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A while ago this article appeared on the website of The Age, one of the Melbourne dailies. It discusses how this image found its way onto the official final high school History exam for Victorian students in 2012:

Anonymous, after Nikolai Kochergin’s “Storming the Winter Palace, 25 October 1917”. Source: DarkRoastedBlend

Now, looking carefully, you will see a giant robot assisting the Bolshevik forces from behind an ornate fence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any cybermen or transformers being part of the curriculum when I took this unit on The Age of Revolutions. (OK, it was a long time ago, but I doubt *that* kind of new material has since come to light!)

In this case, we’re assured that students (a) weren’t asked any questions to which this interloper in the image could have introduced confusion (which rather implies they weren’t asked any questions about the image, and that leads me to wonder why the hell it was there in the first place… but aaaaaanyway), and (b) if any confusion or distraction attributable to the image is ‘detected’ in student answers, somehow something will be done to make sure they are not disadvantaged. God knows how *that’s* supposed to work.[1] I remember I once applied for my own final history exam to be remarked (I had received a D, and for the record, it went up to A- upon review) but there wasn’t any sort of confusion on the paper, merely in the examiner’s mind: let’s hope this bunch were more on the ball.

The online news on the day was having a giggle at the expense of the examinations board at the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), and we, the readers, were invited to scoff along — ‘How silly! What kind of morons do they hire there these days? *Snort* Fancy not noticing a giant robot!’ — before moving on with our self-satisfied surfing. Indeed, twitter briefly lit up with guffaws and virtual finger-pointing. And to an extent, yes: people whose job it is to set exams, one would assume, have something of a moral obligation to ensure that they are providing tests which give accurate information, and ask questions to which answers can reasonably be expected. The obligation of examination boards presumably extends to them not just shoving in an image they’ve scooped from the top of a list generated by the black box of their online search engine of choice. Yet that is what we must suspect occurred in this case. According to The Age, “a search for the image in Google brings up the robot version as the first result“.[2] This incident has therefore prompted me to reflect on the often unrecognized influence of, particularly, Google’s search algorithm on our thinking.[3] Read the rest of this entry »

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I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture on the use (and abuse) of King Arthur by twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians in Britain. This has been a real privilege, since a desire to study the ‘history’ behind the myth was one of the reasons I chose my particular undergraduate degree and institution, more years ago than is generally mentioned in polite society. As a bright-eyed eighteen year old, I envisaged my future as revolutionizing the understanding of this murky figure. Ah, the naïvety of youth! Somehow, despite being older and considerably more cynical now (if not necessarily very much wiser), being invited to take on this task feels like ‘arriving’, or at the very least, achieving a long-forgotten goal. It’s been a fair while since I considered the literature on this topic, so I thought a compilation here of what I see as the most pertinent and recent arguments would be a useful exercise for me, if not of gripping relevance to the rest of you. You have my permission to look away if you so desire.

Speaking of the abuse of history, this is *not* the King Arthur I’m going to be discussing…

My task in this guest lecture is to fill in “what happens to Arthur in (medieval) historians’ work after Geoffrey of Monmouth”, and I’m planning to adopt an essentially chronological structure on the day. In this forum, however, I’m going to begin from the other end with where Arthur and Arthurian history ended up in Edwardian times, since we’re all about the thirteenth century here.

…nor, for that matter, is this…

The pendulum of opinion concerning Edward I’s identification with Arthur has swung between two poles since the early 20th century: what we might call the romantic and pragmatic. R.S. Loomis, himself a noted Arthurian devotee, long ago took issue with what he saw as Sir Maurice Powicke’s excessively political reading of Edward’s understanding of Arthur.[1] Powicke had commented, as if in passing, that Edward’s procession to Glastonbury and the pageantry that attended his, and Queen Eleanor’s, ceremonial disinterment and reburial of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere was intended as a demonstration of the subjugation of Wales. Loomis argued that, instead, Edward was genuinely a devotee of Arthurian literature, and that, at the very least, “sentiment too was involved”.[2] I think it would be fair to call this the minority view. Rather more recently, Michael Prestwich assembled the evidence for Edward’s association with Arthur and found it to be unexceptional and unfocused: part of his general embeddedness in the culture of chivalry, but not constituting a particular dedication to an Arthurian cult.[3] Rather curiously, however, Prestwich went on to declare that it was “not clear what [Edward’s] purpose was” in going to Glastonbury in 1278.[4] Read the rest of this entry »

I really liked this distinction, raised by Prof. Peter T. Struck of UPenn, in a recent interview with The Chronicle on his hopes for and concerns about teaching a free online unit on Greek myth (you can read it here). I particularly liked his comment: “Great education is transformative. Data transfer isn’t.”

