Yesterday, I took part in an excellent History Lab Plus event on ‘Starting Out in Social History’ at the University of Edinburgh, which particularly focused on designing research-led teaching, inheriting modules and making them your own and how to build networks, both within and beyond your department. There was a lot of great discussion and Lucie Matthews-Jones’ comments on blogging, in particular, made me think about starting this blog up again. I think I’m going to use this blog as a digital notebook, as and when a thought comes to me that I want to record, much like one of my favourite history blogs The Trickster Prince. I’m not going to follow the rules about posting regular posts and obsess about building my audience. If you like what I write, great. But I’m just here to record moments that I want to remember.
In Ronnie Scott’s excellent talk on research-led teaching and engaging learners in later life, he explained the importance of getting out of the classroom. In Ronnie’s courses on all manner of aspects of the history of Glasgow, he uses the visual and material culture of the city to inspire deep learning in his students. Often, he explained, this kind of experiential learning can be an emotional experience and one that motivates students to learn more. Ronnie’s talk really chimed with me and how much I had learned about teaching history, just this very week, in just a couple of seconds watching some of my students at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield.
The special subject that I am teaching this semester is Britain’s Social Revolution: Welfare, State and Society, c. 1870-1914. The course is based on primary documents, and we have looked at parliamentary papers, newspapers, autobiographies, photographs and film, amongst many other sources. But last Monday, I saw the most incredible thing happen: I saw a ‘source’ make my students jump.
Kelham Island houses the River Don Steam Engine, the most powerful working steam engine remaining in Europe (you can watch a video of it working here). Before the engine started up, the students dutifully read the panels on the walls explaining its dimensions and asked me a few questions about steam power. It was clear that steam power was something that was very abstract for most of them and I could see a few looks of confusion on their faces. Three of them made their way to the very front to get closer to the engine as it slowly cranked into life. Suddenly, after this gentle build-up, the machine went into full pelt and I watched as the three of them, in unison, all jumped back from the engine in fright. They had felt its power in their bodies and been enveloped by its noise and rhythms. In just a few seconds, they had learned something that could never have been conveyed in a lecture or a seminar discussion. Although the museum, of course, is a curated environment and removes the engine from its original context and purpose, the experience of feeling its vibrations coursing through you is deep and – literally – moving. As they jumped, my students were making a mental as well as a physical leap as, one of them told me afterwards, it made what they had been studying in the classroom ‘feel real’.