Time is at the heart of what we do as historians, and how we teach our students. Daily, we’re confronted with a wide array of past presents and expired futures. Conceptually, our teaching is also committed to a belief in the future, and the urgent need to help students mobilise and develop the skills learned studying the past as they move beyond the classroom. In forging this link – or in engaging students enough to forge it themselves – teaching French history is both a particular privilege and a challenge.
These challenges were the subject of a roundtable we held at a recent workshop on ‘Teaching and Research in French History’ held at the Institute of Historical Research in January 2017. Organised by Chris Millington, and funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, this workshop built on another held last year, which explored ‘Teaching History in the 21st Century’. There, we’d sought to bring high school teachers and university lecturers together to help bridge the expectation gap between A Level and undergraduate study (both for students and for teachers). This time, we took that process one step further, seeking to bridge the gaps in our own experience.
Our roundtable at this conference was a somewhat rare opportunity for a conversation about teaching between those still finishing their PhDs (and those that just had) with a supportive community of Early Career Researchers (mostly 5 or so years on from the PhD).
One of the main subjects for discussion at the roundtable will be familiar to anyone that teaches the history of lands beyond this rainy island: how do you teach foreign language primary sources to resolutely Anglophone students? Published, translated source collections are scarce and so whilst we shared tips and compared notes on our favourites, we needed to look further. So we gazed enviously across the Rhine at the riches of ‘German History in Documents and Images’ (GHDI): curated, translated sources of varying types that cover whole periods with pertinent introductions. Oh, for a francophone equivalent!
Yet the object of our desire, we realised, lies mostly within our reach. We all work in archives, we all bring our research into our teaching, and we all translate (whether for use in our teaching, or for publishing with those that blanch at foreign tongues). We can’t perhaps dream in the same scale as our Teutonic colleagues, though we can collaborate more and more openly as young scholars. We discussed how wonderfully well-intentioned online syllabus collections can frighten off precariously employed post-docs, and how we’d been reluctant to contribute the sources that we’d personally translated and curated from archival documents. While we were open and supportive of collaboration and collegiality, we are also forced to defend our every asset in a competitive job market. As the idiom goes: why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
Yet, if the tumult of contemporary politics had seemed to hollow out a belief in the future, we affirmed that our actions as researchers should seek to build new bridges, and that we ought to create new opportunities for sharing and collaboration in our own profession.
From here, we began to talk about what other sorts of sources that people used in their teaching, and what sorts of issues this raised. Film screenings are wonderful ideas, though it can be difficult to pitch these to students. One brave soul told how he’d had students sit ashen-faced through all four hours of The Sorrow and the Pity, but others professed that they’d consciously steered themselves towards screenings that would be more instantly accessible. To ensure that screenings promoted active learning and not simply entertainment some described breaking films into sections to be presented with framing commentary; others produced instructive handouts for students to take specific notes; others still asked students to review films the following week (both in their own words, and drawing on published reviews). Novels, plays, and music offered similar opportunities and challenges, suggesting different forms of emotional engagement that could enliven the pasts to which we address ourselves.
Performing snippets of plays or – heaven forfend – singing to students all seemed like useful ways to take learning beyond the page and encourage them to embody the past. So too did the use of objects suggest ways to elicit mutual story-telling and serve as anchors for complex discussions. How much more vibrant a discussion of the barricades of 1968 when we can pass a cobble stone around the room? Or, we might run our fingers across old coins to illustrate the quick march of regimes, comparing the symbolism of Republics and Empires as they rose and fell. Magazines too provided an engaging, tactile means of flicking through the past, and we discussed presenting printed copies of archival material to similar effect (where a departmental printer could become a samizdat press). Throughout this discussion, the focus was not on accumulating artefacts nor relying on storied museum collections at elite institutions, but on thinking of ways that material objects that we collect or create could serve as thematic gateways to the issues that we teach.
Well aware that those issues need be bound to our research, we also discussed how to proceed when, as PhDs and postdocs, we need to parcel together teaching posts across different institutions (and eras). The balance of finding ways to satisfy teaching agendas of departments and also appealing to students is a delicate one indeed. We looked at how using even one primary source from our own research in a broad survey course could be a liberating experience that helped establish a bridgehead for our work within tight teaching constraints. Likewise, the internet offers opportunities to access source collections which could enable students to establish their own bridgeheads: publishing blogs, reports and projects based on topics that matched our inherited learning outcomes. Pointing classes towards the GHDI, the Old Bailey Online, or many other archival repositories could encourage them to take up their role in the creation of knowledge and establish portfolios for future work. Focussing on the process of research, and looking to communicate beyond the academy allows us the opportunity to make the teaching of history an education with the future firmly in mind.
The most pressing theme throughout our discussion was the need to ensure students acted as producers and not consumers. Whether it be through engaging with different types of sources, sparking a new engagement through the use of objects, or by letting students become researchers themselves, the ultimate goal was to emphasise the agency of those in our classrooms and lecture halls.
What, then, is the trick to teaching French History? That’s a difficult question, but for our part it lay in navigating the pressures of precarity, forging supportive networks, and ensuring that historical thinking is a force for progressive action.
Andrew WM Smith, February 2017