Collaborative History Education: Final Thoughts and Reflections, by Charlotte Crouch

Firstly, Will and I are extremely grateful to the participants of the placement for giving up their precious time to offer their reflections and feedback. For the three years that the placement has been running, I’ve come to really look forward to May and the two weeks we spend collaborating with PhD students, ECRs, and PGCE students in the final phases of their course. This positivity, and the meaningful relationships that were established this year, shone through the blog posts. This year, in our ‘new normal’, participants all reflected on how refreshing and uplifting it was to be able to share ideas and research in such a convivial setting- even if it was online! This online setting also allowed us to open the placement further to industry experts, and we are grateful to everyone who attended sessions and offered advice and feedback; the placement was better for it. 

Every year, we work hard to improve the PGCE enrichment placement and our adapted focus naturally affects the tone and content of discussions each year. The first year was an initial test to see how we could all work together; the second year had much more of an emphasis on curriculum; this past year, it really felt like the focus was on collaboration. The discussions we had in each session were honest and frank about who owns history and how we can move to dismantle structures of hierarchical knowledge.  There was a great respect for each other’s areas of expertise in the reflections. As sessional lecturers, we have very little teacher training, but the feedback from PhDs/ECRs comfortably discussing scaffolding, enquiry questions and understanding why certain seminars ‘don’t land’ is a testament to one of the core values of this placement. There were also some terrific discussions about bridging the gap between A level and undergraduate. There’s no magic switch the summer between school and university for the many students who go straight on to undergraduate History. Understanding those students’ experiences of studying history before they come into our seminars will enable us to make that switch much more accessible. 

Equally, there was also an emphasis this year on seeing students’ journey from KS3 to undergraduate, and even observing each others’ school history lessons and seminars. As many of the reflections noted, participants also considered the students who do not continue their History education past KS3 and how we can ensure that history remains accessible outside of the academy. 

Many of the responses from the now History Teachers feed into this further, highlighting how the research they discussed during the sessions can help to humanise the past for their pupils, and broaden the human experiences that their pupils encounter during lessons. As some of the answers mentioned, the small group discussions were an important space for discussing silences in collective memory and how we can better connect our students to the stories we present. Collectively, participants could offer each other little known sources and stories, new trends in historiography but also a knowledge of school pupils themselves and how to connect with them. The many references to future collaborations in the feedback makes us confident that we haven’t heard the last of these discussions. 

This is an uncertain time for everybody, as yesterday’s post highlighted. Many of us researchers have no idea if we will have teaching jobs next year, or a stable post in the future. The newly qualified History Teachers are about to enter their whirlwind first year of teaching, with perhaps little time and space to consider the collaborations we discussed. How do we continue these important discussions as the wider history community sees cuts unlike we’ve seen before? What spaces can we use for these important discussions between educators? Will there be new spaces as we step into the unknown next year? For the moment, our participants all reflected that their teaching practice has improved from the placement, but they also expressed a sense that what we all do matters. Each of our particular areas of expertise is strengthened by working together and exploring how we can help each other. I think we all left the placement this year with new stories to tell and better methods to tell them. Ultimately, I also hope we will all have a better chance of being able to support each other in the future, whatever that brings.

Collaborative History Education: Final Reflections on the Value of the Placement

Today our participants offer their final thoughts on the placement. For most, this was a positive experience at what can be a difficult time of year. Many of the historians brought attention to the problem of precarity, and we would encourage you to think about how we could continue this kind of collaboration beyond the academy. It’s clear from everyone involved, however, that there is real enthusiasm for educators to continue to work together across the school/university boundary to improve our teaching. The personal connections forged during the placement will hopefully prove fruitful in future; our hope is to expand this beyond small personal networks and encourage more researchers and teachers to work together to improve History education in the UK.


How do you hope to benefit in future from the collaborative relationships established during the placement? Do you think the placement was a good forum for discussions about improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices?


Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History Student [@alistairward]

The relationships we have forged during this placement will enable us to better diversify the history we teach. They will help us enrich our lessons with new angles, fresh research and intriguing new sources. This placement was absolutely a good forum for discussing gender representation in history teaching. The fact is that today’s teacher is desperate to enrich history by putting back the stories of the people who are missing. The placement has enabled us to start doing this.

History teachers need to be proactively anti-misogynist. This placement provided us with ways to achieve this.


Amy Gower, PhD Student [@AmyG_Historrry]

One commonality we found, as newly qualified teachers and as late-stage PhD and early career researchers, is the practical challenges we all face in the coming years. For the PGCE teachers, joining new schools with already established curricula, whilst finding their feet in the whirlwind of their first year as qualified teachers, will be a feat of endurance. For us PhD/ECRs, job precarity, looming staffing cuts across universities, and a potential gap in

institutional affiliation will also create additional obstacles to meaningful collaborations. But, universally, we are all dedicated to, and enthusiastic about, sustaining connections and nearly unanimously, we saw this placement as the starting point for a longer term collaboration, perhaps dormant temporarily, but one we all hope to return to when circumstances permit.

Building on discussions around David Hibbert and Yasmin Khan’s collaboration about the demystification of the role of the historian is one aspect that I think is key to future collaboration. Demonstrating to pupils that historians, whilst experts, are also individual people whose analysis is part of a wider, always changing and evolving, historical discussion I think will be crucial in developing pupils’ understanding of what history is as a whole, and seeing themselves as part of the process of ‘making history’. One of the key things that came up in most of our sessions was the refrain: people in the past were real people. Whilst this might seem obvious, building pupils’ understandings of and connections with people in the past is vital, not just in relation to gender, race, age, nationality, and so much more, but in developing a nuanced, engaging, and most of all empathetic history curriculum.


