Pedagogy Matters

The Sutton Trust History Summer School

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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to help with the implementation of this year’s Sutton Trust History Summer School, hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s History department. As I realise that not everyone is familiar with the work of the Trust, I thought I’d collect some thoughts and write a brief post based on my experience working on the Summer School, and why collaborating with the Sutton Trust is a compelling means of widening participation.

First and foremost, the Sutton Trust provides access to University. All of the Summer School’s participants come from economically or resource-deprived schools, for many of whose students the realities of educational inequality might well prevent their going to University. With the Sutton Trust’s help, students enjoy teaching at some of the county’s most prestigious universities (including the University of Warwick, King’s College London, Durham University, and the University of Cambridge). Moving forward, it’s hoped that these positive learning experiences will encourage students to apply for university, ultimately resulting in better chances for their futures.

Secondly, the Trust gives students the opportunity to engage with subjects not universally taught at school. In this year’s History Summer School, several of the students were interested in studying Art History, but as the subject is often absent from school syllabi, they expressed concern at not knowing what this would entail. As an art historian teaching as part of the History programme, I was able to give these students some sense of what Art History entails, relating this to their current programme of study as part of the Summer School, as appropriate with the day’s activities.

Thirdly, the Summer School familiarises students with the realities of university life, be they pedagogical or social. Students stay on campus in campus accommodation, and accordingly the Summer School functions almost like an extended campus visit, in which they can both test out university accommodation, while simultaneously getting a sense of what it might be like to be a student in residence. More importantly, however, the Summer School introduces students to the kind of intellectual rigour and critical thinking that is a mainstay of University education. At this year’s History Summer School at the University of Edinburgh, students were exposed to a range of disciplinary perspectives, with sessions drawing on art history, film studies, social and cultural history, and English literature, demonstrating the range of methodologies and approaches that history (and its related disciplines) can encompass.

In the afternoon sessions (hosted by myself and Anna Feintuck) students worked to produce short history-themed documentary films on a range of topics, including Grey Friar’s Bobby (the infamously loyal dog), the development of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University’s George Square, the layers of the city of Edinburgh, and Greyfriar’s churchyard. Touching on ideas of death and commemoration, the urban landscape, national identity, the history of education, and notions of historical ‘truth’, the films encompassed many issues central to the study of history. Furthermore, working on films provided a hands-on experience, gave the students a sense of creative and intellectual freedom, and allowed them to work semi-independently as part of a group of their peers, thereby anticipating the type of group work that is a typical pedagogical method at university level.

I was thrilled that many of the students that I spoke to at the end of the week told me that the experience had convinced them to study History at university-level. More importantly, however, they told me that they felt inspired, and it is surely this that is the aim of of any Sutton Trust Summer School.

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Pedagogy Matters – Set Readings

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This is the first in what I hope will become a regular series about teaching. I currently work as an undergraduate seminar tutor across three of the University of Edinburgh’s departments: History of Art, Architectural History, and Celtic and Scottish Studies. I also contribute to the University of Ohio’s yearly historical linguistics and cultural history summer school, and this year I’ll be teaching as part of the Sutton Trust’s widening participation project for the first time. As such, I consider myself to be a fairly experienced and adaptable teacher. Nevertheless, I’m consistently coming across areas that I’d like to improve upon, or problems that need solutions. It is these that I’m hoping to think about in this series.

On Monday of this week, a fellow History of Art 2 tutor posted John Warner’s blog post ‘When Students Won’t Do the Reading’ to our tutor’s group facebook page. It is, as the author states, a common and complex problem, and one not easily solved. Whilst I enjoyed Warner’s post as an exploration of the topic, I felt that it lacked practical advice on solutions to the issue.

Accordingly, I shared the post on twitter and asked the following question:

I received a relatively large number of responses, many of which reaffirmed the importance of the issue, and many more of which offered advice on how to deal with it. Some suggested emphasising to students the importance of reading as a task, and stressing that attendance is about more than simply showing up. Some also shared their own experiences of what works in class, including the following tasks, some of which I myself have used in the past:

  • dividing students into small groups and giving them a source/piece of writing to respond to
  • having students actively lead seminar groups
  • having students set and ask questions
  • allocating secondary readings to pairs of students, which they present on the following week
  • multiple choice tests
  • using social media
  • giving students a list of questions to discuss as first activity

A few thoughts:

Firstly, I’m not sure that this list necessarily solves the problem of how to ensure the reading is done prior to the seminar itself. Instead, I think that the list offers a number of practical and creative solutions for tutors running classes in which you have a number of students who have yet to do the reading. Certain tasks, such as dividing students into groups and asking them to respond to sections of text, provide time to read and respond to reading not yet complete, saving both you and your class from agonising minutes of silence because, for example, your seminar fell on the day that the essays were due.

Perhaps more significantly though, the list also suggests that the not-reading isn’t really that much of an issue. As such, it provokes a question: is the primacy of the ‘set-reading’ waning? Humanities courses are well known for having heavy reading loads for both lectures and seminars. Yet, practical demands on students’ time (such as the sheer amount of reading and competing ‘hard deadlines’) often mean that they cannot complete reading, even if they’d like to. Whilst I’m sure no one is suggesting that students shouldn’t read deeply and widely into their subject, it seems that perhaps weekly seminars are not the time to ensure that they do. Far more important seem to be ways of getting students to meaningfully participate within the class itself, where discussion can operate alongside, or even independently from, the reading. Here, I refer you to Dr. Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ excellent discussion on ‘Notes on Seminar Participation’ over on her blog, another response to our twitter discussion.

Just as I noted regarding Warner’s original post, I’m not sure I’ve offered any real solutions here. Instead, writing this post has encouraged me to reflect on the idea that whilst talking about a set-reading is a traditional format for a seminar, it shouldn’t be the only one. Digital technologies, group work, and student-led tasks all offer valid and important additions and alternatives to discussing the reading, and I look forward to exploring them further in my own tutorials.