Reflections on teaching in the age of COVID

Dr George Gilbert

Wholly or mostly online teaching throughout the academic year 2020-21 has been forced upon us as a result of a global pandemic, and not something any academic working in higher education chose willingly. It has meant in many cases quite radical reshaping of longstanding and more recent modules, and, to such an extent, quite substantially redesigning a well-established and (one would hope) fairly effective history curriculum.

As a lecturer in modern Russian history teaching at the University of Southampton since 2015, the pedagogical and intellectual challenges this year have been quite profound and unlike anything I have experienced before. As I write this blog post our second term is soon to begin and like many of my colleagues, I am scrambling to prepare numerous Blackboard sites with new teaching materials – this coming term I will be involved in no fewer than five modules, delivered from the second year of undergraduate study through to masters’ level. It’s not been an easy task, and it’s certainly a labour-intensive one. However, the current year has also presented some unexpected opportunities, which I will explore below.

The modern workplace. Photo courtesy of George Gilbert

A secondary reason for writing this is that an academic on the front line, I feel it is necessary to defend online teaching due to many of the narratives circulating in the national media. These flames are being eagerly and sometimes perhaps unwittingly fanned by online political voices far removed from the realities of present-day university teaching who assert that online teaching is but a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’.

Indeed, there are disadvantages to teaching wholly or partially online, and some parts of the ‘student experience’ have certainly suffered. But it is uncritical to suggest that everything is worse as a result. In fact, there are a few items we might learn from from this year of rapid change and flux.

First, the move to remote teaching has allowed many of us to reshape the intellectual content we deliver and think of new ways of teaching our material. For myself, this has meant revising my two-year-old module Political Cultures in Modern Russia – a year-long special subject which covers the period from approximately the late nineteenth century to just after World War Two – into something that is qualitatively different in both its intellectual focus and delivery. Like many of my colleagues, I have combined an existing module with that of another specialist working at the university; in my case, that of my colleague Professor Mark Cornwall, a specialist in East-Central Europe, who teaches a module on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Our two modules collectively address some of the key areas of investigation from the period from 1900-1918 that have long (and more recently) vexed historians. These include traditional ‘big questions’ as well as comparatively novel avenues of historical investigation surrounding war, crises, shifting identities and changing political cultures.

The result is a new module Empires in Crisis? The Austro-Hungarian and Russian Revolutions, 1900-1918 that speaks to many of the themes that interest us both. As a year-long special subject it’s delivered in two parts, with part one exploring domestic crisis – discussions of conservative anxiety under the old regimes, the ‘failed’ revolution of 1905 in Russia, parliamentary politics in both empires and vexed issues of identity which surround nationality, gender, race and sex. Part two looks outwards at entanglements between the two powers and others, and is focused on foreign policy, war and revolution. Both parts are delivered wholly by way of seminars, with ‘lectures’ restricted to introductory and concluding videos that we release on the Blackboard sites week to week.

Map of military alliances of Europe in 1914, via

This has led to a substantial rethinking of the ways in which I teach my era, which I will doubtless apply in next year’s teaching or after. It’s allowed both of us to engage with the most recent historiography, handing students a clear map of how our subjects have evolved, from which they can ask themselves fresh questions about how and why fields change over time.

To provide one example, World War One was for a long time obscured in the historiography of late imperial Russia by a close focus on the revolutions of 1917. New archival discoveries have complemented political transformation in Russia itself in inspiring a shift to look at the previously ‘forgotten’ war of 1914-17, which for so long was firmly in the shadow of ‘glorious October’. Incorporating new essays and books published from the 1990s to the last few months, the module handbook could only have been a product of 2021. Students will no doubt notice the dates of many of the publications and the lopsided nature of the topics, and can ask themselves questions of historiographical import about why fields change.

Further to this, thinking through themes of national identity, empire, class (and so on) have allowed us to draw comparisons that prompt us to think about shared histories in new ways. The two historiographies complement one another nicely here, providing several points of contrast as well as concordance. Some questions include: Why did Russia see comparatively more violence than Austria-Hungary from 1903-6? Why did parliamentary regimes in both cases fail to deliver on their promises in the early twentieth century? Did Franz Joseph have a better idea of how to manage political turbulence than Nicholas II? Given part two looks directly at foreign policy, it’s notable that both empires came together in agreement at times but more commonly clashed in conflict, with the result that the road to World War One as explored from both perspectives plays a leading role in the first half of the second part of the module.

