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Conference Review

Teaching London –- a two-day conference jointly organized by the Centre for Metropolitan History (University of London) and the University of Westminster London Studies Programme. 3 – 4 November 2006. Organisers: Steven Barfield, Matthew Davies, Tanis Hinchcliffe and Alan Morrison.

Susanne Reichl, University of Vienna, Austria

Teaching London must surely be one of the most gratifying experiences. As Ford Madox Ford remarked, London is illimitable. and it offers the teacher an almost limitless range of material to choose from, a complex and long history, and a diversity and cosmopolitanism that exist side by side with very local characteristics. Fascinating as it is, all this presents us also with a number of pedagogical and pragmatic problems and choices. Teaching London is an interdisciplinary project, and it was this approach to the subject matter that gave this conference a multiperspectival character and that gave me, personally, a wealth of ideas to take away: new texts, new resources, new institutions and individuals that generously share their material, and new layers of meaning that can be derived from an analysis of written, visual, and multimedial sources.

The setting of the conference mirrored this multimediality, the historicity, and the interdisciplinarity of the project: while the first day was spent in a lecture room at Senate House, which was tucked away behind towering bookshelves stacked with heavy historical tomes, on the second day we convened at the Old Cinema at the University of Westminster, the very room in which the first public screening of motion pictures took place in 1896.

London is often the perfect medium for the message when it comes to teaching, and some delegates introduced us to walking tours they have devised for their international students. These tours of Harrods, Selfridges, or Liberty’s are meant to open students’ eyes and minds to the pervasiveness of history and culture, to the encoding of power and authority, and to teach students to look differently at sites of mass consumption. The “Jack the Ripper” walking tour draws students’ attention to the paradoxical presence of the absent: since so much of the East End was blitzed, none of the actual buildings that would be associated with Jack the Ripper survived, and yet the (empty) places are presented as being part of this particular history. The field trips to Dennis Severs’s house in Spitalfields (which Time Out has just listed as one of the 100 things to do before leaving London) and Virginia Woolf’s residences in Bloomsbury and Rodmell can also contribute to students being challenged in their customary ways of viewing and experiencing history. Similarly, an exploration of the Young Vic presents students with an impressively dense sign system, which, again, teaches them about itself as it teaches them about signification and interpretation processes.

As for texts, the selection presented went back as early as John Gay’s Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), with its humorous anticipation of contemporary London road rage, and stretched way into 21st century writing from members of diverse ethnic communities. This contemporary London is also always a reminder of history, a history of migration, of empire, of change and transformation. Multiethnic literature presented ranged from Sam Selvon and Vikram Seth to Benjamin Zephaniah and Zadie Smith, and extended to non-fiction such as the recent Salaam Brick Lane by Tarquin Hall. Films discussed ranged from Horace Ové’s classic Pressure (1975) to more recent films such as Wondrous Oblivion (2003). Bill Brandt’s photographs from his 1948 collection, Camera in London, were interrogated as to their authenticity or artifice; a speculative question, but one which entails teaching potential in respect of visual culture and interpretation. Various processes of cross-fertilisation, within London, or from the USA – the example were American painters that lived in London in the 18th through the 20th centuries – added to the discussion of London’s special significance in various media.

In addition, there was a number of representatives from institutions that serve as providers of London teaching material at the same time that their conceptions add to the spectrum of London culture and communities. There was a focus on seeing the child as an active citizen, and defining its right to a heritage experience: liaison officers actively establish links and encourage cooperation between schools and museums, children of a community are taught multi-media classes and then present their active participation in community projects on special websites, and libraries provide books for children that portray ethnic diversity, global citizenship, but also local differences. The fact that there are 250 museums and 600 archives in London is impressive, but there is also a wide range of institutions that make these accessibile as teaching and research resources, such as the AIM25 project (Archives in London and the M25 area), the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives), and more local institutions such as the Humanities Education Centre of Tower Hamlets.

A substantial part of the programme consisted in university teachers presenting fully developed London courses, and here again the variety was impressive: from more specialised London literature, theatre and history courses to British Studies courses with a London focus and the first London Studies degree at Birkbeck College. Not only did colleagues provide course outlines and syllabuses, they also discussed problems in devising these courses, their courses’ histories and even their advertising strategies. Apart from yet another colourful parade of London material, including as a rare treat a documentary called “Prelude to Peace” by the Special Housing Mission to Great London (1943), the focus in the discussions was very much on the particularities and contextual factors of our teaching situations: US midwestern students studying British Studies in Lincolnshire necessarily have a different set of skills, knowledge and awareness that they bring to the study of London than, say, suburban students who live within a few miles from central London and yet see themselves firmly outside the capital.

A persistent question throughout the conference concerned London’s special status within Britain, and for British studies. Can the historical developments and sociocultural conditions of the capital be transferred to England, to the UK, or even to other European capitals? How can our aim to teach beyond London, to teach transferable skills, be balanced out by a focus on the local and regional contingencies? Unsurprisingly, there was no easy answer as to the didactic implications of this status, except for the possibility of seeing this problem as a potential for teaching critical thinking skills.

As this conference demonstrated, the potential for teaching London is also quite illimitable, and so was the wealth of ideas, insights and material that was shared. With so many topics for vivid discussions, there never seemed enough time for exchanging ideas in the breaks; following the program through meant a persistent stimulus, but also, towards the end, exhaustion. Next year’s conference organisers, from Birkbeck College, might consider leaving some more time for informal get-togethers, but on the whole they would be well advised to take this year’s conference over as a model. Meanwhile, I cannot wait to teach London again, and with so many ideas pilfered from colleagues at this conference, my students and I will be spoilt for choice next term.

To Cite This Article:

Susanne Reichl, ‘Conference Review: Teaching London –- a two-day conference jointly organized by the Centre for Metropolitan History (University of London) and the University of Westminster London Studies Programme. 3 – 4 November 2006. Organisers: Steven Barfield, Matthew Davies, Tanis Hinchcliffe and Alan Morrison.’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].