Preparing for a new term

Polesworth Abbey

There is definitely an autumn chill in the air and I am filled with an excited back-to-school feeling: September is almost upon us!  I especially feel like I’m preparing for a new academic year as I’ve been spending time over the last few weeks working on new teaching sessions.  My main job is research focused, but as I’ve posted on here previously, I’ve recently taken up a role doing sessional tutoring for my county council’s Adult and Community Learning Service.  Whilst my sessions so far have focused on women’s magazines, in the coming months I’ll a few others to do too.  Getting started on preparing for them has been invigorating, particularly as they have a different focus and approach to the university teaching that I’ve been used to.

There is also an element of fear involved.  Firstly, because this work is so different from other teaching that I’ve done and continue sometimes to do, I am worried about how to pitch the tone and how to gear the activities.  Secondly, one of the sessions (Women From Your Past – couldn’t resist an innuendo in the title) is going to be pretty ad-hoc, which allows for many more things to potentially go awry.  I will be relying on participants bringing with them information about women from their family tree and building discussion around that, trying to illuminate the life of the individual and place them in a broader context.  Seemed like a great idea at the time!  I still think it could work really well, but am going to draw up a back-up plan in case it doesn’t quite work out.

Thirdly, and possibly most terrifying of all, people I know might show up!   Presenting to and interacting with people I know pushes me much further from my comfort zone than working with strangers. There are two main reasons for this.  One is that if it goes wrong I’ll have to face them again.  Number two is that they are perhaps more likely to give me a hard time, however jokingly.  I’ve had enough stick from family and friends about the photograph and report on a recent session that appeared in the local paper this week (pictured above) to suspect that number two is a distinct possibility.  The write-up has, though, provided an opportunity to talk with some people I know about what I do and outlines further, more formal, opportunities for them to learn more if they wish.  I guess worrying about the prospect that they make take up this chance is just part of the new term nerves as I go back into the classroom.

Little Shop of Horrors: or trying to teach gender history to engineering students

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In a couple of weeks, I will be teaching US women’s history to a Study Abroad group.  They are all engineering students from a mid-west university in the US and they take their humanities requirement whilst they are here.  I’ve been involved with the scheme for a few years and it’s always an interesting experience.  It feels quite surreal to be telling people about their own country when they are in another country.  I’ve found that what they really want to know about is life in the UK and our perceptions of the US (answering ‘What do Brits think about George W Bush?’ challenged my skills of diplomacy!).

As this is an unusual scenario, I’m usually quite flexible around group discussion and allow it to meander and segue in a way that I probably wouldn’t in a more standard module.  My guiding principle  is to give them time, space and encouragement to think differently about issues they may never have considered before.  As well as national identity, gender features heavily.  Bearing in mind that these are engineering students who have never seriously studied history nor are likely to again, I try to select topics and source material that are easily relatable and hopefully entertaining as well as educative.  YouTube videos are helpful in this respect!  I particularly enjoy showing the ‘Somewhere that’s green‘ clip from the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors.  I always introduce it with lots of caveats about it being a film depiction of an earlier period, shouldn’t be read literally etc; having said that, I think it beautifully illustrates the appeal of suburban American Dream to many women (and men) in the post-war era – issues about escapism, safety and security, all factors that historians are still prone to overlook when considering this much maligned period.

Crucially, the students seem to *get* the clip, and many other similar sources that I use.  By selecting material that is already familiar in some way, they are not overwhelmed or intimidated, worrying about whether they understand it or not.  We can then push to the next level of analysis, discussion and deconstruction much more quickly than if they have to spend a chunk of time establishing what it is that they are considering.  I’m not suggesting that this should always be the case, or that we should never use materials that challenge our students.  In this particular situation, however, I try to be pragmatic and achieve the greatest gain possible in the limited time that we have.

For me, the greatest gain possible is that they finish the module with more awareness that the issues affecting them as men and women are not always simply individual experiences; these issues are structural.  Using familiar material that they can easily make connections with helps to do this.  I’m sure that it doesn’t work all the time, but occasionally I get reassurance.  Last year, one commented when submitting her essay that the course ‘had made me think differently about lots of things’ – the greatest feedback I’ve ever had from a student.  I hope that I/they/we can achieve the same this year.