A very Special Subject: where does my module on former Yugoslavia go next?

The end of my last ‘Nationalism and Intervention in Former Yugoslavia’ seminar on Wednesday meant that I’m not going to be teaching again until the autumn. (I can’t quite say that I won’t be ‘in the classroom’ again until then, as there’s a round of presentations for another module to be assessed before that.) This doesn’t mean that teaching goes to the back of my mind for the next few months, then; far from it. There’s another new module to launch (on nations and nationalism in the contemporary world), and the former Yugoslavia module is being extended into a two-semester Special Subject, which has been on my mind more and more as the shorter version has been coming to an end.

Reflecting on my classes has been a very different experience this year because I’ve known that they’ll be running in some shape or form again next time. Now, thinking through what worked and what didn’t isn’t just about assessing my personal effectiveness as a teacher, but also part of planning for the next cycle: what worked well, and what can’t I face ever basing a discussion around again? What activities really brought home the underlying themes of the session and what discussion questions just need to be taken outside and put out of their misery? What ideas did students unexpectedly bring up that would be good to add to the content so that future students can benefit from their insights too? Why did a certain fresh new topic in the literature spark no student interest at all? What new research has come out in the last year that I’d like to incorporate into the module, and will it change any of the activities I’m carrying over?

(For instance, at the top of my to-be-read pile in the office is Hariz Halilovich’s Places of Pain: Popular Memory and Trans-Local Identities in Bosnian War-Torn Communities, which has been very well-received in south-east European studies since it came out last year. I’ve already seen that it includes a chapter on the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in Prijedor, which would give extra context to a document exercise we used this year based on the Hague Tribunal testimony of Minka Čehajić, a woman whose husband was disappeared after Bosnian Serb forces took over Prijedor in 1992: will reading Halilovich change what I want the outcomes of that activity to be?)

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to think about modules in cyclical terms like this. Long-term thinking is a luxury of stable employment: before this year, I’d never taught on a module and known that I’d be doing it again next year. (The ‘Yugoslav wars of the 1990s’ module that I designed at Southampton did run twice, but I didn’t know that was going to happen when I taught the first iteration.) As a short-term impact, this ability to plan means that sessions that don’t go well are less upsetting , since I can at least use them as a starting point for planning what to do differently next time. Moreover, there’s the reduction in stress that has come from knowing where and how I can expect to be working and living next year, and from not having to devote an extra day per week to job applications on top of whatever my current work demands; it’s only now that I can recognise how much these kinds of uncertainty affected my teaching quality in 2010-11.

Once the next month of marking is out of the way, then, my teaching focus will be on turning the current ‘former Yugoslavia’ module into a Special Subject. ‘Specials’ are a type of advanced module for final-year history undergraduates (the North American equivalent would be what’s known as a capstone course or senior seminar). Unlike most modules, they run over both semesters of the teaching year, and at Hull a student on a Special Subject will also write their dissertation on a linked topic of their choice that the module tutor is able to supervise. Firstly, then, the new module will be twice as long, and its natural break points will fall differently; secondly, the activities with first-hand sources need to be even more in-depth and extensive, so that students are ready to write a 10,000-word dissertation of their own.

Why study the 1990s three times?

The existing ‘former Yugoslavia’ module has an unusual structure. Knowing that it would take place in semester 2, and realising that the title concepts, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Intervention’, lend themselves to a ‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’, I planned the first section on the politics and society of former Yugoslavia throughout the 20th century to last up until the Easter break, and the second section on foreign intervention and (former) Yugoslavia to kick in after Easter. Although I’ve used ‘intervention’ in the title, this second part actually concerns foreign contacts with the region in a much wider sense – military, humanitarian and diplomatic intervention, but also other less collective forms of travel, enabling me to bring in the literature on travel writing and ‘imagining the Balkans’ that has been so influential in the historiography.