Becca Grosse, PhD Student [@Becca_Grose]

Local collaborative relationships will help me develop more inclusive outreach and undergraduate pedagogy by helping me scaffold material better and think about the leaky pipeline: when do students disengage with history and how can we use this to help us create outreach events that engage with people who didn’t or don’t choose to study history.

By consulting with experts (in pedagogy or otherwise) rather than trying to do everything ourselves we have opportunities to learn from other approaches and criticisms. Through collaborating, we can better understand where our understandings of historical practice align, where they diverge, and what assumptions underpin the elements we pick from other disciplines.  For example, rather than simply copying a pedagogical technique we can understand its place in a broader method and what theories we are co-opting by using it. It is a good space to discuss this. But, doing so currently relies upon decisions by individual PhDs and teachers. I work on gender and am part of my Doctoral Training Partnership’s  gender and sexuality cluster, but it wasn’t central to my topic and the discussion didn’t focus on it because so much groundwork had been provided by other speakers.


Beth Rebisz, PhD Student [@BRebisz]

Our conversations reflected the mutual desire to continue collaborations with a clear view that it is beneficial for all parties. I personally hope to benefit by improving my own teaching skills and knowing who I can turn to when I need support and ideas for this. I also think it will be imperative in the movement to decolonise school education and university teaching that teachers and academics are working together on this. We recognised that this collaboration will also be strengthened when extended to those working in museums, as archivists, or activists etc. Our discussions emphasised the need to continue actively widening who is represented in the topics we teach. Our ongoing collaboration will help by empowering us all with more knowledge to broaden representation effectively.

I believe the placement created an excellent forum to discuss improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices. Each PhD student who contributed a session assessed gender history in their own topics and this common approach demonstrated the breadth of representation that can be included in teaching. When the PGCE students presented their new curriculum to us based on our sessions, we were all blown away by how representative it was when considering gender, race, age and class. It showed the value in avoiding approaches where ‘women’s history’ is a supplementary add-on, for example. Instead the PGCE students demonstrated how vital and enriching it is for students to learn about gender history in all their topics.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

There are so many more things that came from this placement that I could ramble about for pages and pages of writing – the importance of portraying a gendered experience of slavery, how vital it is to weave a coherent story of decolonisation into a study of empire, how the use of material culture in lessons can be a fantastic way to get students into the past, but for me it all centres in on the same key takeaway – humanising the past and those who write it. If your approach to history is a human one in the classroom, it becomes much easier to weave in stories of gender and experiences in such a way that it feels less tokenistic, and more nuanced. Undeniably, students should be exposed to a wide range of stories in the classroom, and from this placement, I have learned that by appreciating the humanity of the past, perhaps these stories are better told.


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

The question about future collaboration is an emotionally complicated one. I think this placement was vital, and something that all university history departments should be engaging in if we hope to keep our discipline relevant and appealing to young people. We are all educators, and working

together to face the pressing issues of our time is critical. Personally, I now know that I have established working relationships with seven teachers who I can turn to if I have any questions about what’s going on in schools, need advice approaching a problem in the classroom or some ideas about how to build schools into grant applications. I’ve also been introduced to the world of history teachers more broadly, mostly on Twitter, and have already benefited from some fascinating pedagogical discussions. These sessions encourage a more personal level of engagement – we were able to share individual dilemmas and work through them together, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach that you might find in general advice essays or presentations. When it comes to sensitive issues like inclusivity and ethics, I think that this personal approach is really valuable.

While I will be doing some teaching in the next academic year, at this point I (like all ECRs) face a job market in tatters. I am without a permanent post, and given the plans for redundancies at universities across the UK I am unlikely to get the opportunity to secure one for some time, if at all. Moving beyond the academy and disrupting the hierarchies of knowledge that we discussed in our opening session is important, but realistically no one can do this kind of work for free.


Tom Collins, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@Tomcol23]

I would certainly like to see this continue in the future! I have already informed my new school of the collaboration placement and we are trying to come up with ways of incorporating historians from Reading and elsewhere into our A level History modules (we have just opened our Sixth Form this year). I will be teaching Politics A level next year, and if some of the historians are considering working for think tanks (which I remember some of them saying) that would be amazing to get them involved in a politics session. Furthermore, if we ever need any resources for these modules the historians said that they would be more than happy to help us which is great to hear! Something that I found really interesting from our discussions and how we can continue these relationships post-placement is looking into how we teach at Secondary level and undergraduate.

Regarding Secondary level, it would be great for the historians to observe some of our lessons, learn a few forms of pedagogy and give us feedback. We could also do the same thing for the historians; some of the teachers could observe lessons and give feedback. What we also discussed, which is really exciting, is the possibility of marking work and getting an A level teacher to mark an undergraduate piece of writing and vice versa. This creates further understanding of the transition from A level to undergraduate level.

That’s it for reflections from our participants! Check back in tomorrow for Will and Charlotte’s closing remarks.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #Rdgcollab2020

Collaborative History Education: Thoughts on Future Teaching Practices

In the second of our posts reflecting on the PGCE placement, participants were asked to think about the practical outcomes of the collaboration. The historians brought experience of teaching to the sessions, but little training. Many of them reflected upon the value of gaining knowledge of pedagogical theory and approaches in improving their future teaching. Another key outcome that the historians highlighted was a better understanding of what happens in schools, which they hope will enable them to better aid their students in the transition to undergraduate History. Most participants left the placement with ideas for individual lessons, tasks, and frameworks. For the PGCE students, this involved making use of source materials that have not made it into the secondary classroom on a large scale – the potential of oral history as a teaching tool was especially popular. All participants felt that their teaching will improve as a result of taking part in the placement.


