History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY1088 Australian History: An Introduction (2004)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Penny Russell
Student responses to this unit were as varied as the students themselves. For some it worked as an excellent and highly valued introduction to the discipline of history and an eye-opening exploration of Australian history and identity. In open-ended comments on the evaluations, as well as spontaneous emails sent after the conclusion of the course, students remarked on the depth of critical engagement it encouraged, its innovative approaches, and particularly on the fact that the course helped them to understand puzzling aspects of the society they live in today. Many students appreciated the fact that the view of Australian history offered in this unit was refreshingly different from that they were familiar with from school.
For students unfamiliar with the outlines of Australian history the unit was more of a challenge. One of the main ways the unit will change for 2005 and future years will be in developing ways to provide students at all levels of prior knowledge with a body of introductory information and a more structured 'way in' to the challenging issues raised in lectures and tutorials. This may include the provision of more detailed lecture outlines in power point presentations. At the same time, students will be more carefully introduced to their own responsibilities in the unit. The students who found lectures 'confusing' were those who looked to them for a summary of course content, rather than seeing them as supporting and responding to the issues raised in the essential (and compulsory) tutorial reading. Those who read each week stayed on top of the issues very well.
Student responses did suggest that the amount of required reading was excessive. Clearly more work needs to be done on both sides to establish appropriate expectations for a university unit in history, which is essentially a reading discipline. The requirements for tutorial reading in the coming semester will be a little reduced from last year, in line with requirements for other first year units - but the expectation that students will actually complete that reading will be stronger than ever!
The issues that arose for students in this course go deeper than the differing backgrounds and knowledge levels of those who took it. Teaching a unit which consciously aims to unsettle rather than reinforce many of the truisms about Australian identity and heritage will always provoke divided responses - as it should. The unit was designed to introduce students to the complex historical stories that entwine nation and society in Australia, and to suggest that, for example, urban growth and policies regarding childhood and youth at the turn of the century had as much impact on the development of national history as did the experience of Australians who fought at Gallipoli (if not, indeed, rather more). Foundation myths such as Federation and Gallipoli therefore received relatively little attention. Some students found this perspective refreshing and exciting, some found it unsettling and even confusing. We will be striving in future versions of the course to eliminate the elements of confusion and make the excitement universal.