This means that students go over the 20th-century chronology twice. I haven’t done this before, and when I started the module I was anxious over whether it would work or whether it was just innovation for innovation’s sake. There’s a good reason for it, though: the post-Yugoslav wars in the 1990s have naturally had a huge impact on how researchers write about the region, even when their own focus is an earlier moment in time. The 1990s wars, and the Yugoslav background as a whole, are complex settings that students are unlikely to have studied before. If the module wasn’t going to cover the 1990s until April, how well would students be able to integrate them into their ‘scaffolding’ of what they know about the subject matter? Even though they come last chronologically, the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are still ‘threshold concepts’ that belong at an early point in the module – not at the end of the module when I want students to be synthesising the main points of a semester’s worth of learning.

And so we’ve ended up approaching the 1990s three times, to make sure that the threshold does get crossed. The introductory week to this module gives a sense of the main themes of the historiography, with strong signals from me that they’ll be able to understand it in more depth as they go on. The key readings for seminar discussion are a chapter from Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia about an early stage of the Croatian war of independence in Krajina and a chapter of V. P. Gagnon, Jr’s The Myth of Ethnic War on Croat/Serb relations – two authors who conceive of ethno-nationalist conflict in very different terms. (I could push the contrast further by switching Glenny out for a chapter of Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, but I’d rather use Kaplan in a ‘Balkanism’ seminar, all things considered.) Awareness of these two perspectives helps students fit later readings into the ‘ethnic war’ debate, and the example of Krajina, or Gagnon’s work, have both recurred in later seminars – evidence that this first week has had some effect.

Then the pre-Easter and post-Easter blocks each finish with the 1990s and their aftermath. Maybe I was never going to be satisfied with my 1990s coverage in a one-semester module – after all, I’ve taught an entire module about the 1990s in the past – but throughout the end of the first block, I was conscious of how much I was leaving out. The Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo conflicts need to be handled separately for their specificities to be appreciated, and B-H has got referred to in seminars much more than either of the others, no doubt partly because that week’s document exercise concerned a Bosnian town. The final session of the block, rounding up literature on the socio-cultural effects of the war, also pulled in two very different directions; I’d have liked to have one seminar for both topics that emerged, but this has implications for the timetable in an option that has two seminar groups.

Spreading the module over two semesters will let me expand the obvious ‘problem’ topics. Croatia, B-H and Kosovo in the 1990s can all have a week to themselves, and the moment in the ‘intervention’ block where I did have two different topics for the seminars (one on the Hague Tribunal and one on motivations for foreign intervention in the 90s) can give each topic its full weight without students needing to attend two different seminars if they want to engage with them both.

My experience with the final week of this module – another experiment – has also been encouraging and is giving me ideas for things that I can do next year. There isn’t a final exam, because the module is assessed by two different types of essays (one focused on a topic from a particular period and session, and one ‘synoptic’ essay where students must pursue a particular theme across the full sweep of the c20 – this avoids ‘cherry-picking’ a favourite period within the module). The traditional end-of-module revision session, then, would be a waste of time. Instead, I asked students to read one of a selection of theoretical or comparative articles that make a significant contribution about one of the concepts we often explore during the module but that aren’t primarily about former Yugoslavia: in seminar discussion they had to summarise its main points to students who hadn’t read it and offer suggestions for how the article’s findings might apply to (or sometimes, not be relevant to) the former Yugoslav case.  I offered a selection of eight articles, all of which had some relation to one or more of the synoptic topics, and trailed the session as an exercise in lateral thinking that would help students identify ideas they could develop further in their synoptic essays.

This ‘breakout’ session is the one that most worried me before I delivered it, especially as attendance had dropped in the previous couple of weeks: would anyone come? And would they see the point? As it happened, attendance was better than it had been for several weeks, and everyone had something to say about their chosen article – for instance, being able to relate Rogers Brubaker’s argument in his ‘Ethnicity without groups’ article (pdf) to Gagnon’s constructivist perspective on the idea of ‘ethnic war’.

