Reading and freedom

Open book with quote from Frederick Douglass: ‘Once you learn to read you will be forever Free.’

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery to become a famous abolitionist and social reformer in the United States. He became known for his powerful oratory and writing, including his bestselling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. This is available for free download, in a number of formats, from Project Gutenberg.

You can find more inspirational quotes in my post Looking for a Little Inspiration?

Supporting Learning: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

One event that had become a regular feature of the schools’ education programme at the Bodleian Libraries is the annual study day for A Level English Literature students studying Chaucer.

It hasn’t been possible to a physical event this year, so the event will move online. This has allowed us to explore ways in which the event can be accessible to a greater range of schools, beyond those who can make the journey to Oxford.

We are adopting a blended approach of asynchronous and synchronous learning. Students will be able to access recorded resources at any time, in preparation for a live Q&A event with specialist academics.

The first elements are recordings of two talks by lecturers which we have made available on the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers web pages. Dr Nicholas Perkins discusses how understanding medieval books and the interpretation of texts in Chaucer’s time can help to deepen our reading of Chaucer’s work. Dr Marion Turner explores Chaucer’s tale collection genre and its social, political, and poetic contexts. Both talks include closed captions.

I hope these will be useful to those teaching or learning about the Canterbury Tales. As always, I welcome constructive comments, so do let me know what you think.

If you liked these resources, you might also be interested in my post on the history of medicine.

Supporting Learning: Teaching Study Skills

Last month, I wrote about a series of Study Skills Guides I had produced as part of my work at The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. They are available online as part of our OxLibris programme.

I have now finished a set of tutorials that take students through the topics covered. These are Primarily designed to help students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) but they are applicable to any coursework or essay research. They are a development of teaching resources we have previously delivered in schools, or to school groups visiting libraries. These units are intended to either be used as a teaching aid in school or college, or for students to work through independently.

The five tutorials form a set covering good academic practice. Alternatively, each can be used as a stand-alone unit. Once a tutorial has been covered, the accompanying study skills guide acts as a handy single page aide memoir for students as they carry out their own research.

Effective Online Research covers how to form a precise research question, the limitations of search engines, and how to use advanced search engine tools for more effective online research.

Evaluating Online Resources shows students how to evaluate the quality of information from online resources, cross-reference sources and spot fake news.

Effective Note Taking covers how to take more effective notes that focus on connecting ideas and concepts to reinforce your learning. The unit uses Cornell Notes as an example of an effective tried-and-tested system.

Avoiding Plagiarism Shows students how to ensure that they acknowledge their sources of information correctly and fulfil the requirement to avoid plagiarism in their work.

Referencing covers how to reference sources of information in work using in-text citations and a bibliography. The unit explores how to use two referencing systems: the Harvard name-date system and the recurrent number system.

I hope you find these learning units helpful, either in your teaching or as resources to support students’ independent learning. Please do let me know what you think of them in the comments. I welcome suggestions for improvements, or for additional topics.

If you’re interested in effective study, you might like my earlier post on music and revision.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 8

For Diverse Book Week this year, I have been reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explained why I chose this book at the start of the week. This is my concluding update. I know a week doesn’t have 8 days, but I needed a little longer to finish! You can catch up with my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 -Day 4.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 5.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 6.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 7.

The final chapters of the book take us from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. This was a period of huge social change in Britain and themes that run through this section are a nation uncertain of its identity in the light of these changes, and differing views among individuals about what it means to be British.

The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of social Darwinism and other ‘scientific’ approaches to ‘race’. As a biologist, I find this an extremely uncomfortable aspect of scientific history. There is no biological basis for the assertion that there are different races within humanity, yet this period saw many applying dubious methods to make not just that claim, but that some races were superior to others. Unsurprisingly, the purveyors of such ideas placed themselves at the top of any supposed hierarchy.

This came to a head in horrific enactment of eugenic policies in Nazi-occupied areas before and during the Second World War. Because the horrors of the holocaust turned the world against such ideas, it is now easy to forget how prevalent they were beforehand, both in Europe and the United States. This resulted in vicious forms of discrimination based on entirely false ideas and was often used as a justification for prejudiced views. The horror with which many British people reacted to the prejudice of white American GIs against their black comrades is particularly well recounted. It is evident that what induced the most aggressive response among these racists was the prospect of inter-racial sexual relations, an irrational fear based in the ridiculous notion of ‘racial purity’.

