Colin Heywood reflects on advice on teaching

In this blog Professor Colin Heywood, University of Nottingham, UK, uses the website to reflect on his final-year undergraduate ‘Special Subject’ teaching.

Having listened appreciatively to the various contributions on the ‘Historians on Teaching’ website, and especially to the Approaches and Methods section, I naturally reflected on how they tie in with my own experience of teaching and how the points raised might be applied to the study of a module I have taught over many years.

The module I have in mind is a final-year ‘Special Subject’ concerned with the history of childhood and youth in nineteenth-century Britain. This is taught almost entirely by seminar, to what would now be called a ‘small’ group with about fifteen to twenty students each year. Following our Department’s practice, the students are encouraged to take the lead in planning and leading seminars, after consultations with the tutor.  I wondered how the resources on the website might help a tutor to think critically about making seminars more interesting and hence more useful for the students. That is to say, to find ways of encouraging the students to prepare in advance, to express and defend their ideas, and to find their way into a topic.

To begin with, I agree with those colleagues featured on the website that an eclectic approach has much to recommend it. It is important to draw together approaches and methods in ways that suit a course according to such variables as its level, subject matter, the type of student taking it, and resources available. And there is a particular danger in a year-long course, or even over a semester, of settling into a rut, repeating what seems a successful format. We tend to be confident in handling full-class discussions, the examination of texts, the introduction of occasional debates and role-plays, and the resort to film and video (amazing what is on You Tube), but perhaps less so in interpreting paintings and organizing ‘field trips’? I also like the reassuring suggestion that we should take risks and not fear failure. We doubtless need to build change into our teaching, and do so with new topics, new research findings, new ways of leading off seminars. But often what seems a great idea in the summer can fall flat in class in the depths of February, and we have to accept that.

Secondly, the historians on the website suggest that history students learn more deeply when they can relate their course material to their own personal and family experience. The history of childhood and youth lends itself to this particularly well: ‘we may not have been kings or queens, but we have all been children, etc’, and we have some purchase on ideas about our understanding of childhood and adolescence, relations with parents and siblings, compulsory schooling, joining the Scouts or Guides,  or even courting. At the same time, this can become too cosy and off-the-point. It is also obvious to a historian that the students need an awareness of differences as well as similarities when discussing young people (or any others) in the past. To counter the familiar, there is the shock to the student of the counter-intuitive – that, in this context, people in the past had very different (and contested) ideas about childhood and youth, that banning child labour might in some circumstances be unwise, that Dr Barnardo was a ruthless operator, and so forth.

Finally, I am bound to agree (on a Special Subject) with the emphasis on using primary sources in seminars. Students accumulate plenty of experience in this sphere, but still on modern history courses seem pretty hopeless dealing skilfully with them in their final year. They tend to rush through them, and take a superficial view – until gobbet exercises loom. These sometimes unloved exercises in my view form a useful basis for class discussion, when the historical context to a document is in the foreground. What is the ideal for a modern history course in social/cultural history? There are influential texts by the likes of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and G. Stanley Hall, and pertinent novels by, for example, Charles Dickens and Samuel Butler, but one wonders how many students read them. Given their time constraints, this may not be unreasonable, suggesting that short extracts focussed on key points may be most appropriate. Working-class autobiographies are much in vogue among researchers, and they have the advantage of being both unfamiliar and manageable. Visual representations of children in paintings and photographs are also now well established among both researchers and students, though they need supporting with advice on how to questions to ask. Sensationalist accounts of, say, child labour in the cotton mills or juvenile delinquency are also interesting to discuss. And then there is the Web, with judicial records, accounts of wartime experiences, collections of children’s books…I could go on. Today, the wealth of primary sources easily accessible online is a huge bonus for any history lecturer.


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