A brief run-through of how it looked this time

  • Week 1: introduction to the historiography
  • Week 2: Yugoslav unification and the politics of the first Yugoslavia
  • Week 3: the Second World War and establishment of Communist power
  • Week 4: Tito’s Yugoslavia, including the new ‘socialist consumerism’ research (documents: three Yugoslav pop songs)
  • Week 5: the constitutional and economic crisis, 1980-91 (document: the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences memorandum)
  • Week 6: the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (document: the Minka Čehajić testimony)
  • Week 7: the socio-cultural impact of the conflicts
  • Week 8: foreign contacts with the Balkans up to 1919 (document: a chapter of Edith Durham’s Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle)
  • Week 9: foreign intervention during the Second World War and early Cold War (document: extract from Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches)
  • Week 10: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 1 (one workshop on the Hague Tribunal using tribunal statistics and defendants’ ‘statement of guilt’, with thanks to Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik who designed the exercise; another seminar comparing a Douglas Hurd speech on Bosnia from 1992 and Tony Blair’s Chicago speech on the Kosovo War)
  • Week 11: foreign intervention in the 1990s, part 2 (looking at the ‘on-the-ground’ aspects of intervention, including the success or otherwise of peacekeeping; I’d have liked to use a peacekeeper memoir here, but didn’t have the right ones in the library yet)
  • Week 12: theoretical/comparative ‘breakout’

And now what?

My experience with the final week of this module gives me confidence in using that material in the Special Subject. I could include a week on competing academic approaches to nationalism, cover the idea of ‘Balkanism’ and its relationship to ‘Orientalism’ in more depth, or look at the so-called ‘liberal peace’ in a wider context than we were able to do this time. But then I also need to create space for ‘sources and methods’ work to support the dissertation, and to work out where this would be best placed in order for students to be prepared for what they need to do.

Showing that dissertations on the module topic were feasible was an important part of justifying a module on this topic at this level, especially since the Special Subject and dissertation supervision are linked (which isn’t the case everywhere). I’m not in a language-based area studies department, so there need to be enough primary sources available in English to make a good range of dissertation topics feasible. The sources also need to be accessible from Hull: I don’t want to design a module theme that forces students to travel to London archives if they want to do well, since it would be an unfair requirement to impose.These considerations, plus the fact that I’ve researched international intervention in Bosnia, were why I designed the module from the outset around the foreign intervention aspect as well as the internal history of Yugoslavia: it makes a much wider range of English-language sources relevant, as well as tying one of the most important developments in post-Cold War south-east European studies (the ‘Balkanism’ debate) into the module.

Luckily, digitised document collections make the possibilities for non-London-dependent student research much greater than they would have been when I was an undergraduate: besides digital access to records of UK and US parliamentary debates, the Hague Tribunal has placed transcripts of its hearings online; the Open Society Archives have digitised thousands of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty situation reports; there are the declassified documents from the CIA; through JISC, we have access to the US Foreign Broadcasts Information Service and – something I’m particularly excited about – the JISC MediaHub, with relevant news footage from sources including Gaumont, ITN, Channel 4 News and Reuters; there’s a large video archive of oral history interviews about the siege of Sarajevo, which I need to have a look at; Project Gutenberg‘s collection of out-of-US-copyright works helps with access to travel writing and memoirs from the 1920s and earlier; on the off-chance a student wanted to explore the historiography around music and politics in former Yugoslavia (one of my own research areas), there’d even be my own collection of 300+ lyrics in translation – if I can ever improve the usability. Our university library turned out to have a surprising number of Yugoslav pamphlets from the Tito era translated into English, I have enough in my library budget to substantially increase its collection of memoirs, and the Hull History Centre has papers belonging to British socialists who were interested in Tito’s Yugoslavia which could provide a basis for dissertations on Yugoslav Communism and the British Left. All of these need methodological support, advice on search strategies, and opportunities for practice if students are going to be able to use them in a historically informed way.

Planning the week-by-week shape of the module and then fleshing the weeks out with their key readings and primary documents is going to be my main task once marking has finished, and I’m looking forward to it – even though I’m already conscious of how much will still have to be left out…