If you’d been in the corridors around my office a few weeks back, you would have come across me and several of my wonderful tutors and colleagues bedecked in thirteenth century(ish) garb. This was not a closet cosplay club. This was serious pedagogy folks. In the closing week of semester, we held a ‘Medieval Expo’ of student posters, videos and podcasts aimed at educating a general audience about the middle ages, and turned it into a festival with staff and students in costume and prizes for the ‘People’s Choice’ displays.
To my mind, historical education is a serious business, but that’s no reason not to have fun as well. After all, I love what I do, so why can’t students be encouraged to have a blast while also acquiring historical knowledge and transferable skills?
Apparently not quite everyone agreed, although the students raved about it and all the teaching staff involved were excited by this innovative addition to the assessment program. The odd dissenting voice of critique seemed to suggest that in dressing up we had undermined our own and our discipline’s credibility. This not a unique view: ‘real’ historians often deride ‘amateur’ re-enactment troupes and the SCA set. This was the prevailing attitude I encountered as an undergraduate student myself. Now, I find I beg to differ. Let me tell you why.
The fundamental aim of this task was to understand the contrast between popular assumptions about ‘the medieval’ and academic constructions of it; bridge the disconnect between public and academic discourses of history; and interrogate the role and ethical imperatives of historians engaging in public dialogue. Those are all very serious things to consider, and, in my opinion, vital to the curriculum of entry level undergraduate studies in our field. This is particularly so when most students come to medieval history because of their pop-culture medievalist engagement(s), rather than despite them; and additionally since most of these students will go on to become, not academics generally or ‘historians’ specifically, but people with jobs that involve taking complicated concepts and figuring out how to communicate them to many different audiences. As a result, it becomes incumbent on us to help students toward a degree of self-awareness through which they can enjoy their popular pastimes, but understand clearly how and why to distinguish them from their academic engagement with the history. Being able to articulate this distinction actually improves their academic (and other) thinking and writing because they are less prone to confusing popular with academic discourse, form, and/or content.
Bringing the popular into the academic classroom, through events like this one, does not result in student confusion over where specific discourses belong. Rather, it confronts them with the differences between them by making them material; and on the evidence of their assessments so far, they respond with deeper reflection on the nature of history, discourse, their own previous assumptions, and the construction of cultural phenomena than many would give them credit for. It was through this event that students came to recognise most clearly what their own starting mis/conceptions had been, and to articulate their new understanding in ways that explicitly sought to reach out to those who haven’t had the benefit of a semester of tertiary education in medieval history. In short, far from undermining the discipline, doing fun stuff with popular medievalism proved to be extremely effective for my core historical and communicative pedagogical aims.
Events such as this that break out of the ordinary also clearly engage student imagination and enthusiasm far more effectively than ‘more of the same’ lectures – no matter how well crafted and received. My spontaneous suggestion, early in semester, that I might come in costume to the final festival, turned out to be the turning point in students’ excitement about and efforts towards the Expo. They mirrored my enthusiasm from that point on – including coming along in costume themselves. And it showed in the grades, where the average for this task was 10% above that of all the other assessment for the semester. Boy, oh boy, some of their work was amazing. I seriously doubt I could have produced some of it as a first year student. And so, far from undermining our credibility, our enthusiasm (not to mention our ability not to take ourselves too seriously while remaining seriously committed to our subject) instead raised me and my staff to a new level as specula scholarum in these students’ eyes – perhaps even sparking the aspirations of a few star medievalists of the future in the process.
I’m planning to write up this assessment for the pedagogical literature, where I will have a lot more to say about medievalism as a teaching tool, and the importance of performing one’s own engagement in order to engage. But for now, I simply say, the results speak for themselves, and I’ll dress up it I want to.