How trans and non-binary inclusive was your teaching? Why I’m collecting student perceptions of what their curriculum was like

How often could people who have studied humanities or social sciences say their curriculum had integrated trans and non-binary people and their experiences into the teaching? And how often do educators make sure that students have the opportunity to read work by trans and non-binary authors?

I’m collecting perceptions of trans and non-binary inclusive teaching from people who studied (or are still studying) humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any point since 2005, in order to inform the teaching I help to develop at my own university and also to help demonstrate to other universities why it matters to have a trans and non-binary inclusive curriculum, and what things in particular people who responded to the survey have seen to work well – or think need to be improved.

The opportunity to do this came up when the last stage of a teaching qualification I’m working towards at Hull (the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice) required us all to do an individual and independent research project. Although the first thing I have to write for the project is an interim report in order to get the PCAP qualification, I wanted to work towards something that could help me test some hypotheses I already had about student perceptions of trans- and non-binary-inclusive teaching, and which could inform work I want to do on helping to improve this in future.

I’m launching an online survey today which will be open until 31 October 2015 for people to respond if they’ve studied humanities and/or social sciences in the UK at any time since 2005. Its focus is on what a trans- and non-binary-inclusive curriculum might be like in practice and how well UK higher education has been providing this so far (in the view of people who respond to the survey). It won’t ask you to identify your university, the subject you studied, or whether you are cis or trans. (And please don’t respond if you’re a current Hull student who I have assessment or pastoral responsibilities over in 2015-16.)

My starting point is that a trans and non-binary curriculum is important, both so that trans and non-binary students aren’t left feeling invalidated by their curriculum and also so that all students finish university better equipped to act in solidarity with trans and non-binary people.

As well as collecting accounts of how trans- and non-binary-inclusive the teaching that people remember might or might not have been – which will be the basis for making recommendations after the survey has finished – there are some more things that I hope the research will test:

  • The Equalities Act 2010 obliged universities and other public organisations not to discriminate against people on the grounds of gender reassignment (though much work against transphobia still needs to be done to eradicate the barriers that trans students face in accessing and progressing through UK higher education – see the work of the NUS LGBT campaign and the ongoing campaign for a full-time, paid NUS trans officer), and the government Equalities Challenge Unit recommended universities should make sure curricula did not reinforce transphobic stereotypes – but will there be any significant difference in perceptions from people who were in higher education before 2010 and people who were/are studying more recently?
  • Is updating the curriculum enough on its own to create teaching that students perceive as trans- and non-binary-inclusive – and if not, what else will respondents think needed to be done?
  • Even if teaching has become more trans-inclusive in general since 2005, what has coverage of non-binary identities and experiences been like?

(I recognise ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusivity’ are words that don’t in themselves change anything about where the power to include or exclude lies – but I’ve used them in the title of the survey so that what I’m asking about will make sense in a brief way)

The teaching curriculum is only part of a student’s experience at university (and if you take the survey you’ll have an opportunity to express how relatively important you think it is compared to other areas) – but it’s the one that academic staff have the most power to change, so I hope this will complement work against transphobia in other areas of higher education that I try to contribute to as a lecturer and as the current chair of my university’s LGBT network for staff.

After the survey closes, the first thing I’ll do is to write up the project report for my qualification (this will be based on the first 30 responses if the total is higher than that), but then I want to take more action based on what the findings turn out to be:

  • At my own university, I’ll discuss them with the Staff LGBT Network, the Hull University Union LGBT+ group and the University’s Equality and Diversity Office
  • I’ll write them up for a peer-reviewed article which I’ll submit to an academic journal in the field of higher education, to help support other academics and students who are advocating for trans and non-binary inclusivity in teaching (when academic citations can be useful backup sometimes). If it’s accepted, this will be available through the Hull digital repository and my own page
  • I’ll liaise with some young people’s trans organisations and the NUS LGBT campaign on whether I can help work that they do, and what ways of presenting the recommendations would be most useful for them
  • I’ll use my position to approach academics who might not normally think about trans and non-binary issues, for instance by giving presentations in teaching and learning streams of my subject associations.

If you’d like to be kept informed about reports or articles that I write as a result of the survey, please email me at (whether or not you’re also taking the survey) and I’ll update you as and when they happen.

The survey itself is available at and will be open for responses until the end of 31 October 2015 (GMT). There’s more information for potential participants on the first page of the survey so please read it carefully before deciding whether you want to take part.

