Libidinous hero puts passion into history

June 7, 2002

Michael Winstanley takes an unexpected trip down memory lane and stumbles across the joy of discovery

"Hiya." The student breezed into my room. It was 5.30pm on a Friday and I was winding up another day dealing with the routine paperwork and emails that seem to increase remorsely year on year (even week on week) and looking forward to going home.

"I've just come to tell you we've had a fabulous day. We've been interviewing people and finding out so much. And we're getting really good with making changes using HTML."

The student was involved in a research project to create a website on the history of our university, a history that was becoming more engrossing as the weeks passed. Old films, photos, news cuttings, student magazines and memories were coming together to conjure up an image of what it was like to be involved in the early stages of what, until recently, was still called a "new university".

"I've really come to ask who the 'The History Man' was and what any connection with Lancaster might be."

I was happy to oblige. This had been part of my youth and early manhood. Academic novel by the late Malcolm Bradbury, rumoured to be influenced by experiences at Lancaster. TV version starring Antony Sher as the "libidinous and ruthless" Howard Kirk, who was, I emphasised strongly, a fictitious sociology lecturer, which was partially filmed at Lancaster around 1980. "Great! Thanks." And as a parting shot: "Have a look at the new stuff we've put up on the site. Bye. Have a good weekend."

I did look and went home feeling elated, musing on how things had changed, and why, since the great educational experiment of the 1960s of which I had been part. I also mused on how much I had learnt from supervising this project. These students were telling me things I did not know about my own place of work, about my past, about student activism, about the pre-history (ie pre-1960s) of the site. It is amazing what you can learn from students who become passionate about their work. From supervising other projects this year alone I learnt about the 19th-century textile workforce at Quarry Bank Mill (now a National Trust property); the origins and nature of the cooperative movement; the significance of Angela's Ashes within the Irish diaspora; the nature of remembrance after the first world war - and much more.

It is the joy of discovery - of finding out things for oneself that others do not know or appreciate - that the vast majority of academics value in their careers as researchers. Perhaps we sometimes forget in our teaching, or just fail to acknowledge, that it is the same emotion that inspires, or is capable of inspiring, our students and that we can learn from them. Students are not just at university to be taught. They are there to learn, and our role is to encourage them. And there is so much that they can find out for themselves and so many ways of finding out, especially in history, where evidence of the past is freely available beyond the confines of the laboratory or university library in the form of landscapes, people and archives and libraries bulging with sources - many of which have never, or rarely ever, been explored.

History and learning are not things that one just does at university; they are integral to life. Universities do not have a monopoly on learning, knowledge, understanding or history. History is about people and communities, and it is people and communities who preserve and nurture evidence and understanding of their pasts, just as the university community of which I am part was beginning to do with the website project. It is a great vehicle for learning skills - ranging from the critical evaluation of evidence through to the complexities of HTML.

By sharing my memories of the university's past, and helping to interpret it, I realised that I had ceased to be a tutor guiding student learning; I had become a sort of History Man. I was no longer controlling learning through formal lectures, seminars and workshops, encouraging (even pleading with) students to ask questions about what I had told them or what they had read by esteemed academics. I had become a primary source, exploited by students undertaking their own independent learning. The tables had been turned. I was responding to questions and problems that they were posing. Enthusing students to learn, empowering them with the knowledge skills and confidence to ask their own questions and seek answers while savouring the joy of discovery, is what learning at university should be about. Ironically, my success as a teacher ultimately depends on getting students to learn without me.

Michael Winstanley is senior lecturer in the department of history at Lancaster University. He is one of 20 lecturers being awarded a National Teaching Fellowship on July 9.

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