Third Entry for BATW/NACBS Pedagogy Series

Bridget Keown, PhD candidate, Northeastern University, USA

 

CONSTRUCTING A MENU OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

 

In the summer of 2016, I taught an undergraduate summer history class on the history of the British Empire.  Summer courses at my institution are concentrated, 8-week semesters that attract students from a large number of personal and academic backgrounds.  As a result the potential for class discussions, personal experiences, and diversity of learning experiences rises exponentially.  This was especially true in this class.  What became apparent to me quickly was that most of my students were entering the class with a very broad idea of empire.  Their comments and questions focused on global economics, on international trade, world wars and treaties.  And while these elements were all important to our study, my goal was to get students to see these broad concepts from the inside out, and to understand the lived experience of empire.  Thus, my challenge was to make empire real by engaging their imaginations, their emotions, and their senses.

 

I began by emphasizing personal details and sensory descriptions into my lectures, focusing on small details even in discussions of large-scale issues.  Our talks about  trade and immigration included discussions about the taste of spices and coffee, and what the realities of living in crowded, poorly ventilated conditions meant for those trying to survive in poverty.  We talked about structures of power by analyzing familial and community relationships--for example, the way colonial schools and forced inoculations altered the relationship between the native people and the colonial government, as well as between parents and children.  The empathy that these discussions promoted helped students engage with the history they were studying in a personal, emotional, and sensory way.

 

It was in this context that the idea for a Menu of the British Empire was formed.  At the time I was developing this course, the firestorm of criticism over the “British Colonial Co” restaurant in Brisbane, Australia, was filling my social media pages.  The restaurant, which opened in 2016 and closed in 2017, initially stated on its website that it was “Inspired by the stylish days of the empirical push into the developing cultures of the world, with the promise of adventure and modern refinement in a safari setting.”[1]  Though this wording would later be changed, critics rightly pointed out how such a restaurant went beyond white-washing history to glorifying genocide.  Not long before this, the “Saffron Colonial Restaurant” in Portland, Oregon made headlines for willfully ignoring the dark realities of empire.[2]  But, as I argued to the class, in addition to the extremely dangerous amnesia that such eateries display regarding the violence, cruelty, and exploitative policies of empire, they also show a colossal lack of appreciation for the rich and detailed history that could be found in a study of food of the British Empire.

 

Students were offered a chance to prove this with “The Food Assignment,” a 2-3 page paper that focused on any one dish or drink that was or is native to a location once part of the British Empire. The assignment was to include:

1)    Name and origin of the dish

2)    How it is prepared, generally (a recipe wasn’t required, but a description of the ingredients used, and how they were assembled was)

3)    Its history in relation to the British Empire

4)    An argument for why it should be included in a historically representative menu of the British Empire.

 

When these papers were all turned in, I compiled them into a single “menu” that was then handed out to the class for consideration and discussion.

 

The assignment turned out to be an enormous success, both in terms of student’s engagement and the resultant work they produced--and, surprisingly, there were no overlapping dishes.  Though curry was discussed several times, the historical context provided was unique in each paper, which further emphasized the potential of accessing imperial history through a study of food.  In their papers, students used individual dishes to consider large-scale issues, such as diet, consumption, economics, and structural systems of power; however, they also used these dishes to access lived experiences of empire, considering issues of hunger and taste, as well as how food had the potential to unite communities, or drive them apart.  For example, one student used his paper on Ugali, a Kenyan/East African porridge made of maize, to consider how the British institution of cash-cropping fundamentally changed the diet of the tribespeople in these areas, and how the artificial borders imposed on the land altered inter-tribal relationships.  Another student wrote their paper on how ‘pap’, a  corn-based porridge consumed in South Africa,  exemplified class and racial prejudices in the area: maize that was not used for livestock was sold to Black South Africans, an action that was justified by claiming the grain was a “traditional” food, rather than another example of systemic power imbalances.  Another student wrote about the problematic ways in which the British Empire has been remembered through a consideration of chutney. This paper traced the popularity of chutney in the British Army, specifically, and considered how it returned to the metropole, first as a delicacy before becoming “refined” to a point where it is unrecognizable compared to its origin.  It was this condiment that was claimed by the British as “traditional” chutney, erasing the native history of the food entirely.  One student shared his own experience of the legacy of imperialism through the rice and beans he enjoyed in his hometown in Belize.   From his evocative memories of the dish, he explained that as British economic and commercial influence grew in the area over the course of the 19th century, imported British crops and products, like rice and beans, became staples in the diets around Belize, fostering the development of a unique cultural identity that remains even after the end of empire in the area.

