How HEA Fellowship helped me explore new ways of teaching

Associate Professor and Director of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham
From the website of the Higher Education Acamedy

I have been teaching within the Higher Education sector for ten years since the completion of my doctorate in 2008. This experience has included teaching classes in history, anthropology, archaeology, tourism and heritage studies in institutions in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It is this variety of subjects and teaching in various places that has shaped my approach to interdisciplinary teaching which I now use at the University of Nottingham as Director of Liberal Arts.

This approach requires not one singular commitment to a technique but working with students to create ‘environments of learning’, both within the classrooms and online, where they can explore their responses to the ideas and materials within the courses. This provides the supportive structures where individuals can encounter, engage, assimilate and generate, to produce active lifelong learners, skilful and innovative thinkers, creative employees and critical citizens.

Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy
Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy has provided support and validation of this approach as well as connecting me to a wider community who might share similar ideas but also have completely different perspectives on education. The Higher Education Academy Fellowship is not just a certification process but a chance to join colleagues in exploring new and innovative ways in which we teach.

Whilst developing my application for the Fellowship, I was able to reflect on my teaching experience and speak to other faculty members about the work we do within lectures, seminars and tutorials. Indeed, the process of compiling the case studies and the materials for the Fellowship provided an opportunity to think about how we work with students in their research and development.

I chose two courses to reflect my work. The first was entitled ‘Fighting the First World War’ and was offered to Year 2 students as an exploration of the history of the conflict, but which also brought in ideas from sociology, psychology and anthropology as we examined the war environment at the front and behind the lines.

Students engagement and course design
To engage students with the way in which the war shaped the lives of individuals and communities we used two scenarios to consider the actions, decisions, social bonds and attitudes of individuals who witnessed the conflict. One scenario featured munitions workers in a factory in Britain and another a platoon on the front line in France. Using original documents, oral testimonies, artefacts and photography, students examined daily life to assess how individuals would cope and respond to the privations, responsibilities and the opportunities brought by the war.

The exercise enables students to think of individuals in the past not as passive witnesses but as historical agents whose actions shaped their environment. This use of thinking through scenarios brought greater focus on how interdisciplinary approaches could enrich our understanding of the war and enhance students’ analytical skills.

This mode of engagement was also part of my work with third year students on a module entitled ‘New York: Making an American City’. The course introduced students to the history, art, literature, politics and economics of the metropolis. The module was built on my research and it supports final year students to enhance skills for their academic and graduate careers.

Learning environment
The course was structured so it would examine issues of immigration, conflict, industrialisation, politics, economics, architecture, society and culture along a broad chronological structure. For each session, the classroom space was altered to enable engagement with the concepts in different ways. The session on immigration was discussed within small groups who each focused on an immigrant community in the city. Issues of identity, place, alienation and integration were discussed within each group before a wider discussion on prejudice and power within the nineteenth century city.

During the discussion on economics, study groups were created across the class to discuss the value of the grid plan, real estate speculation and the focus on Wall Street, with each group sharing information from one group to the next. Similarly, with our assessment on culture in 1950s New York, we used this structure to discuss changes in art, literature, music, film and fashion. Organising the groups in different ways for each issue, facilitated an engagement with how networks and concepts have shaped the city. The learning environment provided modes of engagement but also acknowledgement of the diversity present in studying New York.

Students could practice the important skills of research
This level of accessibility enabled each week’s assignment to be a practical exercise. This included, analysing the demographic data of immigration into New York through spreadsheets, using catalogues to source nineteenth century newspaper articles on the Draft Riots of 1863, and assessing photographs from the digital collections of the New York Public Library to chart the emergence of ‘modern life’ in the early twentieth century. Through researching, reporting and examining, students could practice the important skills of research, analysis and innovation that are needed for final year projects and for future careers.

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