How Open Access Will Save the Humanities (from Themselves)

There is no single open access debate. Instead, the open access debate refers to a variety of concerns from a fluctuating body of stakeholders. As there is little hope for sufficiently addressing them all in so brief a space, this article will limit itself to the debate surrounding the role of open access within the humanities within the UK, particularly within the discipline of history. It will argue that open access can facilitate the healing of disciplinary fractures and reconnect academic scholarship to the wider public debate. It will conclude with a brief examination of the current publishing ecosystem and how open access should affect stakeholders therein.

The Fracturing of Historical Discourse

The historical profession is growing, as is the number of interdisciplinary scholars for whom historical knowledge is a critical aspect of their research. Statistics provided by the American Historical Association and the Institute of Historical Research show significant increases in the number of history postgraduates, despite growing sentiment that employment opportunities are dwindling. In order to accommodate these postgraduate practitioners, historical research has become increasing specialized, increasingly fragmented into sub-fields or even smaller groupings. This is reflected by both increasing specificity within dissertation titles and in the absolute number of academic publishing venues, the latter suggesting a need for new discursive spaces for these sub-specialisms. No longer is the historical community sufficiently served by a small number of printed journals; no longer is there a conversation through which the profession or even a field can be kept fully abreast.

Journal specialization has economic repercussions. The greater the number of specialist journals, the more difficult it is for an institution, or individual academic, to obtain regular access to the complete debate. There are several solutions to this problem, all with legitimate difficulties. The creation of electronic super-journals has the virtue of simplicity, but is thought to dismiss the importance of curation within particular niches and specialisms. Although the forthcoming Open Library of Humanities – advocated by Martin Eve in his conclusion – has already posited a number of niche curation possibilities within its super-journal framework, Paul Kirby notes that the existence of myriad independent journals allows an author’s work ‘to be read in a certain tradition, and in the wake of particular historical arguments’ and that the desire to present work to a particular audience ‘is not unreasonable’. Although a super-repository would not necessarily prevent a work from reaching its intended audience, neither would the research necessarily come to the attention of a particular society’s membership should they continue traditional, independent publication. More importantly, perhaps an absolute reliance upon like-minded audiences is an unreasonable aim. The dangers, if not the inevitability, of groupthink are well documented and by cloistering our work into ever smaller, sympathetic repositories, we risk falling into a self-perpetuating echo chamber. Thus, for the sake of the discipline, pressure towards centralization, though by no means inevitable, is perhaps one worthy of yielding to.

Read the full article (for free) at the Journal of Victorian Culture

**Image Courtesy of James F Clay

Historiographical Blogging: Re-Integrating Unassessed Writing into the Undergraduate Curriculum

When I was in high school, my United States history teacher started the year by playing a short clip from A River Runs Through It, in an attempt, I assume, to inspire us to greatness. Needless to say, a large number of my fellow classmates were greatly disappointed when, after a mere 1:30, he halted the movie and began, believe it or not, to lecture. Yet, some fifteen years later, watching this clip is one of the handful of very distinct and detailed memories I have of that year. He did not, if I remember correctly, elaborate on the point of this cinematic preamble, but its purpose became abundantly clear when he marked our first piece of coursework.

The scene, for those unable or unwilling to follow the link above, is as follows:

Voice Over: I attended the school of the Reverend Maclean. He taught nothing but reading and writing. And being a Scot, believed that the art of writing lay in thrift.

Reverend: [After marking the boy’s essay] Half as long.

[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]

Voice Over: So while my friends spent their days at Missoula Elementary, I stayed home and learned to write the American language.

Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay] Again, halt as long.

[Boy returns to desk to rewrite his essay]

Reverend: [After remarking the boy’s essay]: Good. Now throw it away.

Although I attempted to follow his advice, it was not until two years later, in my second year of university, that I understood the cause of my rambling prose. Somehow, the details having now somewhat faded from my recollection, I ended up taking two graduate seminars in my third semester of my undergraduate course. Both, as you would expect, required me to read roughly 200 pages of text a week, primary and secondary, and come prepared to discuss the nuance of the language and argument with the other students. The first day of the seminar, my professor turned to me and asked, quite directly, what I felt was the core message behind Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which we had been asked to read, in its entirety, the previous week. I believe I gave a rather uninspired summary of utilitarianism, which I have now seemingly repressed, and, after several rather embarrassing hmmms and ummms, concluded with ‘I know it, but I can’t explain it.’

After a moment he responded ‘If you can’t explain it, you do not understand it.’ I probably turned scarlet as he, rather compassionately, moved onto one of the graduate students and gave me, I believe, a full five minutes to recover my composure before again enquiring my opinion about the finer points of Bentham’s writing.

I was a keen student and had actually read the text cover to cover, taking what I thought were very appropriate notes, but he had been absolutely right. I didn’t really understand utilitarianism and certainly could not appreciate the nuance of the philosophy evident in Bentham’s writing. It was not that I could not write well (we had also been required to compose a one-page seminar paper); the problem was that I could not read well. Like almost every student I have taught, I was reading for content, not for argument, and had not yet developed an eye for critical analysis.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Some twelve years on, my eye for argument and my attempts at brevity have certainly improved, but these skills have become largely implicit and therefore not directly relatable to my students. My first instinct, therefore, was to teach them the way I had been taught, unrelenting practice. As an undergraduate, I had taken four modules per semester, two semesters per year, for four years. Each of these required roughly thirty pages (10000 words of writing) in short and long essays, a mid-term and a final examination.