Sadly, while British citizens may have deplored the violence Black GIs were subjected to, it is clear that in post-war Britain many held the view that children of mixed parentage were somehow inferior and ‘neither one thing nor the other’. This, despite the long history of intermarriage both in Britain and throughout territories under her influence. Such views were rooted in the same irrational pseudoscience of race originally constructed to justify the exploitation of black populations. While it’s clear that only a minority of The British population held prejudiced views, its also apparent that, for too long, a much larger group was not prepared to contest them.

In the light of the long history covered in this book, the struggle for equality in the post war period, which still continues, can be seen not only in the context of contemporary issues such as employment or the influence of individual politicians, but also as the resolution to the various legacies of our past. It seems that both politicians and sections of the populace seemed genuinely surprised that black people of the Empire/commonwealth should want to live in Britain. The subsequent response to that wish in immigration law, employment, Education, social segregation, and day-to-day prejudice (not to mention hate crime perpetrated by extreme right-wing organisations) created a long-standing wound in British society.

That wound is evident now. Those living in substandard and disgracefully unsafe housing of the type that led to the Grenfell fire are more likely to be from BAME groups. These same groups are more likely to be employed in medical and caring roles at the forefront of tackling COVID-19, and at the same time more likely to succumb to it.

I hope it is not too optimistic to think that the current Black Lives Matter protests offer us all an opportunity for real lasting change. Looking back over almost 2000 years of history as this book does, it seems clear that the vibrant mix of ethnicities and cultures we see in modern Britain is exactly the joyous outcome we should expect to result from our history. The fact that so many still see Britain as a land of opportunity is something we should celebrate.

Black and British: A Forgotten History has shown me that it’s time to remember our history, both it’s courageous highlights and it’s more uncomfortable truths, in order that we can at last shuffle off the vestiges of myth, propaganda and prejudice from the past that too often hold us back from building our future.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 4

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3.

In this update, I’m considering Chapter 5 which covers the period of the American War of Independence, which saw Black soldiers fighting on both sides, and its aftermath.

This isn’t an area of history I knew much about. What struck me most about the war was the way that British commanders encouraged slaves to escape to become enlisted soldiers in the British ranks or auxiliary workers. This wasn’t for reasons of principle or morals but rather as a military strategy. This seemed however to further incense slave-owning revolutionaries who saw no irony in complaining of taxation without representation as a form of ‘slavery’ while relying on slave labour themselves.

In a book which catalogues many horrors. Nevertheless, I was still shocked to read of the betrayal of these black loyalists by British commanders at the siege of Yorktown when they were forcibly evicted to face the mercy of their former owners in the attacking revolutionary army.

Not all the British commanders acted in this way, however, and at the end of the war, hundreds of former slaves travelled from British-occupied Manhattan to Nova Scotia and Britain, some of them who had been owned by George Washington, sailing away almost as their former master marched his troops the length of the Island.

The presence of these exiled and impoverished former colonial slaves who had fought for Britain provided an embarrassing reminder of defeat on the streets of London. Prof. Olusoga tells the tale of the mix of charity and criminality, good intentions and incompetence that let to the eventual settlement of the community that became Freetown in Sierra Leone. I’d been aware of it’s origins in the broadest of brushstrokes, but not the tortuous, and often tragic, journey to its foundation.

What is apparent from this section of the book is the readiness of the white establishment to use People of Colour, whether slave or free, to further their own economic, military or political ends. Even the most well intentioned protagonists, advocates of the abolition of slavery and equal rights under law seem happy to recruit black Britons to help further their cause, but it never occurs to them give them authority, even when they might be in the best position to lead others.

More than a little interesting too that what was perhaps the first Black British community was founded on the shores of West Africa, and within a stone’s throw of the most infamous of slave fortresses, Bunce Island.

You can read the Day 5 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 3

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. I explain in this earlier post on why I chose this book. You can read my previous daily posts here:

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2.

In this update I’m covering chapters 3 and 4 which focus on the Georgian period. Much of the wealth in this period is generated from the production and trade of commodities such as tobacco and sugar which were produced by slave labour.

