In July 2022, Peter Good received one of two Jinty Nelson Teaching Awards given annually by the Royal Historical Society.
In this post, for the Society’s ‘Teaching Portal’, Peter reflects on his classroom practice, and how he seeks to communicate the histories of early Modern Europe and the Islamic World to his students. Launched in 2020, the Teaching Portal now offers more than 60 articles and guides for History students and teachers in Higher Education.
It was my great honour to be presented, in July, with the 2022 Jinty Nelson Award for Inspirational Teaching, and now to have been asked to contribute an article on what it means to be an ‘inspirational’ teacher. I feel rather awkward and self-conscious as in essence I am trying to project my students experience of me and this is not easy to pin down. In this post I try to pass on some of the methods, techniques and exercises that I use in my teaching practice and also let my students tell their own stories of their experience of the passion I feel for my work. I’m humbled by their responses which were generous, enthusiastic and eloquent beyond anything I could have expected, or feel I merit.
Find sources in translation, as well as images and objects that make the important human element of historical events and processes as clear as they can be.
As a scholar of the Early Modern Middle East and Indian Ocean, the first challenge has always been to make what is often an unfamiliar history accessible. For my own research, I’ve studied both Arabic and Persian; however, my students rarely have experience of non-European languages. My solution to overcome the hurdles of language, script and culture is to find sources in translation, as well as images and objects that make the important human element of historical events and processes as clear as they can be. By doing so, my students are able to find ways and methods of understanding what may initially have felt like a remote intangible and inaccessible past.
Having engaged with these contextual barriers, I next introduce European sources about the same or similar events to give an important outside perspective / context. By beginning with the local context, I want to stop students relying on a Eurocentric gaze or approach. Instead, we work together to build confidence in analysing local texts, objects and images that cater to a broad range of interests and learning styles. I’ve found fulfilment in enabling students to appreciate how and why history is the story and exploration of human experience, which is in many ways universal across countries, cultures and continents. I hope this passion is reflected in my students work and future paths, which include further study of the Middle East both at the University of Kent and elsewhere.
My students’ feedback, perhaps, provides another rather obvious guide to teaching; that is to challenge them and myself to do and be their best. Notwithstanding the careful planning of lessons, I find that ‘realising in the room’ how the material is being received and responded to it gives us all a better experience. To help me be flexible in my approach, I’ve developed a ‘box of tricks’ to apply to each task that allows the learning experience to be more dynamic. In addition, I introduce certain exercises that I let students know will appear each week:
Challenging students in a supportive environment is a great way to build trust and confidence, while accepting challenges yourself requires you to rethink your approach and understanding of your own scholarship.
The first of these was getting each student in a seminar to tell me one thing that they’ve learned from the readings or lecture. This could be one sentence or lead to a major talking point on a significant element or feature of that session’s theme. Likewise, I regularly asked students to work together to develop their writing and critical skills. By far the most appreciated of these has been organising Masters’ students into groups to deliver a two-sentence precis of the subject of a particular source, paper or entire topic. My students started referring to ‘sentence time’ in hushed tones, telling me how much they dreaded its arrival in our seminars. However, by the time a course had ended, students found themselves able to write far more clearly and succinctly, learning from one another and previous weeks’ experience.
I enjoy completing the task myself in the same time restriction and having often lively debates about what themes or topics were most relevant or important. Challenging students in a supportive environment is a great way to build trust and confidence, while accepting challenges yourself requires you to rethink your approach and understanding of your own scholarship.
If I am an inspiring teacher, I would distil this to three elements:
- communicating my love for my subject and teaching
- opening access to students in diverse ways to capture their imaginations and, most importantly
- enjoying the challenges and experiences that students offer.
Teaching what I love is an immense privilege; opening up this world to others so that they can find a similar passion is rewarding beyond anything I could have anticipated.
توانا بود هرکه دانا بود
ز دانش دل پیر برنا بود.
The one who has knowledge has power,
While knowledge makes the old heart grow young.
About the author
Dr Peter Good is a historian of early modern Europe and the Islamic World. He studied Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies with Persian, as well as Middle East History, at the University of Exeter. In 2013 he received an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Fellowship with the University of Essex and the British Library.
His first monograph, The East India Company in Persia: Trade and Cultural Exchange in the Eighteenth Century, was published with I.B. Tauris in 2022. He was Lecturer at the University of Kent until September 2022.
About the RHS Teaching Portal
The Society’s Teaching Portal, launched in 2020, is a collection of now more than 60 articles providing guidance for History students and teachers in Higher Education. The Portal also includes short guides on resources for student research, transitions through Higher Education, and careers in History.
Also available on the Portal is Rosalind Crone’s recent article, ‘Studying History in a Secure Environment’, on creative public-facing module development. Rosalind also received a Jinty Nelson Teaching Award in 2022.