Turning research into lectures without tears

Since I’m still knocking two and a half first-semester modules into shape at my first institution, a quick blog post/response to my historian colleague Melodee Beals, who is also starting a new job as a Teaching Fellow (a charming British name for contingent faculty).

Last week, Melodee blogged about her approach to revising one of her department’s modules on the Atlantic world, which she’s chosen to revise intensively to suit her own research interests. I was in Melodee’s position last year, when the Faculty I worked for as a researcher offered me the chance to design a new module on a topic that would appeal to first-year historians and could be structured around a historical controversy (translation: build your own primary-source-packed syllabus on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s).

I wish I had read Melodee’s lecture writing rules before trying to turn my subject knowledge and vision for the module into lectures. Probably like most early-career academics, I’ve been in the situation she found herself in when she began approaching the material:

It was not that I did not know the material I needed to present. I have been immersed in Atlantic World historiography since I was an undergraduate. I simply had too many ideas and no way of determining the correct course of action. I was, in all honesty, paralysed with indecision. But, at least, I thought, I have four months until my first lecture. I am sure it will all turn out for the best.

Three months later I was not much closer. I had created a programme and developed reading lists to accompany it. Indeed, I had spent much of the summer re-reading these books and articles in search of inspiration. But I was no closer to a set of completed lectures.

Click through to her blog for a list of all the five rules she set herself, but what resonated with me most was this:

If I want my students to think, rather than merely transcribe, my lectures should offer spaces for individual reflection.

This is what I believe I should be doing, and after my mid-semester feedback sheets and teaching observation, I knew I had to change something in my lecturing practice in order to make this happen.

But how?

Melodee helped me out some more on Twitter:

Last year I had slides after each section that summed up the past 15 minutes, during which I poured myself a glass of water.

I like this. I’m going to try it. And it solves another classroom problem, because I always fret that my mid-lecture water breaks turn into unintentional displays of slapstick (drop bottle cap on floor; drip water on to light grey shirt; etc.). I do not want to find bingo cards with all the different ways my taking a drink of water can go wrong.

Over the summer, I was asked whether I could repeat the Yugoslav wars module this year. Again, I hope to talk about that in more detail. But I already feel much better equipped to make the lectures do what I believe they should.

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Can civilians learn from the military about learning?

On the same day that the British education secretary, Michael Gove, announced an initiative to encourage ex-military personnel to become primary and secondary teachers,the Centre for Policy Studies proposed a free school in Manchester that would be staffed entirely by former servicemen and women.

Gove’s announcement isn’t new: his department’s White Paper on schools in November 2010, which introduced the controversial ‘English Baccalaureate’ concept of a core set of GCSEs, had already mentioned sponsoring the tuition fees of ex-Forces graduates entering teacher training and investigating whether Forces non-graduates could take accelerated degrees.

The CPS’s brochure on the Phoenix School may fall on open ears at the Department  for Education: the authors criticise Labour’s early-years intervention programmes (Every Child Matters and Sure Start). Tempting fate, they argue that their solution, which ‘will categorically reject the concept of moral relativism’ and ‘the charade of “personalised learning”‘, will support the government’s policy of moral restoration:

And, as a beneficial side-effect, the next time that riots break out in Britain, we should expect that few, if any, participants come from such schools.

The proposal has come in for sustained ridicule: as with any free school, which is allowed to employ unqualified teachers, why should non-specialist teachers be in schools? What place does the demeanour of the archetypal regimental sergeant-major have in a contemporary classroom? Is this really where the 2,000 Army and RAF personnel made redundant yesterday are expected to go?

But is there anything civilians could learn from the military about learning?

The military is a complex organisation that supplies its own version of much of the infrastructure in civilian society: transport, mail, telecommunications, media, food supply. The British Army’s recruitment website advertises ‘over 140 different jobs’; its US equivalent talks about more than 150. Fewer soldiers serve in the ‘combat arms’ (infantry and cavalry) than in ‘combat support’ (Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Intelligence) or ‘combat service support’ arms.

‘Combat service support’ designates the functions furthest away from the primary infantry/cavalry business of closing with and killing the enemy – mechanics, medics, logistics and many back office functions, including education and training.

