History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY2660 - Violence in Italy (2007)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Nicholas Eckstein
I am very pleased to report that this unit received an overall satisfaction rating of 95%, and attracted the enthusiastic endorsement of the overwhelming majority of students participating in the survey. The sentiments expressed in the following quotation were shared by many students: "This was an excellent unit, by far the best I have done thus far in my university life." Teaching in the unit was "helpful, enthusiastic and innovative"; "tutorials were run very well, discussion was facilitated effectively and the content [was] interesting." Students clearly regarded the unit as simultaneously challenging, stimulating and enjoyable. Students found the teaching staff "approachable", "helpful", "responsive and very encouraging", and felt that they "Often sought feedback and acted upon it". Many students wrote unreservedly in the following terms: "A wonderful course, great teaching staff and intriguing content"; “Nick Eckstein is one of the best lecturers I have had in 5 years at this uni!!”; “Kate Blake…should be commended for [her] efforts and style of teaching.”
Having run this unit on two occasions (2004, 2007), it is clear that "Violence in Italy" encourages positive feedback like this by providing students with a carefully constructed and collegial setting in which to study a very confronting and challenging theme. A good esprit de corps in tutorials is especially important in this context, and students become aware very early that their commitment is reciprocated by their staff and their peers, who articulated "lots of different opinions" while voicing "plenty of discussion." One student opined that "Tutorial discussions were really helpful within the unit. It [sic] ensured that concepts were clear and allowed for further discussion beyond the bounds of the unit's specified content."
Students learn in introductory lectures that the study of an ubiquitous phenomenon like violence needs very delicate handling. We have very fixed ideas about what violence is, who perpetrates it, the reasons for its occurrence and the types of people who perform acts of violence. Much of what we assume needs to be unlearnt or modified, and throughout the entire semester, lecturer and tutors impress upon students the need to consider the ethical and moral implications of focussing on a range of disturbing and sometimes upsetting behaviours. One of the big surprises for students is the realisation that violence can act as a bonding agent and social glue: not just in Italy but in our own society. Can we therefore talk of "positive violence"? Probably not, but students find that they do need to suspend their 'normal' reactions to violence in order to examine it dispassionately. In purely intellectual terms, this is not an easy thing to do. Students are encouraged at every point to compare the forms of violence that they study in this unit with those in other societies, including Australian society, and such comparisons have major implications for the way students henceforth look at humans in all periods and cultures.
Structure of the syllabus
For all this to work, readings need to be carefully selected and clearly presented. Students indeed commented again and again that there was "a good combination of primary and secondary sources", "interesting readings that kept me engaged whilst developing understanding", and that "the assessments helped me to be more critical." One student, indeed, commented that "The course was quite [sic] unique in examining 'violence' in Italy. The layout of the exam in terms of approaching the course 'thematically' is more challenging than other course in terms of stimulating thoughts/ideas on the overall course...".
Written assessment in this unit consisted of a class paper (1700 words) a Journal exercise (800 words) and a 2-hour (2000 word) exam. The assignment that generated most comment was the journal, with opinion balanced between those who would have preferred a longer piece of assessment and those who thought that it "encouraged succinctness and pertinence while simultaneously improving critiquing skills"; and who found it "manageable" and thought that it "maximise[d] learning and student engagement." This is indeed why I introduced it in 2007. The Journal asks students to select a series of secondary readings (articles, chapters etc.) from the syllabus and to write 100-word critical evaluations on them. Students who keep up with reading throughout, and who record their impressions of the readings at the time that they are discussed in tutorials, find this a comparatively straightforward exercise: in other words, it rewards commitment and good organisation. It also balances our focus on primary sources by encouraging students to ask what contribution their secondary readings make to discussion, what they agree and disagree with, and how historians have reacted to or framed many of the themes we investigate.
Use of cinema
While time is of the essence, I would very much like to use more film, especially original Italian cinema. This semester we used extracts from the HBO series The Sopranos in lectures, and from Ridley Scott’s feature film, The Gladiator, which despite its schlocky overtones includes sequences which deftly foreground themes of masculinity, honour and violence. The most powerful reaction, however, was to Alexander Stille's documentary about the Sicilian Mafia entitled Excellent Cadavers. This gripping and beautifully constructed documentary brought home many of themes we had been studying over the weeks in a way that reading never could, and most students found the film simultaneously informative, troubling and deeply moving.
Tutorial discussion and class size
Some students felt that discussion could have been facilitated by having smaller tutorial classes. While I can only agree with this sentiment, I feel that it is also important to observe that discussion depends equally on students' having done sufficient reading and, just as importantly, being willing to 'chance their arm' in discussion. In 2007 both Kate Blake, the tutor, and I experimented with various forms of discussion and many approaches in class. One of the most popular was that we actually performed a section of Dario Fo's satirical play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist in class. This was an experiment, and it turned out to be a very fruitful, productive - and hilarious! - exercise. We shall certainly do this again, and I hope to extend the use of live performance to other of the literary sources in earlier stages of the unit.