What are history seminars for? Employability, #badacademia, or just history?

Two stories have hit the headlines in the Times Higher this week:

1. Steve Starson's complaint about having to give up a seminar in his history course to teach first years how to write a CV;
2. academics' response to Michael Gove's categorisation of 'good academia' and 'bad academia'. The debate among #twitterstorians in particular hinting that Gove regards such skills as critical thinking, enquiry-based learning and student presentations as #badacademia.

 This has struck a chord with me today, as this week's teaching has been a bit of a trial (it's week 9, the students are getting stressed about their assessment and the upcoming exams and their lack of careers etc etc), and I've been doing some self-reflection about whether the changes I have made to my teaching style are working.

Last year, I converted my 3rd year special subject module, 'Popular Protest, Riot and Reform in Britain, 1760-1848', into a blended learning module, with an emphasis on enquiry-based learning. Also, I collaborated with our academic skills tutor who was studying for a PhD into 'inclusive learning'. He was a great help in trying to solve the age-old problem of students not talking to each other, or, conversely, dominating the discussion.

As a trial, we developed a new assessment for the module. Instead of the usual essay, students are assessed on their discussion and inclusivity skills during a seminar. They prepare a short piece about a primary source and its use to the historian, but the emphasis of the assessment is not on presentation but on discussion and on their skills in including everyone in the conversation.

The marking criteria and details can be found on my teaching website: http://katrinanavickas.weebly.com/panel-and-assessed-seminar-discussion.html


 Last year, it worked really well. Students who were normally quite weak in their writing skills excelled in discussion, and the intellectual level of debate was high as well as a conscious effort by everyone to have a balanced and inclusive conversation with their peers. The students, though challenged, seemed to enjoy it. The academic skills tutor thought it a success too, and integrated it into his research results.

The experiment was praised by external examiners and by other colleagues as a great way of widening our repertoire of assessment, something that we're always being encourage to do, to move away from the usual pattern of essay + exam.

So I was happy to run the assessment again this year. But this year, perhaps predictably, not all of the students were as enthusiastic as their previous cohort. It especially troubles the quieter students who don't like to speak out in the seminar, especially among other students they don't know very well. Understandably, they prefer traditional written methods of assessment, that are tried and tested and have more concrete 'learning outcomes'.

After all this experimentation (and see my previous post about flipping seminars), I also (perhaps heightened by my own reading of the two THE articles, and thinking back on my own undergraduate education) started to wonder whether I had experimented too far. I do empathise with students who came to university to study history by reading books and writing essays, rather than doing all these practical exercises about how to 'do' history and, moreover, doing other activities which don't at first hand feel like 'reading history'.

Is history monastic or collaborative?

Have I gone too far? Have I been pushed too much by an employability agenda to over-emphasise skills of working in a team, working with unfamiliar people, presenting and discussing, problem solving, inclusivity and just group work altogether? Should students just be learning history rather than having to worry whether they are being inclusive or not? Am I wasting too much 'contact time' in all this classroom management and activities rather than passing on historical information and expertise?

Students can be surprisingly conservative in their learning; especially when they know that getting a 2:2 is not enough to get a chance at a job interview today, they want the predictability and reliability of lecture + tutor-led seminar, assessed by a 2000-word essay and 2 hour exam, rather than the experiment of assessed seminar discussion and short workshop activities testing less tangible skills.

As I argued previously, I still believe that students can learn more through 'doing history' (#badacademia???) in practical exercises rather than just sitting through an hour-long lecture and regurgitating the facts in a stilted and tutor-led seminar. The academic skills tutor has also found in his research that 'inclusive' learning helps raise student attainment.

Yet it is hard and doesn't always work, especially when you're having to encourage inclusivity among a large class who have different friendship groups, experiences, expectations of higher education, and their own challenges.

At the heart is the debate about what a history degree is for (and therefore what it should consist of). Should we as history lecturers emphasise employability and 'transferable skills' - indeed, one of the first questions we get at open days from parents and potential students is: 'will a history degree get me a job? Why shouldn't I do a vocational subject like business instead?' Or should we just stick to teaching just history, 'good academia'?

Of course, it's a case of doing both, and helping develop the 'badacademia' skills of problem solving and critical thinking through historical practice, rather than separating it out, as Steve Sarson's experience feared, into 'cv skills' and 'history skills'. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Yet, I'm still finding getting that balance right difficult.


Popular posts from this blog

Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

Effigies in protest