In case this post reaches people who don’t usually read this blog

I’m a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hull and I’m also currently the chair of the university’s staff LGBT network. Most of my research is on the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath, though I also have wider interests in the politics of popular culture and nationalism and in overcoming structural exclusions that make higher education less accessible that it should be. I’m not quite sure of the best way to describe my gender identity even though it deserves to be mentioned in a post like this (I don’t feel detached from female pronouns but I don’t like people feminising my name too much), but the most accurate way for me to describe the social position my gender gives me would be to say that I’m a cis woman. Most of the research articles I’ve published are available online and I also write about my research interests semi-regularly on this blog (including a collection of posts on feminism and gender). I’m also active on Twitter as @richmondbridge.

Disturbing material in the classroom: on content notes and trigger warnings in teaching

Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.

Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.

For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)

This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.

The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.

It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.

‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’

The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.[1]

However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid.  (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)

Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.

The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.

Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.

Some theories and practices of content warnings

The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.

Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?

(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.'[2] It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)

The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):

[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.

But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them.  Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.

Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.

All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).

Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):

[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]

[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.

The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:

Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]

However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.

I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)

I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.

It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.

So what can I do?

My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.

By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.

Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.

Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor,  and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.

(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)

The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.

Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.

Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.

[1] This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.

[2] In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.

Drafting the minibook: thoughts on beginning to write an intro text to the Yugoslav wars

The Easter break from teaching gives me an opportunity to take stock of how I’m doing with my next book project – a very brief introductory text to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which all being well should be available from one of the UK academic publishers in 2015 or 2016.

It’s aimed at students in history and social sciences who need an introductory survey of ways in which scholars have interpreted the wars, in order to prepare them for the further reading that they’re going to do (whether the course is about the wars/Yugoslavia/south/east Europe specifically, or whether the Yugoslav wars are one case study within a broader module); it’s also targeting researchers in fields such as peacebuilding and transitional justice who might be moving into a post-Yugoslav case study for the first time; and, hopefully, some of the general public. (I’m glad to say that books in this series go straight into paperback.)

There are one or two books with this kind of scope already, but nothing published in the last ten years, and I’ve always struggled to find one intro text for students that does everything I’d like it to (Laura Silber and Allan Little’s The Death of Yugoslavia, for instance, is a classic, if longer than a purpose-written intro text would be, but it appeared in 1996 and obviously doesn’t integrate the Kosovo War). Events from the past 10-15 years need integrating into the narrative, and so many new directions have emerged in the research that a good new intro text needs to be able to point readers to what’s been going on.

This is a very different kind of undertaking from the detailed research monographs I’ve written and co-written before. For one thing, books in the series are only 50,000 words (a figure that will no doubt be appearing in my dreams by midsummer), whereas my book on popular music and nationalism in Croatia was 100,000 and the book on languages and peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina that I co-wrote was 80,000 or so. (I’ve started thinking of this text as ‘the minibook’, in order to soften the blow when I need to take oh god I don’t even want to think about how many bits out…)

On the other hand, the teaching trajectory that I’ve had means that I’ve been planning this book for years without knowing it. Almost every year I’ve had to work out how to present the Yugoslav wars to different sets of learners, at various levels, within different kinds of module structures. What have first-year historians who are exploring the Yugoslav wars as a case study of a historical controversy struggled with? What would help social sciences postgraduates specialising in nationalism in eastern Europe? When I’ve had one or two weeks on the Yugoslav wars as part of a second- or third-year undergraduate comparative thematic module, what are the essentials I’ve needed to get across in order for them to be able to engage with the theme and appreciate what this one case adds to their broader understanding? And what kinds of readings have colleagues in anthropology, sociology, or languages and literatures asked me about? I need to draw on all these experiences in order to work out what to include, and that involves thinking about how learners are likely to build up the ‘scaffolding’ of their knowledge about the Yugoslav wars.

I’ve hesitated to talk about the book on public social media (blogging and Twitter) until I was happy with the progress of the first draft, though I did post about it on Facebook after it was under contract. I’ve now been able to write very preliminary first drafts of the first four chapters – on the long-term history of the region and Yugoslav unification; on the Yugoslav crisis in the 1980s; the war in Croatia; and the Bosnian conflict – which in many ways are also the most difficult, since these topics are precisely where the most extensive debates have been. All of them still need some tightening of phrasing, expansion of some references to the literature, and (the frightening part) some shortening of the word count, but I need to get the remaining chapters drafted before I can do that. The question I’m still asking when I go over some of these sections is: what do I still need to put in to make this an account that only I could have written, at only this time? It’ll all get there in the end – it has before – but this early in the process, not everything is jumping off the page the way I’d like it to.