 How will the discussions you had during the placement inform your approach to teaching in the future?


Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History student [@alistairward]

This placement will enrich our lesson content, give us new depth where the textbooks and even scholarship are lacking. We have found out about so many excellent sources e.g Medicine: the Casebook of a Stratford Practitioner, Wellcome Images; Slavery: John Newton’s Ship logs, adverts where formerly enslaved people are searching for family –


Amy Gower, PhD Student [@AmyG_Historrry]

We discussed the concept of scaffolding, a term familiar to nearly all teachers, but less familiar to those of us in university teaching, especially given the nature of our roles as sessional staff, who don’t often have scope to design our own content. Thinking about how to build up to the big questions and create those supports early on, rather than just enthusiastically barrelling into a seminar with an ambitious plan, provoked some important reflections.

Hearing from the PGCE teachers about the way enquiry questions, and sometimes problematic exam requirements, shape the way secondary school history is taught was completely illuminating; we often encounter common misconceptions and clashing approaches among first-year undergraduates without interrogating why this is the case.

Building on this more nuanced understanding of what toolkit our students arrive with will, I hope, be transformative in how we can support students to develop this skillset further.


Becca Grose, PhD Student [@Becca_Grose]

The placement highlighted the importance of discussing reception and historiography in teaching and outreach when we talk about primary sources i.e. highlighting other historians, different interpretations, and other forms of interpretation like historical fiction.

Scaffolding emerged as key to classes and outreach. Backwards planning is not always possible as a seminar tutor or when speaking at a one-off outreach event. Collaboration is central, as is thinking critically about the knowledge or skills that we assume and whether we could make our sessions more inclusive.

Given the unusual format, we discussed spaces of learning both in my session and during the sessions with guest speakers. E-learning changes the way we interact, and discussion centred discussion about spaces and hierarchies. In the future I will consider the ways that space enforces or destabilises hierarchies when making decisions between different sites of learning (online, in seminar and lecture rooms, off-campus institutions and public spaces).


Beth Rebisz, PhD Student [@BRebisz]

This placement is particularly wonderful for PhD students as it provides us an opportunity to learn and better refine our own teaching practices with the experts themselves. They have offered me ways in which to teach my research, sharing ideas and strategies. Collaborating with the PGCE students has enabled me to better contextualise my own research in relation to broader topics. Preparing for this placement encourages me to reflect on how I can best present my research in relation to current affairs. For example, we discussed at length the ongoing need to decolonise the secondary education curriculum. This is something that sits at the forefront in my mind when considering further steps I need to take to ensure my teaching and writing is inclusive and actively anti-racist.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

I think, for me, the biggest issue that was raised in our discussions about History was around humanising the people of the past. I think for me, the place where this became the clearest was when looking at medieval/early modern medicine with Dr Katie Phillips [@ktfaith] and Amie Bolissian-McRae [@AuntieAmie]. What became apparent in both of our discussions was the massive role that women played in medicine at these times. By seeking to approach the history of medicine as a very human experience (which it is – what better way to get your students to relate to the people of the past, then through something which they will have experienced themselves), it is not unbelievable that students will be able to see the people of the past as more human, rather than as fictional characters. In my own experiences, students have laughed at the ‘nonsense’ cures people came up with during the Black Death, but by helping students understand not only the way that people thought about medicine in the past, but also the way that separate genders experienced medicine, perhaps this can lead to a more nuanced discussion in the classroom that goes further than ‘well they were stupid so that’s why they all died’.


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

I have so much more awareness now of the skills, knowledge, and approaches that my students have when they first arrive at university. At times I have found it hard to meet my students where they’re at, but the placement has given me a much firmer understanding of why some of what I try to do doesn’t land.

The teachers had some fascinating, creative ideas about individual lessons that I’ll definitely try to work into my teaching. There were some especially interesting ideas about how to make historiography more interesting and approachable, using it as a lens to analyse not only the era we’re studying but also the changing nature of the history profession. Given the deeply embedded problems of inequality in the profession, this was something I was especially drawn to. Their commitment to weaving through different methods, sources, fields and lenses was inspiring. I’ve found that I often sacrifice creativity in teaching in the name of just getting the job done; this session made me realise that doing both at once isn’t actually as complicated as I’d convinced myself it was.


Tom Collins, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@Tomcol23]

I found the idea of using oral history in the classroom a fantastic idea and this is something that I will certainly be taking forward. The school where I will be teaching includes many SEN and EAL pupils and getting pupils to hear and/or see an interpretation of history becomes much easier for these pupils than simply reading them. Pupils can hear and see the emotion the historian gives, which making it easier for pupils to see that passion and enthusiasm from historians, rather than trying to imagine it simply by reading it.

I will certainly be using more scholarship in the classroom – it is vitally important for pupils to see the arguments historians write, and get them to identify history as a construct that can change over time with constantly having new information being released to the public.


Check back in tomorrow for our participants’ final thoughts on the placement as a whole, including reflections on this format as a space for thinking about gender history and teaching.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #Rdgcollab2020

Collaborative History Education: Reflections on the Key Issues Raised in Our Discussions

In the first of this week’s reflective posts, today will cover our participants’ thoughts on the key issues raised in their individual sessions. Our participants highlighted a number of issues that particularly stood out to them, such as decolonising the curriculum, tackling difficult or uncomfortable histories and broadening the historical actors that pupils encounter. Another common theme was the pupils themselves, considering their journey from KS3 and in some cases, their transition from A level to undergraduate. Many participants considered how we can work together to better connect pupils to the stories they study and how those stories have been constructed.


