Pat Leon meets a woman who helps her students unlock the power of archives and separate the political from the personal
Under the blue and copper eye of the Mass-Observation archive clock, Dorothy Sheridan listens to her students argue the rights and wrongs of making propaganda out of people's life stories.
Before them are books and film scripts they have chosen that draw on experiences
of the second world war, the resistance, the Holocaust, sex and migration. In pairs, the students have just interrogated each other for half an hour about the works' appeals. Now it is report-back time.
Steve Humphries, who is funding himself through the life history masters at Sussex University, is miserable about the political agenda he has discovered behind much of the work. "I want oral history to influence my beliefs, not the other way around," he moans.
Sheridan's calm response soothes his irritation. "All researchers have a vested interest in the research they do, it's sometimes hard for them to see the connection. The key is to be honest and rigorous about your position. If you have evidence that does not back up your argument, be open about it."
This is the first day of "Life story data analysis", a course with 20 contact hours assessed by a 5,000-word research term paper. Secretly, Sheridan is nervous. She is running the course alone for the first time and she is worried the students, who meet
at only four day schools, will not mix well.
Fears of the group floundering are unfounded. The students are chatting vigorously about what the books and scripts reveal about interpretation, truth and memory and the power of history in the present.
Sheridan stops noting their points on the whiteboard and sits down to join the roundtable debate. She can relax. The tension between "spoonfeeding" students and creating a secure environment that gives them confidence in their own thoughts and abilities is diffused. They are interacting
and pooling their knowledge.
"As a student in the late 1960s, I was taught one to one with tutors. Despite the bigger classes now, I want to recreate for
my students some of the same excitement and discovery I enjoyed."
Sheridan devised the MA on the back of her work as archivist of the Mass-Observation Collection, a record of the lives of British people from 1937 onwards. The wartime collection is unique. Since 1970, it has been housed in the University of Sussex library.
"I'm an outsider. I am a member of the library staff. Teaching is a little bit extra for me. I'm privileged, I teach what I am interested in, when I want."
Her students today may be surprised to discover that behind a motherly demeanour, Sheridan is a high-powered, high-profile figure. She lectures, travels and has written a series of books based on the archive, in which she has worked since 1974. She was awarded an MBE in 1991.
But it was her innovative teaching since 1993 that won her a Sussex University alumni society teaching award in 1998. She was chosen for her interactive, creative style, especially in getting people interested in using documentary material independently.
"We found people were worried about using archives, so we try to show them how to use it in a more structured way," she says. That work led to teaching on modules run with other departments.
But she admits: "One good reason to teach is because it earns money for the archive, which is a charitable trust." Her teaching has paid off in more ways than one. 'Teaching is
a little bit extra for me. I'm privileged. I teach what I am interested in, when I want.'