When I began to teach in the UK, I realized that repeating my own experience was simply not an option. My current second-year, semester-long module requires only a single 2000-word essay and a single 2-hour exam, and this level of assessment is roughly similar to what I have set elsewhere in the UK. Why the sharp dichotomy? As you are likely aware, there is an ever-growing pedagogic belief (evidently foreign to my old-school undergraduate instructors) that students are terribly over-assessed.

The difficulty in saying students are over-assessed is not that it is untrue, but that students and pedagogic researchers interpret the statement very differently. The latter are concerned that students are becoming overly strategic in their learning, attempting to beat into submission an ever-increasing number of formulaic if not wholly quantitative assessments of their recall knowledge. The former, who clearly pay attention to education reporting, but seemingly miss the nuance of the complaint, respond to demands that they read two journal articles per week with an indignant clearing of their throat and a forceful reminder that they ‘have other classes, too’.

Pedagogically, the answer is simple: keep summative assessment to a minimum and instead rely on a wide variety of formative exercises to develop analytical skills, encourage deep learning, and prepare them to demonstrate their mastery of key learning outcomes. The difficulty with formative work, so abstractly approved of, is that neither student nor lecturer feels they have the time to undertake work that ‘doesn’t count.’ In order to re-integrate formative assessment into the undergraduate curriculum, it has to be meaningful, not merely on an abstract, humanistic level, but on a practical one as well; it must, in short, save rather than expend time. A student must feel that formative work will make reading faster (by which I mean more efficient), essay writing faster and exam revision faster, all while improving or at least maintaining an expected mark. A lecturer must feel that marking additional writing will reduce rather than increase the amount of time they spend marking summative work.

Learning From Failure

In every university in which I have taught, I have found the same three areas particular difficult for my students: critical reading, thoughtful analysis and basic presentation skills.

  • Failure to Read Critically — Wherein the student fails to realise that although an author may be correct, restating their conclusions does not demonstrate critical thinking
  • Lack of Thoughtful Analysis — Wherein the student undermines their own argument by couching it in indefinite language or contradictory assertions
  • Muddled Presentation Style — Wherein, despite using a powerful word processor, the colour, font and spacing of the essay are all amiss

These three errors are the most troubling because they are the most time consuming. By reading uncritically, or without purpose, students spend far more time reading an article or a chapter than they need to because, rather than understand how argument and evidence support each other, they are, erroneously, attempting to memorise or copy down every detail of content. The problem is compounded when they write, as they have stacks of notes to transform into prose and must spend a significant amount of time removing articles and prepositions in an attempt to stay within the word-count. The result, from our perspective, is an uncritical soup of evidence without analysis, opinion without evidence, and sentences that have become so mangled that they retain no meaning whatsoever. Correcting grammar, syntax and spelling is both tedious and time consuming, as is trying to think of something constructive to feed-forward when the student clearly has no idea that New England is a region rather than a state, or, indeed, a city.

So, over the past seven years, I have developed a series of formative exercises to teach my students how to read and write efficiently, and, in the process, save myself from crying over a stack of unintelligible accounts of the First World War.

My first effort was pretty basic. Following the example of my predecessors, I assigned my students a series of pre-seminar questions, asking them to write short responses and email them to me prior to the seminar; I could give these brief notes and return them during the seminar. Although many of my students dutifully completed these, I saw no improvement in either their week-to-week submissions or their final essays. Hypothesizing that peer-to-peer collaboration might encourage deeper analysis, and a permanent online record might result in long-term progress, I activated my VLE’s discussion board functionality, with lackluster results. In the end, I decided that my students needed a more structured approach — a greater indication of which parts of the reading were the ‘important bits’ and what types of writing I expected within their essays.

Over the past four years, I have put forth several variants of what eventually became the Historiography Blog. The first was a hard-copy worksheet, requiring students to detail an article’s evidence and argument. Students had to complete one each week and hand it to me as they entered the seminar room. No worksheet, no entry (except on compassionate grounds). Encouraged by the relative success of the historiographical worksheet, in student feedback if not in improved marks, and the relative success of my own online endeavours, I decided to digitize the worksheet by transforming it into a blog. This would allow me to read my students’ entries in advance of the seminar, without overwhelming my inbox, and post immediate, permanent feedback that students could review whenever they wished.

How to Create a Historiography Blog

My current university uses Blackboard as its Virtual Learning Environment, which contains an integrated, if somewhat fiddly, blogging interface. If you do not use Blackboard, or your VLE does not containing blogging functionality, there are an ever-growing number of free, third-party blogging platforms out there. Despite some rather atrocious cut-and-paste errors, which sometimes demolish a student’s careful formatting, I chose to use the Blackboard system because it was private and because it did not require students to have or obtain a third-party account; the ‘I couldn’t figure out how to log in’ excuse was one that I did not want to face.

During the first seminar, I explained, in detail, the requirements of the blog:

  • They must write an entry on one piece of reading, each week, for all twelve weeks
  • Entries would be private during the first six weeks, and shared anonymously with the class during the final six weeks
  • Entries must include all three citations formats (bibliography, long-form footnote and short footnote) for the work
  • Entries must list a selection of key details (evidence) used by the author
  • Entries must provide a summary of the author’s argument
  • Entries must provide a short critical analysis of one aspect of the author’s argument (a sample essay paragraph)
  • Finally, entries must be submitted 48 hours before the start of the seminar to allow me sufficient time to read them and provide feedback

I then showed them a sample blog entry, which they could use as a model.

