Stacking the Scholarship Shelf

Thanks to Simon Beale (@SPBeale), Associate Assistant Headteacher and Subject Lead of History & Politics at Vyners School, for this blogpost. Simon is a co-founder of @historybookgrp.

I have just returned from Bristol and the 2022 Historical Association national conference. It was my first time attending the event and I was blown away at the wealth of expertise being shared by and with the history teacher community. One of the trends across the presentations was the importance that historical scholarship has played in inspiring, supporting & deepening the foundations of historical enquiries. During a Q&A session the question was asked “How do you go about finding more historical scholarship?”. The following blogpost is an attempt to answer that question.

I think it’s important to realise that historical scholarship does not just exist solely within the pages of weighty tomes. However, it is with the work of historians in books that I will start.

The issue with historical scholarship is often not finding it but accessing it. Being inspired by recommendations is one thing, but looking at all 500 pages of it on the bedside table after a long day is another. No wonder bedside books can be more placemat than object of academic study. The motivation to read is one of the biggest barriers to the classroom teacher in getting more involved with historical scholarship. This is where a reading circle or book club can help. When your whole department are committed to reading and when they choose to read the same book it can really help with motivation. However, many teachers may not have a department that is able to be so committed to reading. This is where the History Teacher Book Club can help.

Full disclosure, I started the History Teacher Book Club with Andrew Sweet. I am immensely proud of the little community we have created. We discuss one book every half term (ish). The books we read are selected from nominations by the group and then voted on by the wider history community on Twitter. When looking at our back catalogue of books you can see that we have read a wide variety of topics from historians of multiple perspectives. Our book chats have stimulated new enquiries and brought fresh perspectives topeople’s work. The main misconception about the book club is that we are in some way “completionists”, we are not. People are free to read as much as they can. Whatever people can manage, but talking part in the book club chats and author discussions, their general ideas from the book are given a turbo charge and transformed into inspiring lessons through discussion. We are currently reading “The Glamour Boys” by Chris Bryant, which gives a fascinating LGBTQ+ perspective on the build-up to the Second World War. The chat is at 8:00pm on Sunday 17th July. Do join us. It is the perfect opportunity to spend an hour and see what you can experience as part of the HTBC.

However, there are so many other avenues to accessing high quality scholarship. Here is a previous OBHD post of book reviews and you can find others in the reading-listening-watching category. Book shops also often have reviews of books that can help guide your selection. for example, they might focus on The Wolfson History Prize, which is just one competition for historians and is a great way to see what the hottest books of the year are. There is also just the word of mouth ‘buzz’ that books being shared at conferences can generate. I will be buying Ruby Lal’s book on Nur Jahan after it featured in Paula Lobo’s (@PaulaLoboWorth) presentation for example.

There are other options when the latest 500-word study of a new vein of historical scholarship seems intimidating. “Micro-scholarship” is especially useful when you don’t know if there will be an enquiry to develop at the end of it, but you just want to broaden your own knowledge. There are shorter introductory texts that exist out there that are specifically designed to induct someone into a topic. The first is OUP’s ‘Very Short Introductions’ series. They offer great overviews for a range of historical topics, in many cases very niche, by a key historian of the period. Each one packs a big overview into a few pages. Secondly, the ‘Penguin Monarchs’ series has been a revelation to me. The (unfinished) project seeks to cover every English monarch and once again features a who’s who of historians. Their unique selling point is that they are less than 10,000 words and aim to uncover something about the individual whose head the crown rested on. As an A-level Tudor teacher I found John Guy’s study on Henry VIII, titled “the quest for fame” a superb overview of his mindset and got all my year 12 students to read it before we started studying him in class. Lastly there is the old Seminar Studies in History series which are longer than the previous books but do the same job of offering a fantastic overview of the period. Of course, theses books are not very detailed and do not always have the diverse voices that need to be in our curriculum. But they offer an accessible route into new areas of history.

