Book Review: The Practice of University History Teaching

Alan Booth, Paul Hyland (eds.), The Practice of University History Teaching. Manchester University Press: Manchester 2000.
Reviewed by Martin Kroher, Departmental Teaching Fellow in East Asian Languages and Civilizations

At first glance the usefulness of the edited volume The Practice of University History Teaching might appear to be limited to teachers in degree programs in history and mainly apply to the situation in the UK, especially given that most of its contributors are writing from a background in the British system of higher education, where liberal arts programs are extremely rare. And yet, the introduction lays out problems and questions very familiar from the discussions in the U.S. about liberal arts programs and higher education in general: what is the role and status of teaching in academia? What is the goal of learning? Should we work towards disseminating the knowledge and practices of our particular academic subject, or should we aim at developing skills whose applicability is as broad as possible? The editors and several contributors make a strong case that, regardless of the different orientation and academic culture of various history departments, these goals need not necessarily be contradictory and mutually exclusive. To the contrary, the message of the introduction, which also permeates the rest of the volume, is that practicing history does teach skills that are not only needed in non-academic careers that require that diverse information be critically evaluated, organized and presented, but also prepare them for democratic citizenship in general. The first essay, “Teaching and the Academic Career,” notes moreover that teaching and learning is more and more in the focus of History Departments in the UK, although many shortcomings are still prevalent. Although a number of contributors are from prestigious Russell Group Universities, none is on the faculty of Oxford or Cambridge, while the vast majority teach in “new” institutions founded after the turn of the century: this in itself seems indicative of the low prestige teaching and pedagogy traditionally had and apparently still has in academia.

The Practice of University History Teaching presents short but highly informative essays gathered into three categories: “Context and Course Design;” “Enhancing Teaching and Learning;” and “Learning and Assessment.” The topics range from more general reflections appearing under the first category, such as “Creating a Context to Enhance Student Learning in History,” to more practical “how-to” guides in the second category that cover specific issues, such as “Motivating Students by Active Learning in the History Classroom.” The essays of the third category make suggestions about how to ensure that the way students are assessed supports and enhances their learning experience. While some contributions are mainly based on the author’s own experience and teaching practice, most authors refer extensively to more objective data, including their own dedicated studies and surveys as well as published literature. At times the state of the field described and even the terminology can appear a bit dated. An essay on “Integrating Information Technology into the History Curriculum,” written in 2000, can hardly be expected to anticipate the appeal and usefulness of more recent applications and devices. And yet, the dated terminology aside, some of the problems raised in this essay remain present today as well, if in different form: while it might sound anachronistic now to have courses dedicated to teaching students basic functions like e-mail and internet browsing, it is precisely the assumption that a student generation that grew up with the internet knows how to use computers which lures teachers into forgetting that more specific and less commonly used programs still take time and training to master efficiently. Moreover, back then and now the question remains of what role the respective technology should and can take in the classroom or in research, and the authors rightly warn against unreflecting usage of these technologies just because it is deemed more appealing and appropriate in this day and age, or because of some sense that it might provide those practical skills with general applicability so desperately needed to justify a discipline like history to the powers that be, especially at mid- to low level institutions. The essay “History in Cyberspace: Challenges and Opportunities of Internet-based Teaching and Learning” likewise shows how much, and at the same time how little, progress has been made in the last decade. Against the background of my own experience with courses using so-called new media here at Harvard, these essays show that questions and problems concerning its usage in the classroom and in student assessment are timeless, and in fact closely related to long-standing issues with more traditional assignments such as papers; in other words, no amount of progress will obviate the need for a careful reflection on the actual value added by any technique or device used in the classroom.

Many of the authors’ findings reinforce points made time and again by Bok Center staff, and not just for teaching in history, for example emphasizing the important role that instructors’ enthusiasm for their subject plays in learning success, or pointing out that it is crucial to create a classroom environment that keeps a productive balance between being challenging, as well as supportive and respectful. “Reappraising and Recasting the History Essay,” based on an illustrative, if small, survey of essay-writing experience and self assessments of students, also reinforces familiar advice. Students were most successful in their essay writing when their instructors had made expectations, in this case specifically regarding the nature and importance of making a historical argument, as explicit as possible from the very beginning. The essay argues that clear expectations are more important than other, more direct and specific advice about structure, organization of the material, or style. Concrete advice and examples of standardized assessment forms are given to help with putting this into one’s own teaching practice.

As is to be expected in any edited volume, the quality of the contributions vary widely, and in some cases the fact that the authors are mainly concerned with the British situation can indeed be a factor limiting its general applicability. And yet, apart from the aforementioned theoretical discussion that appears familiar, many essays also discuss practical problems that teachers at institutions of higher learning face across the globe, such as larger student numbers in seminar style discussion courses, and try to offer solutions that have the potential to work outside of the British context, describing for example self-assessment schemes that might help to ensure a sense of progress in modular degree programs. Several contributions deal with issues specific to teaching history (“Teaching Oral History to Undergraduate Researchers,” “Fieldwork in History Teaching and Learning,” and the above-mentioned essay about writing). The experience and suggestions presented should prove very helpful when faced with the practical issues of planning and organizing similar activities in and outside of the classroom. On the other hand, the large section on different aspects of assessment (oral presentation and participation, group work, general learning outcomes) once more shows that the usefulness of the suggested solutions is not limited to the field of history. The last contribution, “Learning from Feedback on Assessment”, is concerned with the important question of how to give constructive feedback on assignments, which is geared towards showing the student concrete ways to improve his work, rather than just enumerating shortcomings.

In sum, this volume, despite some limitations, should prove especially useful not only for teachers in history and related subjects, but for all humanities teachers. The essays are short, full of practical advice, often based on classroom research, and sometimes make extensive reference to then-current literature. The book might be of great use as a reference when dealing with very general, practical questions such as essay writing, designing assignments, methods of assessment and discussion leading, and could be used   in TF workshops on these topics. But of course the volume will be most valuable as a go-to reference for historians, as it indeed covers virtually all issues that come up in the everyday practice of teaching history.

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