Teaching for the First Time

Aside from a little tutoring here and there, I’ve never taught in my life and the prospect of guiding the new generation of thinkers through a poetry course (wildly unrelated to my own expertise) seemed rather daunting. It was, for the first two weeks or so. Armed with the encouragement of friends who had looked over my lesson plans and the lovely Sèan Richardson’s Beginner’s Guide to Teaching, off I went. Here’s my take on the experience, and what you can learn from it.

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Ms. Grotke from Recess, Disney Channel. Image source [https://www.romper.com/p/13-feminist-tv-shows-every-kid-adult-should-watch-545]

1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail (but don’t overdo it).

As Sèan writes, lesson planning is a difficult beast: some days you’ll get through several activities in a flash, others you’ll spend the whole session on one task. I certainly found that a rough plan was better than a more detailed one, with approximate timeframes to get through each activity. My module, ‘Poetry: Reading & Interpretation’ was designed for first year undergraduate students for the introductory study of poetry. And, unusually for PhD teaching, seminar tutors were given free reign to choose our own texts for each week’s assigned reading. I found assigning more poems to read gave us choice over what to respond to in class – in my two groups opinions on each text varied wildly and it gave us the option to discuss things that everyone found enjoyable during the sessions.

2. Silence isn’t golden, it’s horrendous.

When I was a wee undergrad, I was very shy and would only participate in class because I found the deafening silence so incredibly uncomfortable I had to break it. Having now been on the other side of that awkward silence, I can tell you that it’s 100% worse when your question has brought it about. Time is one thing that makes your students more comfortable with each other, but one life hack I would recommend is playing background noises. While playing birdsong in the background as my students, in pairs, discussed Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ at the halfway point, I discovered the discussion came thicker and faster than ever before. As soon as the birdsong stopped, so did they. It turns out they were all just scared of having a potentially pants idea overheard by everyone.

3. Exhaustion is to be expected.

Particularly if you’re ambi- or introverted, speaking in front of a group of people is very draining, both physically and mentally. If you are used to giving conference papers you at least have your paper or notes in front of you: in a seminar format, this is far less likely. I’m usually stood in front of the whiteboard, drawing spider diagrams of my students’ discussions and prompting them further on their ideas. The unfortunate combination of this and scheduling a session for 10.00 on Tuesday mornings turned out to be unexpectedly draining for me this semester. Although I find teaching fun and rewarding, it does use up a lot of my brainpower, adrenaline, and social interaction quotas for the day. Having a good dinner, drinking lots of water, and exercising a bit can help physically, but don’t forget to give your brain a rest too – my teaching hours are usually followed by errands, housework, and life admin that I otherwise put off.

Finally, if there’s one thing about teaching that I’ve carried through from my undergrad days, it is this: don’t do morning classes.

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Notes from my first seminar – the what and why of poetry.

British Library Doctoral Open Day

After a few weeks of gently easing myself out of the Christmas slump, I was sprung back into action by waking up at silly o’clock in the morning to head to British Library.

Every year the British Library hold a range of Doctoral Open Days, targeted at early stage PhD candidates looking for sources of data. Different days are based on different collections, from Nineteenth Century to Early Modern to Asian and African. If in doubt, get in touch with organiser Robin Saklatvala, who was incredibly helpful in deciding which would be most relevant to my research. 🙂 I ended up attending the News & Media day, which upon reflection, was definitely a wise choice. I’ll be discussing the News & Media specifics here, but some of the material is used across the open days.

After a slightly difficult start (not being a morning person) and a large mug of tea, the first talk began. Maja Mericevic, head of HE, started things off by outlining the history of the library – bringing together the resources of the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and the British Museum reading rooms as late as 1976! Given the immense quantity of holdings I had always assumed the BL to be a much older institution, but here we are. She made a quick point about EThOS (E-Theses Online), which currently has 80% of UK PhD Theses freely available to read. Whether you’re looking for the work of a particular researcher or simply want to see what a completed PhD thesis looks like, it’s a great resource to know.

