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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @dparrish.
 See especially Sarah Rose Cavanagh, The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion, (2016)