Review of semester one

Putting my end of semester course evaluations online – partly for comments, partly so that it’s easily accessible to students and staff, partly to chart the intellectual journey.

I am course organiser for one undergraduate course (Britainin the Second World War) and one postgraduate course (Victors to Victims: Representing Total War in Britain, 1945-2000). I also supervise seven third year undergraduates undertaking research dissertations on a variety of subjects [it may surprise readers of what’s meant to be a First World War historian’s blog that I don’t teach a WW1 course. I do some lectures on our course on The Great War, but for various departmental/admin reasons, I don’t teach the seminars].

I felt that the MA course went very well this year. This was the second time that I’d taught it, so I knew what to expect. I had also reviewed and revised the course over the summer, making the seminar topics clearer and more easily achievable – or rather, it was more obvious to the students when they had achieved what I wanted. I was also stricter about making students prepare and pre-circulate questions for discussion. I was fortunate enough to teach a group of students who were highly motivated, undertook a lot of reading and who ‘gelled’ well despite the wide range of backgrounds and ages. About half the seminars were dream MA teaching, in the sense that my only role was occasionally to point discussion in the right direction or to bring my greater subject knowledge to bear, whilst the students effectively ran the class. The seminar had one student with severe visual impairment. This made it difficult to make use of all the television and film material that I would have liked. There’s enough material of other sorts that this wasn’t a problem, but if I were to encounter this situation again, I’d want to find some more specifically appropriate resources. For example, I could have taught half a seminar on radio plays about the First World War, or on Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Aside from this, I’d like to improve the course in the following ways:

1) continue to build up QM’s library holdings of relevant texts. Particularly as term goes on, students find it hard to make time to visit libraries further afield. So I’m going to direct my book-buying on the last weeks of term.

2) encourage students to keep a log of themes and concepts – so that when we wrap up the course they are able to draw comparisons between the representations of the First and Second World Wars.

3) rejig the course structure to place more emphasis on representations of the Home Front in the Second World War. At the moment, this only gets a week, and I think to be explored in its full depth it probably needs two. I’d make space for this by incorporating the discussion of ‘Churchill’ into a broader seminar on the domestic.

I was nervous when I started this year of teaching Britain in the Second World War because this course is my baby, and this is the first occasion on which I’ve taught it with a TA. I am not good at handing over control. I’ve been pleased, however, with the way the course has run. The major problems have been in terms of resources and venue rather than with teaching or student involvement. As it was last year, this is the most popular and oversubscribed course in the history department. I allowed it to double in size last year to this. What I should have foreseen, and did not, was that doubling the student intake increased the pressure on books in the library. I managed to persuade the librarian to lay in extra stocks of the key texts, but in the future I’d want to expand the course more gradually (or get permission to indulge in a massive expansion of book provision before expanding it). There is also a major problem with space. I have to teach my seminar in a colleague’s office. The larger of my two seminar groups only just squeezes in. This may encourage student interaction (on the same basis that parties get more fun as you decrease the space in which they’re held) but it makes writing on the board, or getting people to move around, far too difficult. This is a faculty wide problem, which is hopefully going to be solved next year with the provision of more teaching space, but I will be far more assertive about demanding proper teaching rooms next time round.

Things that I think have gone well. I feel that I’ve managed to build up quite a strong sense of course spirit and cohesion. I strongly believe that students deserve to be treated like adults, but that they also need to be led and inspired. My measure of success here is that, unlike every other course I’ve taught on, there is almost no drop off in student attendance at lectures over the length of the term, and that even in the last seminar of the year (when colleagues were sometimes down to 2 or 3 students), I still had 80% attendance. The problems with my leadership style, which is based largely on enormous personal enthusiasm, are that it gets harder to enact as the course gets larger (in particular, when you’re not teaching students in seminars you don’t learn their names, which makes it harder to interact with them in lectures) and that it can be exhausting. In the weeks when the students are finding life tough, I can end my teaching day feeling wrung out. My Education and Staff Development colleagues would doubtless tell me that to become a more effective academic, I should develop a more hands-off style. I suspect I would find this much less rewarding.