The Results

The results were, of course, mixed, but overall I was very pleased with the diligence of my students.

  • How Well?Most submissions contained all four sections, to varying degrees of accuracy and depth, and most students learned from their initial mistakes, improving as the weeks went on. Referencing, in particular, became far more consistent in both formative and summative work. There was a similar improvement in their ability to concisely summarise the main argument of an article or chapter. Their critical analyses were far more variable, but, if nothing else, a differentiation between “summary” and “analysis” became increasingly clear for some students.
  • How Long?Some entries were a mere 200-300 words, including their notes under ‘key details’. Others were 2000-word discursive nightmares. The majority were in between. As the weeks went on, most settled into the 500-750 word range. To mark the 50-odd entries took approximately 3 hours a week, though this decreased as the year progressed.
  • How Often?The first year I assigned the blogs, I spent very little time explaining how completing these (voluntary) assignments would impact their final mark, though I gave some indication that it would help them understand what I was looking for in their writing. I also kept them private throughout the duration of the module. I had a completion rate of approximately 75% for the first six weeks, but after the submission of their essays, the completion rate dropped off to a mere 5% or 10%. In the second year, I made the possible impact of the blogs far more explicit and the completion rate jumped to 85%-90% for the first six weeks. During the second half of the semester, I printed the (anonymised) blogs, and provided packets to all students who had completed their entry on time. By highlighting the usefulness of peer collaboration to exam revision, and with a surprising amount of peer pressure from their fellow students, the completion rate remained about 60% for the remainder of the year.
  • How Useful?Despite vocal complaints from students during and at the conclusion of the semester about being overworked, feedback forms overwhelmingly suggested that the historiography blogs be continued in future years. Essay marks did not universally improve but, interestingly, the division between mediocre and excellent papers became noticeably sharper. There were far fewer mid-2:2, most students separating easily into 2:1s and 3:1s. This suggests that it significantly helped some students but did little for others. Understanding why will require further study. Exam marks, conversely, did improve universally, with a far greater number of students including accurate historiographical information in their answers.

Onwards and Upwards

In the end, I must deem the historiography blogs a qualified success. For all the complaints and extra marking they engendered, they did seem to help a significant number of students develop their critical reading skills. I will, no doubt, continue to tinker with the formula in future years, but I cannot help but be proud of my students. They undertook a significant amount of ‘extra’ formative work during the semester; even if there were complaints, the overwhelming majority completed the voluntary blog and attended non-compulsory seminars week after week — indeed, my overall attendance rate almost doubled from previous years!

If any of you are reading this: well done.

**Image courtesy of

The Promise and Perils of the Flipped HE Classroom: The Online Lecture

Last year, I ran a module entitled “American Crises: From the Revolution to 1968“. It had a standard teaching configuration of a weekly lecture, a weekly small-group seminar, a 2000-word essay and a 2-hour exam. I provided my students with a slightly above-average level of structure for their seminar preparation, including a detailed required reading list and blogging activities. The latter was optional, intended to provide additional feed-forward on their writing and analysis, but most students engaged with it for the first half of the semester—that is, up until the essay was due. At the end of the term, I felt that my students had done well, but that twelve lectures was simply insufficient for two hundred years of history. What I needed was more time.

This year, I decided to give myself that time by flipping the classroom. I would record my twelve ‘Grand Narrative’ lectures, place them online for students to watch at the start of the week, and then use the ‘lecture slot’ to deliver a more in-depth workshop, based on primary and historiographical material. In this way, my students would receive the basic outline of US history they needed, but contact time would be devoted to higher-level interactions.

Over the course of the module, I learned quite a bit about running a flipped HE classroom, which I would like to share over the coming weeks. The first, and perhaps most important, challenge to overcome was how to prepare and deliver the ‘Grand Narrative’.

Integrating the Flip into a Module

Rather than simply placing my existing lectures online and extending the seminar discussion, I wanted to make it clear to my students that the online lectures were fulfilling a separate, complementary aspect to the module, to be used alongside, and as preparation for, our primary-source workshops and secondary-source seminars. In the first lecture and seminar, I explained that these should be watched early in the week, before undertaking any other reading, as they would provide context and background to the more specialist journal articles and primary materials. Moreover, inside the module guidebook, I inserted a flowchart, showing how the online-lecture fed into the required readings, which would in turn feed into face-to-face meetings, and later into their assessments. All this was to ensure that the students continued to attend the face-to-face meetings and did not view the online lectures as an attempt to transform the module into a distance-learning environment.

Recording the Lecture

I had several options when it came to recording my lectures. I could book a lecture hall with video-capture technology, but this seemed ambitious for what was essentially a trial run. I could also simply upload the live audio recordings I had done the previous year, alongside the relevant slides. This, however, was unappealing as these recordings contained numerous pauses, student coughing and sneezing, abstract references to visuals or items being passed around, and unintelligible audio from film clips— all of which were easily discounted by students reviewing a lecture they had attended, but would be irritating to anyone approaching the material for the first time. In the end, I decided I would make fresh recordings of the lectures, in my home office, using a microphone and Screencast-o-Matic. This would capture my (hopefully) clear recitation of the material in time with the relevant presentation slide. I could also, where necessary, use the cursor to “point” to key parts of a map or image.

