Dr John Cooper was runner-up in the 2020 RHS Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching and Supervision in History. Here, he reflects on the importance of open dialogue in teaching: between undergraduate year groups, who’ve much to teach one another, and between lecturers and early career historians who exchange advice and guidance.
The RHS annual teaching prizes recognise academic historians making a significant contribution to excellence in undergraduate or postgraduate teaching and supervision. Applications for the 2021 prizes are now open (deadline: Friday 4 June).
Think back to your time at university. Who inspired your study of history, and why? Sometimes it’s down to subject and expertise. As an aspiring Tudor historian I was impressed by lecturers who knew the archives inside out, could decipher the mysteries of secretary hand and King’s Bench indictments seemingly without having to think. But it was also passion for the past that drew me in. The lectures I attended were often only tenuously related to the exam papers that we sat, yet still exemplified the incalculable value of thinking historically. None of that generation of scholars had been taught to teach, but that didn’t prevent them from inspiring.
In my own lectures on ‘The Tudor Regime’, I start by explaining that I’m not going to pronounce judgement on why Henry VIII broke from Rome, or whether popular revolts supplied their own leaders, or who was responsible for the persecution of Protestants under Mary I. All this can be got from independent reading.
My role is to pose questions, offer opinions (but also show how they can be challenged), point to sources and debates, and ultimately explain why studying a society so utterly different from our own is a valuable thing in itself. That may not sound terribly innovative to you, and you’d be right; it’s my attempt at tapping the best of what I was privileged to receive at university.
Dissertation students pitch their projects to a friendly audience; second-years take inspiration from one of their peers. It’s a simple thing to do, but it yields benefits all round.
But there are ways of enlivening a traditional teaching format without losing its essence. I regularly invite third-year undergraduates researching Tudor dissertations to give a 10-minute talk to the second-year cohort, on what inspired them and what they are discovering. It’s proved really popular. Dissertation students pitch their projects to a friendly audience; second-years take inspiration from one of their peers. Year groups often exist in a bubble, so this is an opportunity to pass on lessons learned. It’s a simple thing to do, but it yields benefits all round.
While we all draw on our own undergraduate experiences, we also need to be alert to what’s changed since our day. The world I inhabited, where education was essentially free and I could focus entirely on my studies if I wished, is entirely gone. Students have to take on paid work to offset accumulating debts, reducing time and energy in the library. Social media imposes complex demands. Careers traditionally targeted by historians – law, the civil service, journalism, even the heritage sector since Covid – are less secure than they once were.
Probably the greatest challenge is mental health. Universities have invested in professional support, but waiting lists for an assessment can be frighteningly long. Few academic supervisors have any training in counselling. But again, it’s the basic kinds of support – listening, remembering to follow up, offering advice on managing academic priorities – that are often the most appreciated.
Simple guidance that we can all offer can go a long way.
We support our colleagues, as well as our students. Securing an academic job was never easy, but early career researchers currently face a precarious environment of ‘teaching only’ temporary contracts (how will that become a permanent job, without research?) and unpaid summers. I value my contact with former MA and PhD students, for whom simple guidance that we can all offer – which journal to approach for an article, what kinds of questions could come up in a job interview – can go a long way.
Formally this is called mentoring, but it’s really just sharing experience and listening empathetically. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I’m helping to organise an ECR conference on ‘Experiencing Politics and Political Culture’ where some of those same contributors to my undergraduate lectures will be speaking as fully-fledged academics.
I’m looking forward to hearing about what’s new in history, not least so I can feed it back into my own teaching. Inspiration is definitely a two-way street.
About the author
John Cooper is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of York. He is currently Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded, ‘The Past Has Ears’ (2020-23), and was Principal-Investigator for the AHRC-funded ‘St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster’ (2013-17).
John’s research focuses on the political, religious and cultural history of sixteenth-century England; his books include The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham in the Court of Elizabeth I (Faber and Faber).
The RHS Teaching Awards: 2021 competition now open (deadline for applications: 4 June)
Applications are now invited for the Society’s annual awards for the teaching of History at UK universities, 2021. Two prizes are offered: the Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching and Supervision in History, and the Royal Historical Society Innovation in Teaching Award. Further details of the awards and how to apply are available here: deadline Friday 4 June. The 2021 winners will be announced in July as part of the Society’s annual awards ceremony.
Further posts on teaching are available via the RHS Teaching Portal, and include a recent article by Professor Marjory Harper (Aberdeen), winner of the 2020 Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching on ‘Creating an Online Community: A Pre-Pandemic Initiative’, and Dr Jessica van Horssen (Leeds Beckett), a winner of the 2020 RHS Innovation in Teaching Award, on ‘The Future of (Teaching) the Past’.
HEADER IMAGE: John Norden’s Map of Westminster, 1593, engraved by Pieter Van den Keere, published in Norden’s Middlesex (1593). Image CC Public Domain