Last week saw the History of Education Society (UK)’s 2015 conference. Hosted by Liverpool Hope University, we arrived at the beginning of a cold snap for three days of discussion of the themes of ‘Science, Technologies and Material Culture in the History of Education’. The keynotes by Ruth Watts, Jonathan Reinarz and Claire Jones particularly emphasised how women have been marginalised both in contemporary perceptions and in the historiography of science education. 

I am currently sitting with my conference notebook which is packed with points to remember, and questions I wanted to take away with me. My own research looks at school magazines, so I went to a lot of panels relating to schooling. What struck me first of all was the range of situations where education takes place: in hospitals (Mary Clare Martin); in science and technology hobby clubs (Hilde Harmsen); from popular culture and TV (Craig Spence); and, in the case of First Peoples in Trinidad and Tobago, from the local community chief (Bailey-Ellis). There are tensions between this broad experience of learning, and the development of systems of examination and measuring – tensions exposed in papers by Cathy Burke on progressive education’s embrace of the sensory, and James Elwick’s paper on how the nineteenth-century Science and Arts Examinations’ ‘payment by results’ led to a cheating scandal.

I also like going to panels which lie outside my area of research, as there can be unexpected resonances with my own work. I saw many papers which shed new light on the research process. I was particularly interested, due to the focus on material culture, in the discussions of sources and archives. There was a astonishing array of sources: dermatological ‘moulages’  made of wax (Henrik Essler); botanical models made of wood (Lorna Stoddart); anatomical specimens pickled in alcohol (Kathryn Heintzman); and children’s work rescued from a skip (Craig Spence). Many papers showed the hard work and ingenuity needed to interpret or decode their sources: Diana Vidal spoke of spotting interesting nineteenth-century educational posters in the background of a photograph of a Brazilian classroom, and how she traced the journey of these posters from France; Frances Kelly revealed a fascinating photo archive at the University of Auckland, and described the challenges of dealing with unidentifiable, mysterious, or mislabelled sources; Tugba Karakuş spoke of learning Armenian in order to read documents; and Melisse Thomas Bailey-Ellis explained how trust and good relationships were key in gaining access to archives. I really enjoyed the fascinating biographies of the sources themselves, how they were made, collected, and survived, and the ingenuity and hard work needed to interpret them.

This was my first time attending the History of Education conference, but it didn’t feel like it: I attended the brilliant History of Education Summer School in Luxembourg in 2015, and a fellow attendee from the summer school was at the conference. Also, there was a large number of #twitterstorians there – although I was meeting many of them for the first time, many seemed like familiar faces! I am a second year D.Phil student, and this was my first time presenting at HES, but even the chair of my panel was someone I knew from Twitter. Twitter is a great way to get to know names and faces, particularly if you are a postgrad and new to the academic world. Also, following #HES2015 meant I could get a glimpse of papers I’d missed – and if you want to catch up, check out the Storify of the tweets at https://storify.com/cgsloan/hes2015#publicize

Thanks are due to Heather Ellis for organising this great conference, and the History of Education Society for its support in enabling postgrad students to attend.