Little monsters part I: putting together a successful course on early modern history (or anything else for that matter)

Jonathan Willis

LittleMonsters.com_2013_July Most of the posts which appear on the many-headed monster are either related directly to historical research into the early modern period, or focus on other questions relating to historiographical concerns, methodological issues, theoretical problems or matters arising out of our experience as professional early modern historians.  Nothing wrong with that, I hope you’ll agree! But in this post, I’d like to do something slightly different.  There is a big aspect of life as an academic which is so far conspicuous by its absence from the pages of the monster (fellow heads, correct me if I am wrong…), and that is: teaching.  How, in other words, do we prepare for the important professional task of raising little monsters?

This is something that has been on my mind for several months now.  In September, I returned to a full teaching load after three years of research leave.  This involved taking over and contributing to existing courses, as well as devising a couple of brand new ones.  The initial shock was (just about) mitigated by the genuine pleasure of sitting down and figuring how to try to formulate courses which would be appealing to students, would develop their skills and knowledge, and which would hopefully act as a good introduction to a world which I find endlessly fascinating, exciting, and even downright fun!  But writing a course is hard work, and out of all the things that academics have to do – teaching, research, writing, publishing, attracting funding, organising and presenting at conferences – it is probably the activity for which we receive the least guidance and support.  It is also the foundation on which pretty much all other aspects of teaching depend: if your curriculum is over- or under-ambitious, incoherent, or just plain dull, then you are sowing all sorts of nasty seeds which you will have no choice but to reap in the fullness of time.  I wouldn’t dream of saying that I have a solution to this issue, yet alone a blueprint of ‘best practice’.  Instead, I just want to talk around some of the challenges I think that we probably all experience at one time or another, and I invite your thoughts on these areas and more!

Needs must…


Some modules sit in our teaching portfolio like cuckoos in the nest – definitely the product of another gene pool!

First of all, it is worth noting that we don’t all get to teach the courses we would like to teach.  A permanent post tends to bring with it the opportunity to devise your own courses around your personal interests, but that is not often the case earlier in your career, although thankfully there are some exceptions to that. Still, there are at least two approaches to taking over an existing course.  The first is to ask for copies of the module handbook (maybe even the lecture notes) and simply deliver the course as written.  The other, more time-consuming but perhaps more rewarding option, is to ask whether there is leeway for you to tweak the course, within the existing module specifications and learning outcomes.  You can’t spring a course on Elizabethan popular culture on a group of unsuspecting students who have signed up for a module on Henrician court politics, for example, but by tweaking discussion questions, reading lists, primary source exercises and topic headings you can come up with something which is a much better reflection of your interests: you’ll enjoy it more, and the students will probably enjoy it more as a result.

Horses for courses

Secondly, once you’ve been given a license to create your own course, it’s really important to sit back and give some broad thought as to where it fits in with the broader programme

How does your piece fit into the rest of the puzzle?

How does your piece fit into the rest of the puzzle?

structure of (let’s say, for the sake of argument) your students’ undergraduate history degree.  History isn’t the same as mathematics or some of the other sciences, where before you tackle a subject like fluid dynamics you probably need to be pretty damn good at the basics of adding up, algebra, basic mechanics, that sort of thing. (OK, this is maths, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, which kind of proves my point.) The seventeenth century isn’t ‘harder’ than the sixteenth century; and knowing everything that happened before a given date isn’t an absolute prerequisite for studying what happened after it, although admittedly some context is always key.  But if your students have no experience of early modern history at all, is it wise to go straight in with something very learned and abstruse, which might just scare them off?  Most institutions I have experience of offer broad surveys in the early years of a degree, to introduce some of the key religious, social, political, economic and cultural ideas of the period, but often only in the most general way.  Also, what is the size and shape of the course you have to design?  Is it ‘short and fat’ or ‘long and thin’?  Is it lecture heavy with the odd seminar, a balance of the two, or mainly seminar based?  Is it an individual or a group research project?  Is it assessed by exams, essays, presentations, or in some other way?  Often these sorts of decisions are out of our hands – the structure and assessment methods for your module may need to tally with those of other modules of the same basic type, for reasons of equity and administrative convenience.  But how often do we really take the time to shape our courses to the structures through which we are expected to deliver them, however back-to-front this approach may seem, or indeed actually be?  If we are offering courses at different levels of a programme, do we think about the relationships between them?  And what happens if the second year module you designed to feed in to your third year class is dropped, or moved to a different place in the programme?  Can you really recycle it, or do you need to rethink completely its role in the degree?

Less is more



My final thinking point is at the level of the individual

...or more?

…or more?

module.  To use a seasonal analogy, is an undergraduate option like one of those tastefully decorated, expensive department-store Christmas trees, or does it look better festooned with gaudy glitz and glamour?  In other words, is less more, or is more more?  Again this depends on the size and shape of your course, and the point at which it comes in the degree programme.  But as a general principle, I’m starting to realise that however I like to decorate my Christmas tree, less is probably more in this instance.  Another terrible seasonal metaphor: if you’re trying to get somebody to like Christmas pudding, given them a little to try, and give them some more if they ask for it; don’t demand that they eat a whole one, make them sick in the process, and put them off for life.  If your teaching is predominantly seminar based, heavy on activity, interaction and enquiry, I think it is especially important not to try to cram too much in, but to allow time for students to really get to grips with the material.  After all, surely learning in a classroom environment is at least as much about the quality of the interaction as it is about the quantity of ‘stuff’ you get through: it is about developing intellectual and analytical skills, not just imparting ‘knowledge’ or ‘facts’ (whatever they are).  Knowledge is of course a pre-requisite for understanding, which is where reading, preparation and introductory lectures come in, but it is no substitute for it.

How much is too much?!

How much is too much?!

This post has turned out to be quite a general reflection on teaching, perhaps valid for most arts subjects, not just early modern history.  I’m going to follow up with something a little more subject specific in a few weeks: about how we engage students with early modern history subjects in the classes we teach.  But I suppose what I’m saying is that if the initial conditions aren’t right, then that noble aim becomes much harder to achieve.  I’d be really interested to hear about how other people have gone about designing or adapting courses, in order to stand the best chance of turning students into proper little ‘monsters…

4 thoughts on “Little monsters part I: putting together a successful course on early modern history (or anything else for that matter)

    • Thanks Jennifer, I’m glad it fits in with what you’ve been doing! Survey courses present a whole new range of issues of their own: on the one hand, you know it is impossible to be comprehensive, so the pressure is off in that respect, but on the other it makes the choices about what to put in and what to leave out even more difficult. Is there anything you’ve had to reluctantly omit, or couldn’t bear to let go?

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