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The rose may smell as sweet regardless, but names still matter. Image from wikimedia commons.

Some weeks ago, not for the first time, I received a compliment from a student that both gave me a little glow inside and flabbergasted me at the same time. There are clearly some things I regard as a baseline effort in the classroom that other people just don’t. Naturally, it’s gratifying when students recognize their tutor’s hard work. It’s also extremely lovely when they are appreciative enough to let one know. As I replied, it can be unexpectedly difficult to tell from the front of the classroom how things are being received by students. (Are they quiet because they’re listening and thinking hard? Or are they all secretly stifling yawns?!) Letting tutors know when they do something right is important because it helps them – at least in theory – to refine their practice.

On this occasion the student remarked that my commitment to teaching was evident in the fact that I could remember my students’ names. Names? The fact that this should be something worth complimenting a tutor on is, quite frankly, horrifying.

I know some people find names hard. I know some people have been teaching for an awfully long time, and a staggering number of names and faces have passed before them. For all I know, this student’s other tutors are all suffering clinical prosopagnosia. If that applies to you, you have my deep sympathy. But for myself, I look at it this way: you, the tutor, have to meet with these young people on a weekly basis for at least three months. You might have a number of groups, but probably no more than (in our system, at least) five groups of twenty or so. That’s one hundred people, give or take. If it’s not the first semester of first year, it’s reasonably likely that you’ve met some of them before. You also have (or at least, we have in my institution) the facility to print off a photographic roll. You have to lead these students in discussion, teach them, advise them, collect and assess their work and, determining whether they’ve taken on your advice, return it to them, and eventually sign off that you are satisfied that the final grade they receive is appropriate to their level of effort and achievement throughout semester… and you propose to do all of this without being able to identify them as individuals? I’m sorry, but words actually fail me… Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t think I’m really adding to knowledge here, but it always comes as rather a shock to students that Luther didn’t simply spring out of the virgin earth as the ‘inventor’ of calls for reform of the Church. It says something, I presume, about the success of post-Reformation movements in discourse, casting everything that was thought or done before about 1500 (excepting, perhaps, the composition of the Bible) into superstitious and ignorant darkness. However, this is not the time or place for me to get started on a rant about that!

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I prepared a lovely and offensively vibrant handout for my students to illustrate, if not the entire (pre)history of reform, then at least some of the major points that should, I hope, enable them to contextualize the Reformation somewhat more securely. They hadn’t had the Schism in lectures, for instance, so reading from Nicholas of Cusa about the powers of councils to constrain popes rather flummoxed them until I did my ‘well, you know there were three popes at one point?’ gag. It’s the history tutor’s equivalent to the stand up comic’s fall-back oneliner. Always gets a reaction.

I’m putting this handout here not with any significant purpose in mind, but mostly just because I’m rather proud of my design efforts, and given how many hours it took me to construct, it may as well have an appreciative audience. Click through for the full hypercoloured glory. Enjoy!

What’s not to love about a brief history of Reformation in a multicoloured flowchart? Hint: start at the top left! Text & Design © Kathleen Neal.

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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