(Also, people just keep writing things. One of the books I’m most looking forward to being able to discuss, Florian Bieber/Armina Galijaš/Rory Archer’s edited volume Debating the End of Yugoslavia, isn’t out until October, and that’s not the only case like that…)

Starting to draft this book has thrown up some interesting theoretical questions about how we narrate and arrange history, which I’d quite like to explore further after the book itself is done.One thing the reader needs to be able to understand is anti-essentialist approaches to nationalism and ethnicity, which in many ways inform a lot (though clearly not all) of the more recent research. It makes a difference to say that ‘the Croats’, as opposed to let’s say ‘the Croatian Democratic Union’ or ‘the President of Croatia’ or ‘the inhabitants of Dubrovnik’ or ‘the 1st Guards Brigade of the Croatian Army’, did something, perhaps especially when talking about war. I want to avoid my own writing reinforcing collectivist assumptions, but I also want the reader to be able to see why it makes a difference and what some of the implications of those different kinds of description might be. All of this takes words, and I don’t have many. It’s simply easier to say that ‘the Croats’ or ‘Croatia’ did this or that; expressing something more complex in the same level of brevity is much more difficult.

Another problem is that while I want the reader to be aware of critical and deconstructive approaches to the topic, I still need to equip a reader to be able to tell facts from fabrications – a particular issue with some aspects of the history of the Yugoslav wars, where deliberate misrepresentation has abounded. If I problematise interpretations of X, but state that Y unequivocally cannot be denied, where does my truth claim come from?

I want to try to make some of these difficulties transparent in the writing, so that I can be accountable for my own narrative choices: although it’s my responsibility to give the fairest overview of the material as well as to present an interpretation that will be innovative for this sector of the market, I am still making choices about how I organise, illustrate and retell the material. I face the same issues of narrativisation and periodisation whenever I design or redesign a module – something I discussed here last year when I blogged about two versions of my Yugoslavia module that I’ve offered final-year history undergraduates at Hull – but with a larger and more diverse readership and with the permanence of a printed book. Where, for instance, is the best place to cover the Slovenian war of independence in June-July 1991 – together with the 1980s crisis? Together with the Homeland War in Croatia, which began at the same time yet lasted until 1995? In a lecture or a chapter of its own?

If I’ve got early first drafts of these four chapters (and I do say early: one of their conclusions still has a note on which reads ‘FINISH AND LINK INTO BEGINNING OF NEXT CHAPTER’), it puts me over the halfway point for a draft of the whole volume, just. (Kristen Ghodsee, the author of several books on the anthropology of postsocialism, recently blogged about her own ten-step process for writing a book; my workflow isn’t identical, but the ‘crappy first drafts’ stage is definitely something it shares.) The plan is to finish drafting by July, use July and August for getting it ready enough to show to some colleagues, and redraft in the autumn, interweaved with editing the first draft of the edited volume on gender that I’m also working on. The manuscript needs delivering by December.

And then in about a year’s time after that, if all goes well, I’ll be able to start using it in class, and if you’re an instructor or student then so might you…

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…

Song of the week: or, ten reasons why popular music helps in teaching nationalism

One course I took over at UCL SSEES this year was the postgraduate nationalism unit, Nations, Identity and Power in Central and Eastern Europe, where students get to grips with theories of nationalism and apply it to case studies from the region.

At some point while revising the syllabus, I realised practically every topic could match up with a pop song from the region, and then starting every lecture with a clip from YouTube was inevitable.

This also illustrates why one of the things I write about is popular music and nationalism.

1. Theories of origins

The classic debate in nationalism studies is between primordialism (nations go back to time immemorial) and modernism (nations only emerged because of industrialisation, or the bureaucratic state, or mass literacy, or many other flavours of the same argument).

So here is a very knowing performance of primordialism.

2. What makes the nation? / Ethnicity

Nationalism research has traditionally liked to typologise: nations have a shared language, a shared history, a myth of common descent, shared symbols, shared values, a national homeland, and so on. (More recent research often talks about processes of identification, inclusion and exclusion rather than typologising; I find this more interesting, but it’s harder to represent.)

Here are surely all the signifiers that one could want.

(Warning: I am told this is a bit of an earworm.)

3. States, peoples and sovereignty in modernity

The territory and state power week. (If it had been a longer course, I’d have liked a week just on territory; political geography is interesting.) Illustrated with a song from the presidential re-election campaign of Vladimir Putin, where it was useful for him to suggest that he exerts more power over more territory than anyone else.

There’s also a documentary on the song by PBS.

4. Imagining and inventing the nation

The Invention of Tradition (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s collection) and Imagined Communities (Benedict Anderson) both came out in 1983 and have been taught together ever since as part of a cultural, social constructivist turn in nationalism studies.