 What were the key issues raised in your discussion?

 Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History student

The content of many of the researchers’ presentations highlights some real discrepancies between up-to-date research and what is being taught in schools. For example, the  current very popular GCSE thematic study on Health (e.g. AQA) is woefully lacking on topics such as leprosy , women and sophisticated treatment of the four humours. We also discussed a more representative curriculum with sensitive ways to teach difficult histories. Slavery should be told through the eyes of the enslaved, with a focus on family and community and gendered experiences. The changing way the story of slavery has been told over time  also makes for a fascinating study of historiography. The Mau Mau Uprising would be a good example of violent decolonisation. Interestingly one of the most important Mau Mau field marshalls, Muthoni Kurima, was a woman. In fact, we learnt about the need to look deeper at ethnicity and race in the medieval world, too. Figures of notes were the Greek speaking Syrian refugee Theodore of Tarsus who became Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Libyan refugee Hadrian of Canterbury who became England’s greatest ever educator. One last standout issue was the different methodologies used by the researchers and how we might benefit from using  oral history in the classroom. 


Amy Gower, PhD student [@AmyG_Historrry]

Our session focused on two things; history teaching within the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, and the history of childhood more broadly. A key issue that we discussed at length was the current status of the inclusion of children in the history curriculum. We looked at the ways in which children and teenagers are not always in the most obvious places in the archive, and how this affects their representation in secondary history curricula. Some current practice focuses on the effects of broader historical change on children, for instance child labour in Victorian Britain, but not necessarily on how children themselves contribute to historical change. We agreed that seeing children and young people as instigators of change and as active historical agents would be incredibly beneficial to current school pupils, not just as a way of engaging pupils with history but also for developing pupils’ esteem and confidence. We took as inspiration the Motherland project, a two year project in the 1980s by Elyse Dodgson, which encouraged pupils in Vauxhall to design a play about West Indian women’s arrival to London in the 1950s based on oral history testimonies gathered by pupils. We hoped by developing similar projects now, pupils would be able to see themselves as historians and practitioners in their own right.

One of the most valuable aspects of this placement was our whole group discussion on the first day, when we talked about the leaky pipeline of pupils studying history from Key Stage 3 to university, and our roles in trying to plug those gaps, especially in relation to pupils already underrepresented in history throughout school, university, and academia.[1] Is the end goal just to get more pupils in general studying history, or is there more to it than that? And how can we make sure that, while making further study of history accessible to all, those pupils who choose not to study history from the end of year nine still benefit?


Becca Grose, PhD student [@Becca_Grose]

Some of the questions we discussed in my session included:

An earlier period does not mean a less complex history; how do we teach history chronologically without suggesting a more innocent or simple past?  What are the implications of simplifying ancient empires for later discussions of imperialism and colonisation? 

Late-antique and early-medieval history don’t feature in GCSE options: should we approach these areas differently at KS3 or outreach?

 Material culture is not as central to secondary teaching or History undergraduate courses as textual criticism. Can we use it as a bridge between primary and secondary teaching, and between secondary and tertiary teaching?

 How do we approach active debates (i.e. the use of “Anglo-Saxon”) and can universities help teachers with this by sharing current exam questions and reading lists?


Beth Rebisz, PhD student [@BRebisz]

I titled my session this year: ‘Deconstructing “The White Man’s Burden”’ with the overall aim of discussing colonial representations and marginalised narratives in the context of British colonialism in Africa. I used Rudyard Kipling’s poem of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899) as a springboard to explore colonial justifications to Empire-building. The session was designed with the harrowing events taking place in May in mind, particularly the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing indiscriminate brutality against #BlackLivesMatter protestors. Although my research is not situated in a US context, the issue of systemic racism and white supremacy sit at the core of any research of British colonialism and particularly the colonial encounters on the African continent.

My session was then used to have some broader discussions on ‘the Scramble for Africa’, settler colonialism and the process of decolonisation. More focused discussion came from our conversations on late-colonial conflict, mainly the counter-insurgency campaign fought by the British colonial government against anti-colonial insurgents in Kenya during the 1950s. During these discussions we tackled issues of gender and race when analysing how Kenyan insurgents were depicted to Western audiences at the time. This sparked fascinating conversations among the group of the enduring legacies of colonialism when we think about race and power dynamics today.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

A key takeaway from the discussions was around not only humanising the past, but also humanising the historian. So often in the classroom, pupils imagine historians as dusty old white men, hiding away in archives/libraries. Through this collaboration, many avenues have been opened to us as teachers to try and incorporate historians into the classroom. We can include one of the many wonderful young women historians’ faces next to something we are studying to help pupils understand who actually constructs the history they study. We can also use the new-fangled technology that everyone’s become accustomed to during COVID-19 to support a Q&A discussion with an ECR historian in real time, or even invite a historian in for the day. History is fundamentally a construction, influenced wholly by people’s beliefs and culture at the time of writing – what better way to demonstrate that to students than by exposing them to a wide variety of historians from different backgrounds!


