In 2014-15 (second semester) we (Konrad Lawson and I) ran this module for the first time. It was certainly a jump into unknown territory for us – in many ways. Team-teaching a module between a twentieth-century East Asian historian with interests in legal history, World War II, the Japanese Empire (to name only a few of Konrad’s research areas) and a Europeanist with interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth century mainly, travel, borders or science (Bernhard), does not work on the grounds of common and shared knowledge and expertise. Almost by default such a module is not “research-led” by the teachers / tutors / professors. In all honesty: it is perhaps more “ignorance-led”, to some degree. But that was the purpose. If anything the module is driven by a shared common ground analytically around transnational, comparative, global and / or spatial approaches.
Once that was introduced in weeks 1-3, we flipped the idea of (professor) research-led teaching – and let the students go and develop their projects independently, but always with support from peers and tutors and through elements like pair-writing or the “unconference” on a Saturday morning or the 7-minute “speed-dating” like Project-Talks.
It has been a very inspirational semester in many ways:
- Team-Teaching away and beyond one’s own area of expertise is very inspirational and mind-opening
- Seeing students lead the way of research was very rewarding (including dead ends and “failures”)
- The level of co-operation between students and students-staff was an exceptional experience
We also discovered that we are not alone with such an approach. Fabricio Prado from the College of William & Mary does something similar, inspired by his work on empire and networks in the South Atlantic in his seminar on Cities of Empires.
This is how we advertised / promised for MO3351:
Over the past ten years transnational and global history have emerged as some of the most vibrant fields in late modern history. With their interest in cross-border activities, with their focus on the flow and interconnection of ideas and goods and their transformation between different cultural and national contexts, with their emphasis on people on the move who create nodes between cultures, both transnational and global history very much reflect the world we live in. The team-taught module provides an entry point to the field of transnational history, its approaches and tools. At the same time, the module is designed around key aspects of today’s work life and transferable skills: a strong sense of sharing, exchanging, collaborating and presenting in informal and more formal settings. It is deliberately designed to be open and flexible as it seeks to allow students to take ownership of the content and the cases to be studied. Following an introduction to the field along a series of text based seminars, the module is mainly designed around a number of workshops and training sessions that will equip students with the skills to analyse, map and visualise transnational histories – that is “doing” and “practicing”.
This is what students thought in 2015:
“This module was vastly different from anything I did at Sub-Honours and even at Honours. With such an emphasis on sharing ideas and engaging with my peers as well as the tutors, this module gave me the opportunity to find my voice, express my own opinions, and listen to constructive feedback about my ideas in a positive environment. I am much more confident now in my ability to make a concise but effective argument regarding a journal article or a broader idea than I ever would have been at Sub-Honours and even in my first semester in Honours.”
“Without a doubt I can say this is the most dynamic, innovative course I have taken and know of at the university. It felt like our class and professors were all a part of a method of learning greater than we realized, part of something that is fundamentally changing the way history is taught. The responsibility and autonomy given to the students by Dr. Struck and Dr. Lawson is an exceptional approach to preparing honours students for developing their own research ideas, especially with dissertations looming ahead. It was the first time at honours level that a class demanded true initiative and engagement on the part of the students.”
“This was a stimulating and enlightening module. Dr Struck and Dr Lawson challenged the traditional way of teaching history, not necessarily to undermine more conventional methods of teaching but more to present us with a different way of approaching our discipline. At times, the tasks laid in front of us seemed daunting, but the encouragement I received both from my peers and from the tutors helped me quickly get over that anxiety and inspired me to offer the the same support to the rest of the class. Presenting transnational history and introducing new research tools like qGIS and Gephi in just one semester is a challenging and cumbersome undertaking, and it would have failed were it not for the passion and enthusiasm for the subject held by the tutors. Their fervor for every aspect of the class made me look forward to every weekly session. This was truly a very enjoyable module.”
“Independent learning was a big priority, and made me feel more accountable for my own success.”
“I very much like the project running through the entire semester as it allows us to develop one idea over a semester which is not usually the case.”
“I am currently a 4th year student, I can see that the focus on independent research will benefit the 3rd years in the class who will be researching their dissertation next year.” (Comment on the last two comments: Yes, progression is something we clearly have in mind. This module is not exclusively designed for junior-Honours, i.e. third year, it is explicitly open to both Honours years, but it is meant to encourage independent, autonomous research on the learning curve towards an Honours Dissertation.)
