: into music hall songs on the one hand, prose journalism on the other, and, as you suggest, advertising jingles, on the – well, the third hand, I suppose? Recording technology has little to do with it: by the time that has any sort of mass impact, the street ballad is long gone. But – to advance a really tenuous analogy – if it were a dinosaur, the ballad wouldn’t have been wiped out by a meteor, so much as turned into a bird . . .

 

CC: Our project focuses on – as the title suggests! – the diseases which not just medics, but ordinary people felt lumbered with by modern life. What are the major ills or scourges of modern life which feature in the ballads you’ve read? What’s the most popular social complaint?

OCJ: I must admit, I had to go looking for this answer – most successful songs tend not to dwell on mundane, unpleasant issues; they tend to be escapist, or aimed at really specific problems. Most people who die tragically do so of broken hearts, drowning, or in battles. The major ‘ills’ are often money-related, with generic ‘poverty’ the biggest culprit. And in general there’s a tendency to avoid the modern – songs aim for a more timeless aesthetic – unless it’s in order to satirise something. Railway disasters, for example, get incorporated within the same epic language as a shipwreck, or the cave-in of a mine.

Ironically, this means the most popular social complaint doesn’t change with the centuries: it’s ‘the times’, with titles like ‘A Touch on the Times’ or ‘The Present Fashions’ cropping up generation after generation, always complaining about how things were better in the old days.

A theme of this blog, of course, has been the gradual decline of balladry, and ballad-singers didn’t necessarily go quietly! So one favourite example of mine is the song ‘The Organ Grinder’. The story is an old one: the singer loses his true love, who goes off with another man. But that man’s identity is topical: he’s an organ-grinder, the ballad-singer’s noisier, new-fangled, more successful rival. The villain of the piece within the song is the meta-villain too – representative of the new technology and accessible music that was making the ballad-singer redundant. For once, the ballad-singer was in sympathy with the great and the good, as the song alludes to Charles Babbage, and the campaign led by him and the M.P. Michael Thomas Bass that led to the Street Music Act of 1864, designed to outlaw the newly-noisy musicians of the London street that epitomised, to these indignant elites, everything wrong with vulgar modernity!

 

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A ballad seller looks longingly at some dumplings in a shop window; a fragment of a larger sheet. c.1830s Hand-coloured lithograph c.1839
1951,0411.4.51,
AN891693001. Credit: The British Museum

 

Thank you so much for talking to us, Oskar, and for sharing both your insights and your singing voice!