Soldiers in these corps deploy to front lines, of course, either in their own units or on individual postings: Army educators with language skills, for instance, tend to be the first to volunteer for operational language training and deployment as ‘military colloquial speakers’ on six-month tours.

If an army contains so many professional dispositions, what makes a soldier? Rachel Woodward and K Neil Jenkings have argued in a recent issue of Sociology that soldiers express their military identities ‘with reference to the specificities of their professional skills’. Sometimes, but not always, those skills are in the disciplined use of force:

The military, according to the classic (Weberian) definition, is the state-sanctioned body with the authority to use lethal force. The exercise of lethal force defines military personnel as such. Our interviewees fleshed out that idea by talking about the constitution and expression of their military identities with reference to the specificities of their professional skills. For some, these skills were clearly identifiable as military tasks: accuracy in marksmanship, for example, or surveillance and observation skills, or the deployment of technical knowledge in the act of patrolling hostile urban areas.

Yet, they find, other soldiers base their soldier-ness in mastery of skills that aren’t to do with force (being first to put down heavy-duty electronic cables; survival and endurance outdoors; performing complex marching band manoeuvres). Military identity lies in the specifics, such as technical knowledge of military equipment and being able to operate in difficult or dangerous conditions where civilians would not work:

The skills of vehicle repair and rescue could be seen as similar to those required in civilian mechanic occupations. What was significant to this interviewee was the possession of not just technical skills but also an aptitude and willingness, specific to the military, to use such skills in extreme and hostile environments, for the sake of a wider military objective. So even when individual skills may be generic, and held by civilians, their application is not.

During my research on international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I’ve met a number of soldiers from one of the less well known military populations, Army educators. The Educational and Training Services, which had existed as a separate corps between 1845 and 1992, deal with adult learning, basic skills training, staff development and needs analysis for the Army’s 110,000 soldiers. Among the enlisted personnel will be soldiers who have enlisted with few or no formal qualifications. ETS officers aim to equip them to take GCSEs and vocational qualifications, and ‘lifelong learning’ is even a selling point in Army recruitment material today.

Following Woodward and Jenkings, we could expect the ‘military’ in military education to rest in what you teach, how you teach, and where you teach it. Military language training for operations (the short courses that produce ‘colloquial speakers’ with basic competence in selected areas) differs from the civilian classroom in many ways. Courses emphasise military vocabulary and use authentic military texts for reading and listening practice; scenario-based learning, where students apply their language knowledge to situations based on recent operational experience, is the norm. Practical classes are often held outdoors and are reinforced when the language students take part in field exercises. No matter how difficult British society believes language learning to be, soldiers with very few formal qualifications have been able to learn entirely new languages (Bosnian/Serbian, Arabic, Pashto) to a usable colloquial standard through military educators’ training methods.

The civilian education system rarely taps into military ideas about education. In 1995, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a report on what east European language needs the United Kingdom would have after the fall of communism and the crisis in former Yugoslavia. The report contained contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but not the Ministry of Defence, which had decades’ experience in teaching Russian and had been teaching and using ‘Serbo-Croatian’ on operations ever since 1992.

Being a military educator does not map into success or comfort in school teaching. Far from it. One of the educators I met had entered school teaching after leaving the Army in the mid-1990s only to find the environment conflicted so badly with their previous experiences that they moved out of the profession.

Yet might there be a reserve of knowledge in the military about alternative teaching methods for students who learn best through doing, outdoor learning, or teaching a functional level of basic skills to people who have disengaged from formal education?

There might; but this is not what the debate is about.

Instead, the government initiative to encourage former soldiers into teaching is being launched within a frame of discipline: increasing ‘male role models’ in schools and reducing bureaucracy that deters teachers restraining students with physical force. Gove’s undertone is a retraditionalisation of society to restore adult and legitimate authority, using the August riots as proof of a moral collapse. Only a body with masculine power and military training, he implies, can provide the necessary discipline and physicality.

There is a conversation about learning that the military, and military educators in particular, might be able to take part in. We are not having it yet.