We interrupt this blog’s broadcast schedule for the following important message:
Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.
Since I decided to switch from Computer Science to History, I have had the ambition to be a University history professor. Okay, you can stop laughing now. No seriously, stop. When I was an undergrad at Guelph, I loved the environment of the University, of the city. When I switched programs, it was honestly as if the light had been switched on. The same kind of academics that made me hate programming were exactly what drew me into my history courses. In my fifth and last year at Guelph (of a four year course. That’s a pretty long story) I finally got the chance to actually lead a proper seminar discussion and promptly turned into a little tin god, refusing to let my colleagues not answer questions fully.
When I started my MA in history at Wilfrid Laurier University I was, like all MA history students in that program and most other Canadian programs, thrown straight into the deep end of teaching. I was responsible for a weekly seminar of twenty students. I had to lead the seminars, do all the of book reviews, essays, midterms and final exams. Just to put this into perspective, both of the classes that I taught had two MA students as Teaching Assistants, a full PhD Contract Academic Staff as a TA (who taught multiple seminars) as well as the Professor (who also led multiple seminars). There were upwards of 200 students in those first year courses. In comparison, my HIST 1010 course at Guelph had nearly 350 students in it. Again, I loved the entire process, even more since I was actually properly teaching for the first time. I know it sounds bad, but there is a discrete sense of power in being able to hold the attention of twenty first years in your palm, establishing a professional relationship with them and guiding them through their studies. Since I usually only had to mark twenty essays or assignments at a time I even enjoyed the marking, at least until final exams arrived and the other MA student who was a TA decided to go on holiday with her boyfriend and to dump her marking in my lap.
I did not have a smooth transition from my Masters to my current PhD program at Kings, and in the 16 months that I was away from school I went through two rounds of applications to Canadian Universities before realizing that there was absolutely zero possibility of studying my topic at home. In that period, I was almost totally absent from the Canadian academic community. I didn’t have the qualifications I needed to be hired as a Contract Academic Staff TA, and none of the Universities near where I lived had the kind of active and engaging system of seminars that is available at places like the IHR to keep those academic juices going. But I also really missed teaching, the routine of once a week leading a discussion of history. Not just what happened, but also teaching students about the practice of history, and teaching them to think about the complexity of historical practice. In other words, I missed teaching students about history as a performance art.
In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the aspects of the PhD program at Kings that I don’t enjoy is the lack of focus on teacher training. The response is that the PhD is not a program for the creation of new history professors, but rather an evaluation of a significant historical work. Where as at a Canadian university, history PhD students are usually involved as a TA from the first week of their program and eventually get the opportunities to be what King’s College London would call a course convener, as King’s College London there is a sense that one should not be a TA unless one has too, because the focus should be on the PhD. That’s a point well taken, but I intend to move home in 18 months when my PhD is done and get a job at a Canadian University. Okay, maybe that was a little funny.
I started my PhD program in January of 2013, so I was decidedly off-kilter with the KCL academic year. King’s has a policy that you have to have upgraded from your MPhil program to the PhD program before you can be a TA, and I found that to be a serious drawback. After 7 months of my program, I applied to be a TA for the academic year starting in October 2012. Despite my experience as a TA, I was not offered a position. I lost a year of TA experience, six months of a decent income for a PhD student. The truth is, I am probably better off having had to wait. From the PhD point of view, I am considerably farther along than I would have been if I had been a TA. From a teaching and experience point of view, I would have to say the same thing. What I have learned in the past year about Kings, about the practice of history and about my topic in particular has prepared me to be a much better TA than I would have been last year.
I also have to admit that my experience as a TA in Canada did not exactly prepare me to be a TA at Kings. At Laurier, I was essentially a nascent staff member. I was absolutely responsible for my students and I actually did proper marking in that I actually evaluated students work and that the numbers that I gave them when into their permanent record. Of course at Wilfrid Laurier (and Guelph, for that matter) students have to hand in more assignments, and everything is worth actual marks including seminar participation. Attendance doesn’t count, but participation does.