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British Library newspaper vault in Boston Spa. [Image Kippa Matthews/British Library]

The rest of the day was devoted to exploring the specific News & Media collections, and specifically, the issues of access that pertain to these materials. Newspapers, being designed to be disposable, are tricky to preserve due to the paper, and consequently all of the Library’s paper copies are kept in a dark, low-oxygen, temperature and humidity controlled vault in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. Because of this, paper copies are extremely hard to access, although most of the collection has been backed up onto microfilm, and approximately 3% is digitised on the British Newspaper Archive (although that 3% is still about 18 million issues!). These include complete runs of The Times, Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian, with Scottish editions having recently been aded. They also collect one of every regional newspaper published in the UK.

 

The Sound archives are another of the Library’s strengths, with a greater focus over the last few years on collecting oral histories, separated by subjects including food, early spoken word recordings, conversations between people and folk music. There’s also a very interesting section for accents & dialects, including dialect maps of the UK, and wildlife recordings from all over the world.

Since 2013 the Library has begun to archive all public UK web content – anything that ends in a .uk web address, or is uploaded from UK-based servers, with different frequencies according to subject matters. They’re now backing up approximately 60TB worth of data every year, and compiled it all into a searchable database on the webarchive.org. Periods including general elections and the run-up to the EU referendum last year were archived more regularly, in order to give the most potential data to sociologists, media researchers, and historians.

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Finally, the day concluded with a note from the Digital Research Support group, whose job it is to support researchers in using computational methods to get the most out of the Library’s holdings. Digital Curator Nora McGregor shared a couple of examples of their annual British Library Labs projects, including fellow Chartist (Historian) Katrina Navickas, on the potential uses for the library’s data to get us thinking.

The day was an informative, but by no means exhaustive guide to what the Library has to offer doctoral candidates. What it offered was a bouncy springboard from which to jump off and explore according to our own research, offering contacts and guides for different sections to seek specific support as and when I need it while working on the Library’s collections. I’ve already been in touch with the Digital Research team to help with my own Digital Humanities work. All in all, a useful day for beginners.

 

I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.

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#HistDay16

A week ago I went along to Senate House’s annual History Day extravaganza: a workshop with talks about doing history, with representatives from archives offering advice on how they can help do history.

As a fresh-faced PGR and new historian, this was the first event of its kind I’d ever attended. I very much enjoyed the day, chatting to representatives from archives all over the country about their particular holdings and what could be beneficial for my own research. Consequently, I hope to make some trips to Kew in the new year to examine the Home Office material held in the National Archives, as well as the upcoming Radicals exhibition at Senate House.

The main focus of the event, however, were the three panels. Led by historians, archivists, and librarians, the talks on the practicalities of doing history were both engaging and accessible. Coming from a background of Linguistics and English Literature, I feel as though I’m going undercover when attending history events – although the material I use is centuries old and thus, by necessity, ‘historical’, when it comes to some history methodology I feel like a child trying on her mum’s shoes and finding that they’re far too big.

Public History

In this light, the first panel on ‘Public History’ with Dr. Alix Green (University of Essex) and Dr. Susannah Lipscomb (New College of the Humanities) was a wonderful discussion on what it means to be a historian of the public and to give historical work public meaning. Green borrowed John Tosh’s definition of the term as “history with a public purpose” and as a “public resource,” and drew upon her background in policy to call for closer collaboration between politicians and historians. Signing a petition, writing for the Guardian or the Conversation is all well and good, she noted, but called for a more direct impact of historical training to contribute to teams of experienced people to help solve policy issues with public concerns in mind, a ‘collective policy’ being the end goal.

