Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The American Revolution: A Brief History

By the middle of the eighteenth century (1750), the English colonies in America ranged from north to south along the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains. The French, dividing the loyalties of the native tribes in the region, claimed the lands west of the mountains and stretching on to New Spain (later Mexico). This forged a clear frontier, and a great deal British military investment was made in defending that frontier from the French, and those Indian tribes who sided with them:

13 colonies

Things soon changed though. This was a period in which the British Empire saw an extraordinary level of success and growth. In 1759 Canada came under Britain’s colonial rule, following the Battle of Quebec. In 1760 the vigorous and hugely popular George III ascended to the throne of England, and in 1763 the Peace of Paris effectively ended the French imperial domain in North America - ceding colonial domination to Britain on the East, and Spain in the South.


The new frontier in America, forged by this peace, was a frontier that now divided the English colonial states running from Georgia in the south to New Hampshire in the north, from the Indian lands beyond the Appalachians. With their French allies now gone though, fresh hostilities resumed between the colonialists and Chief Pontiac’s Ohio Indians. In order to halt these hostilities, the British Government in 1763 ordered a ‘proclamation line’ across the crest of the Appalachians, assuring the Indian tribes settlers were forbidden to cross this line. This formal compromise did not last though. Settlers engaged in negotiations with Cherokee and Iroquois Indians for the surrender of vast tracts of land north and south of Ohio between 1768 and 1770 – an act which bypassed the British authorities and demonstrated an increasing unrest and unhappiness with Imperial overseers among the American settlers.

This unrest between England and the American colonies was raised to a storm of protest in 1765 when Chancellor Grenville introduced a series of crippling taxation initiatives designed to defray the costs of defending the American frontier against the Indian tribes. The already familiar cry of “no taxation without representation” was again raised, as settlers objected to taxations enforced by a standing army, and from a government in which its own people had no representation. Much of the anger was directed at Grenville's controversial Stamp Act, which enforced all printed materials (publications, legal documents, certificates, etc.) to have an official revenue stamp - which had to be paid for in English money, that went directly to the English treasury.

Stamp Act

Opposition came to a head in 1770, when British troops fired into a crowd of protestors outside the customs house in Boston, killing five men. It became known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were acquitted of the charges of murder after a trial, having been defended by the reputable John Adams (a later President of the United States), and leading figures of the ever-growing revolutionary movement concurred with the decision, However, the incident crystallised American public opinion.

Boston Massacre
This picture of the Boston Massacre was made by Paul Revere, later a hero of the revolution - immortalised in Longfellow's tribute 'Paul Revere's Ride'

In 1773, Lord North introduced the Tea Act - a measure designed to bail out the East India Company from a financial crisis by lowering duty payable on tea in colonial ports, and creating a demand for tea among the Americans by its subsequent cheapness. This act was seen by American reactionaries as an act of economic manipulation. Consignments of tea arriving in New York and Philadelphia were forced to turn back by the mobilisation of opposition by these reactionaries. In Boston, however, the governor challenged that opposition and forced the consignment to dock. That night, November 30 1973, a group of militants disguised themselves, boarded the ship, and threw 15 thousand pounds worth of tea into the sea to the cheers of those gathered on the shore. This became known as the Boston Tea Party, and developed into yet another rallying call for the values of colonial independence. The term 'tea part' has been recently revived in American politics to describe a particular set of conservative republicans who oppose legislative taxation.

Tea PArty

Many Americans as well as British were aghast at the reckless destruction of the Boston Tea Party. For them it was, quite simply, an act of terrorism rather than a call for liberty - and had the British government actively sought to describe the event as such, perhaps they could have undermined the support it drew towards the radical’s cause. Instead though, and in the face of dire warnings from philosopher Edmund Burke, the British government decided to respond with an iron hand, closing down the port of Boston and effectively isolating the town and further alienating the American people with its heavy-handedness. On September 5th 1774, the first Continental Congress was held to discuss the union of the colonies. By 1775, King George was proclaiming America to be in a state of rebellion. Further heavy handed tactics were recommended, again in the face of dire warnings from parliament, but the King seemed to be personally affronted by the actions of the colonists.
War began on19th April 1775, when shots were exchanged between British troops and American reactionaries on the road from Lexington to Concord- with the American’s coming off worse. On the return journey though, the British troops faced a continually growing army of American soldiers and farmers, who sniped at them from behind every tree, wall, barn and house. By the time the British survivors reached the safety of Charlestown, 250 of their number had been killed.

Lexington and ConcordThe battle of Lexington and Concord established the military character of the American civil war - and exposed the antiquated methods of the British army.

On May 10th 1775, the second Continental Congress elected George Washington the General and Commander-in-Chief of a united Continental army. In January 1776, Englishman Thomas Paine published his political pamphlet Common Sense. It had an astonishing effect. Writing with great clarity and power, Paine urged the American people to abandon any thoughts of allegiance to George III and declare independence:

“The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.”

Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men,” wrote George Washington, as within three months more than 150,000 copied of the pamphlet - an enormous number for that time - were sold as soon as printed. One by one, the provincial governments which had been stalling of the question of unification, agreed to compromise in the name of ideology. The resolution of both unification and independence was passed on 2nd July 1776, and ratified in the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on 4th July.

Citation: Tulloch (2013). The American Revolution: A Brief History [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 16 January 2013].

Freeman, J. B. (2010). The American Revolution [online]. Available at: Last accessed: 15/02/2012

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Google Translate for Academic Writng?

The other night, and in view of the fact that my students were facing an imminent submission deadline, I tweeted a number of hints and tips for polishing up essay drafts prior to submission. In all honest most of those suggestions were nothing more than the standard liturgy of procedures which any Stella Cottrell reader would doubtless be familiar with. The one exception was my suggestion that if a students first language was not English, and they were struggling to express an idea clearly, that they could try writing in their first language and then running it through Google Translate.

There were some incredulous responses, which quickly made me realise that adding such a tip was probably unwise. Not because such a suggestion might not benefit students in such a position but because the use of such resources really needs to be accompanied by some sort of explanation. Like a government health warning on a packet of cigarettes.

First of all, after a fair number of years teaching study skills for higher education students has shown me that by far the biggest barrier to student success is the English language. This is particularly (perhaps specifically) the case in the College where I teach, and which boasts approximately 64% BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students, and doubtless a significantly higher percentage of students for whom English is a second language. There are many things which an institution can do to support students for whom English is a second language, and most of those support mechanisms will revolve around things like additional study skills support, writing workshops, and embedded activities within the curriculum which help students develop their understanding of the conventions and structures of academic writing.

The reality is, though, that students for whom English is a second language will always find themselves to some extent at a disadvantage in their studies. They will find it a greater challenge to read the increasingly complex texts they have to deal with, and they will find it a greater challenge to write the increasingly complex ideas that they need to express in their writing. As much ESL support as they get, it is difficult to provide specific support for a student who may be fluent in everyday English but who now finds themselves having to explain about the absence of the transcendental signifier with clarity in a linguistics essay (the irony of which is, I’m sure you would agree, rather pleasingly Derridean).

Google Translate is arguably the most sophisticated commercial translation tool available - and almost certainly the best one you can use for free. Instead of simply correlating with language dictionaries, it looks for patterns among existing translations which can often pinpoint the most relevant translation according to genre. What is interesting about this, is the possibility that it can sometimes detect the academic nature of its source.

The increasing availability of such tools has caused some people concern. Certainly there are potential plagiary issues which I have no intention of explaining in detail, because I do not want to write a manual for plagiary. However I would suggest that there are certain legitimate ways in which such tools can be used as an effective support mechanism for students whose first language is not English.

1) Reading: As mentioned above, students who may be fluent in everyday English are going to find the kind of texts they are reading on a degree course increasingly problematic. Such problems are not primarily lexical (a student with English as a first language is likely to find the definitions of advanced subject-specific words just as new as anyone else), but syntactical. The denser and more convoluted the ideas being explored, the more dense and convoluted becomes the language expressing them. Most of us can probably recall those occasions when faced with a seemingly impenetrable text trying furiously to wrestle some kind of sense out of it. For many, the route through that wall of obscurity is to try and find new ways of thinking about the text - looking at in in new ways, trying to find different ways to say the same thing. Of course this kind of linguistic flexibility is something which is going to be inherently more difficult if English is not your first language. Putting your impenetrable paragraph into Google Translate and seeing it in your first language will not produce a perfect result, but it does offer students the opportunity to look at the text from a different perspective, and this in itself might be a means by which they can break through to an understanding of the text itself.

2) Writing: Again, Google Translate will never work as a means by which you can simply write an essay in your first language and translate it into academic English. Although potentially possible, the algorithms for such a piece of software would be far too complex and specialist. However, again it can be a useful tool for those moments where a student becomes stuck. There are few thing more frustrating than grading an essay where you are certain that the student is attempting to express something complex, ambitious and important - but that the language barrier has mangled the idea so much that you cannot in fairness reward it fully. Writing that idea in a first language and running it through Google Translate can potentially offer a new structure for the expression of that idea that might help see it in a new and clearer light. This could be particularly helpful at the later stages of an essays composition, when students are reading through their work and trying to refine the expression of short sections of their essays, or trying to achieve complex links between points.

Of course there are dangers with all of this. The academic writing and EAP support co-ordinator at my College noted the concern that students become dependent on technology like Google Translate, instead of taking opportunities to work through language issues and come to a more sophisticated use of language themselves. Similarly, there is a danger that students see Google Translate as an end-product, rather than merely an ideas generator. There are, as mentioned, certainly health warnings which need to accompany the use of such technologies.