In order to record a lecture-length screen-cast, I needed to purchase a full license, but at 15 USD, this was not a particular burden. Much more difficult to bear was the seemingly endless opportunities I gave myself to perfect the lecture. Although I retained the same fifty-minute lecture slides I had used in previous years, my home recordings began to stretch significantly; at least one approached an hour and forty-five minutes. Moreover, because I was recording without the pressure of an immediate audience, I continually self-edited, re-recording any section that seemed rushed or unclear. In the end, each “hour” lecture took approximately four hours to record. Not to write, just to record. Finally, because I had decided to trial the flipped lecture a mere one month before term began, I did not have time to record all twelve lectures in advance. While they were available to students at the start of the appropriate week, several students complained (gently) that they would have appreciated the later lectures in advance in order to assist them with their essay writing. From my own perspective, this process essentially monopolised a day out of each week during the term—an often frustrating state of affairs.

Hosting the Lecture

When it came to hosting the lectures, I had two options. I could host them on the university servers through the Blackboard system, or I could upload them to a video hosting service such as YouTube. The former had the advantage of privacy. It would only be accessible to students on my module, and I could offer them in a way that would prevent downloads and distribution. Although my lectures do not contain any particularly controversial views, certainly nothing I would not be ready to stand behind in the court of public opinion, there were a number of slides that contained images of dubious copyright status. These maps and images had been inherited at some point in my education or work experience, and their precise origins were unknown to me. While showing an image of unknown copyright status in a face-to-face lecture might be ‘naughty’, it may also reasonably fall under ‘fair use’ provisions. To publish these in an open forum was much more problematic. However, because these were extremely large files, and I was recording and uploading them from my home computer, the upload time became prohibitive. Indeed, the operation often timed out without completing. Moreover, the Blackboard system is not necessarily conducive to viewing on mobile devices or (as I found out) by students with medium or low speed internet connections at home.

In the end, I opted for submission to YouTube. The procedure was very straightforward; there is an option within Screencast-o-Matic, at the end of the recording process, to upload to your YouTube account. I uploaded the lectures to a specially made account, and set the privacy settings to unlisted. This meant that they would not appear under my account, should anyone find it, nor in the YouTube search index. They would only be accessible via a specific link, which was easily embedded into my Blackboard site. YouTube has already been optimized for mobile and low-speed viewing and the interface was well understood by my students. As for copyright issues, I did in fact receive an automatic take-down notice for one of my videos (for using another YouTube video clip that had, unknown to me, been itself guilty of copyright infringement), which I complied with immediately. Once the video clip was removed, it was re-uploaded without difficulty. Nonetheless, I intend to recheck all my slides in future years, and I would strongly suggest you run your material past your university’s copyright officers to ensure they are fully compliant with ever-shifting legislation before uploading them. Indeed, I am strongly considering moving my videos to the Blackboard system, uploading them from my office PC, as a further safeguard.

Yet, if I do this, there will be some features I will miss. Besides the easy of upload and access, a particularly helpful YouTube feature was the statistics interface. From my control panel, I could see precisely how many individuals had viewed the videos, their (city-level) geographical location, and indeed which seconds within the video had actually been viewed. I learned several important facts from this information. First, no one outside Northeast England ever watched the lectures; the link had not been shared or otherwise discovered. Second, taken as an average across the entire cohort, each video was watched twice by each student; this could also be interpreted as twenty times by ten really diligent students, but this seems unlikely. Third, despite the exam being primarily based on material from the 20th century (the final six lectures), students reviewed all twelve lectures during the revision period, and at almost the same level as during the term itself. Finally, having just completed marking the exams, the level of recall by student of key themes, details, and indeed audio-visual material was greatly improved on previous years.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the semester, I compiled student feedback, examined viewing statistics and student marks, and came to a number of conclusions about the online lecture series. First and foremost is that an online lecture series is not something that should be done alone.

By ‘alone’ I do not mean an individually taught module. Rather, I mean within the wider context of a department or degree programme. The novelty of the online lectures had, despite my best efforts, encouraged a number of students to stop attending the face-to-face lectures. As my seminars and lectures were back-to-back, this resulted in a drop in seminar attendance as well. Although I knew that the online lectures were only part of the material my students would need to successfully complete the assessments, these students determined that since the podcasts, the traditional, narrative portion of the module, were available at their leisure, they could treat the module as a distance-learning course.

My second concern springs from the opposite response. For those students who did diligently watch the online lectures, attend the face-to-face lectures, undertake the reading, and attend the seminars, the module was simply too much work in comparison with the stated requirements of their other modules. Comments on feedback forms made it clear that my module was by far the most intensive they had undertaken that year. On the one hand, this is quite a compliment—I like to challenge my students. On the other, I found it somewhat worrying. From my perspective, I had designed the module in a way that made explicit all the work (reading, revising and seminar preparation) that was expected in all our undergraduate modules. In theory, my students should have been doing the same level of work in all their modules—I had simply written it out for them. If all or at least a number of modules were structured in a similar way, this would not have been a issue. As a single module in a sea of implicit, but no less rigorous expectations, it stood out as ‘unreasonable’, something that I certainly did not intend it to be.