By using this video, I wanted to show how the video was imagining a national Croatian homeland (which, importantly, also contains images of Herzegovina, beyond the borders of the actual Croatian state).

5. Social construction, symbolic boundaries and the everyday

The next turn in nationalism studies has been to explore how nationalism manifests in the everyday, through symbols of nationhood that get routinised into everyday life. Flags, currency, national festivals, television news and even the weather forecast (those things have maps) are all part of this, but one of the most productive ways to research this has been to look at sport.

This, by one of Slovenia’s biggest rock bands, was the Slovenian football association’s official song for the 2010 World Cup. Rock has its own part to play in Slovenian national identity, but that would be another post.

6. Nations in communism and post-communism

Communism and nationalism had an uneasy relationship. Two collective ideologies, each based on a different kind of collective; yet communist rule could also be argued to have strengthened nationalist movements or even created proto-national institutions where none had existed before.

One of the best-known pop songs in socialist Yugoslavia was this song in honour of Tito. Containing many symbols of the Yugoslav state, but is there any trace of a Yugoslav nation?

7. National minorities and the politics of belonging

Another week I’d like to have split into two on a longer course: liberal nationalism, cosmopolitanism and the idea of minority rights is a lot. I delivered this lecture as a podcast, so didn’t add a song, but during the seminars one student suggested this song, Djelem, djelem, which has often been used as the Roma anthem, and works better here than anything I’d been thinking of using before.

8. Gender, sexualities and the nation

This was a difficult week to structure: the theoretical material may be completely new to some students yet very familiar to others, plus there’s region-specific literature on gender and post-socialism to integrate.

Territory, soil, motherhood, unique national symbols, rebirth, common descent, national enemies, food cultures, teleology: this song is a revision guide of its own.

I visited an Armenian restaurant in Montreal last month and was disappointed that nothing on the menu contained apricots.

9. Representation, power and hegemony

This week was one of my two main innovations in the syllabus, and brought in several theorists I felt were essential to understanding nationalism in the contemporary world (Edward Said, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy). Said’s theory of Orientalism has been a jumping-off point for a lot of work on identity construction in south-east European cultural studies, from Maria Todorova and Milica Bakic-Hayden onwards; Hall’s work on hegemonic representations of the national Other complements or informs the work on symbolic boundaries that we’d been using throughout the course; Gilroy is used far less in researching CEE, but I want to explore whether his version of postcolonial thought could add anything that Said doesn’t.

So, yes. Orientalism, and what Dina Iordanova calls ‘self-orientalising’. Here is some.

10. Citizenship, borders and surveillance

Watch Kali: Shengen

This was my other new topic (at least, it wasn’t on the version of the syllabus I worked from), and the one I most enjoyed putting together: identity, power, the nation, sovereignty, the body, territory and the state all come together in the literature on immigration policy, mobility and border control. It’s also a great way to illustrate post-structuralist theories of power, and ‘region-specifically’ there’s much to explore in the expansion of the EU’s Schengen area and the simultaneous exclusion of non-EU states. (Stef Jansen has an excellent article on this, and is also excellent at open access, happily.)

What I did not enjoy was trying to source this video. The original mix of the song has a slapstick comedy video of stock Bulgarian figures (businessman, country woman, etc.) trying to limbo dance under a Schengen barrier staffed by Laurel-and-Hardy EU guards. I downloaded it from eSnips in case the streaming wouldn’t work in class, only for the downloaded file to decide that it didn’t want to work in class either. YouTube has a remix with no original visuals. Google now kindly throws up a streamable version of the original mix with the video, which is what I was looking for all along.

And now some thanks!

Thanks to Richard Mole and Oliwia Berdak for earlier versions of this syllabus. I moved almost everything around, with large doses of ‘I wish I’d known this when I was a postgraduate’, and of course the syllabi for future students will be different too, but if there’s still a presence of Croatian folk/rock or Albanian rap – yes, that was my fault.

Thanks to all the students on NIP this year. The instant-feedback cards I use in lectures are anonymous, so I don’t know who told me after the first lecture that there had also been a Eurovision song called ‘I Love Belarus’, but there was indeed.

Thanks to Laura Seay/@texasinafrica on Twitter for indirectly giving me a prod to do this.

Language and Nationalism and language and nationalism

One of my jobs for next year will be to take over teaching several postgraduate modules in nationalism, ethnic conflict and social research. The first step, not that I’ve even started work at that institution yet, is to revise each module’s syllabus.

(The first first step is to choose a consistent way of pluralising ‘syllabus’.)