What struck me is that compared to the legalised brutality in British Caribbean colonies, where black slaves had replaced white indentured labourers, were regarded as chattels and afforded no rights, the position of those arriving in Britain was more ambiguous. There was clearly slavery, but also black servants, and others whose status seems unclear. While most of the black population lived in servitude, and the fear of being sold into slavery, some were free and a few achieved considerable status in society.

Attitudes towards black people also varied considerably. While there was some racial abuse and few could aspire to become financially independent, there does not seem to have been widespread animosity. Black and white people worked together, lived together, intermarried and had children.

The legal status of slavery was uncertain and Professor Olusoga points out that slave traders and those whose fortunes rested on slave labour considered that experiences of relative freedom in Britain, compared with the many summary brutal punishments in the colonies might serve to spread dissent if the two groups met – not that this stopped them enslaving black Britons when they could.

At the same time, attempts to settle the legal status of black British residents, by seeking to establish that slavery was illegal (within Britain) represented a threat to those with a financial interest in slavery. Cases such as Granville Sharp’s legal battles to demonstrate the status of individuals such as Jonathan Strong and James Somerset as free men were pivotal in advancing this cause. The latter became what Prof. Olusoga aptly describes as ‘a proxy war between the West India Interest… and humanitarians’ which he covers in a gripping section of chapter 4 that had me on the edge of my seat!

The response of slave traders was to campaign against equal legal status of black people living in Britain by drawing on the worst aspects of myth and fiction about Africa and Africans that had developed in previous centuries. The eventual judgement in favour of Somerset caused reverberations not only in Britain, but across the Atlantic. It seems that here lie the roots of some longstanding prejudices; their basis the desire of slavers, and those profiting from slave labour, to preserve their vested interests by maintaining the status of people as mere property on the basis of the colour of their skin.

You can read the day 4 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 2

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British A Forgotten History. I explained in this earlier post on why I chose this book, and you can read my first daily post, covering the preface an introduction here: #DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.

I have now read the first two chapters of the book which take us from the Romans in Britain up to the Georgian period – a big chunk of history but research has relatively few records to draw on compared to modern times. A lot interested me here and certainly helped fill in some of the gaps in my very patchy understanding of this period.

I knew that the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse and that people from all over that empire came to live in Britain in the second to fourth centuries. What I hadn’t appreciated fully was the extent to which radioisotope analysis of bones and teeth, coupled with painstaking research, has been able to reveal the origins of those buried here and whose remains have been recovered by archaeologists.

The next element that struck me was the extent to which views about Africa and Africans (or for that matter Asia, since the two appear to have been commonly conflated) in the medieval period were formed not by fact but by fiction. Ideas about a supposed extreme otherness of African peoples, the existence of monsters and mythical beasts in regions below the Sahara, and the fabulous wealth of ‘lost kingdoms’ abounded. These views also seem to have persisted beyond the experience of direct contact when Europeans began to explore the Coast of West Africa and to trade with the nations they encountered. Some of the attitudes and beliefs that persist into modern times have their roots in these myths.

A consequence of this trade was that Britain became a lot more cosmopolitan than schoolbook history (certainly the school books I had) would lead us to think. I was interested to read about some of these Black British lives and their contributions to society, revealed, again, by dedicated archival research. In what I consider to be one of the marks of a good book, I have been inspired to find out more.

What is covered next in the book is the rise of the triangular slave trade, with so many in the hierarchy of British society, from Royalty downwards, keen to profit from this exploitation of human beings as a commodity. I found myself reading of the brutality of the Royal Africa Company alongside media commentary on Black Lives Matter protesters pulling Edward Colton’s statue from its plinth in Bristol and dumping it in the harbour. Instead of asking should they have pulled it down, I think the question is why did we let it stand for so long?

In a broader sense, Black and British is making me think about identity; the sense of identity of those racialised as White as well as Black. I’m sure further reading will help me coalesce my thoughts, which I hope to be able to share in a later post.

You can read the day 3 update here.

#DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1

For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British A Forgotten History. I explained in an earlier post why I chose this book.

This is my first daily update where I’ll share some thoughts on what I’ve read so far. The first thing I have to say is that ‘so far’ isn’t very far because I’m finding that I quite often have to sit back and process what I have just read. The preface and introduction have provided plenty of food for thought and I haven’t yet got into the proper book!

