History Department Response to Student Feedback
HSTY 3698 Class Struggles in the Atlantic World (2006)
Unit Coordinator: Dr Michael McDonnell
I introduced this seminar course in Semester 2, 2005, in part because of my own interest in revitalising the use of class as a category of analysis in the early modern world, and in part in response to positive student feedback from my survey courses to the provocative insights of authors such as Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh. In line with new Departmental policy, the course was also very much designed to introduce students to the problems, pitfalls, and joys of constructing research questions, finding sources, and writing major research papers.
In 2006, I focused the course a bit more on Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s controversial history of the Atlantic world, The Many Headed-Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000). We began the semester by reading some context-setting and theoretical works on the Atlantic World and class analysis, and then read the book, which gave most students a general overview of the period under discussion. The book proved controversial among students, and we had some excellent discussions about the use of evidence, methodology, and the nature of history itself. But perhaps the highlight came when we had a video conference with Marcus Rediker himself, who was then in Pittsburgh. The students asked incredibly challenging and engaging questions, and I think Marcus inspired us all in turn with his thoughtful answers, and his commitment to scholarship and activism in general. I think the session helped make us all feel a part of a transnational community of scholars. Marcus enjoyed the session so much he has already agreed to do another one for this coming semester.
The book also proved enormously stimulating in helping students develop research questions to pursue, and we spent a great deal of the rest of the semester devoted to those research papers. We read each other’s research proposals, we also read and commented on drafts of each other’s essays, and we each took it in turns to lead the seminar in subsequent weeks, which consisted of readings of primary and secondary sources put together by students’ themselves based on their own essay topics and interests.
In doing so, we worked as a coherent team – using e-mail to suggest interesting sources, articles, and websites – with the aim of developing better research and writing skills, and skills in self-reflection and constructive criticism. I also posted readings online instead of creating a Course Reader and most students seemed to enjoy having that kind of access to them. On the whole, I was once again very impressed with the dedication of the students, their commitment to the work, and the results they produced.
Students seemed to respond especially favourably to the fact that course readings were all posted online (with the exception of the Hydra); to the fact that the small size of the class facilitated better discussion etc.; to being given more free rein to direct discussion toward their own interests; and to the focus on a research question of their choosing. Most felt like they had their previous notions of “class” challenged and felt that they had learned to use class as a valuable tool of analysis.
Thirteen of the eighteen students enrolled in the class were present to fill in the USE survey. The overall satisfaction rate was 91%, with one student remaining neutral, and all students agreed that they were part of a group committed to learning, that interaction with other learners was an important component of the work and that the learning outcomes and expected standard were (generally) clear. Several students felt the weekly readings were a bit onerous, but most believed them useful in the end. I may drop one or two readings the next time I teach this course.
- excellent facilitation of discussion and teaching style in a way that is genuinely participative
- Seminar discussions were excellent – could have continued well beyond 2 hours (or even just one semester worth of discussion)
- focus on primary research really rewarding
- The component of peer assessment was also really valuable – encouraged a high standard as well as a feeling of mutual solidarity and willingness to learn
- What I loved most about this class is that it showed me the entire research process – from introductions, to the formation of a question, and the completion of a project
- I actually enjoyed writing a 5000 word essay
- Much more supportive and encouraging than what I’m used to – responsive to students questions and needs.
- This subject took social history and theories of class further than any other subject I’ve ever taken – helping to solidify conceptual tools of analysis and engage more thoroughly in ideas and historiography linked to social history.
- The interview with Rediker was awesome.
- Best subject ever