One of the biggest changes that I’ve had to accommodate in my teaching style are the “formative assessments.” Essentially what they are are assignments that are marked for comments, but have no actual value. Coming from a somewhat cynical Academic environment I expected that students would put zero effort into an assignment that would in no way benefit their actual results. I have to admit that my opinion on formative assessments have somewhat changed. At the moment I am TAing for two courses, a first year Conduct of War course and a third-year Seapower in History course. The two courses are very different, and teaching both at the same time (I in point of fact have the seminars one immediately after the other, every other Friday morning) provides me with a great opportunity to actually consider the practice of teaching history. For my third years, they used to write two essays a semester. Now, they write a first draft that is formatively assessed, which they then rewrite and fix and turn into a good draft to be submitted. Of course, this may seem like they’re only really writing one essay but having marked a few of these first drafts it’s clear that something else is at work. The students in my courses are not historians, but part of the War Studies department and its very clear that most of those students (American and Canadian exchange students excepted) don’t actually know how to write a history essay. From the creation of a question that can be answered within the word limit, the ability to find the right historical sources, and the writing of an argument that actually addresses history instead of modern warfare or conflict studies. The choice of essay topic is tied to the topic of the seminar that they lead (I stole my style of seminar leadership from the lovely and talented Jason Wilson, who was twice my TA at University of Guelph) and the first draft of the essay due a week after their seminar. As a result, there will be a sliding scale of completion in that first draft with earlier essays needing more work and later ones requiring less work. What I think is great is that at this stage I am able to really give them absolutely honest feedback about what is good and bad about their essay. Since I am able to provide them that honest feedback, it also clearly ratchets up the expectations and sets a very high standard for the final essay drafts. In practice, this is not entirely different from the practice that I’m used to where my professors required an essay proposal early in the semester. The difference being of course that my essay proposals were usually worth about 10% of my final mark while these first drafts have zero value to the final grades.
For my first years, the process of topic selection is essentially the same because I use the same method of seminar leadership in both classes. These younger students are in many ways unshaped lumps of clay. They haven’t yet been corrupted by political scientists, social scientists or (god forbid) that amorphous Crystalline Entity-like enemy International Relations. I understand that War Studies is an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary department and that my students may not want to be historians. However, the courses that I am TAing are history courses and so it is incumbent upon me to teach my students know how to research, how to think, and of course to write like historians. I’m going to be honest, all the essays that I have seen from my first years so far- and from intelligent students- would have been very poor passing marks or failures had I been marking them at home. With the formative assessments, I can sit down with a student in my office hours explain to them where the problems were without having to end with a “sorry, but you failed”. I think that eventually it would be good practice to have the first year students follow the same practice as my third years – that is a first draft for formative assessment and then a final draft at the end of the term. That’s another argument for another day however.
I also have to say that since my last discussion of teaching with the PhD program at Kings that I’ve asked for, and been granted, the opportunity to give a lecture for my first year course. I plan to ask Alan (my supervisor) for a chance to present another lecture next semester for the third years. Here’s hoping.
Speaking of lectures, I am very pleased and terribly chuffed to announce that I will be presenting a short paper at the Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, November 13, 2013. I have decided that while I am in the UK, I will be only presenting my PhD research for obvious reasons. On this occasion, the title of my paper will be “Professionalization as Process: Definition of Royal Navy Officer Ranks 1660-1749.” I’m going to be talking about the definition of Royal Navy officer ranks not to describe their development as such but rather to demonstrate how a process-centric analysis can highlight the complexity involved in professionalization, in comparison to the somewhat simplified result-based analysis employed by operational historians. We of course have a link to the information for that event.
This past Thursday I went to Evan Wilson‘s presentation at the King’s Maritime History Seminars. It was a really interesting discussion of the Royal Navy Officer Corps’ social makeup including both commissioned and warrant officers. This is the second time that I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak and if you’re interested in Royal Navy social history then I strongly advice looking up his work. He also handled some very tough and persistent questions well and held his ground. On the other hand, there was a comment about Canadians being deranged that shall not go unavenged.
Now we return to our regularly scheduled programming.