The only major modification to the teaching plan this year was my introduction of a lecture on Clausewitz and the remarkable trinity. The lecture went well, in the sense that I felt that I’d got across a complex idea (less the trinity than the manner in which it is derived) effectively. There was very positive reaction from some students – particularly those at the top end of the mark scale. Others told me that they felt a bit ‘so what?’ about the whole thing. From teaching this subject previously, to army officers, I had expected a moment of revelation when the trinity was revealed in all its glory: this was not forthcoming. I suspect that the reason for this was that I spend a lot of the course emphasising that every aspect of the war is interconnected. So the idea that you have to study the domestic and the political to understand the military was not particularly original to my undergraduates. I didn’t schedule a class immediately after the lecture to discuss Clausewitz further. Instead, I’ve concentrated in subsequent lectures and seminars on returning to the trinity when discussing the nature of war. After a couple of false starts (hard for students to see the relevance of the trinity when discussing the desert war), this did work well with regard to Montgomery’s campaign in NW Europe from ’44 onwards. The trinity is a very effective way to analyse why 21st Army Group fought in the way it did. I’ve just started to mark the term’s essays, and a couple of students have already referred to Clausewitz, so either I did get the point across, or they’ve recognised that this is a personal bugbear. Either way, they have had their horizons widened.

The reason that I didn’t have time for a seminar dedicated to Clausewitz was that the course went on a trip to the National Archives, run by my TA, the very wonderful Mr Matthew Grant. This was effective, in the sense that it got most of the course there, and got them cards, and showed them how to use the archives. But it was not, by all accounts, that much fun. It’s a long way to Kew. It was a cold, wet walk from the tube. There wasn’t time to order up documents individually to match the students’ interests. I don’t know quite what to do about this. Organising trips out, or study days, seems like it ought to be a vital part of what a London university can offer. But getting them right is really hard. It takes, in my experience, three of these trips to actually start doing them right. What I might try to do next year is to involve students more in organising them. This would give them a bit more of an investment in the visit, and adapt what we’re doing to fit their needs. It would also give them some CV points. I’m chatting to the people at the National Army Museum about involving students more: this is an ongoing project.

I’ll say more about how I’ll adapt the course next year when I’ve finished teaching it across both semesters.

Something else which I’ve been pleased with is my use of WebCT as a teaching aid. Both for my research dissertation students and for Britain in the Second World War, I’ve put a lot of the course materials, useful links, lecture powerpoints and discussion boards online. Again, this is something that takes a while to get right: I still haven’t always presented the material in the easiest way for students to access. But I’m getting there. The best bit has been the way that discussion boards can function to allow students to work together and to save my time. Very often, on both courses, I find as a teacher that I’m answering the same question repeatedly when it comes to essay format or research queries. Putting all this online, and getting students into the habit of checking and posting, means that I only have to answer the question once – or even that students answer for me. It also acts as a means of communication and encouragement for students who can become isolated whilst they’re undertaking individual research in their final year. I was going to try to persuade the department that every supervisor should use WebCT with their dissertation students. But I suspect this is a bridge too far.

Final thing that I want to think about for all the courses I teach on next year is finding new modes of assessment. I’m not quite sure what yet, but I’d like to give students a more interesting and real-world relevant task as well as traditional essays. Two things spring to mind – an assessed presentation and some form of online resource archive. Again, more on this as I work on it.

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3 Responses to Review of semester one

  1. Anthony says:

    Dan,

    Speaking as a student, you may well earn the love or hatred of your charges depending upon whether the books you want them to use are available. Up to a point you can certainly argue that many students come a cropper with finding books simply because they’ve left it too bloomin’ late and have got caught up in a last minute rush with a load of other last-minuters. However, this isn’t always the case as I know from my own experience. Philip Sabin, who teaches WW2 in Europe at King’s, runs his course in a way that’s designed to minimise pressure on books but it’s rather complicated and the course itself is specifically tailored around it so I don’t know that it would be very useful to you.

