NACBS: The Last Session

It was last on the program page, last in the size of the room, and last on the schedule as the last session of the conference (so people kept leaving to catch planes): Teaching British History Now II (the last teaching session, of two): The Present in British History Classrooms.

Although the chair was Simon Devereaux of the U of Victoria, it was Kali Israel of the U of Michigan who wanted the session. The original idea was to discuss the issue of how we historians should bring what’s happening in Britain nowadays into the classroom. Kali was coming from an emotional place, when the lack of historical context in reportage of the Scottish referendum caused her angst. What happened in the session was a much larger, wide-ranging discussion of our current difficulties and how we can justify our discipline.

But on the original topic, one way Kali handles this is to present to students “history for revision”: things that are “hot” again because of something that happens. Allison Abra (U of Southern Mississippi) uses study abroad in London and sites in southern England to connect current events directly and on the fly.

The 16th Street Mall, Denver

But most interesting to me was Charles Upchurch of Florida State University, who has developed a pedagogical method addressing a number of needs: answering the neoliberal critique of history as a useless field, opposing administratively driven pressure to teach online with the goal of replacing teachers with filmed lectures, and resisting the downsizing of Humanities programs. His method is to have students engage in intensive undergraduate research, something that is very appealing to the administration and through which he can achieve a number of goals. Students select a topic of interest to them within the course parameters (his Brit history classes cover about 150 years only), and they use historical databases (Old Bailey, Parliamentary Papers, etc) to do their research using primary sources throughout the semester, building up to a big paper.

Mondays he lectures, Wednesdays there’s discussion (but in a larger sense, including their projects – I wasn’t too clear on this), and Fridays are database days: the first 1/3 of the semester spent demonstrating databases to students, then shifting to students taking the class through the databases they’re working in, and for the last 1/3 everyone workshopping their papers collaboratively. The sense of community is high, the academic standards are high (but with no harsh penalties), and everyone improves. Instead of grading everything, exemplary work from one student is graded live on the screen, and students somehow through self-assessment (?) use that example to improve their own work. (I put the ? because this last might not come across with community college students.)

The overlaps are considerable with what I do in my classes. Class size is 40, like mine. He ends with 30, as I often do. The focus is on their own topics and primary sources, which is the foundation of my method. The difference is I do it online (and, of course, I have first-year students). When I pointed out that his goal of making lecture capture online courses impossible could be achieved within an online environment, I became the faculty-driven online pedagogy expert in the room (which, I suppose, I was).

What’s of use to me there, though, isn’t the goal, but the method involving the databases. I have had Honors Contracts fail continually because of student problems using databases. Charles stated outright that we must teach students to use historical databases. He said that librarians pretend they can do this, but they can’t. Put so starkly, that answered a number of issues for me. Despite my deep love of librarians, they are not historians, and databases are not just databases. Historical databases are different and require particular skills. Duh. I’ve been thinking that’s not my job, teaching how to use technological things (databases, LMSs, etc) – that’s training, which I denigrate as not using my skills. He teaches this in class, on the screen. YES. Of course. Instead of just class exercises, activities, and discussions, my Wednesdays could include this. (He also made a point that we should force students to use the databases — even ones like J-STOR just to get assigned articles — to make sure the markers are there for supporting paying for the databases). In fact, if I think about this too much, I may end up engaging the same technique to make sure they find good visual primary sources and cite them properly each week…not just Honors students, but all students.


Other aspects and solutions to the “history as a discipline” issue were discussed by the group. We should justify research skills as being important in many professions. We should specifically point out the history of what’s happening now – student minds begin in the present. We must impart the diversity of our expertise.  Although there was concern that our lectures must not make contemporary events seem pre-determined (this happened, then this, then – ta dah! – terrorists attack the London bus), I was sure that pulling the threads through to current events was something we owed to our students. On the question of the decline of “expertise”, Charles pointed to Antiques Roadshow, where people bring items to experts to discover their connections to the past.  Engagement to the past should be automatic. Perhaps historians are the gatekeepers…

Another useful thing for me resulted from the discussion, through Laura E. Nym Mayhall (who presented yesterday). A couple of weeks ago, I had students work on my own research, helping me find Horace Byatt’s house in Midhurst. I was of two minds about this, but I needed the help of visually-experienced people, which many of my students are. Laura does research internships where the students work on her research. And they love it, just like the students who helped me (when I set the project of house-finding aside, they demanded to know what I had concluded). Say, that might be a good idea for Honors Contracts too!