In the end, I am somewhat conflicted about my experiment with online lectures. Yes, many students complained, or at least whinged, at the level of work two lectures required of them, especially with some online lectures running over 90 minutes in length. Yes, the attendance rate of my face-to-face lecture dropped off slightly more quickly than in previous years. But, the long-term attendance rate for my seminars was also the highest it has ever been. Rather than full attendance dropping to seventy percent in week six, and forty percent by week eight, and a quarter by the final week, as usually occurs, it was only the last week of classes (just days before Christmas) that my seminars fell below two-thirds. Second, the level of engagement with the historiography blogging project— to be discussed in my next post—rose significantly. Finally, the level of detail provided by students in their exam scripts, from the online lectures, the workshops and the seminar discussions, was incredibly high. They learned, and they remembered.

So, will I continue to stretch my contact hours with online material? Yes. Are there still a few wrinkles to iron out? Absolutely. Should you try it to? Why not!

**Image courtesy of jisc_infonet

The Ole ‘Present-Participle Animal’ It Is: A Notice to Publicans on Politicised Nomenclature

IMPORTANT TO PUBLICANS AND SINNERS!—We understand, that, in the plentiude of their indignation at the “base, tyrannical, and unconstitutional” policy of the Whig Cabinet towards Ireland the patriotic and enlightened leaders of the various Political Unions throughout the country are about to issue edicts commanding the immediate destruction of all sign boards bearing the effigy of any member of the present “detestable Whig Administration”—whether it be that of Earl Grey, Lord Brougham, Lord Althorp, or Lord John Russell, which, a few short months ago, were so exultingly hoisted on high to the exclusion even of Majesty itself. The penalty attached to non-compliance with the famous edict in question is understood to be an immediate withdrawal of custom from the offending publicans; and as the most influential of the Unionists are known to be most effective swillers both of cheap whisky and sour beer, there can be little doubt that the command will be most religiously complied with. Alas! for the ill-starred Whigs, when they are thus treated by their late slavish worshippers. The next order to be issued will, we understand, consign to the flames all the transparencies and flags which contain portraitures of the ugly phizogs of these “treacherous and tyrannical Whigs.”

Glasgow Courier, March 1833

Conquering the Undergraduate Dissertation: The Annotated Plan

As you reach the end of your undergraduate experience, you will be asked to undertake larger written works. No longer will you be confined to a mere 1500, 2000 or 3000 words. Instead, a paper of 7000 to 20000 words will be required to complete your degree.

Crafting a longer essay, usually referred to as a dissertation, can seem like a daunting task. Yet, in reality, the process of translating a good idea into an excellent dissertation is simply a series of small but straightforward steps—none of which need to frighten you.

First, you need to choose a topic, an aspect of history that you find interesting and would like to explore. You then need to develop a number of research questions to explore that topic in greater detail. Third, you need to undertake research to answer those questions. Finally, you need to write up your research in a way that explains your answers (or lack thereof) to an external audience.

Although most guidebooks focus on the final step, it is often the third that lands a student in difficulty. Moving from a good idea to a research programme can feel like stumbling into the dark. You may have a general idea of which keywords you should enter into the library catalogue or a search engine, but this often means falling back onto your overall topic, abandoning your research questions, perhaps forever. On the other hand, you may wish to simply read a long list of books, hoping something will jump out at you or that you will accumulate a sufficiently large stack of notes, out of which you can craft an acceptable paper. Only rarely do these systems result in a paper worthy of your original idea.

One solution to this perennial problem is to create an annotated dissertation plan at the start of your project. More than a mere outline of possible chapter topics, an annotated dissertation plan acts a road map for your research programme. It should include:

  • The current title of your dissertation
  • The overall aim or thesis of your dissertation
  • The current title of each of your sections or chapters
  • The specialised aim of each section or chapter, preferably in question form
  • A list of secondary sources relevant to each chapter aim
  • A (list of) question(s) that each chapter will ask of the primary material
  • A list of primary sources relevant to each chapter question

Once completed, each chapter should resemble this—derived retroactively from my own undergraduate dissertation, many years ago:

Scottish Cultural Identity in Colonial New England as Demonstrated by the Scotch-American Company of Farmers

To explain the extent to which Scottish immigrants in New England continued to define themselves as Scottish during a period of nation-forming (1770-1820)

Social and Economic Conditions of Scotland in the Years Preceding the Company’s Formation

Explain why the Ryegate immigrants traveled to New England when they did and what sort of cultural baggage they brought with them.


  • Devine, T. M. Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas, 1600-1815. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004.
  • Devine, T. M. The Scottish Nation: A History, 1700-2000. New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Dobson, David. Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1607-1785. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
  • Gray, Malcolm. “The Social Impact of Agrarian Change in the Rural Lowlands.” In People and Society in Scotland: A Social History of Modern Scotland in Three Volumes, edited by T. M. Devine and Rosalind Mitchison, 53-69. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1988.
  • Stephenson, R. Scott. “‘Were My Object to Make Money, I Would Never Leave America’: Highland Soldiers and Scottish Emigration to North America, 1756-1775.” Harvard University Working Paper No. 96-11.
  • Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking, 2001.
  • Whatley, Christopher A. Scottish Society, 1707-1830: Beyond Jacobitism, Towards Industrialisation. Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Primary question: 

What were the specific social and economic conditions of the sending community immediately prior to their departure?

  • Sinclair, John. The Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-1799. Vol. 7, Wakefield: E. P. Publishing, 1973.

Not only will crafting this sort of plan force you to better define your research questions, it will help you visualise the relative sizes of your chapters and spot any potential weaknesses, such as a heavy reliance upon a single source. Although I felt my research had been relatively robust at the time, I found in retrospect that some of my chapters had relied entirely upon one or two secondary works and that certain secondary sources had been the bedrock of every single chapter. While not fatal—I did, after all, succeed in passing my dissertation—I know now that my project could have been for more evenly researched.