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

I really aimed to talk with the teachers about humanising histories of the transatlantic slave trade in the classroom. To that end, we discussed slavery as an institution beyond simply an economic system: we discussed enslaved people’s family lives, culture, religion, and their relationships to enslavement. We had some really interesting discussions about the nature of historical research and how to make students and pupils feel connected to that. We shared some especially interesting ideas about silences in the archive and encouraging learners to approach this as researchers do: thinking about what’s not there, considering where it could be found, drawing on methods from other disciplines. The teachers were all keen to highlight historians themselves in their classrooms, drawing pupils’ attention to the people behind the books they study. I was especially impressed by their commitment to weaving method and historiography into the curriculum, and it inspired me to think more about the extent to which I do this in my own teaching.

Our discussion went far beyond what I initially anticipated, however. The immediate context of the session really informed this – we met on Wednesday 9 June, around a week and a half after George Floyd was murdered by police, reigniting protests around racial inequality across the world. Calls in the UK to decolonise the curriculum were louder than ever, and I think we all recognised that we needed to discuss some of those issues. We spoke a lot about our positionality as white teachers and historians and thought about the best ways to acknowledge in our classrooms the privilege that we benefit from.


Tom Collins, History Teacher,  former PGCE student [@Tomcol23]

One of the interesting topics for participants was identifying and understanding the transition pupils face from A level History to being a first year undergraduate. We covered essay writing as the nature of assessment at A level tends to lend itself to structured and rigid writing and considering both sides of an argument is encouraged. This method can completely contradict essay writing at undergraduate level; the historians mentioned how frustrating it was when their undergraduates made a really good argument, and then counter-argued it. This will be good background knowledge for the historians when they teach modules in the future as they will understand some of the assessment expectations at A level and will be better equipped to train their first year undergraduates.

We covered a wealth of other topics too, including:

  • Different forms of pedagogy (we had a good discussion with one PhD student about how to get pupils more confident to speak out in seminar sessions)
  • Getting pupils to identify what historians actually do
  • Incorporating more representative histories in the classroom
  • Using oral history in the classroom
  • Using material sources in the classroom


Check back in tomorrow for our participants’ thoughts on how the placement will inform their teaching practice in the future.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #rdgcollab2020


[1] The ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor has been used as a metaphor to refer to the decreasing proportions of women and black, Asian, and ethnic minority scholars in academia, from school, through university study and into the academic profession. For more on how this relates to the history profession, see the RHS Gender Equality Report here: and the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report here:


Collaborative History Education: Roundtable Reflections on PGCE Enrichment Placement, by Charlotte Crouch

This summer, many of the postgraduate members of the Gender Research Cluster took part in one of the PGCE Enrichment placements run by the Institute of Education here at Reading. In its third year running, the placement connects postgraduate researchers in the History Department with History PGCE students at the Institute of Education here at Reading. The aim of the placement is to facilitate open exchanges of knowledge and expertise, challenge privileged hierarchies of knowledge, and improve the teaching practices of all participants.

Over the coming week, we will use this blog as a forum to discuss some of the placement’s outcomes and feedback from some of the participants. 

Run by William Bailey-Watson, subject lead of the History PGCE at the Institute of Education and Charlotte Crouch (I’ve recently completed my doctorate with the History Department), the placement invites postgraduate researchers and PGCE trainees to work together to access cutting edge research and up-to-date pedagogical knowledge. In its first year, emphasis was placed on the PhD students’ research and how this knowledge might be used in the classroom. Whilst this remains an important element, the placement has evolved over the past three years to facilitate meaningful exchanges between all participants as educators, both respecting one another’s expertise and learning how to develop all participants’ teaching practices. 

Each postgraduate researcher hosted their own morning session, which was followed by a collaborative afternoon discussion. Our researchers all used their morning sessions differently; some key themes included myth busting their particular areas of research, drawing attention to stories they thought important to share, and unpicking particular methodologies, types of sources or historiography. The collaborative afternoon sessions were both ambitious and practical, covering the particular opportunities or barriers to using each researcher’s work in schools, university and more widely in the history community. The trainees offered advice around how the researchers could approach teaching in seminars and where their research could fit within school history, whether that be an entire scheme of work, drawing from anecdotes to give a greater sense of period or understanding historians’ methodologies. There were also many exciting conversations about how all participants could continue to work together and collaborate after the placement.

This year had a different feel for several reasons. The main change was moving the entire placement online. Whilst this process had its challenges, it also brought many extra opportunities. We were able to invite external speakers to share their own experiences of collaborating with schools and universities. Jason Todd (University of Oxford) and Arthur Chapman (UCL) kindly acted as expert sounding boards when we were fine tuning our aims and suggesting shared reading and activities. [1] David Hibbert gave an insightful talk about the challenges and benefits of using historians’ work in the classroom and joined Claire Kennan in a Q and A about collaboration outside of the academy. Arthur Burns and Ben Walsh were also able to join us and take part in some of the discussions. We were able to introduce the placement with all participants together and discuss shared reading in breakout groups. 

Over this coming week, we will share the results of our participants’ collaborative discussions, their feelings on the importance of these exchanges, and why they were particularly relevant this year. 

Here are the researchers and teachers who took part in this placement: 

Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Amie Bolissian-McRae, PhD Student

Amy Gower, PhD Student

Beth Rebisz, PhD Student 

Becca Grose, PhD Student

Charli Burns, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Josh Dixon, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Judith Sotes, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Katie Phillips, Early Career Researcher

Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher

Robyn Sampson, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Sophie Springer, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student

Tom Collins, History Teacher, former History PGCE Student


Each day, we will share some of their responses to each of the following questions:

Tuesday: What were the key issues raised in your discussions? 

