A winter update on the School of History from Director of Taught Programmes, Dr Dan Todman:
4 January 2018
When I wrote to you in the summer I promised a further update on teaching in the School of History at the end of the semester. Here it is! Again, it is quite long: I’ve put in some headers so that you can find areas that may be of particular interest.
Student Away Day, 29/11/17
We’ve been making big efforts to try to make sure that students’ views play a bigger role in the decisions we make about teaching. We are lucky to have some excellent course reps who have kept us in touch with your opinions and concerns, including for example over deadline clashes on first year modules. Ella Harvey deserves particular thanks. Last week she sat in on the Annual Programme Review (when all our degrees are scrutinised by the Dean for Taught Programmes), making sure that student views were part of this process and contributing many useful suggestions for future improvements. Ella also played an important role helping our Marketing and Communications Officer, Sam Bennett, to set up our first Student Away Day, on 29 November 2017.
Mirroring a similar event earlier in the semester for staff, this event covered topics including different forms of assessment and teaching, student feedback and the role of the lecture – and much else besides. Nineteen students attended, offering their views in an informal atmosphere in which points were recorded anonymously. Reading the report on the event, I am struck not only by the range of opinions, but also by how concerned the participants were to take account of each other’s positions. It was a really useful exercise for the School, which will be fed into our planning of the curriculum and staff development activities in the future, and I am very grateful to all those who took part. We will repeat the event – with due attention to timing it around deadlines and exam pressures – early in 2018. The focus – again mirroring a similar event for teaching staff – will be around improving feedback. If you’d like to be involved, please do contact Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Planning module availability
One of the points that came out of the Student Away Day was the importance of keeping students informed about staff changes and module availability in the long term – because it plays such a large part in making choices and helping you to plan out your degree. I am currently working out all of our teaching and modules for next year. You will get a sense of how complex this is if I tell you that provisionally it involves planning to provide about 800 students with more than a hundred different modules organised by forty-five different members of academic staff. We will be releasing full directories of modules ready for you to discuss your choices with your advisors in the second half of the spring semester. At the same time, I will release an updated version of the staff sabbatical grid, showing which members of staff will be on research leave for the next two years, so that those moving from their first to their second year can have a sense of what subject might be on offer in their third year. Obviously personal circumstances can change in that time – and leave funded by external research bodies is often much more uncertain and decided on shorter timescales than our own research sabbaticals – but the grid at least gives you as much information as we have ourselves. By next year, I’d like to move to a position in which we are planning teaching on a three-year basis, and can commit to students applying to us – with due allowance for staff changes - about the modules that will be offered during their entire degree. This is a big shift for us as a School, and it comes directly in response to student feedback. It also requires a step change in how we plan, which is why it is taking some time to introduce: if you multiply the figures above by three years, including everything that can happen to staff, student enrolments and the wider university and global environment in that time, you will appreciate that it is quite a complex process!
Special Subject Fair
For those moving from their second to their third year, there will be a Special Subject Fair introducing all modules from 2-5 on the afternoon of 14 February 2018. This event has previously been held in the evening – we are moving it to the afternoon in response to student feedback as part of our commitment to improving equality of access for those who live off campus. Students in past years have found this a very useful event for thinking about the range of Specials that we offer, and for identifying all the different options that might allow them to pursue their academic interests. I recognize that the time slot will pose problems for those who play sport or have job shifts on a Wednesday afternoon – but there is no single perfect time that suits everyone and in which rooms are available for such a large event: detailed information about all Special Subjects will also be available on dedicated web pages, and staff are always keen to answer queries about their modules – so there are other options for those who cannot attend in person.
We will be making four new appointments in January and February for colleagues to start work in September 2018. These are: a 2-year fixed term lecturer in World History (to cover Chris Moffatt’s funded research leave), a 5-year fixed term lecturer in Modern German History (to cover Christina von Hodenberg’s term as Director of the German Historical Institute), a lecturer in British History 1500-1700 and a lecturer in the history of art and architecture in London 1500-1750. These appointments reflect not only the continued success of History staff in securing high status funding and external appointments, but also our commitment to maintaining and expanding the range of teaching we have on offer.