This sort of plan also serves as a solid starting point for discussions with your dissertation supervisor. Presented with only a general topic, most supervisors will struggle to offer you more than a list of possible reading materials until the first drafts begin to appear. Starting with annotated plan, he or she can see your prospective sources, and how you intend to use them, and can advise you on how to better focus your research questions or which additional sources might help fill in noticeable gaps.

Finally, by separating your source materials into discrete chapter- or question-focused piles, you can more easily divide your work over the next few months. Rather than read everything in the autumn and write everything in the spring, you can work section by section, alleviating the tedium of a single, unending task and receiving crucial feedback on your research and writing style well before your final submission date.

In the end, an annotated plan created in September or October may bear little resemblance to what you submit in May. It will, however, get you off to the right start.

**Image courtesy of DailyPic

A Number of Sadly Incorrect Predictions on American Prosperity (1789)

Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, Aug. 23.

“Congress is still sitting at New York, and from the multiplicity of business before them, there is no likelihood of the session’s soon closing. We are curious to know what foreigners will say of our new commercial arrangements. Among ourselves there is but one opinion, and that is favourable. To our own vessels, a preference is undoubtedly due; and among foreign vessels and merchandise, there is no discrimination in our import and tonnage acts, every nation being on the same footing. With respect to the duties themselves, they could not be laid lower, considering the demand of supplies, which the Committee appointed to give in an estimate state at upwards of eight millions of dollars.

“Accustomed to disappointment in hopes of improvement in politics and commerce, we feel a reluctance to entertaining very sanguine wishes. Yet appearances encourage the expectation of the fœderal government’s acting with the energy and effect that will give it respectability. The prejudices and animosities created by the late contest are gradually dying away ; and to the idleness and dissipation flowing from the same source, industry has in a great degree succeeded. A progress has also been made in manufactures of various kinds that was not expected ; and the persevering in them affords a strong presumption of those concerned deriving advantage.

“Throughout the union, the public opinion on matters of government has of late experienced rapid changes. Vice President Adams, in his highly esteemed work, has fully demonstrated the absurdity of democracy, and the superior excellence of a mix form, such as that of Britain. His deductions from premises admitted as just, have abated much of the popular aversion to monarchy ; and as every thing matures quickly in our transatlantic soil, it would not surprise many, were United America to have a sovereign ear in the next century.

“In no one instance has our new administration given general satisfaction, more than in their conduct towards the Indians. The interests of those unfortunate people will be studiously attend ed to ; and they will be effectually protected against the lawless violence of the individuals or States, who wished to wrest their lands from them. This determination is dictated by policy as well humanity ; for it is now become the interest of the States to check, by every means short of violence, the erratic disposition of their citizens, who, when removed to the wilds beyond the mountains, cannot be regarded as of any value, in a political view.

The Glasgow Advertiser, 23 August 1789

Further Musings on a Multimodal Analysis of Scissors-and-Paste Journalism (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 4-part series. The full series can be seen here.

Uncovering how pre-telegraphic newspapers obtained and distributed news must be a collaborative effort. However diligent they may be, and from whatever backgrounds they may hail, individual researchers suffer from the same restraints that have plagued the acquisition of human knowledge for millennia: a lack of time, money and resource. Moreover, these three factors are particularly harmful to the mapping of reprint networks because of the interdisciplinary nature of such a pursuit.

Before the 1840s, and indeed long afterwards, the transmission of news relied upon its physical movement across oceans and along roads, rails and rivers. The distribution of information, held statically in written material as well as mutably in rumour and conversation, relied upon physical social interaction. Whether employed as a courier or undertaking a personal transfer, information could not move without two persons physically meeting—save semaphore or a message in a bottle. Thus, to map the dissemination pathways is to map a social network.

This is not a new concept, of course. The mapping of communication networks is at the core of social network theory. What makes the mapping of 18th and 19th century newspapers particularly problematic is the fact that, unlike modern sociologists or computer scientists, historians have little hope of obtaining a statistically significant sample of network interactions, or, tragically, even determining what a statistical significant sample would comprise.

Leaving aside for the moment the ever-daunting reality of forever-lost material, let us concentrate, for example, on the existing corpus of nineteenth-century British periodicals. What comprises a statistically significant sample? The British Library’s Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Collection could, perhaps, be considered one. Careful consideration of regional, temporal and thematic breadth was undertaken when titles and date-ranges were selected for digitisation. Would mapping the dissemination pathways within this single corpus provide a representative sample?

That, of course, is not the right question. The correct question is ‘how do we map the dissemination pathways of this corpus in the first place?’

Discovering the secret history of a piece of text relies upon corroboration. No one method will suffice because we have no way of determining the repeatable accuracy of any particular methodology. Instead, we have to build up confidences; how likely is it that this scrap of text was obtained in this particular way at this particular time? Which clues have been left behind?

The Dateline – This tiny strip of text, a date and location indented at the start of an article, is our first clue. This snippet does not detail the time and location of the event described, as we would assume from modern journalistic practice. Instead, the dateline provides the writer’s source. A piece on the French capital might have the dateline “Paris”, but was just as likely to say Le Havre, Amsterdam or London, as it indicated the location of the newspaper’s informant, a source who may have only obtained the news second or third-hand themselves. Thus, you might be tempted to draw a connection, and edge, between a newspaper from Leeds or Edinburgh to one of these mighty ports and onward to the city of interest—but you would be treading on dangerous ground.  Like any other word or phrase of a reprint, the dateline could be nothing more than a copy. Although a London daily might have a direct connection to Vienna, from whom it received Austrian updates, nothing demanded a Glaswegian editor change “Vienna” to “London” when the news was reprinted. Indeed, this would have been seen as lessening the authority of the information.  So, while the dateline indicates a node on the map, the connection remains obscure.