 

Ultimately, it was truly gratifying to see how excited students were to discuss their menu.  The document served as a marker for their progress over the semester, charting how broad and how deep their understanding of the history of the British Empire had become.  This project allowed them to utilize their knowledge and developing research skills, as well as their imaginations and empathy, to consider the British Empire from multiple perspectives, from the grand scale to the individual, human experiences of hunger and satiation. 

 

 

[1] For more information on this incident, see Rebecca Sullivan, “Queensland restaurant British Colonial Co accused of ‘gross racism’”: http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/food/restaurants-bars/queensland-restaurant-british-colonial-co-accused-of-gross-racism/news-story/e7289b8b212e6174fc41223ef334055a, Accessed April 15, 2018

[2] For more information, see Mattie John Bamman, “Controversial Colonial-Themed Restaurant Sparks Multiple Protests”: https://pdx.eater.com/2016/3/29/11325650/saffron-colonial-controversy-update-tracking-north-williams-portland, Accessed April 18, 2018

Second Entry for the BATW/NACBS Pedagogy Series

David Parrish, PhD, Assistant Professor of Humanities, College of the Ozarks, USA

 

THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN EIGHT OBJECTS

 

Last semester I taught an upper-level undergraduate course called Britain and Empire, c. 1500-present.  The thematic or narrative arc of the course is the making and breaking of Britain.  Having such a broad chronology is both daunting and liberating – for me and for my students. I recognize that adequately covering the material for such a broad chronology is impossible, but having chosen a coherent theme I felt less pressure to spew information like a firehose and more at liberty to judiciously choose specific examples, readings, and sources that illustrate my larger narrative.  My students were provided assigned readings focusing on topics that I found especially significant or important (primarily identity and nationalism).  Yet, I was acutely aware of how many subjects I was unable to discuss or bring to their attention.  It was therefore imperative to create assignments that enabled students to actively pursue topics of interest to them.

 

This posed some interesting pedagogical problems.  In my experience, many students struggle when given too much freedom choosing their own research topics.  An open-ended research question petrifies them, and overwhelmed, they have trouble starting a project.  Yet recent studies suggest that students will better engage with a project and retain more information when their curiosity is sufficiently engaged.[1]  So how do we both motivate by engaging curiosity while also providing necessary direction?  This semester I sought to design my course so as to more effectively strike the balance between these objectives.  Moreover, I did so by progressively introducing more freedom with each assignment.

 

In many respects, I designed a fairly traditional course.  Each student had to write two brief papers (1700 words) responding to questions provided in advance early in the semester.  Although the more intrepid or experienced students were allowed to develop research questions of their own, this was not required.  However, the questions I provided were quite broad, thus providing students the comfort of direction with just enough freedom to pursue topics from a variety of angles as they saw fit.  This is, of course, not a novel idea. 

 

The final project, on the other hand, was different than anything I’ve ever seen or assigned. Having been inspired by the variety of papers and sources I encountered at the Britain and the World conference in April, 2017, I was determined to create an assignment that would give students a small glimpse of this variety.  Moreover, I wanted to provide them with the freedom to pursue subjects that best represented their interests and encourage them to actively create and communicate a narrative which might be at odds with that which I had been presenting throughout the semester. 