Two things have struck me. The first is further confirmation that as a white male my lived experience of growing up in 70s/80s Britain is very different from that of my Black peers. While I was having a great time at FE college taking my A levels, a young David Olusoga and his family were being driven from their home by a sustained barrage of racist violence and intimidation by members of the National Front.

The second thing is the extent to which the history we are presented with, that I was taught in school, and that makes up so much of the current curriculum, is largely a whitewashed fantasy. I have to admit that, before I started reading, I wondered how much the book’s content I would already know. As it turns out, only the broadest brushstrokes – about 2% would probably be a generous estimate and I haven’t yet got beyond the introduction!

This is important because unless we understand our history, we can’t hope to resolve the issues of our present, or build a better future. As Professor Olusoga writes: “Black British history is everyone’s history and is all the stronger for it.”

I’ll write the next update tomorrow. Please do let me know what you think. I’d also like to know what other people are reading.

Here’s the Day 2 update.

Loving our Libraries

A year of book borrowing rekindled my love of my local library.

Fond Memories

I have very fond memories of libraries. I loved the library at school: shelves of books and a canny librarian who could point me in the direction of the next author I’d enjoy and a book that might offer a step up in challenge. I recall being in some awe during a primary school trip to the public library in Chichester in the mid 1970s when I found a whole building devoted to reading (with not just half a shelf but a whole section devoted to sci-fi!) and such technological marvels as microfiche!

Later on I used this libraries for school work, as well as school and college libraries. At university in London I had membership cards for eight different libraries, some academic (favourite: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, with the ZSL library at Regent’s Park Zoo a close second) and some public (Favourite: Camden).

Later still, I would take my own children to libraries run by Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire County Councils, and share their delight in the magical world of books. I campaigned with others against the closure of the village library in Long Crendon, Bucks -it’s now run entirely by volunteers. Professionally I was fortunate enough to be in a position ensure my school could continue to support the development of our library in the face of worsening finances in education.

A Year of Library Loans

I suspect many people have similarly fond memories but, despite the affection in which they are often held, many libraries are having a hard time at the moment. In the face of funding cuts many local authorities have reduced library services and even closed libraries. Some schools can not afford a librarian or, in some cases, even a library.

One thing we can all do to help is to make use of our local public library (if we still have one). With that in mind, I decided last January to visit mine in Thame, Oxfordshire, at least one a month and take out a book or two. I’d fallen out of the habit of using the library, buying rather than borrowing books, and perhaps wary of racking up library fines because a busy life meant that I might not renew or return them on time.

I found that my dusted-off library card not only let me borrow books but enabled me to access my online account, search items, renew books using my phone (no fines!) and reserve and borrow ebooks and audiobooks as well as those old-fashioned paper books I love so much.

My account has also allowed me to look back over the books I borrowed in 2019 to see how well I kept to my resolution. I had read 33 books in all. This included revisiting a few old friends (such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre, The Player of Games by Iain M Banks, and Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup), continuing to read some favourite authors (such as Val McDermid, Jo Nesbo, and Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series) and making some new discoveries – most notably Donna Leon’s detective novels set in Venice featuring Commissario Brunetti.

I was also able to finally read some books I had been meaning to for years including the Island of Dr Moreau by Jules Verne, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and Death’s End, the final book in the Three Body Problem sci-fi trilogy by Liu Cixin. This included ‘filling in the gaps’ in the bibliographies of a few of my favourite authors such as John Le Carre (The Little Drummer Girl and The Russia House), Terry Pratchett (The Long Earth, with Stephen Baxter), and some of Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series (October Man, Lies Sleeping, and Foxglove Summer) which I think now makes me up to date in the unpredictable life of Detective Constable Peter Grant.

As you can see, detective fiction and science fiction featured heavily, but I also read some science fact in the form of Franz de Waal’s excellent Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, and biography with Gerald Durrell’s Encounters with Animals.

Over to you

So, if it’s been a while since you visited your local library, why not pop along? You’ll receive a warm welcome and you’ll be helping to secure their future for your whole community.

As for me, I’m very happy with how my year of library reading went. In 2020, perhaps I’ll try to extend that reading beyond the confines of crime and sci-fi, and I’ve just seen that as well as books, the library loans out micro:bits…


Bookshelf: pixabay

Reading: Rodger Caseby using Bitmoji