However, there are a few reasons why I have started to suggest to students that they could try it. To begin with, all students have free and open access to the resource, and there is no reason why they cannot use it. It is not as though a student could be penalised for using it, so until HE institutions start to ban the thing it remains a legitimate tool. Secondly, although I have heard comments which imply that this might be providing students with an unfair advantage, I could not disagree more. Students with English as a second language are at a huge disadvantage from the beginning. Using a tool like Google Translate does not unfairly advantage them. Indeed, it does not even come close to levelling the playing field. It has the potentially for giving them just a little bit more support - and that seems to me to be fair enough.

I am by no means adamant about these suggestions, and by no means utterly convinced of the value of Google Translate. I tend to suggest to students ‘if you are really struggling, see if it helps’. I would certainly welcome any alternative view or experiences...

Monday, 7 January 2013

New Year Resolutions for a Balanced Academic


Today was my first day back at work, and I have to be honest I came with something of a spring in my step.  Despite the break I had managed to get some good work done so had little to fear from my email's inbox, and even better I had downloaded some of the cheerier songs from The Muppets soundtrack that had me fair skipping through the Stratford centre.

Of course, arriving at work to discover that a colleague had passed away the day before makes it difficult to sustain that level of enthusiasm, and as the day progressed my mood darkened and a more philosophic bent took its place.  Although it seems horrendously self-interested, the death of a colleague not much older than yourself makes you suddenly very aware of your own mortality.  I will not bore you with some of the more miserable and nihilistic thoughts which have revolved around my skull, but instead inform you that I have decided to do something I have never done before.  I have decided to make some New Year resolutions relating to my academic career.

Read:  The last year I must admit my reading habits and degenerated.  This is perhaps in part because of the nature of engaging more and more with an online community.  In the past, my morning commute was accompanied by a book which I either needed to read or wanted to read.  Lately it has been exclusively accompanied by reading through the various blogs I subscribe to, Twitter feeds, journal articles, or listening to one of various podcasts (when I can’t keep my eyes open).  There are certainly advantages to this, and I do tend to feel more ‘current’ these days in terms of my subject, and educational developments in general.  However, there is a lack of depth to this kind of reading: A tendency to flit through topics like a tourist on a round-the world cruise, going ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at various interesting developments.  What I have missed, is becoming engrossed in a detailed and extended study of a topic.  My resolution, therefore, is to work on balancing the breadth of reading online, to the depth of reading longer studies.

Renew:  I have been teaching in a number of key areas for a few years now, and while I still find most of them enjoyable to teach there are some that seem to be in need of servicing.  This is not because the topics are boring, but because teaching is a cumulative experience: The more you teach, and the more you read about a topic, the harder it is to approach the topic with the kind of fresh and clean lines which make it most comprehensible to students.  I remember starting to teach modules for the first time, and generally it involved many hours of panic-stricken reading and preparation – but initially, like a good essay, it required a simple structure designed with the student in mind, so that each new topic logically built on the last and related to assessment stages clearly.  Some of my topics appear to have evolved very convoluted structures, and frequently I find myself doing ad-hoc re-designs of modules as I realise students are looking at me rather blankly.  My resolution, then, is to take a step back.  To wipe the slate clean with some of my more familiar topics in order to start again, or even perhaps to teach something altogether new and fresh.

Research:  Connected to renewal, is the need to research.  Rejuvenating modules which are in danger of becoming stale means putting in some proper hours of study in – finding previously under-explored topics, new controversies, and looking for different angles.  It is sometimes difficult to squeeze the time to do this from a timetable, but there is a trick which might work for any of you HE in FE lags who have difficulty persuading your College of the importance of such activities:  You can legitimately call it ‘professional development’, and add it to your staff development or IFL logs.  Additionally, I have already blogged about the tip-tap of impatient fingers waiting for me to get back to work on my Phd. which continues to collect dust in a drawer somewhere (about which I am still procrastinating manfully), and will be working on an HEA research project relating to student retention.  My resolution then, is one way or another to spend more time in the library.

Rationalise:  Given today's events, to be perfectly honest this is not a resolution to start doing something new so much as a resolution not to stop doing something.  It is inspiring to be surrounded by vibrant and enthusiastic academics, but with the best will in the world I am probably past being able to exert the kind of dedication to career development which enables them to publish at such an alarming rate.  This is not to do with age, but priorities. If you are not particularly interested in becoming a Professor of this-that-what-not-or-the-other at some Russell Group University, I am not sure why every waking hour should be dedicated to work and study that is career-related.  In fact this is a frequent gripe about Higher Education as a career choice.  Why should it be so impossible to finish a working day at 5pm, especially when you have a family life to balance?  I am fortunate in having been able to balance this as well, perhaps, as I could expect.  Certainly it has required the deliberate refusal of opportunities to improve my career / research options, but ultimately I have not regretted any of the decisions I have made.  My resolution is try and keep the balance.

I’ll tell you why you should vote for me

I’m a better person than you. Harsh, I know, but true. Just look at my suit, my cufflinks, hair, my Bertie Wooster aristocratic air, m...