History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY2607 - Approaches to the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2009)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Dirk Moses
This is a challenging unit to teach, and equally challenging for the students. Judging by their comments (some 150 received), they came with widely-divergent levels of knowledge and background. Those who had taken units in Jewish Studies or in Arabic and Islamic Studies clearly felt more comfortable with the material. Those who did often felt they had to catch up. For all that, the vast majority of students said they were satisfied with, and benefited from, this unit. Above all, they appreciated that three lecturers - Dr, Dirk Moses, A/Professor Suzanne Rutland and A/Professor Ahmad Shboul - took the lectures and many tutorials, presenting a multi-vocal approach to this difficult subject matter. We teachers took special pains to emphasise balance in our teaching by representing different perspectives; and we encouraged students to make up their own minds about the material. Students also liked the mix of videos/documentaries, as well as the online links we to current debates that we sent them. Some students commented that they would like to see a follow-up unit so they can study the subject in even greater depth.
Specific issues that arose in the students comments:
While students liked the different approaches, they sometimes felt that lectures overlapped. This is true on a few occasions, and was done deliberately in order to emphasise important points and to present the alternative perspective on a particular question. In future, we will make our pedadgogical aims clearer in this regard.
Some students said they would have preferred a more narrative, event-focused approach whereas we took a more thematic one, especially in the second half of the unit. We directed students to the textbook for the narrative details; and, besides, we could not cover all the salient details in lectures even if we gave event-focused lectures. But, again, we will explain our aims and method better in future.
Some students thought that we spent too little time on the last twenty years of the conflict. It is true that that more time could be devoted to the salient issues in this time period - a point that could be made about earlier periods, too; but doing so would come at the cost of reducing attention to important questions earlier in the twentieth century. And this is a history, not political science, unit. Even so, we will revisit the issue of coverage when redesigning the unit so that contemporary history receives greater attention.
Many students felt that two essays and an exam was excessive. Some students wanted more words allocated for the second essay. We will reconsider the exam in redesigning the unit, which would allow for a much longer second essay. That said, our experience is that lecture attendance drops off radically in the last third of the semester if there is no exam.
Opinions were divided on the first essay, which was a single question analysing an exchange between a number of scholars. Some students loved it, others were less positive. It was sent very early in the semester (week 4) so as to have students immerse themselves in the material as soon as possible and to aid early feedback. One student commented that this early due date benefited students with a background in the field, as the other students were still exploring unfamiliar territory. This is a fair observation, and we will reconsider the deadline.
Students like the large number of questions from which they could choose for the second essay
4. Tutorial Reading
Students mostly enjoyed and were stimulated by the texts we assigned, though many preferred that they were made available via a reading 'brick' rather than online. A smaller number of students preferred the current arrangement, noting that it saved them money. A challenge with producing the reading 'brick' is having the reading list and master copies ready by January, the printing deadline. Two of the three teachers in this unit are usually abroad on research at this time, and we need to meet personally to assess each of the reading options, which takes a number of long meetings. Making the readings available via the library website gives us considerable flexibility.
Some students found that two articles per tutorial was an excessive reading expectation. Our experience was that most students did most of the reading, and that tutorial discussions were accordingly instructive. It is important to note that we set two readings because they present the rival perspectives on a single issue that we want students to discuss. The imperative of balance entailed two readings. But we will endeavour to make these readings as concise as possible.
Some students complained that tutorial discussion was limited to the readings rather than being 'open'. Others complained that the opposite was the case, discussion moving often onto general issues not directly related to the set text, and dominated by committed students with a great deal of knowledge about the conflict. In the event, each tutorial group was different (there were four tutors for ten tutorials), and we tutors tried to have students focus on the carefully-selected texts so they were better equipped for the more general discussion that was encouraged in the last few tutorials.