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February
23
2018

Writing and teaching the history of modern Britain

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James_Vernon_Textbook.png These are interesting times to be teaching and writing the history of modern Britain.  Britons remain often unable to acknowledge, and yet haunted by, their imperial and European histories.  The debates around Brexit and the legacies of slavery and colonialism frequently occasion an effort to restage a national past where Britons were always great, white and well-intentioned (most recently with Historians for Britain and the Ethics and Empire Project at Oxford).  That national past is endlessly recuperated in the nasty nativism on display in British television and film from Downton Abbey, The Crown, Dunkirk to whatever the latest movie is about Queen Victoria or Winston Churchill.  Not surprisingly, it is this screen history of Britain that is most familiar to students in the United States, but more worryingly it largely remains the one taught in British schools even at A-levels.  The conceit of this nationalist history is always that Britons - usually privileged, white, male ones - went out in to the world and made it in their image (and the world really should be pretty grateful).   

Now, of course, most of us who teach and write British history know how absurd this nativist history is. Wherever we work we have all had to grapple with postcolonial theory, women’s and gender history, new imperial history, indigenous history, transnational and global history.  We understand that British history, the histories of its four nations, and this very staging of white, male supremacy were products of slavery and imperialism. As universities in Australia, the United States and England increasingly advertise posts for historians of the ‘Britain and the World’, we are beginning to acknowledge that the world may have made Britain, that its history was partly shaped by transnational or global processes over which it had no control (see the forthcoming forum of ‘Britain and the World’ in Journal of British Studies, 57, 4 (2018)). Some even suggest that national histories themselves are in crisis

We should be deeply troubled by this disconnect between the work of professional historians and the resurgence of nativist histories (and not just those in post-Brexit Britain). Whatever else we may need to do to reconnect with the public the work we do as teachers seems critical to me.  Our classrooms are our first public: they are the ground zero of ‘impact’, ‘outreach’ and ‘public history’.  And while fewer students are majoring in History within the United States, Peter Mandler has suggested that the number of History degrees in Britain have been holding more or less firm.   

I have not done the math(s) but I imagine fewer people have read my work than those I have taught over the last thirty years.  And in the classroom and lecture hall we are forced outside of our academic bubble where we sometimes too comfortably assume that everyone possesses similar terms of reference and modes of thought.  Nothing was more exciting to me to move to California from Britain and discover that my students had never heard of Coventry let alone Gladstone.  They compelled me to reframe the way I taught British history by returning to classic questions about change over time – of the state, economies, environment, understandings of gender and race - that they could connect to other national and imperial histories.  I often find the critical feedback I receive from students no less helpful in making me think harder and more clearly than processes of peer review.  

It is a shame then that so much of our professional life systematically devalues teaching (except, of course, when we go on strike).  At many institutions, it is research and publishing, not teaching, that propels careers.   Even at the public university where I work writing a textbook is not considered as a publication when it comes to promotions.   And yet I have no doubt that Modern Britain 1750 to the Present, the fourth and last volume in the new Cambridge History of Britain textbook series, will be the most important book I ever publish.  It was an amazing opportunity to help inform how the next generation of undergraduates are taught the history of modern Britain.  And given that those undergraduates - in Britain as across much of the former British world – occupy a world shaped by the nativist histories endlessly repeated by politicians and dramatized on screens, it seemed a particularly timely task. 

The experience of writing this textbook was certainly humbling for it quickly exposed how little I knew about so much!  The challenge was to write a global history of Britain that reflected how the world made Britain rather more than Britain made the modern world.  I wanted to show how global processes shaped what I call the rise, fall and reinvention of liberal ideas of how markets and governments should work in the British world, as well how central violence and dispossession, at home and abroad, was to that story.  Above all it was my aim not just to castigate the past but to remake the present by reminding students that the world does change and it has been changed by those who have had the courage to challenge inequity and subjugation.

I am not sure how successful I was in worlding the history of Britain but I am a little more confident that the book should be good to teach with.   Each chapter is set up to answer a particular question about change over time and whatever you think of the explanations and arguments that follow they are designed to be accessible to students – with timelines, lots of maps and images, textboxes that zoom in on particular people, places or types of sources, guides to further secondary reading, and a glossary of key-terms.    There is also a supporting website that provides links to primary source readings, chapter summaries and study questions to help guide reading and thinking.  If any of you have used the book in a classroom I would l love to hear what works and what does not, there is lots to improve for the next edition! Please do get in touch.

I am not naïve enough to believe that we can only teach our way out of our neoliberal, nativist, present but I do think in these despairing times it is not a bad place to start.  Right, now back to the lesson plan for tomorrow.  Unless you are on strike. 

James Vernon
University of California, Berkeley
@James11Vernon

 

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This is the first in a series of posts on "Teaching Britain and the World." The NACBS would like to thank the British Scholar Society for permission to cross-post these blogs. To learn more about the British Scholar Society, see: http://britishscholar.org/

In 1883, J. R. Seeley famously called students to the history of the British Empire in a neat set of lectures, framed around a smooth, aspirational, titular narrative: The Expansion of England.[1] In the generations that followed, many who engaged with British imperial history did so only to produce understandings of that past (and present) that are richer and more complex than Seely sought to imagine. Histories of the empire as a uniform structure have been superseded by analyses that instead reveal a global set of shifting, frequently renegotiated, and rarely stable relationships. These welcome developments, though, have brought new challenges to the classroom. The perennial question of undergraduate surveys has grown ever more daunting: how can a single semester be stretched to cover the dynamism and heterogeneity found in contemporary studies of the British Empire?