 

I assigned a final project with three primary goals in mind: spark student interest, generate interesting debate, and introduce students to a broader understanding of primary sources. In order to accomplish this each student had to do four things:

1)    Choose a theme (empire, gender, militarism, domesticity, industry, politics, etc.)

2)    Develop a narrative

3)    Choose 5-8 objects (very loosely defined), one from at least four separate centuries, that illustrate the theme and narrative. 

4)    Present to the class a brief (10-15) narrative of British history using their objects as sources. 

 

I provided students links to numerous museums where they could browse the holdings, and from which they were meant to select their objects (though they could use other museum holdings if they let me know in advance).  I also provided them with some background readings on material culture. 

 

The variety of themes and sources students selected was encouraging.  These included “textiles and empire”, “medicine and progress”, “power”, “food and empire”, and “fashion and gender”.  Objects ranged from the obvious (spinning jenny) to the more obscure (ostrich feather hats and a pulse clock). 

 

I envisioned this to be an engaging and fun summative assignment that would motivate student learning, and overall I think this assignment worked.  Students enjoyed working on the project and, partly because it was a presentation, felt less pressure in the final weeks of the semester

than they might have felt with a more traditional term paper.  I hoped that the benefits of the assignment would be both individual and corporate.  As each student presented they would reinforce the chronology of the period for themselves and for their peers even if their emphasis on events and ideas differed.  Moreover, I was hoping they would bring to light some themes that I had not sufficiently addressed such as gender and domesticity.  The presentation of different objects by different students provided a stimulating way of introducing the whole class to a variety of themes, sources, objects, and topics they would not have encountered otherwise. Finally, I hoped the presentations would provoke some interesting discussion about how we as historians construct narratives and assign meaning to objects.

 

While the assignment worked in some respects, there were some notable weaknesses. First, while certain objects piqued the interest of the class and prompted some good questions, I’m not sure students were equipped to confidently critique competing narratives and I need to do more in the future to prepare them for such a task – although I’m not sure how. Second, some of the presentations relied on very obvious objects, and I need to find a way to force students to think more creatively while continuing to allow a sufficient measure of freedom. 

 

I plan to assign the project again because the successes far outweighed the weaknesses.  But before I do, I need to rethink how best to modify it in order to make it more successful and this, dear readers, is where you come in.  What would make this assignment more effective?  What readings, objects, or examples might I provided to better help students succeed?  If you have suggestions, please send them to me via email at dparrish@cofo.edu or on twitter @dparrish.

 

[1] See especially Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, (2016)

 

Registration Now Open for #BATW2018 in Exeter

We are pleased to announce that registration is now open for our 2018 conference in Exeter this June. The deadline to register for the conference is 1 May 2018, so please do not hesitate to register now

All registration rates include lunch and all-day refreshments. Space is limited for accommodation, the BBQ on Thursday, and the Conference Dinner Party on Friday, so please make sure to register as soon as possible as we’ll have to go with first come first served.

As well as helping Britain and the World, which is non-profit, becoming a member also includes a subscription to our twice-yearly, Edinburgh University Press journal. It would be hugely beneficial to the society if you were to join, and doubly so if you would be so good as to ask your library to take up a subscription too: https://www.euppublishing.com/loi/brw. We may mention this again in Exeter.

We’re finalising the (packed) programme, and will be able to publish it on 1 April. The range and quality of the titles submitted were greatly heartening; it’s going to be a fantastic conference, on one of the most beautiful campuses in Britain, in high summer. We’re very much looking forward to seeing you there, and if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

First Entry in BATW/NACBS Pedagogy Series

Editor’s note: This is the first in a pedagogical series on the subject of “Teaching Britain and the World,” which is the result of a collaborative initiative between Britain and the World and the North American Conference on British Studies. Please keep an eye out for future editions of this exciting new feature.

A Patchwork Empire
A Pedagogical Experiment in British Imperial History

Christina Welsch
Assistant Professor of History
The College of Wooster

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.

[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).