Lipscomb continued in a similar vein, turning to the cultural impact of historians’ work. She contrasted the increasing fragmentation and specialisation of ‘professional history’ with the widening output of popular history including books, radio programmes, and television dramas and documentaries that indicate an upsurge of public interest. Lipscomb, who has previously presented several successful history documentaries for the BBC, noted that “a 45 minute television programme has only 30 pages of script” and that these stories are often limited to ‘big name’ figures such as royals and wars, heavily condensing historical debate in order to create a linear narrative perceived to be more engaging to audiences.

While historians have anxieties about ‘dumbing down’ complex analysis, she concluded with Dr. Green that historical research is of no use if it is not shared, both arguing for the historian to accept their place as negotiator between archives and the public.

 

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Period dramas, such as the BBC’s Versailles, are a great way to engage the public with the past. For many, these adapted fictions are their only source of information on the topic. Image copyright BBC.

Libraries Vs. Archives

Panel two engaged more closely with the remainder of the day, pitting archivists Victoria Northwood (Hon. Sec. British Records Association) and Isobel Hunter (The National Archives) against librarians Dr Richard Espley (Senate House Library) and Lesley Ruthven (Goldsmiths) to defend the merits of their relative institutions – and how they can be used together in future research.

Tugging on the heartstrings, archivists Northwood and Hunter argued that archives are totally unique in both their combination of holdings and the materiality of each object, “waiting to be discovered” due to the notorious backlogs of cataloguing plaguing the industry. Hunter noted the emotional power of the archive too – that of bringing researchers to tears when stumbling upon an important artefact. Noting the real-wordliness of archives, Hunter cited the fall of the Berlin Wall as a striking example of the importance of documentation: newly freed East Berliners began to destroy the GDR’s offices in glee, before realising the necessity of the documents as evidence for bringing their injustices to account.

Comparatively, librarian Espley fought this by noting that libraries are also unique, as each collection is ‘curated’ by the librarian, and that these collections are the eventual the homes of work based on discoveries made in archives, or “promiscuously democratic” repositories of learning. Ruthven followed this by noting the range of libraries and their respective workloads, from helping young children to learn to read and share to special collections libraries that enable access to local history and “straddle the exclusivity between archives and libraries” through establishing a theme, citing the example of the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths. This unity, Ruthven argues, brings people together differently to an archive. Although an archive can unite people from across time and space via an object, libraries enable reading groups and discussion, and shared experiences – including the discussions of BME women artists at the Women’s Art Library through a student-organised reading group.

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Graffiti on the east side of the Berlin Wall, taken on holiday last July. An archive in itself!

All panellists agreed upon the importance of libraries and archives used in conjunction, and the importance of widening access to all of these collections, following on from the previous panel’s conclusion that historical work must be an open and collective effort. Hunter noted the role of commercial partners in bringing this access to the forefront, through funding digitization projects that enable worldwide access to texts and objects, and Northwood noting the continual work of historians, as each publication of findings represents one individual’s take: “archives are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.” She noted some of the more individual findings and uses from archives, having discovered an extremely dead rat in a desk drawer on her first private archival job, and Hunger shared one output of the extremely varied M&S archive, most recently used to inspire a new design collection by fashionista Alexa Chung.

Closing Thoughts

While I have no regrets in going, and very much enjoyed the day, it still left me with some doubts and questions. Still feeling somewhat of a pretend historian, I would have enjoyed a little about employability: if historical training is so richly varied and transferable, what can I apply it to? How does one apply to work on a BBC programme or offer findings to improve public policy? If we are to eliminate the perception that there are no jobs for arts and humanities graduates, can we not start leading by example and bringing historians to the public eye? (For the record, I have been told four times in two months that there are no jobs in academia. I am aware of this.) Talking about the various ins and outs and defences of libraries and archives is all well and good to a public audience, but for current postgraduate students who have opted to attend an event to find resources for research, it felt a little wasted. While I enjoyed the day, it has made me wonder where it’s all leading to.

 

I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.

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