Wednesday: How will the discussions you had during the placement inform your approach to teaching in the future?

Thursday: How do you hope to benefit in future from the collaborative relationships established during the placement? Do you think the placement was a good forum for discussions about improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices?

Friday: Reflections from Will and Charlotte

Please do continue these conversations on Twitter, using #Rdgcollab2020


[1] As recommended by Jason Todd and Arthur Chapman, participants all read and discussed the following: R Samuel (1996), Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, ch. 1; P Seixas (1993), ‘The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History’, American Educational Research Journal

Image-ining Gender: Old Man Winter: Ageing Masculinity in Early Modern European Culture, by Amie Bolissian


By the seventeenth century, depicting Winter as an old man was nothing new. This painting, taken from a set of The Four Seasons by renowned Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), was part of an allegorical tradition stretching back to antiquity. The theme was old but the setting and detail were contemporary. In its need to convey symbolic meaning to early modern European audiences, the image can provide insights into cultural assumptions about masculinity and ageing from this period.

Teniers painted several versions of The Four Seasons. He used figures of men, and usually repeated the same allegorical motif for each version: Spring holds a tree to be planted, Summer gathers a wheatsheaf, Autumn raises a glass of wine or spirits, and Winter wears heavy clothing, and warms himself with a brazier. A clear visual clue that the figure of Winter is old is his ‘hoary’ (white) hair and beard. This age signifier was referenced in drama, artwork, and texts. The King James translation of Proverbs 20:29 stated: ‘The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head’.

Using an old person to depict cold, wet Northern hemisphere winters worked on more than one level in this period. Not only was Winter perceived as the final senescent, barren stage of the year, but also old men’s bodies were believed to be constitutionally cold and wet. 

According to the dominant Humouralist concepts of the body, the process of ageing gradually used up our life-giving store of good moisture and heat. Eventually, ‘olde folk’ would be left cold, dry in their ‘solid parts’, and clogged up with cold, wet humours such as phlegm. The old man in our painting makes his way through a cold, snowy landscape beside a frozen lake or river, carrying a brazier for warmth. Winter is dressed in thick clothes, with a fur-lined hat. Instantly we can see old age visually related to both coldness and wetness. In medical understandings of the body, however, these associations had significant repercussions for masculinity.

Coldness and wetness were linked to weakness, softness, ill-health… and womanhood. Women’s bodies were believed to be cooler and wetter than men, compounding pervasive assumptions about women’s feebleness and inferiority. Conversely, healthy men in their prime (25-45/50 years) were supposed to be the perfect balance of heat and moisture, often labelled as ‘hot and dry’. Masculinity was consequently linked to heat, fire, and strength, whereas femininity was associated with coolness, water and weakness – especially in art. This meant that, in what Gail Kern Paster refers to as early modern humouralism’s ‘caloric economy’, as men entered old age and began cooling and abounding in cold, wet humours, they essentially started to embody undervalued ‘female’ constitutional properties.[1] 

In our image of Winter, the old man is also hunched, diminished in size, and his walking stick suggests lameness – both indicating a loss of manly strength. On his belt he carries a full purse which was probably a reference to widespread beliefs that older people, like women, were prone to ‘covetousness’ and ‘avarice’. The English author Thomas Wright wrote that ‘olde men, and women are consecrated to covetousnes’ because they lacked the ‘force’ of young men to gather more money and goods.[2] The expression on Winter’s face appears apprehensive, with his slightly opened, downturned mouth, and frowning raised eyebrows. Fear was associated with coldness, old age, and women. Emotions were deeply embodied in this period, and doctors believed that a person’s warm blood and lively spirits rushed to their heart when scared or fearful, abandoning the face and limbs and leaving them pale, cold, and trembling. The Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius explained that coldness made men ‘fearefull, timorous and fainthearted… which is a thing peculiar to womenkinde’.[3] 

Another unique feature of the figure of Winter is that he is looking backwards, unlike the other three seasons who stare straight out at the viewer into the present. A tendency to look backwards and dwell in the past was thought to partly explain a further non-masculine trait in old men, that of excessive talkativeness, and wanting to share ‘What they have bin, what they have done, what they have had’.[4] Talkativeness was firmly associated with women during this period, and was tainted with connotations of idleness and ‘folly’. Theologian Richard Baxter declared: ‘Women, and Children, and old folks, are commonly the greatest talkers’.[5]  The term ‘gossip’ originated from the group of ‘gossips’ or godparents who attended a baptism, and were mostly women. 

Yet, it was not all bad news for our figure of Winter and ageing masculinity. In comparison to the other seasons, Winter seems to be affluently dressed, with a fur trimmed coat and hat, and a gold chain. Older men, who had retained their status and their memories, and were ‘sober’ and ‘temperate’, were thought to have access to positive ageing masculine attributes. Authors listed wisdom, good council, and steadfastness as admired qualities which were easier to attain in old age, after the lusts and ‘heat’ of youth had subsided.[6] Richard Steele declared that ‘Youth have usually the large Sails, but Old-age hath the solid Ballast, and therefore doth sail more steadily and more safely’.[7] The ageing ‘male’ stereotype could therefore encompass authority and wisdom, as well as weakness, fear, and miserliness.

While Teniers’ allegorical image of Winter cannot testify as a historical source for a specific individual, event, or lived experience, it does seem to capture expressively the ambivalent cultural attitudes towards older men in Europe during this period. It helps illustrate how the ‘natural’ cooling and weakening of old age could both erode certain early modern masculine traits and give easier access to others during the winter of a man’s life.