The Section – As with the dateline, the source of the information can be gleaned from the heading above it. Those labelled London or France usually indicated that the material had arrived via post or courier from that location; yet others, such as New South Wales or West Indies might indicate origin, but might also only indicate the topic. Nonetheless, mapping the frequency of these sections across an entire run does add a layer of confidence that a particular newspaper did have some connection with these locations.

The Attribution – This beautiful rarity, laying majestically at the top or bottom of a text, declares boldly the source of the content.  Despite the frustrating prevalence of A London Paper—or worse, An Evening Paper—these direct attributions offer the clearest and most unequivocal evidence of the path the news took. Yet, like the dateline, it at best proves only a node, not the previous node. At worst, it is a misattribution, leading the poor researcher down a blind alley.

The Reference – A bit more subtle than the attribution, the reference is a meandering nod to the source (at least, to the source of the writer of a particular text). ‘We find in the Examiner’ perhaps, or ‘An examination of the London dailies shows’. Provisos and prejudices still apply.

The Chronological Consistency – Explicit identifiers are helpful, but are fraught with dangers. Perhaps the most reliable way to track the spread of news is to seek out consistent copies and order them chronologically.  If an identical piece appears first in the Morning Chronicle, and then the Scotsman and then the Berwick Advertiser, with sufficient time separating them to account for movement, it is perfectly logically to assume it took just that path. The chronological consistency model, however, does not account for splits and splinters. How are we to know, for example, that the Advertiser copied from the Scotsman and not the Chronicle directly?

The Change – Splits and splinters are better accounted for by changes and, in particular, errors: An omission or addition of an adjective; The misspelling of a key name; The reordering of the text. Any change, great or small, lends a clue to the evolutionary branching of a given news item.

The Exchange  But perhaps the best clues are not in the text at all. Business records and personal correspondence between newspapers can provide crucial information. Many newspapers maintained subscriptions, formal or informal, to other newspapers. These were sometimes even declared in the first issue of a new regional title. Victorian newspapers, especially, maintained independent exchange editors, who duty it was to scour incoming publications for the best and most tantalising snippets. If a formal exchange between papers existed, it adds another layer of confidence that a particular pathway is correct.

The Family – Newspapers (and their editors) bred. Regional and colonial printers were often the former journeyman of older, more established papers, and children and siblings often joined in the family business. These young men or women often maintained friendly if not symbiotic relationships with their former employers and guardians. The uncreatively named Sydney Herald, for one, was very helpful in supplying Antipodean news to its Glaswegian namesake. With a bit of genealogical elbow-grease, we add another layer.

And finally…

The Well-Worn Path – Once these layers are built up, once we know the postal roads and sea-routes best travelled, or the pages to which the editor’s shears most naturally move, we can see the paths of least resistance. An 1810 snippet on the Swan River settlement with no date, no location, no section, no attribution, not even a passing mention of its meandering path, might still find a place in network. If, before 1815, every identifiable bit of Australian news that appeared in Caledonian Mercury came from the Morning Chronicle. Why not this one too?

With these manifold layers in mind, how best do we approach our statistically significant sample? That, dear reader, is a tale for another day.

Image Courtesy of Marcin Wichary

Confession of an Eighteenth-Century Quidnunc; or, How was I to know your sister had died?

” Living out of the World”

ABOUT two month ago I went to the country to pay a visit to a friend in a remote county; and though I am much of what may be called “a newspaper man,” I never thought of ordering my papers to be sent down to me. To my utter astonishment, my rusticlandlord did not take in own newspaper; so there was I, stuck down, with my friend in the country–knowing no more of what passed in town than if I had been in Lapland. Intending every day should be my last, I went on without ordering your, or any other paper, till two months had passed away, at which period I returned to town. And there, Sir, I was quite a new man, and just as if I had dropped down from the clouds. Every day I heard people talking of occurrences of which I knew nothing : Revolutions in France by Fishwomen ; and battles in Flanders, against the Emperor, who I thought was fighting against the Turks.

But even this was not the most distressing–for one day meeting a friend, I inquired very cordially after his wife, who I found a few days afterwards, had eloped just before with another gentleman ; and meeting with a lady, I inquired kindly for her sister, who I found had departed to the other world a fortnight before.

On this account I never will stir again “out of the world” unless your paper goes along with me. I hold a newspaper to be a kind of viaticum with which every man should be provided, and which become the more necessary the further we remove from town It. is the only way to keep pace with what is going on every day in the fashionable or literary world–and to prevent talking about dead friends, or wives that have absconded.

In short, Sir, a newspaper is my creed–and never will I again travel without my faith along with me : having fully experienced the unpleasantness of being sent back into the world as ignorant as if I had been born again–I hereby give notice–” That if an hottentot friend of mine invites me, who does not take in your paper or some other–I will not visit him.” DICK DESPERATE.

