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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.

ingeborg kathleen computer expo caulfield

Checking out some student work in character as Ingeborg of Denmark

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.

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Well, every humanities unit these days seems to have a week on gender, and here we are again. I’m going to get to a pleasing aspect of teaching the topic this time in a moment – but first let me get something off my chest…

A gender week.

Is it just me or are there problems with corralling gender into a corner of its own, and going off happily afterwards, dusting the hands, and saying “Right! Well at least that’s got *that* over with for another semester!”? I’ll allow that this is an issue most undergraduate students haven’t previously dealt with in the ways that academics tend to take for granted, and it’s complicated, so they need some careful guidance and signposting through the process. In that respect giving it some dedicated time and attention is clearly necessary and valuable, as was raised in the comments last time I talked about this matter. On the other hand, it seems to me that by so structuring it we risk perpetuating the marginalization of all things ‘gendered’: of confirming in young minds that women and femininity are peripheral concerns to History, and that men and masculinity can go on happily being the assumed centre while remaining essentially unexamined. I know there’s debate about this,[1] but I think I, for one, am becoming more determined in my view that what we need here is some integration, rather than reiteration of the battle lines. It appears that pedagogy hasn’t quite figured out the best way of achieving this yet. I can’t say that I currently I have any inspired answers to offer, merely a gripe.

So anyway, this semester I’m out of my comfort zone, teaching a unit on the (mostly Italian) Renaissance. Whodathunkit!? It’s quite fun, despite the risk of a nose bleed from straying so far forward in time.[2] For one thing, as a friend pointed out, teaching outside one’s own research specialty enables one to focus on teaching as a process. I try to practice active reflection on my teaching at any time, but there is an element of truth to this. Being less invested in the role of gate-keeper for the content of a specific discipline does free the mind to reflect on the structural aspects of how most effectively to convey any information, coach any skills, and so on. I have found myself taking a much more hands-off approach, allowing students to take a greater degree of control over the discussion, and to arrive at their own interpretations (which is not to say I don’t intervene if the conversation threatens to derail!).

Most of my students seem to have responded well to this responsibility/burden. They are rising to the challenge, and it’s a joy to see them develoing a better understanding of what being a tertiary student of history is about, and realising the raw potential of ideas themselves. Given that many of my students in this unit were also in my classes last semester, I can really see the development of their academic maturity since they arrived on campus, and I feel no small satisfaction and pride at their achievements. In some ways, one might say it’s all rather maternal!

Which brings me back to gender. This gender week – despite my reservations, above – has been one of those moments when the students’ increasing intellectual maturity and grasp of historical discipline has been born home to me. In conversations, I was glowing inside to hear students arguing that “maybe what this author meant by ‘love’ when discussing marriage was really what we might call ‘respect’?”, or that “maybe the ideals put forward for a marriageable woman in a text written for men contemplating matrimony weren’t a full or representative expression of women’s roles in marriage?”, or that – amazing! – “perhaps men were also constrained by social forces and norms over which their personal control was limited?”… These kinds of comments show me how far we’ve come since the essays in semester one. These are the moments that make teaching so much fun, and so darn satisfying.

Students, take note!

[1] See, for instance, Dyan Elliot, ‘The three ages of Joan Scott’, American Historical Review 113.5 (2008), 1390-1403.
[2] I wish I could take credit for this lovely and evocative metaphor, but in fact Joanna Huntingdon first brought it to my attention.

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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