Further reading: Shepard, Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003); Toulalan, Sarah, ‘‘Elderly years cause a Total dispaire of Conception’: Old Age, Sex and Infertility in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine, 29/2 (2016), 333-59.; Reinke‐Williams, Tim, ‘Manhood and Masculinity in Early Modern England’, History Compass, 12/9 (2014), 685-93.


[1] Paster, Gail Kern, ‘Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy’, English Literary Renaissance, 28/3 (1998), 420.

[2] Wright, Thomas, The passions of the minde in generall (London, 1604), 38.

[3] Lemnius, Levinus, The Touchstone of Complexions, (London: 1576), 16v.

[4] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 47.

[5] Baxter, Richard, A Christian Directory, (London: 1673), 434.

[6] See: Cicero, Marcus Tullius, The worthye booke of old age (London, 1569), 11r.

[7] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 108.


Amie is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AuntieAmie

Image-ining Gender: ‘She hits massa with de hoe:’ The Weaponization of Plantation Labour Equipment by Enslaved Women in the Antebellum American South, by Erin Shearer

Three women and one man hoeing in field, (1899), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division []



This photograph, titled Three women and one man hoeing in a field, depicts the agricultural labour of unidentified African Americans in the late nineteenth century. The image not only offers a glimpse into the lives of Black Southerners before the turn of the century, but also provides an insight into the labour performed by enslaved people during the antebellum era (1815-1861) and the height of ‘King Cotton.’ 


The hoe served as a crucial tool of agricultural development on Southern slaveholding sites during the antebellum era.  Enslaved men and women often hoed crops alongside each other in back breaking conditions from ‘sun-up to sun-down’, cultivating the land of the elite and thus lining the pockets of their enslavers.[1] Consequently, for many African Americans, the hoe not only served as a tool of oppression but also stood as a symbol of their enslavement. 


Paradoxically, enslaved women often utilised tools of slavery such as the hoe as an object of resistance. Enslaved women created various violent strategies to resist victimisation, affirm agency and identity, and to protest against the legalised rape and abuse of their bodies in creative and subversive violent ways. The utilisation of plantation labour equipment ironically provided strategies for survival and allowed women to protest and resist white mechanisms of control. 


Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted in the 1930s reveal a clear and distinct theme of enslaved women’s violence and illuminate how agricultural implements, such as the hoe, were utilised as an object of women’s resistance. When interviewed in the state of Texas, one formerly enslaved man described how an enslaved woman, Clarinda, violently resisted her slaveholder’s sexual advances, or attempts to ‘[inter]‘fere with her,’  by physically assaulting him with the hoe she was operating in the plantation field: 


‘De worst whippin’ I seed was give to Clarinda. She hits massa with de hoe ‘cause he try ‘fere with her and she try stop him.’[2]


Additionally, a respondent named Richard Crump described how his mother would stand inside her cabin equipped with a hoe and would challenge the residing overseer to enter and beat her. Afraid of trespassing into the armed enslaved woman’s cabin, the overseer let her be.[3] Lucindy Allison reported to a WPA interviewer how her mother, while labouring in the field, violently threatened to ‘chop up’ the plantation overseer ‘into pieces’ with her hoe if he attempted to whip her pregnant daughter. Unwilling to take the risk of potentially combatting two armed women, the overseer relented.[4] These examples demonstrate that women converted agricultural equipment into deadly weapons which could be utilised against slaveholders and overseers at any time to subvert authority. Bondswomen used plantation equipment as their own form of personal protection which extended to their children as women attempted to curb the generational cycle of abuse which operated on slaveholding sites. 


Slaveholders expected women who laboured as field hands to perform the same heavy work as men and little distinction was made between the two sexes, as highlighted by Anne Clark, who informed her interviewer that she ‘ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man did, I was strong.’[5] The enforced labour implemented upon enslaved women inadvertently gave them the skills and experience needed to be able to transition the hoe from an innocent farm implement into a deadly weapon within seconds. 


The weaponization of the agricultural hoe specifically had many practical advantages. The hoe easily transitioned from an everyday farming tool to offensive weapon due to its light weight, long reach and sharp metal blade. Swinging the lightweight hoe required minimal strength and the metal blade edge could easily damage skin or crack bones of the intended target. Additionally, its long reach allowed the user to attack the intended victim and kept them from any immediate short-range counterattacks. Overall, converting equipment into weapons bolstered bondswomen’s violence, provided extra protection for themselves and others, and allowed them to overcome any possible physiological shortcomings due to the practical advantages of the weapon.  Therefore, it is not surprising that enslaved people, most notably women, converted this tool of enslavement into an object of resistance.


The descriptions of these women speak to a celebration and appreciation of the efficacy of women’s violence. They demonstrate how enslaved women rejected contemporary narratives of both white supremacy and inevitable masculine dominance through a resistance tactic still largely unexplored by historians of slavery. The weaponization of equipment by enslaved women forces historians to expand our understandings of those behaviours and actions we constitute as gendered. The testimony provided by the formerly enslaved clearly reveals that violence was not solely a male phenomenon, and it challenges contemporary and historical ideas around resistance, activism and identities forged in slavery. It asks us to reconceptualise the gendered boundaries we have drawn around strategies for survival. 