Here too we are making a major departure to involve students more fully in the running of the School. Previously, applicants have presented on their work to an audience of other academics and postgraduate research students. This year, they will instead teach a mock seminar to a group of undergraduates, observed by academic colleagues including Teaching Associates. Feedback from students and staff will then be fed into the appointments process. It is also a chance to show off the brilliance of our students to applicants. We need volunteers to take part in these seminars – (we will pay for the time commitment involved). You do not need any prior experience in the subject matter, and it is a great chance to play a role in the future direction of the School. If you’d like to take part, there is a form to fill in here: https://qmhistory.wufoo.eu/forms/z1f6me8a1m3dbmc/.
Please contact Sam Bennett at email@example.com if you require any further information.
Writing in the summer about our shift to step marking, I explained the reasons for the change – and our overall ethos of teaching. If you would like to remind yourself of this, the ethos document is here: https://qmplus.qmul.ac.uk/mod/page/view.php?id=699667 . The adoption of step marking is part of an ongoing process of improving the clarity of assessment requirements. Criteria for our most commonly used forms of assessment are under ‘assessment policies’ here: https://qmplus.qmul.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=7595. This year we will also move to establishing similar criteria for blog posts and seminar participation. Please do ask module organisers to specific marking criteria more exactly if you feel that this would help your attainment.
We recognise that deadline congestion, quality of submission, and speed and utility of feedback are all related issues. For this reason, the Undergraduate Teaching Committee decided at the end of November that from September next year (ie: teaching year 2018-19), the total assessment load on all modules should be reduced. At the moment, we operate on the basis that a 15 credit module should be assessed by 5,000 words of coursework or equivalent. We will move instead to a standard basis of 4,000 words or equivalent. This will mean shorter pieces of assessment on some modules, and the removal of assessment points on others – in other words, students will be asked to submit less in each semester. This change will be carried out across all modules (a very large job, since all changes have to go through rigorous quality assurance procedures), with the exception of dissertations, which will remain at 10,000 words. The dissertation is the high point of the degree, and 8,000 words would not be sufficient to develop the ideas required to achieve the necessary learning outcomes at the end of the third year. To reiterate, these changes will come into effect from September 2018 – they do not affect the rest of this academic year.
Over the next year, we will continue to work hard to improve our teaching, with a particular emphasis in the next semester on raising the consistency and quality of our feedback. But there are also three other issues that we are determined to address not just in the next few months, but with a sustained effort over several years.
Two are improving communications and building a stronger sense of community. I am well aware that sending long emails once a semester is just one way – and probably not the best one – to keep you in touch with what the School is doing. I am also very conscious of how difficult it can feel for students who have good ideas about how to improve modules to communicate them to academics in a timely fashion: end of semester module evaluations do not help us improve while teaching is still under way on 15 credit modules. I would very much welcome any practical ideas you have about how to do this better! We are also very much aware of the need to build a strong and supportive community for historians – particularly those who live off campus. Again, we are pursuing ideas about how to build in more events at which the whole School can come together, within the constraints of timetabling and space, to share the joy and excitement we feel in exploring the past – but I would love to hear any thoughts that you have about how this could be better done.
The third is our responsibility to address systematically issues of inequality, including disparities in degree outcome relating to gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background. All of these need to be tackled with coherent, multi-faceted policies that address structures and practices as well, for example, as module provision and content – and which involve students at all stages as well as staff. You should expect to see us move on all of these questions over the coming year – and I look forward to working with all of you as we do so. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have ideas or experiences you would like to share.
I hope that, whichever stage of your degree you are at, it has been an interesting autumn and you feel that you understand more about the past now than you did three months ago.Please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Deputy DTP, Reuben Loffman at email@example.com, or get in touch with your course reps.