Books first, then develop staff

The Practice of University History Teaching
December 8, 2000

This is a book that grows on you. Probably unfairly, I have always been somewhat unsympathetic to those who loudly acclaim new teaching methods, in part because I have twice had colleagues who were keen exponents but always seemed to try to do as little teaching as possible. More seriously, I have always been disconcerted by the lack of emphasis on content that characterises much discussion of teaching method. For example, it seems of scant value to be state of the art in seminar technique if you are totally out of date in interpretation and understanding, let alone in such teaching devices as reading lists. Furthermore, issues of content are far from fixed. To give an example from this book, there is very little that relates to the excitement, importance or problems of teaching (and learning) global history, a major development in recent years, or, to take what is often a Cinderella sector, local history. I would also prefer universities to spend money on books and other learning "aids" rather than on staff development, much of which already seems somewhat dated in its nostrums.

The editors of this volume favour a skills-based approach to learning and history, which of course accords with present orthodoxy, but also neglects the extent to which many students are primarily attracted by the subject. Furthermore, this is particularly important for non-vocational disciplines. Looked at differently, the argument made by some of the contributors that standards cannot be left to the market, ignores the degree to which there is a market and students dominate it. If history courses are perceived as uninteresting they will not be taken, however much the teachers supposedly measure up to good professional practice.

The last, of course, is a difficult concept. Colin Brooks, Jeremy Gregory and David Nicholls, in their piece on "Teaching and the academic career", announce that we are moving "towards a summary of professionalism and competence". Maybe so, but aside from the ahistorical character of their argument, it is based on a narrow data set. Like most of the book, there is no interest in the situation on the Continent. The notion that, for good or ill, the European Union may set standards within two decades appears as irrelevant as the possibility that grand claims to define good practice may be undermined by different understandings of such practice elsewhere.

In "Skills and the structure of the history curriculum", Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker and John Tosh note that globalisation exists, but then discuss curricula in terms of Britain. Accepting this limitation, they also make the important point that "there is no one way forward". Indeed, there is a tension in this book between welcoming diversity in approaches and open-mindedness and a stress on the importance of particular methods - whether specifically, for example the best way to teach a seminar, or more generally, as in laying down what teaching/learning should be.

This tension helps to give the book its interest, as does the undoubted enthusiasm and dedication of the contributors, some of whom are also distinguished scholars, and the determined attempt to engage with the serious problem of a deteriorating staff-student ratio without compromising teaching/learning. It is fair to say that the remedy offered - in most cases variations on improved seminar techniques - does not cover the full range of options.

Distance learning receives little attention, whether through the format of the Open University or by other means. Guinevere Glasfurd and Michael Winstanley provide a helpful account of internet-based teaching and learning, including a discussion of possible future developments, but most of the contributors do not consider such options.

The contributors also either ignore or slight lectures and, as a consequence, there is no sustained discussion of how best to use lectures, of how to improve lecture technique, and of the role of lectures in conveying ideas and information that is not otherwise readily available to the student, possibly for linguistic reasons. Alan Booth notes that first-year students are "much more likely to feel that lectures provide a useful framework for further individual study than final-year students", an important point given that, with modularisation, many students, in terms of their analytical understanding and knowledge, will be akin to first years.

The editors' call for more scholarly study of teaching is valuable, as is their argument that teaching practices and contexts can be enhanced to improve the interest and quality of learning. Their contributors show the enormous effort already being made, and offer the results of interesting research. The comparative dimension in John Davis and Patrick Salmon's account of seminar-based teaching at Kingston and Newcastle is valuable, although the context peeps through: "there were also some expressions of opposition towards the project from staff who felt that it might, as it were, be appeasement in the face of larger student numbers... also... an element of cynicism".

Among a wide range of interesting pieces, Alistair Thomson on teaching oral history to undergraduate researchers, and Tony Nicholson and Graham Ellis on assessing group work to develop collaborative learning were of particular interest, while Ian Dawson and Joanne de Pennington on fieldwork in history teaching and learning were suggestive. And yes, I would still prefer more money for new library acquisitions at the expense of staff development days and the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Practice of University History Teaching

Editor - Alan Booth and Paul Hyland
ISBN - 0 7190 5491 5 and 5492 3
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £49.00 and £15.99
Pages - 2

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