    On the in-course assessment issue, I can give you something of a student view if that helps (probably not). We do a variety of assessment types at King’s, though most of it it essays. One thing I’ve found is that if the essays themselves don’t count toward the final marks students will at best resent them and at worst will scrape together just enough to pass because as far as they’re concerned it’s just glorified form filling and box ticking – you can argue legitimately that this is tough s*** (there are excellent arguments for having the final mark entirely exam-based) but you might want to take that into consideration. During our first year we had to do a variety of seminar based exercises, including marked presentations, that seemed to work pretty well. This year we’re also doing 4,000 word individual research projects (WW2 in Europe) and group research papers (Intel), both of which will count toward our final grade. Although fundamentally these are essays they way they work is a bit different.

    The only thing I’d say regarding group work from a student perspective is that although it can involve working on some valuable skills, if you get stuck in a crummy group you’re stuffed. I personally think the intel research project has a lot of potential and provides valuable dissertation training for when we go into our third year, but I know a number of people who are distinctly unchuffed that fifty per cent of their core module mark is effectively reliant upon the willingness of other students to get their fingers out.

    If you figure out a way to coerce your admin-wallahs to give you better room allocations, I can tell you now that there are a number of War Studies teaching staff who would pay good money to learn your secret.

  2. Dan says:

    Anthony,

    Thank you. As usual, I am amazed by the quantity of your writing (and I mean that in a good way!).
    Books. I _know_ that this is a problem. What really annoyed me about this semester was the fact that I made it more of an issue than it needed to be through my own stupidity. But (much like the British army on the Somme, you could say), I’ll call my stupidity a learning experience, because it will make me feel less stupid.
    Assessment. Working in a team is, I think, one of the skills we should be teaching. If we taught it, we should evaluate it. But I think it would be rather unfair to rate people on team effort now when they are not given those skills in the first place. In fact, this is part of a far bigger debate that I am having with my colleagues about how to teach all our British history modules.
    On the really imaginative side, I’d love to find a way to get our students interacting on a regular basis with one of the capital’s museums, whilst producing something that would contribute (however meanly) to their final grade. Again, that takes some thinking time. And this is genuinely where we could make a comparison with the Brits in WW1. Look at when changes in GHQ structure happen – always during the winter, when there was actually time to stop and think about what had gone before. Similarly, I only get the head/admin space to revise courses once they’re taught. This does pose a bit of a leadership issue, since you have to convince students to help you improve a course in ways they won’t benefit from themselves.
    Room allocations – it’s a sign of how wonderful the institution is that our rate of expansion has outpaced the accommodation available… Should be sorted next year, actually, when a whole load of medical science rooms are reassigned. Let’s hope they’ll take the cadavers out first.

  3. Anthony says:

    Dan – forgive me if this makes a minimal amount of sense as I’m modertately drunk.

    I think you rpoint about the museums is interesting as we (as in people based in London) have such a huge resource sitting on our doorsteps and it seems a shame not to make the most of it. At King’s we did do some museum visits in the first year but it was very much the case that it was just as part of the experience and didn’t add anything to the overall grading or have any real hands on content (aside from some interesting talks by members of the museum staff).

    By strange coincidence, I was on the Salford University website recently and I noticed that if you’re doing contemporary and mil hist (http://www.espach.salford.ac.uk/politics/bacmih.php) at Salford there’s actually a placement scheme that can have you working at not only the IWM, but at the Liddell Hart Archives at King’s! I’m a King’s student and I don’t get to work at the Liddell Hart archives to bulk my CV, let alone for course credit! If Salford can manage to prod its way into the IWm, I’m sure your place can and if you can actively integrate on site work into the course structure the more the better. It seems to me that the war and society focus of your course ought to make it a particularly tasty prospect – and it would serve your students well when they come to do their dissertations too.

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