Updated: May 2, 2022
What if time ground down the people of the past to such fine dust that we catch nothing of them in history’s sieve? Trying to write the history of people whose stories did not make it into the archives presents huge challenges for historians. How does one write about silence?
Helen Carr and Susannah Lipscomb after Dame Hilary Mantel (2017; 2021).
Replace the words ‘write’ with ‘teach’ and ‘historians’ with ‘teachers’ in this passage from Carr and Lipscomb’s recent book, What is History, Now?, and I am once again reminded of the uneasy space that silence occupies in the history classroom – and not only in the literal sense of that normally chatty Year 9 group last period on a Friday. An ongoing challenge for me as a secondary educator is to teach the histories of people who are either absent from the archives, or whose agencies remain obscured and heavily mediated by the privilege accorded to bureaucratic or textual systems of record. This challenge presents itself in numerous ways: from the more obvious curriculum constraints in terms of both content and time; to practical and pedagogical questions, such as how educators should guide students to identify and interrogate silences in a rigorous and empowering way. What follows here are some tentative reflections from an early career teacher on sitting with the discomfort of historical silence, through a consideration of primary sources and historical methodology.
Deconstructing, analysing, and evaluating a range of primary source material are skills crucial to the discipline, and as such allow students and teachers alike to engage with silence in the historical record. A tension that exists in my own planning and practice is how to manage didactic and constructivist methods of enabling students to develop these essential skills. I seek to equip students with the tools to ‘read’ and analyse sources, which often necessitates slippage into prescriptive or formulaic methodologies, such as acronyms, sentence starters, or scaffolded prompt questions. There is a risk that such methods, chosen by a teacher (albeit critically and sensitively) and given to pupils, privilege ways of reading that may unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes. In this way, they may reinforce silences and uphold conventional power dynamics in the classroom. This can be at odds with my desire to empower pupils to use their historical knowledge to problematise a text, image, or artefact. There is also a potential conflict with my contention that students must have the opportunity to offer multiple readings or creative interpretations of a source, based on their understanding of its context and provenance. An example of where these tensions are particularly acute is in teaching histories of gendered violence.
While stories of women as victims and perpetrators of violence are often caught up in history’s sieve, much remains lost; the crumbs of their agencies and subjectivities still escaping seemingly out from under our noses. Teaching students about the persecution of witches, for example, remains a particular challenge – not least because there is an abundance of historical sources that are not always textual: from artwork to broadsides, markings in houses, poetry, plays, court records and news literature. It is easy to read these sources with good intentions but nonetheless uncritically, reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes of the agencies of the accused and their victims as either passive victims or active resistors within an oppressive, patriarchal or distinctively ‘unmodern’ and ‘backward’ society. Likewise, the fact that up until recently, the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly have been framed by attempts to identify their killer in KS3 enquiries into Victorian policing show how easy it is to continue patterns of silencing to include gendered voices in the curriculum. However, it is difficult to know where to start in introducing students to ways of approaching these sources and their context before stepping in to challenge their construction as received historical wisdom.
It is vital not to dismiss out of hand the confidence and support that critically informed, formulaic methods of analysis can provide for students, particularly those with neurodiverse needs, as well as pupils with low motivation or low self-esteem. Nonetheless, I attempt to reconcile some of the abovementioned tensions in my pedagogical approach by developing learning activities that emphasise choice and encourage multiple readings and approaches to source analysis. One way we can do this is by utilising practices from literature, geography and anthropology such as ‘reading against the grain’: interpreting silences within a text or artefact alongside the obvious, and questioning purpose and authorship. Transparency and rigorous subject knowledge here is key. We as historians and educators must demonstrate by example that historians – and therefore this classroom of historians – use a range of methods and questions to interrogate sources that can cross disciplinary and institutional boundaries. Such an approach increases the chances of collaborative classwork that can simultaneously enrich knowledge by uncovering silences in the archive, disrupt conventional classroom hierarchies, and accord greater agency to learners.
Educators are approaching these issues in new and inventive ways. It is uplifting to see that studies of the built environment and histories of landscape and space now enrich the curricula of many schools, with exam boards paying heed to how ‘mapping’ history can capture the silences within stories of migration, childhood, poverty, worship, gender, queerness and more. Following bell hooks and Paulo Friere, therefore, I would argue that we must constantly review and reinvent both our own knowledge as history educators and ways of engaging with primary sources, not only to uncover archival silences, but to disrupt the power dynamics between teacher and taught. One way of doing this effectively is through serious commitment to interdisciplinary practice. Through this, we can develop collaborative pedagogies within the classroom and beyond the traditional academe that account for plurality of experience in teacher and learner, ranging from neurodivergence to gender, class, and race.
Written by a secondary school teacher.
This post is the first in our Uncomfortable Education series, which - as part of our collaboration with schools in Oxford and beyond - seeks to provide resources for those teaching the histories of challenging and contentious topics. Watch this space for more!
Helen Carr and Susannah Lipscomb, What is History, Now? (Orion: 2021)
Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin Modern Classics: 2017; first published 1968)
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge: 1994)
Alethea Melling and Ruth Pilkington (eds.) Paulo Friere and Transformative Education (Palgrave: 2018)
Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: the Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Penguin Random House: 2019)