I hope to post more on this process as each syllabus develops, but today’s post is about a discussion about language I won’t be able to have with my students because, between us, we won’t have a common language to access the material.

I’m going to be teaching these courses at a school of eastern European area studies, meaning that students will be applying the theory I teach about to eastern European case studies and the staff who teach them will all have research interests in eastern Europe. That includes me, one of many people there with research interests in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

The most controversial book on nationalism in former Yugoslavia to have been published in the last few years is Jezik i nacionalizam (Language and Nationalism) by Snježana Kordić, a linguist from Croatia who works in Germany. Kordić had received a grant from the Croatian Ministry of Culture supporting the publication. When it appeared, the director of the Croatian Cultural Council laid a complaint against the Ministry for financing the book:

‘[The complaint] states that the book ‘Jezik i nacionalizam’ is directed against Croatian culture, Croatian cultural identity and the Croatian language, and that it therefore should not have been financed from the state budget of the Republic of Croatia (RH). The book compares the contemporary democratic Croatian state with Nazi Germany, contradicts the RH constitution in the section about official usage of the Croatian language, and denies the right of the Croat people to call their language by their own popular name.’

Kordić is aiming to show that the policy to define or redefine the ‘Serbo-Croatian’ language as ‘Croatian’ after Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia was linguistically unjustified. Instead, she argues that the development of linguistic standards that drew Croatian ever further away from Serbian after 1991 was a deliberate effort to differentiate Croats from the group who became the national enemy, the Serbs.

Her case is that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are still so mutually intelligible they’re not separate languages at all. Linguists recognise the idea of polycentric languages – languages spoken by several nations or states, which may even have more than one national body codifying them. We talk about speakers of ‘English’, not speakers of ‘American’, ‘Australian’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Canadian’ – even though, if the right disposition existed in one of those countries’ politics and academia, it’s always possible that one day we might be asked to do just that.

By this point, Kordić has already compared the linguistic purists of 1990s Croatia with Nazi German language policy on the very first page.

There’s a lot of detail about how the literary standard for Serbo-Croatian was brought together in the mid-19th century, how ‘the Croatian language’ didn’t always mean the language of a nation-state, and how contingent the whole process was, which draws on the same constructivist theorists of nationalism that my students are going to be reading.

(In summary: the Croatians who standardised their language in the 19th century agreed to base it on the štokavian dialect, not the kajkavian dialect spoken around Zagreb, because štokavian would make it easy to communicate with speakers in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia.)

Not so much drawing on the perennialist theorists of nationalism that my students are also going to be reading, which would argue that nations do pre-date the modernisation of the state, but then that’s something we could discuss. That is, if we could all read it.

Even if my students never intend to study Croatia (and most of them won’t), I’d like them to be able to understand how this book has been received and why. Studying language and writing about it with academic authority has consequences in the real world – that ‘impact’ that we’re now supposed to identify in every research funding proposal. And they may not be the consequences that researchers like.

But Kordić, like many of the German-speaking linguists she cites, rarely publishes in English. Her bibliography contains three titles in Croatian, three titles in German, and a short English-language descriptive grammar of Serbo-Croatian published in 1997. Her articles and reviews are usually in German or Croatian, with a few in French, and the critical responses to her book – like this article by Mario Grčević, who systematically takes issue with her use of sources and descriptions of prominent Croatian linguists – are, of course, in the language of the public and scientific community they’re addressing.

So, as a class group in a UK university, we’re stuck, until or unless there’s an English translation of the book, or a research article comes out on the controversy in a few years. It ought to be translated, and ten or twelve years ago when ‘the Balkans’ had a cachet to academic publishers that they don’t today, maybe it’s more likely that it would have been.

Last year I designed a module on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its ghost syllabus – the one I’d use if everyone’s head contained a babelfish, including mine – contains books on the visual culture of the Croatian state at war and cultural practices of resisting nationalism in Belgrade and Zagreb that I’ve never been able to use with undergraduates because they never had an English translation, only a summary article, maybe.

Some of the translation gap lies in my own shortcomings as an instructor. Decades ago, acquiring a reading knowledge of German would just have been part of getting socialised into the identity of ‘serious academic’ in the UK. I could have followed up Kordić’s references in German to inform my lectures; and I could have assigned her German-language texts, confident that postgraduates would have been able to digest them.

Given the multinational student profile at my institution, there’s a good chance many of them are able to operate in German and English, but that won’t help me if I teach similar courses elsewhere, or when I revive the Yugoslav wars course next semester with a group of predominantly British undergraduates.

Back to the syllabus mines, for now.