The richness of today’s imperial history—the necessity of pushing beyond a metropolitan center and of engaging with marginalized voices—is easy to suggest, but difficult to demonstrate through lecture without resorting to an endless series of examples that would lose the attention of all but the most careful note-takers. Fortunately, just as British imperial history has changed since Seeley’s day, so too has modern pedagogy developed more dynamic approaches to the classroom. Drawing on recent trends in collaborative learning, my survey of the British Empire works to make the diversity of the British Empire a pedagogical advantage, one that provides unique opportunities for student engagement. The class is built around a multi-step independent research project, in which students work as a class to piece together a “patchwork” understanding of an empire—decentered both from the metropole and from the lectern.

Early in the semester, after a brief overview of the British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century (our starting point), each student selects a colony on which to become an “expert.” Over the course of the semester, students complete a series of assignments examining these colonies, producing short essays, formal presentations, and even videos or online activities (e.g., quizzes or lessons on an LMS such as Moodle). (The latter possibility can be particularly helpful in large classes, where individual presentations might eat up too much class time.) The exact parameters of these assignments can be framed to emphasize particular themes in imperial history. For instance, to develop skills in primary source analysis, I have students find newspaper articles, which in turn foster discussion about how print journalism sparked new connections and tensions across the empire. Later in the semester, students are tasked with finding propaganda posters from the Second World War, using analyses of visual objects to produce an imperial understanding of Sonya Rose’s useful question—“which people’s war?”[2]

These assignments ultimately pave the way for a research paper exploring how the British Empire was experienced and understood in the students’ respective colonies. Yet, for me, this final product is less important than the scaffolding along the way, in which students’ research is used to enrich day-to-day class activities. As students engage with each other’s work, their findings help to create conversations that reveal the diverse experiences that constituted the British Empire. Both classroom debates and written responses provide students the opportunity to explore their own connections, allowing a more active style of learning than a traditionally designed class might allow. Equally importantly, as students tackle each new question from far-flung regions of the empire, they must work to put together a variety of perspectives, giving voice to historical agencies that can be obscured when explored from the metropole.

At its core, the “patchwork empire” project should encourage students to reconsider what scholars mean by the British Empire—and whether that meaning has remained stable over time. For some students, these questions appear immediately as they wonder which colony to select. A student interested in researching Kenya or Australia might wonder how to study a colony that did not yet exist in the mid-eighteenth century. Here, I push students to reframe the question: rather than exploring the history of a colony, they should explore the relationships between their region, Britain, and the rest of the world. This allows the class to discuss interactions, exchange, and even informal empire in a way that goes beyond the “pink” areas on the map.

Of course, turning over class time and energy to students’ independent inquiry has potential pitfalls. An emphasis on student-led discussion means that the learning objectives for the class necessarily shift away from mastery of specific content to an emphasis on overarching themes, tracing moments of agency, negotiation, and constraint as they existed across the empire. Nevertheless, there is always the risk that students’ understanding of the “patchwork empire” might be too patchy. For many students, the task of research itself can be intimidating, and they may struggle to articulate key ideas about their findings. I try to foster a sense of collaboration in the classroom, working to treat misconceptions as areas for further discussion, rather than errors to be critiqued. If students are working with a wide range of colonies and regions, the possibilities for comparison and contrast across regions can push students to work through their own mistakes. Fortunately, the increasingly global nature of the student body at many institutions ensures that students come to the course with diverse geographic interests, such that their own curiosities expand the perspectives with which the class can engage.

The research required of each student to produce a “patchwork empire” is considerable, but I have found that strong scaffolding allows even freshmen students to rise to the challenge. The result is a classroom in which each student knows that their voice is valuable part of a conversation, bringing a unique perspective not only based on their own experiences, but also on their own research. That dynamic possibility is both a pedagogical ideal and a reflection of British imperial history at its most innovative. Where Seeley at his lectern spoke of the expansion of England, today’s imperial scholars have built up a more vibrant understanding of imperial history. Surveys of the British Empire must mirror that conversation, and students’ active, decentered inquiry can play a significant role in achieving that goal.

Christina Welsch is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Wooster. Visit her website at: https://www.wooster.edu/bios/cwelsch/


[1] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883).

[2] Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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September
4
2017

Call for Contributors: New Blog on Teaching Britain and the World

Posted by rdaily under CFP | Tags: teaching | 0 Comments

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The British Scholar Society is pleased to announce a new venture, a blog on Teaching Britain and the World. This serves as a call for authors who would like to contribute to this blog with a post that is no longer than 1000 words. As historians, most of us are not only researchers, but also academic teachers, and we are keen to foster the dialogue about your different experiences, plans and projects in the university classroom. The (by no means exclusive) list of possible subjects includes teaching methods, the challenge of balancing research and teaching obligations, the construction of syllabi, the use of primary sources, the impact of current affairs and public debates on classroom discussions, language barriers, and much more. In order to make this as broad a discussion as possible, we are keen to include colleagues at every level of their career, who study any period from the seventeenth century to the present, teach at a variety of academic institutions, and come from both Anglophone and non-Anglophone backgrounds. We are also keen to include student perspectives. The only requirement is that the blog entry has to focus on the specific challenges of teaching the history of Britain and the World. The North American Conference on British Studies will be collaborating and cross-posting these entries on their blog, the British and Irish Studies Intelligencer. If you have an idea for a blog entry, please get in touch with Dr. Helene von Bismarck at helene.von.bismarck@britishscholar.org

 

 

 

 

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