History is a big industry in publishing so there is a thriving industry of magazines that are solely focussed on History. Historians regularly feature in these magazines, often about a topic that they have written about at length in a book. The restricted word count of the magazine article hones the historian’s argument and can get you to the core of their thesis much more quickly. It can work as a map to their actual book and guide you to chapters of relevance. Alice Solomon (@MrsSolomons15) has produced a fantastic list of articles and the period they apply to here. The sadly defunct BBC World Histories magazine even went as far as to include historical debates as a key feature of every issue. Pages of interpretations were synthesised in easily digestible quotes that covered the full historiographical spectrum. The challenge is trawling through archives and navigating paywalls to find what you are looking for, but the extra effort can save you time in the long run.

The academic journal is an obvious source of finding the cutting edge of research. Most articles in Teaching History feature teachers showing how engaging closer with scholarship has enhanced their lessons and curricular planning. The “What historians have been arguing about…” (née Polychronicon) covers historical debate across a range of topics, which serves as a superb historiographical primer. A general library number will usually give access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Those that are fortunate to still have access to Jstor can find minutely detailed studies that can offer depth & nuance to their lessons. The danger with Jstor is that it is easy to get lost amongst the range of articles that exist on any given topic. I think it’s best for looking for the final flourish to an enquiry rather than as its foundation.

The revolution in audio is incredibly helpful to history teachers in accessing scholarship. A commute can be spent immersed in an episode of a podcast or a chapter of an audiobook. They can also be formatted in a way that is perfect for use in the classroom. The HA makes an ever growing catalogue of podcasts from historians available to all members. BBC History Extra’s “Everything you wanted to know about _____” series covers a whole topic based on listeners’ questions and I have often heard teachers have their own questions answered. A great example is how Emmy Quinn (@msquinnhistory) has used Greg Jenner’s “You’re Dead to Me” podcast in her lessons. A whole article could be taken up with recommendations. Here is a thread of the podcasts I think are best for history teachers. My recommendation for finding what you are after is to follow as many accounts as possible and then use the podcasting app search function with well selected keywords to find what you are looking for. The classic BBC In our Time (though some episodes haven’t aged well) has been catalogued by Will Bailey Watson (@mrwbw) here. I have produced a listen along worksheet for it here. The BBC also creates many other history related seried that you can access via BBC Sounds.

Lots of historians are as active on twitter as history teachers. If you want to know more about a topic, then a well-directed tweet can lead to exactly what you are looking for. This works particularly well when the historian has expressed a desire to advocate on greater study of their topic. Miranda Kaufmann’s use of twitter to constantly push for greater study of Black Tudors is a fantastic example of this. Hallie Rubenhold is always keen to talk to history teachers that want to use ‘The Five ‘to reframe their teaching of the Victorian period. There is also the chance to contact historians at local universities and forge links that way. You can’t guarantee they will all want to help or have the capacity to do so, but I have found that most historians see school history teachers as colleagues rather than consumers.

Another proof of the popularity of our wonderful subject is the number of historical documentaries that flood the TV schedules. Whilst there is a huge focus on the Second World War & The Tudors, there are still plenty that offer insight into the diverse past. The BBC “House Through Time” series is a great example of a series that offers far greater insight by visualising the past and its levels of change & continuity than the book alone. Historians featuring as talking heads are still sharing their insight and should not be discounted.

The notion that having scholarship rich curriculum is a new trend in history teaching is exposed as a misconception when you look at older history textbooks. Alex Ford (@apf102) recently tweeted about the legacy that the Schools’ History project has in this area. Ian Dawson (@bearwithoneear) led in this field as any Tudor teacher will know. The Access to History textbooks are also excellent as they would regularly feature whole chapters on historical debate. While the scholarship will have dated in some areas it is unquestionable that they still provide enlightening foundations to many curricula.

There are plenty of guides that offer a curated list of the kind of scholarship that should be consulted on a particular issue. The newest resource is ReTeach. After registering (for free) you then have access to over 40 guides to help enhance a scheme of work. They are curated by subject specialists in that field with short summaries of why they have selected the resources in their list. There are also audio/visual resources that can be used in lessons. The list is every expanding and is focussed on diversity. There are times that you can look at a list and feel you have already read what’s on it but that just might prove how informed you are rather than the deficiency of the curator.

(A version of this post first appeared on Simon’s own historyiseverystory blog.)

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