Histories of course change over time as scholars rewrite the past and address new questions even as they approach older questions in new ways. Over the past several decades there’s been a notable advancement in the historiographies of both the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires to address questions of ‘periphery’ as well as ‘centre’, and the diverse nationalities within both polities have prompted us to think through some of the related questions. My own views of impressing on students the importance of understanding national diversity in the Russian empire – following on from the likes of Andreas Kappeler and his studies, to name but one – have shifted as a result, and I believe more than ever it’s key to understanding why Russia’s rulers acted in the ways that they did.

Nicholas II and family in a formal photograph, taken for the occasion of Tsarevich Alexei’s Christening, c. 1904.

Many shared questions apply themselves to both of our historiographies. Both empires were dynastic; both were largely (or wholly) land-based; both had conservative interests guiding them, and both were worried by the spectre of revolution – in the case of Russia, by liberalism and increasingly the revolutionary left after 1905. Though there were numerous points of disagreement. Franz Joseph got a generally more sympathetic airing from students than Nicholas II in the first part of the module – the shared histories can provide us for points of comparative reflection. A guiding question has been which ruling structure managed change better as centrifugal and centripetal forces pulled at the seams. The ‘optimistic’ and ‘pessimistic’ schools are of course well-worn, but looking at newer areas of investigation surrounding gender, sex and cultural conflict can help inject new life into the question of whether these empires were indeed doomed.

Statue of Kaiser Franz Joseph-Denkmal at Burggarten.

The pedagogical aspects of online teaching also deserve some comment. As a joint special subject, both Mark and I attend every session together: the opportunity to use the technology to provide shared sessions where we communicate directly with one another as well as our students has been commented upon positively in teaching feedback. In addition to pre-recording short (10-15 minute) summaries of the main themes to be tackled in any given session, every week we provide a ‘wrap up’ video of around 10-15 minutes – though sometimes longer – where we respond to student engagement as well as the week’s set questions. We usually start by assessing a few topics that the students tended to bring up themselves, and therefore actively engage with their ideas. We also answer each other’s questions where possible. Then, at the end, we throw in a connection or two to the following week’s theme, if possible. At Southampton we teach the special subject for four hours a week in two two-hour sessions. Combined with the introduction and wrap-up videos the sessions come thick and fast and the result is undoubtedly labour-intensive, but it does provide for points of commonality in the two historical case studies to be sketched immediately, as well as to engage instinctively with one another as well as student comment and feedback on the sessions.

Not everything has worked perfectly: technology has of course provided for a few glitches, and there are certainly students who prefer the ‘in-person’ experience of teaching. The speed of teaching and production of materials has led to a dizzying and relentless feel to the term which will doubtless continue for the remainder of the year, and it seems more work is needed to make online seminars adequate, let alone excellent, than the in-person type.

But there are also many positives. One of these is that there is much scope to instantly share materials – the ‘chat’ function in collaborate (also in MS Teams) makes sharing links to online materials, PDFs and so on a doddle, and the same function also provides those who would rather communicate with us by way of written comments rather than direct speech an additional medium. There is certainly a type of student who prefers online learning: in my own anecdotal experience, sometimes shy students who do not have ready experience of speaking in front of groups (and might find this a daunting prospect in any case) are finding the format generally a little more accessible and less onerous than the ‘real world’ variant. We should remember that experiences of teaching in different environments vary widely: not everyone finds it easy or comfortable to study or teach from a home environment, so we should be wary of adopting a one size fits all model (to address press comment, including online: bad; in person: good) as a result of mixed experiences of different formats.

Once this year of total chaos is over there will be lessons to be learned here, both positive and negative. It would be wrong to throw out the baby with the bathwater – there is much to say about our shared experiences, much of it useful, and this can be applied to our pedagogy going forward. I have no interest in going back wholly to the ‘way things were’ and wish to apply my experiences from 2020-21 to a different teaching style in the future, as well as think through my subject in new and challenging ways.

21 January 2021

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