–Glasgow Advertiser, 14 December 1789

Who Caused the America Revolution? A 1789 Appraisal

The following analysis of the causes of the American, and indeed French, Revolution, appeared in the Glasgow Advertiser in November 1789. It is surprisingly similar to how the revolution was taught by my own secondary school history teacher.

“What mighty contests rise from trivial things;”
That the present Revolution in France is a consequence of the Revolution in America, cannot admit of a doubt. The American Revolution originated in Adams, a very insignificant Bostonian. Not that this Adams had the least expectation of American independence, when he fomented the opposition to the stamp-act; indeed no human wisdom could possibly have foreseen the subsequent folly and imprudence of the British administration and its obsequious Parliament. An Administration so totally destitute of commonsense, so totally ignorant of every principle of sound policy, no nation ever beheld. Adams had the sagacity to avail himself of such despicable policies.—Fortunately for the American cause,the Generals that were sent from England were of congenial abilities with the Minister, and the Americans themselves were surprised at the facility with which they acquired their independence.—Yet all the blunders of the British administration, and the miserable conduct of the British Generals, would hardly have been sufficient to emancipate America, notwithstanding her extreme weakness, without the assistance of France; and this assistance depended entirely on Dr.Franklin being driven to Paris by the fatal-philippic of a certain great lawyer. Such, therefore, is the chain of concurrent circumstances that hath overturned the French monarch. If the British minister had possessed common sagacity—if he could have distinguished a general from a corporal; if Franklin had been treated with common civility, America would have remained a British colony, and France an absolute monarch, for ages yet to come.

Clumsy in their Shape, Awkward in their Carriage


The following account of the inhabitants of this settlement is given by a late traveller.

The education of youth has hitherto been very much neglected: the government never hit upon any successful plan for the establishment of public schools; and the individual had no other ambition but that of qualifying his sons, by writing and accounts, to become servants of the Company. This body of merchants had a number of persons in their employ, who were very ill paid. Their salaries, indeed, were sufficient to afford them a bare subsistence ; but it tacitly allowed them to negotiate for themselves: the consequence of such a conduct was, that each became a kind of petty dealer. Each had his little private shop in some corner of his house. The most pal try articles were in the list of their commodities for sale ; and those who ranked high in government, and assumed a string of full-founding epithets to their names, felt no sore of indignity in retailing the produce of their gardens ; not indeed, avowedly, but through the medium of their slaves. In fact, the minds of every class, the Governor, the Clergy, the F[????]l, and the Secretary of the Court of Justice excepted, were wholly bent on trade. Knopman, or merchant, was a title that conferred rank at the Cape, to which the military even aspired. On this subject the ideas of the Dutch differ widely from those of the Chinese, who have degraded the merchant into the very lowest order of their society.

That portion of the day, not employed in the concerns of trade, is usually devoted to the gratification of the sensual appetite. Few have any taste for reading, and none for the cultivation of the fine arts.–They have no kind of public amusements, except occasional balls ; nor is there much social intercourse but by family parties; which usually consist of card playing or dancing. Money-matters and merchandize engross their whole conversation : yet none are opulent, though many in easy circumstances. There are no beggars in the whole colony, and but a few who are objects of public charity. The subsistence for these is derived from the interest of a fund established out of the church superfluities, from alms, donations, and collections, made after divine service, and not from any tax laid upon the public. Except, indeed, a few colonial assessments for the repairs of the streets and public works, the inhabitants of the Cape have little drawback on their profits, on the produce of their labour.

It has been the remark of most travellers, that the ladies of the Cape are pretty, lively, and good humoured ; possessing little of that phlegmatic tem per which is a principal trait in the national character of the Dutch. The difference in the manners and appearance of the young men and the young women, in the same family, is inconceivably great. The former are clumsy in their shape, awkward in in their carriage, and of an unsocial disposition; whilst the latter are generally of a small, delicate form, below the middle size, of easy and unaffected manners, well dressed, and fond of social intercourse; an indulgence in which they are seldom restrained by their parents, and which they as seldom turn to abuse. They are here indeed less dependent on, and less subject to, the caprice of parents than else where. Primogeniture entitles to no advantage; but all the children, male and female, share alike in the family property. No parent can disinherit a child without assigning, on proof, on at least of the fourteen reasons enumerated in the Justinian Code.

By the law of the colony, a community of all property, both real and personal, is supposed to take place on the marriage of two person unless the contrary should be particularly provided against by solemn contract made before marriage. Where no such contract exists, the children, on the death of either parent, are entitled to that half of the joint property, which was supposed to belong to the deceased, and which cannot be withheld on application after they are come of age.

It is but justice to the young females of the Cape to remark, that many of them have profited much more than could be expected from the limited means of education that the place affords. In the better families, most of them are taught music, and some have acquired a tolerable degree of execution. Many understand the French language, and some have made great proficiency in the English. They are expert at the needle, and all kinds of lace, knot ting, and tambour work, and in general make up their own dresses, following the prevailing fashion of England brought from time to time by the female passengers bound to India, from whom they may be said to

“Catch the manners living as they rise”

Neither are the other sex, while boys, deficient in vivacity or talent ; but, for want of the means of a proper education, to open their minds, and excite in them a desire of knowledge, they soon degenerate into the common routine of eating, smoaking [sic], and sleeping. Few of the male inhabitants associate with the English, except such as hold employments under the Government. This backwardness may be said to be owing in part to the different habits of the two nations, and partly, perhaps, to the reluctance that a vanquished people must always feel in mixing with their conquerors.

The Glasgow Advertiser, 23 April 1792