Let’s make things a little more… interesting
This may come as a surprise to some, but not all first year undergraduate students find medieval history as stimulating as those of us teaching it do. Strange though it may sound, subjects such as the Albigensian Crusade or the Norman conquest of 1066, though riveting to us, represent little more than an hour long inconvenience to some students. As such, engaging students with the topic at hand, and ensuring they take away something valuable from each session, is not without its challenges (challenges further exacerbated for those of us who have our seminars at 9 o’clock in the morning!). The question is this, then: as postgraduate teachers, how can we ensure that we capture the interests of the students we teach?
There is certainly no easy answer to such a question: if there were then it would have been discovered many years ago. What I have found in my (albeit limited) experience, however, is that tasks which get students really involved in what they are learning are a good way of going about it. Take Urban II’s speech at the council of Clermont in 1095, the focus of my next seminar, for instance. While the varying recorded accounts of this speech are, to historians of the first crusade, veritable gold dust, they can, for students, seem a little inaccessible and uninteresting. In response, I hit upon an idea: why not recreate the speech in my seminar next Tuesday? Why not begin by taking my students out into a nice open space, standing them at varying distances from me and reading aloud a version of the speech? Having done this, I can then herd the students back inside and have them write down as much as they remember of what I just read to them.
Whilst this may seem to the student simply a bit of fun, it is in fact a very useful way of highlighting the fundamental points of this particular seminar. First, the issue of memory and accuracy in historical sources is covered. If they cannot remember in any detail what was said only five minutes previously, then how does that effect how we view an account such as that of Fulcher of Chartres, which was written nigh on a decade after the speech? Second, could those who were standing furthest away from me during the speech actually hear? This is a very basic point, but one that again raises questions of the accuracy of the various versions of this speech. Stripping the seminar to its essential elements in such a way is significant as, whilst not every student will continue with medieval history past their first year, the broader skills they learn in the module, particularly those focused on primary source work, will certainly be crucial to their development in subsequent years.
There are numerous additional benefits to such an approach. Having completed this opening activity, for example, the students should be sufficiently engaged with the topic and the core issues surrounding it to enter into a more detailed and purposeful discussion than would have otherwise been the case. Similarly, such an approach may serve to make the subject memorable. Whilst many students may not go on to remember the finer nuances of the discussion that followed the activity, they will certainly remember standing in a field being read a 1000 year old text and (most importantly) what this taught them. Finally, and not unimportantly, it might just keep them coming back for more. As simple as it sounds, making a subject engaging is undoubtedly the most effective way to inspire enthusiasm in your students and ensure that they want to develop their understanding of the subject outside their seminars and lectures.
Whilst it is understandable that jumping so wholeheartedly into a subject might, at first, seem a little daunting to new teachers, I would implore everyone to a least give it a try. This can be as simple as reading a speech in a field, or as complex as assigning each student an individual character in a full roleplay whereby a tyrannical ruler, for instance, is put on trial. Each person knows what their own students will respond best to. I, for one, know that come next Tuesday I shall be stood in a field pretending to be pope Urban II, whilst my class are having such a good time they may not even realise they are learning!