“The use of a shared Google document for collaborative notes allowed me to draw inspiration from the work of my classmates. The interaction between classmates and tutors which this fostered led to valuable feedback on my ideas. The paired-writing process forced me to write efficiently in a way which I usually struggle to do. The structured but relaxed nature of the seminars was such that it quickly became normal to discuss ideas openly. This helped me to gain confidence in my ability to articulate ideas, and inspired me to partake in academic discussions in a way which previous modules have not.”
“The module included a strong focus on presentation skills that have allowed me to consider new techniques for future presentations.” (Comment: Presenting formally and informally, standing in front of a group and speak for a very short time 1-2 minutes, 7 minutes or up to 20 minutes max. is a core part of the course as a key transferable skill that we all need.)
“The digital humanities aspect of the module was especially rewarding. A thoroughly good module that was well-taught and led by Bernhard and Konrad. I am very interesting to see how this project develops over the next few years. I am very grateful to be part of this new module, and new way of learning.” (Comment: And there is more now to discover and manouvre the early steps of map-making for historians. – Thanks to a University of St Andrews Teaching Innovation Grant.”
“The class didn’t end once we walked out of the room, but was a continuous learning process week to week. From writing blog posts, commenting on one another’s ideas and then further exploring these thoughts in only 2 hours meant that our engagement on the course went far beyond meeting the bare minimum. Everyone remained engaged and enthusiastic to allow this course to continually inform our experiences. For example, one Saturday we all gathered for an ‘unconference’ to try out ‘pair programming’, a system in which one person acts as the driver and writes while the other person oversees the operation, and then switch roles. It was unlike anything any of us had experienced, but just one example out of many in which we were challenged to explore our knowledge acquired thus far, to engage with the freedom of developing our own ideas and inform one another respectfully. My praise and admiration for this class is endless. From discussing how each of us can practice better study habits, which is especially important at honours level, to the flexibility and opportunity to shape this class along with the professors is what marks this class as truly distinct and special to St Andrews.” (Comment: On the idea of pair-programming in the Humanities see Konrad’s ProfHacker blog. On study hacks and habits see #THRaSH: This is certainly something I would like to develop further. Of course, we are passionate about history and teaching history. But the reality is that most of our students will not end up being academic historians. The question is what skills and habits to teach. And this is where the ‘ignorance-led’ teaching opens opportunities in terms of discussing habits, reflecting on routines such as regular writing, preparing a talk in different forms and length or how to act and interact in collaborative and team-work environments that are part and parcel of many areas of today’s work.)
“The blogs were an excellent idea, because it encouraged increased interaction with class mates.” (Comment: This was new to us. It worked, as can be seen on this website, but what we need to improve is clarity on what we expect and when to be posted.)
“This class benefited my confidence through many challenging but unique activities. The autonomy given to the students demanded true initiative and engagement. The class didn’t end once we walked out of the room, but was a continuous learning process week to week. In particular it was the steady input necessitated by the structure of the class that allowed me to grow as a better student. The class was shaped by our understanding and interpretation of texts or approaches, the questions we voiced in lightning talks at the beginning of every class, the ‘unconference‘ and the multiple presentations of a long-term research project that ensured continual improvement of study habits and confidence in my skills. The long-term research project allowed me to hone in on an idea, present it to the class, receive feedback and be challenged by my peers, return to the drawing board and later present an improved, more succinct project. The conference style of presentations replicated the feeling of a conference due to its high expectations of subject matter and independent research, and for the first time made me feel like an equal. The students informed the professors as much as they us.” (Comment: At the risk of sounding selfish – yes, I did learn a great deal from the students’ projects and their self-driven research agendas, more than in any module I have designed and taught before.”)
“Generally a very well run and interesting module. Great to have the freedom to choose an area of history which interested me specifically, although the expected workload was considerably more challenging than any other modules I have done.”
“Dr. Struck and Dr. Lawson have developed something extraordinary here, and I hope this class has the future to let other students feel and be treated as real historians.”
Thank you very much for thorough feedback and food for thought. It has been a great pleasure and privilege teaching this class. We will be back together with Dr Nikos Papadogiannis in second semester 2015-16.