In 1864, a 69-year-old bank official named Thomas Briggs was murdered on a moving train. In those days, the compartment doors opened only on to the platform, so each compartment had complete privacy.

The deed was discovered when two clerks entered the compartment and found blood, a walking stick, and a hat which had been cut down to half-height. A ways along the line the wounded Briggs was found and carried to a pub where he died of head injuries.

Rewards for information were posted, and a cabman named John Matthews came forward claiming that a man he knew should…


Canvas, Blackboard, and most other systems are awful

During the pandemic year many faculty have been forced to create fully online classes in a Learning Management System, such as Canvas or Blackboard. It has been surprisingly difficult. Even those fluent in technologies like email and social media have been flummoxed by the difficulties of using the LMS as an online classroom. There are three main reasons why.

Got folders?

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. This pedagogy is often archaic and is based on outdated…


and Congress left through the tunnels — in 1932

The press has been looking through the past for previous examples of what happened in the Capitol last week, partly to see if they can justify using the word “unprecedented.”

It depends on the sort of precedent one is looking for. Are we looking for times when a violent group forced their way into the building? If so, it may be technically correct that a mob has not stormed the Capitol since the War of 1812, but even then, it was in a time of war, and the mob was the enemy.

Are we looking at violence in the Capitol…


The ongoing case of Dr. James Barry

Whenever historians discuss the “first” of anything, they use qualifiers. In the case of the first female doctor in the UK, there might be several candidates, depending on how one qualifies the word “doctor.” The innumerable wise women and healers who made diagnoses and prescribed treatment for centuries may be unknown to history. So we define “doctor” in terms of official qualification and credentials.

The honor of being the first female doctor in the UK thus goes to an extraordinary person, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although she had been refused admissions to the College of Surgeons and Physicians because of her…


The complexities of vaccination go back to the 18th century

In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu would discover the inoculation process for smallpox while she was living in Turkey. She had lost a brother to the disease, and barely survived it herself. Smallpox in the 18th century was particularly virulent; the CDC says it averaged a 30% death rate for those who got it.

The inoculation was done using actual scabs from people who had smallpox, inserted under the skin through a cut. Lady Montagu had her son inoculated while in Turkey, and her daughter in England when she returned in 1721. …


Caring more may mean doing less

So many people have been thrown into online teaching and learning, and the most conscientious professors want to do a good job. And yet, as the holidays approach, many are weary of the online grind, and looking to make some changes for next time.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Care for students, and professors, is different in a pandemic. Changes to online teaching methods can reflect that. This fall, teachers reported spending quite a bit of time soothing fears, making exceptions, and being kind. Many found that sticking to the syllabus and insisting on strict deadlines became too hard…


How H. G. Wells created an at-home science laboratory

Joseph Priestley’s instruments for his experimentation on gases (1775) from Public Domain Review

In 1858, the University of London began offering examinations at the Matriculation, Intermediate, and Bachelor’s level to all comers. Students could study independently, with a private tutor or without, and take the exams to earn a degree. This opportunity, previously limited to those with the money and time to study at residential Oxford or Cambridge, opened an educational door to the middle and lower classes.

Naturally, private tutors advertised their assistance. Educational entrepreneur William Briggs expanded a tutoring-by-mail project into a huge business enterprise in the city of Cambridge. His University Correspondence College offered correspondence classes by mail to students…


Open the windows and don’t read the funny bits aloud

While she was not writing about people in quarantine or suffering from new viruses, Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing (1859) did advise on caring for people in their homes.

Cover from 1946 edition (Archive.org)

Nightingale is known, of course, for her service during the Crimean War and her active reform of nursing and hospital hygiene in the mid-Victorian era. She’s the one who realized that many deaths in military hospitals were unnecessary, caused by unhygienic conditions rather than wounds or injury. …


Current efforts at pneumatic transport have a past

If one walks along Holborn in London, the street name changes to “Holborn Viaduct,” and railings appear. If you look over a railing, you’re on top of this:

Photo by Matt Brown, Wikipedia

Engineering Timelines reports:

Holborn Viaduct is 427m long and 24.4m wide, and is a complex structure mainly of masonry. It incorporated subways for a sewer, a gas main, telegraph wires, the pneumatic despatch railway used by Royal Mail and an Edison electric power station.

It was built in 1869. Sewer, gas main, telegraph — all this we know was happening. And an Edison power station would have been a bit later, in…


Why a bit of auto-grading is helpful rather than harmful

Certainly it was overwhelming to bring home an intimidating stack of exam books or papers. But it isn’t any better online. In fact, a notification that there are 173 things to grade can make you want to close your laptop and walk away.

Learning Management Systems offer to grade things for us. Set up a quiz and students can get instant results. Count participation in a forum for three points automatically. Create one rubric for all the papers.

As professors we hesitate. This seems like cheating. And it’s letting a…

Lisa M Lane

Lisa teaches history at community college, writes fiction, and blogs about history and teaching online.

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