I wonder if I have been educating students, or shoving data at them. I hadn’t considered the difference terribly consciously until now. I hope I’ve done at least some of the former. Yet I fear that some of my – and my colleagues’ – obsessions tend to focus on data transfer, perhaps because it’s the easiest thing to notice when it goes wrong or fails. When a student hasn’t realised that a unit requires a certain footnote style, for instance, it’s noticeable: you mark an essay and groan as you write for the sixth or seventh time, ‘please note, footnotes are required by all history units…‘, and wonder why you bothered spending a whole tutorial on research and citation skills if nobody was listening.

We’ve thought and talked a fair bit about how to do this better next time, for example by doubling the tutorial time dedicated to discussing these skills, by redesigning relevant assessment to emphasise key skills, changing the format of the tutorial, and so on. This week, however, a colleague and I realised in the course of our conversation that most of the measures we’ve considered involve an increase in our responsibility, as if all we – as teachers – must do is ‘more’ and that will fix it. We began to think that, instead, we might need to force each student to assume these responsibilities for themselves: this, as we said to each other, is a more valuable thing to teach them in the long run than how to conform to MHRA style.

In light of Prof. Struck’s comments, I now see this little case study as a discussion of education vs. data transfer, and I’m pleased that we arrived independently at the notion that the former was preferable. The question remains, how to do it in practice. Education is a darn sight harder to do and to design than merely dispensing information. Somehow an eagerness for knowledge, and both the tools and the motivation to seek it for oneself have to be conveyed. Can this be done when the time allotted to a unit is no more than 22 lecture and 10 tutorial hours?

Any suggestions?

I’ve just finished teaching a unit in first year history on Medieval Europe – although there are still essays trickling in for assessment. This has been a quite lovely experience, I must say. (Especially given the dire predictions of some colleagues about the low standards in written composition and general comprehension among today’s youth.  Personally, I blame society.) I’ve been spoilt with a great bunch of students, almost all of whom seemed genuinely happy to be in class. However, for all their engagement and enthusiasm, there was one thing in particular that bothered me about their grasp of the course material.

Women.

Now, it may not have escaped your notice that I am, myself, female. I’m on the record as saying that I’m basically glad I don’t live in 13th-Century England, because of the opportunities modernity offers me, in particular to be a scholar and a relatively independent person. I regard many of the attitudes towards women in the past as distasteful, and unconscionable in the present. But I also recognise that (a) history is not a long but simple story of the emancipation of women from male control; (b) some attitudes towards men in the past were also pretty lousy; (c) gender was only one factor – a factor, sure, even an important one, but still only one of a complex set of factors – in determining how good or bad you had it in the medieval world; and (d) women, as much as men, constituted the societies that held and expressed gendered attitudes.

I wish my students could see it that way. I’ve just finished reading a batch of research essays on the topic of gender roles in high medieval Europe, and there was a depressing sameness to them. Most assured me that women were uniformly detested and oppressed. Several failed to mention men at all (except in connection with oppressing women), even through the set question specifically concerned gender roles, and not the treatment of women. The (largely un-articulated) definition of oppression seemed to include involvement in arranged marriages (somewhat conveniently – or disrespectfully – forgetting that marriage, like the tango, takes two); the existence of the story of Eve (equally conveniently overlooking the many Biblical heroines); the fact that as wives they had and were expected to have children (as if women themselves were somehow immune to and separate from notions of lineage and status); and lack of participation in the workforce. In these terms, a number of essays concluded, at least the peasant ‘woman on the street’ was relatively equal to the man, even if they were all kneeling in the shit together. (And the great thing about endemic malnutrition and working as a wet-nurse is you don’t have as many children!) To be fair, this general impression is one they might easily have obtained from the assigned readings, about which I hope to make some recommendations for future years.

Now, I am not about to argue that, au contraire, medieval women had it easy, or that the imagery of the ultimate temptress wasn’t sometimes, or even often, used against them. But I do want to make a stand for some nuance; some complication; some questioning of this rather bland and unimaginative view of medieval women. In the first place, I object to the assumption that women then wanted the same things as women now, in middle-class, 21st-Century Australia (in fact, while we’re on the topic, do all 21st-Century, middle-class, Australian women even want the same things?). I also object to the implicit objectification of women in the view that society (often, explicitly, ‘The Church’ in the essays I’ve just marked) did this to them, as if they were completely passive instruments, utterly lacking in agency. They may have had limited opportunities to express their desires and decisions outside the social structures and assumptions in which they were embedded, but so do we, and so did contemporary men, by and large. Significantly, those structures and assumptions were/are also gendered, and so the ways and means in which men’s and women’s options were/are limited are not identical.

I shall have more to say on this over the coming weeks, in which I hope to bring together a number of examples of women in 13th-Century England, not so much to show how amazing, exceptional or admirable they were, but to show how complex their lives were, how much gender was only (an integrated) part of their many social roles, and how agency is actually everywhere if you only think of turning over a historical rock or two.

For now, I’ll close by asking: Have you come across this kind of uncritical approach to gender (or other topics) among undergraduate history students? How did you address it?

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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.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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