Hannah Ingram, Secondary reading: teaching at the right level

The Problem:

I have so far only led a handful of seminars on Medieval History but I have already pinpointed a potential issue with my teaching. For my first introductory seminar I did a significant amount of preparation, more so than was necessary. However what I was not prepared for was the lack of knowledge my students would have. I was warned that first years may struggle with the academic ‘step-up’ from secondary school to higher education, but I was surprised by how little they actually knew. By this I do not mean that they were unaware of historical content and ‘facts’, because I was fully expecting them to have never studied anything before 1600. Rather, I had planned my first few seminars assuming that they knew what historiography was, that they would be able to analyse primary material and could adjust to a teaching style which was not learning by rope. I was mistaken.

Reading secondary material seems to be causing the most issues for my students. I devised a short task in the second seminar to investigate how far they could access and understand the historical literature I set for them. I asked each student to write down (anonymously) on post-it notes one thing they liked about the set chapters, one question they had about it and then to give it an accessibility rating out of 10. In reading through their responses, it became rapidly apparent that many of them found it difficult to understand the arguments in the chapter and the scholarly language employed by the author. Furthermore, the majority of the students rated the accessibility of the set reading as 4 out of 10 or less. Indeed only one student’s rating stood out, giving it a 7 out of 10. I raised these issues with the students and tried to impress upon them that the answer to a lack of knowledge about a topic was to do further reading and to look up anything they did not understand. I convinced myself that this would be all there was to it, that my students would naturally adapt and be able to critically engage with the historiography over time. That practice was all they needed. However I soon began to question this assumption. If my students had never been shown how to approach academic literature, how to unpick the manifold threads of a scholar’s argument and draw out the crucial content within, then how could I expect them to read for my seminars each week and come properly prepared? It was then I realised that I was guilty of forgetting simply what it was like to be a first year history student and that I needed to readjust my expectations.

The Solution:

Helpfully, I had arranged to meet my teaching mentor at Loughborough University the following week and decided to raise this particular issue with her. I observed some of my mentor’s teaching, which was immensely insightful because it was a lecture/workshop with first year students, and then had a long discussion about how I was coping with my first forays into adult education. I relayed my concerns about the difficulties my students were having with secondary material and my seemingly erroneous assumption that they would be able to tackle it. My mentor reassured me that such issues were normal and advised me to give my students a basic ‘how to’ session. I devised, with the help of my mentor, a short guide to critically reading the historical literature. I plan to take a small section of the reading that I will be setting them for Seminar Four and take them through it, step by step, paragraph by paragraph. I will outline how to pull out the historian’s arguments, how to look out for the ‘signpost’ words which indicate various historiographical schools and how to breakdown an article into more manageable sections. I am not naive enough to assume that this simple exercise will solve this particular issue, but I do hope it will provide my students with a starting point and a basic methodology to employ whenever they approach difficult reading in the future. At the very least they should be able to feel that they can extract something useful from the set reading, even if they did not understand it all.

The Result:

Today I put my planned historiography exercise into action in the seminar. I selected one of the readings on Vikings (Hadley, D., ‘Viking and native: re-thinking identity in the Danelaw’, Early Medieval Europe, 11 (2002), pp. 45-70) to use as an exemplar and broke the article down into smaller sections. Together, as a class, we went through the first couple of paragraphs sentence by sentence. I outlined the basic historiographical schools (traditionalist, revisionist, post-revisionist) and how we easily could identify these within the article. We discussed the various sign-post words (‘traditionally’, ‘outmoded’, ‘seemingly’ etc) and how these could demonstrate a scholar’s views on various historiographical arguments. The exercise progressed well and by sentence four, we were able to pinpoint that the scholar’s own personal views (and therefore the central argument of the article) occupied a ‘middle-ground’, acknowledging some but not all aspects of both traditionalist and revisionist schools of thought. I then explained to the students that, with this knowledge of where the central arguments of this article fell on the historiographical spectrum, it would be much easier for them to critically engage with the remaining content. No matter how convoluted or confusing the remainder of the article became, they would at least know the overriding argument of the scholar in question, hopefully enabling them to better understand how different aspects of the content fitted with this. Having completed this exercise, I asked my students for feedback on whether this guidance had been helpful and the majority of them affirmed that they felt more confident in tackling secondary reading in the future.