[1] Henry D. Jenkins, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3

[2] Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2

[3] Richard Crump, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[4] Lucindy Allison, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[5] Anne Clark, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1


Erin Shearer is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @erinshearer05

Image-ining Gender: ‘medieval sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ by Charlotte Crouch

(Arch. de la Côte-d’Or, P.S 440)

Opening a box in the archives and seeing a medieval seal like this one can be breathtaking. Finding this 733 year old seal certainly brightened a particularly rainy day in Dijon last year. This seal belonged to Margaret, countess of Tonnerre in Burgundy and for a time, queen of Sicily. Seals were attached to documents to authenticate their contents. This particular seal is still attached to a charter, issued by Margaret in 1287, regulating her portion of her uncle’s inheritance. It signalled the beginning of the end of a decade-long inheritance dispute after the duke of Burgundy’s heir died, leaving behind three daughters, one of whom was Margaret.

Her seal contains many signs of her status; her crown signifies her title of Queen of Sicily before her husband’s death; the heraldic shields either side of Margaret show her familial links to the French crown and the duchy of Burgundy and her titles circling the outside of the oval seal gave her the authority to make the decisions concerning her lands in the charter. Margaret’s seal was designed to identify her individually, but also to represent her status as an aristocratic woman and heiress.

As recently as last year, the editors of a new collection on aristocratic women lamented how little the work on women like Margaret has permeated the discourse concerning the aristocracy.[1] Unlike England at the time, the French aristocracy had far more flexibility and control over their own inheritance, which opened the door for aristocratic women to make politically consequential decisions concerning their own lands. Yet women are still too often seen as exceptional when they occupied positions of authority, and still seen as ‘a cipher’ in relation to their husbands or children.[2] The charter and Margaret’s seal can be used to further show the need to nuance this narrative. The context around this charter and the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reveals the diversity of experience of aristocratic women.

There are many different layers that we must consider when researching medieval women. Hearing women’s voices can be particularly difficult considering that most of the written sources which have survived come to us through the voices of educated church men. Very few chronicles and literary sources can shed light on Margaret’s life, or indeed the lives of most medieval women. Yet when we begin to piece together different types of evidence, such as the many charters Margaret left behind, and her religious and artistic patronage, we can start to build a picture of Margaret’s own experiences.

Studying seals and how they change across women’s life cycles, for example, can be revealing.[3] By comparing Margaret’s two seals from before and after her husband’s death, we can see key differences in how she wished to be portrayed.

 Marguerite’s two seals, before and after her husband’s death[4]

Her seal during her marriage showed her wearing  expensive jewellery and clothing lined with ermine, befitting for the queen of Sicily. In her widowhood, and during her extensive programme of religious patronage, Margaret’s second seal removed such obvious displays of wealth.


The back of Margaret’s second seal, the counter-seal, contained Margaret’s family arms within a daisy; very possibly linking her name in French (Marguerite) to marguerite daisies. Her impressive religious patronage, including the foundation of an important religious hospital in her county of Tonnerre, perhaps continued to show her influence with marguerites dotted all over tiles and stained glass.[5] Some of her surviving charters were also decorated with red marguerites, suggesting that Margaret held an element of control over how she was represented, in both documents and material culture.

After her father’s death, Margaret was drawn into a decade long inheritance dispute with her two sisters, Yolande and Alice, concerning both their maternal and paternal inheritance. Yolande, as the oldest daughter, believed she was entitled to inherit all of her mother’s and father’s lands. Alice, as the youngest, believed that at least the maternal lands should be divided equally between the three sisters. Charters like the one pictured above depict the youngest sister, Alice, nominating representatives to make her case at different aristocratic courts, pleading that her sister Yolande was unfairly withholding lands. Eventually, the case was referred to the king’s court, where it was decided that the daughters would have a county from their maternal lands each, and the rest of the maternal inheritance would be split equally.

It was common for siblings to refer inheritance cases to courts and does not necessarily represent sour relations between the sisters. Their great-grandmother was reprimanded by the pope for engaging in violent action against her half-brother to defend her own inheritance but there is no evidence this sort of thing happened between the three sisters. Whilst Yolande would pursue a court case for her paternal inheritance for ten years, this charter describes Margaret declining her own share of her father’s inheritance and settling it outside of the court case. The charter marks the beginning of the end of the ten year long dispute in which all three sisters made decisions concerning their own inheritance. Yolande and Alice chose to vehemently defend their rights to their own lands, whilst Margaret appears to have taken a back seat in the negotiations; she did not send a representative for the earlier court case and decided to settle her paternal inheritance directly with her half-brother.

Out of the three sisters, Margaret does appear to have had a better relationship with her younger sister, Alice, who visited her whilst Margaret was on crusade with her husband. Indeed, without any heirs, Margaret decided to leave her own county of Tonnerre to Alice’s son.

The change in the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reflects her changing priorities across her lifetime. The charter to which this seal was attached also describes her reaction to the inheritance dispute, which was different to that of her sisters. Whether or not the sisters got the results they had been hoping for, they all acted with different motivations and from different perspectives, a long way from the ‘ciphers’ of men or ‘exceptions’ they might still be labelled as today. Whilst Margaret’s seal is exceptionally beautiful, the charter she issued and the actions of the siblings were expected and completely unexceptional.

Charlotte Crouch recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter : @CharCrouch

[1] Ed. H. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400: Moving Beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

[2] Ed. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women, p. 1-2

[3] See, for example, E. Jordan, ‘Swords, Seals and Coins: Female Rulers and Instruments of Authority in Thirteenth-Century Flanders and Hainaut’ in ed. S. Solway, Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015) pp. 229- 246

[4]  M. P. Lillich, The Queen of Sicily and Gothic Stained Glass in Mussy and Tonnerre (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998) p. 33

[5] See Lillich, The Queen of Sicily, esp. p.29-37 and p. 81