July 6, 2017 by Andrew W M Smith
I’ve never been happier to be asked, “What does ‘privy’ mean?”
Along with five schoolchildren, I pored over reports on sanitation (or lack thereof) in nineteenth century London, before we then compared maps of drains in Whitechapel to get a sense of how they fitted into the rhythms of daily life (ahem).
On that map, we noted the Public House on nearly every corner, the plentiful bakeries and stables, and a massive brewery which dominated nearby streets. On those streets (beyond the sections marked unpaved), behind the houses, and marked rather aptly in brown, were the privies.
Moments which make you question the way you do things, not in crisis but in revelation, are few and far between. There’s a slow unfolding of awareness punctuated by a sudden realisation which makes things worthwhile. And yet, I felt there were a few during the couple of days I spent in the company of these school kids. This exercise was part of a series of workshops that we ran in partnership with UCL Archives and Special Collections, following a successful conference called ‘Paper Trails: Materials, Serendipity and the Social Life of the Archive’ (see here for a roundup of that conference).
Thankfully, for anyone a little nervous of the implication, not all Paper Trails lead to the privy.
The idea behind the conference was to consider ‘research stories’ as meaningful elements of our research, combining affective and critical histories. The inspiration lay with Antoinette Burton’s discussions of Archive Stories (Duke University Press, 2005), Arlette Farge’s reflection on the Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013), Lisa Jardine’s discussion of Temptation in the Archives (UCL Press, 2015), and Ann Laura Stoler’s call to read Along the Archival Grain (Princeton University Press, 2009). All of these made me reflect on how my own encounter with the archive was tied up with all sorts of fascinating moments of luck, structures of privilege, and subjective experiences. These things can’t help but influence what I end up writing, so it seemed a timely moment to call for that to be a more important part of our process more generally.
There were some fantastic papers on the day, which delved into the social life of archives, questioning their ability to change and move both within our gaze and outwith it. A huge range of topics, and a wonderfully interactive plenary, left me full of ideas for what to do next.
In an immediate sense, what to do next was already clearly outlined. We had two full days of school workshops scheduled afterwards with students from Newham Collegiate Sixth Form School. During the workshops, we had three sets of documents, which the students worked through in groups of 5 along with a professional researcher. The original documents were on hand to view, with digitised facsimiles on the tables for rough working and discussion.
One set looked at Francis Galton and the birth of Eugenics, offering prisoner portraits and composite photos as stepping stones along a darker path. Another set investigated the Men and Women’s Club at UCL, founded by Galton’s disciple Pearson as a progressive force for addressing gender inequality which stagnated (and excluded some radical elements who would later become Suffragettes). The final pack looked at sanitation in East London, offering interesting perspectives on social history, the agency of people and governments, and some gruesome descriptions that raised a few hairs.
With each set of documents, we first spent an hour figuring out what the sources were, what they could tell us, and talking as a group about how to find a narrative from the pile of paper on our desks. That produced surprising, insightful, and original narratives, framing material in interesting perspectives beyond the confines of existing scholarship. In the next session we asked students to respond creatively to the sources in a variety of different ways: thinking about the materiality of the source, posing questions about the values and attitudes of people described, and situating themselves within the daily life of these historical character they were meeting for the first time.
Afterwards, we brought it all together in a plenary discussion, thinking about the material more broadly and the creative responses that were produced. Thankfully, in the beautiful summer sun, we were able to do this on the grass in the sunshine.
This type of teaching served a couple of different purposes, and offered some new ways to address original research problems. The workshops, with their different modes of learning and engagement, broke down disciplinary boundaries and helped engage beyond the confines of the academy. By inviting students into a participatory and collaborative environment, they got the experience of being involved in the multiple stages of the creation of knowledge. Allowing students the opportunity to work alongside researchers as peers was designed both to help the researchers think more closely about the ideas we discussed at the conference, and also to give the students confidence in their new experience.
I’m very grateful to Rebecca Whiting, Will Pooley, and Charlotte Riley for their help in leading the sessions with the students. Likewise, I owe huge thanks to Katy Makin and Vicky Price of UCL Archives and Special Collections (and the rest of the team that helped me select, and then speedily digitised the collections with which we presented students). The students were passionate, interested and sharp, and their Principal Mouhssin Ismail, and teacher Jerome Singh, were extremely helpful in facilitating their visit.
It turned out a bit of a funny thing to organise; I’m not one for bureaucracy, and tried to plan and push the event on my own terms. That has advantages (you can move quickly, produce your own material, be flexible), and disadvantages (I had to personally make the sandwiches for the conference and the workshop). Likewise, this was all planned when I was working at UCL, and before I got a new job which saw me in post by the time the conference came around. Yet, conceived as it was on my own terms, the widening participation element was intended not as recruitment for UCL, but rather as a broader social good – bringing people into their first experience of this sort of learning.
Questions about privies, then, were a crucial part of the exercise. Students were exploring new material and encountering it for the first time; the skills they developed in that encounter, and the way we invited them to reflect on it, will hopefully encourage them to think more about the paper trails they follow.