Teaching in an Age of COVID

Professor Neil Gregor

Avenue Campus, where single and dual honours History students once congregated en masse.

This year has brought its challenges for tutors and students alike.  But the need to rethink how we deliver our teaching has also brought its advantages. These are not only practical – they have also been intellectual.

For me, this has been particularly the case at final year undergraduate level.  Here the inherited model of the Special Subject – beloved of ‘old’ university History curricula for over a hundred years, and an institution that reform-minded colleagues or administrators have always challenged at their peril – has also had to give way to something new.  Obliged by circumstance to remodel our curriculum for this year, for example, one adjustment has been to replace all single-taught modules with courses taught by more than one member of staff.  In my case, that has meant joining my expertise on modern German history to that of my colleague Dr Joan Tumblety, who specializes in modern France.

For the past twenty-five or so years I have taught a year-long Special Subject on Nazi Germany. Over two semesters we have focused, as one might expect, on: the rise of National Socialism, the nature of the regime, the economic, social and cultural history of its period of rule, the outbreak of war, and the events of the Holocaust, closing with a consideration of resistance and the collapse of the regime. The module has been popular, as modules on Nazi Germany tend to be.  It has been updated periodically, and certainly the conversations in recent seminars bear little relation to those we had in the 1990s. 

Dr Joan Tumblety in reflective action.

Yet however much one tries to revise a module, it always somehow retains the DNA of its original conception. After twenty-five years of teaching I was becoming more and more conscious of trying to force a twenty-first century teaching conversation into a twentieth-century structure.  It has been a blessing in disguise, therefore, to have been obliged to join forces with Dr Tumblety (who has taught a similar Special Subject, on Vichy France, for a similar length of time) and to come up with something new.

The easy thing to do would have been to bolt our two Special Subjects together, taking the most relevant halves of each to create a course on the German Occupation of France during the Second World War.  Yet we both felt that joining forces was an opportunity to create something that was more than the sum of its parts, and that we should take the chance to teach together something that we would not be able to deliver as individuals. We both also take the notion of research-led teaching very seriously indeed.  Mindful of the profound turn away from historical frames that privilege the ‘national’ at the level of scholarly research, we wanted to do something that took our students more firmly outside of the conventions of ‘French’ and ‘German’ history, and integrated the recent scholarly conversations on transnational history, comparative history and ‘entangled history’ – a rough approximation of the histoires croisées, or Verflechtungsgeschichte, that our Francophone and Germanophone colleagues pursue too.  Such approaches have long since become naturalized in the work of many (though not all!) scholars, but at undergraduate level the conventional national frame remains far more the norm.

Professor Neil Gregor standing beside Professor Edgar Edgar Joseph Feuchtwanger (OBE). Courtesy of Neil Gregor.

As a result, we are spending the year co-teaching new material on ‘Entangled Histories: France and Germany in the Mid-Twentieth Century’. Using both French and German sources we explore episodes ranging from the French Occupation of the Ruhr through the German Invasion of France in 1940 to the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 from the perspectives of a variety of actors on each side.  With topics such as War Memory, the Jazz Age or Postwar Reconstruction we examine French and German history on a comparative basis. Focusing on borderland histories and ‘in between’ spaces such as those of Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland, we consider regional stories that are not so easily subsumed into a national narrative.  In considering the stories of those who moved between Germany and France for a variety of reasons we explore how ordinary lives do not unfold inside of national silos either.

This reframing is, in many respects, hardly radical, but it is surprising how much it changes what students are able to see. Comparing French and German histories in this period has underlined how not everything that happens in a dictatorship is the opposite of what happens in a democracy – and certainly not where early-twentieth-century European history is concerned.

Placing the grand narratives of modern French and German history side by side has also clarified the challenge of pursuing comparative history using literatures that have evolved in response to different problems: the ‘vanishing points’ of 1933 (the Nazi takeover of power) and 1941 (Auschwitz) have created different problems of explanation to that of 1940 (the defeat of France), with the result that the two national historiographies do not speak so easily to one another.  All in all, the inherent messiness of the many entanglements we are considering have underlined the limitations of narratives that are driven by the conventional political caesuras of 1918, 1940 or 1945, and has allowed other, more submerged stories, to come to the surface.

But it has also brought benefits for us. Asking our students to attend to questions of method has forced us to revisit those same questions ourselves, to articulate our thoughts in response to them, and to rethink issues that we thought we understood.  Sharing teaching materials has allowed each of us to read texts and sources with which we were unfamiliar. Preparing seminars in a highly collaborative manner, and delivering some of them together, has produced a rich dialogue on the intellectual problem at hand. If a mutual intellectual respect anchored in the fact that we have broadly similar approaches to our scholarly work – we are both social and cultural historians – has been a key precondition for all that, it has been just as stimulating to locate those points on which we might differ slightly too. Having been obliged to read far more French history than I might otherwise do has generated interesting thoughts about my own immediate field of study. More than that, it has provided a powerful antidote to the intellectual provincialism into which one can easily slide if one remains focused on a single national history.

La Patrie retrouvée by Léon Hornecker, 1918.

One might counter that all of this would have been possible without the pandemic.  There is no gainsaying that yes, in principle, that is true.  But life has a habit of getting in the way. In a world in which there is always too much to do for tomorrow, finding the space for wholesale rethinking never comes as easily as it should. Neither does any of this mitigate the significant challenges that online teaching and learning has brought for staff and students: doubtless, once the pandemic is over, our mode of delivery will evolve (if not revert) again.  On both levels – the practical and the intellectual – the capacity of our students to rise to the challenge has been admirable.

The more pertinent point is, however, a different one.  Many less informed voices have discussed the impact of the pandemic on university education on the assumption that it has simply made everything worse. Many in the world of politics have been far too happy to indulge that claim. There is much that has been worse, and much that has been far less than ideal.  In that sense, of course we all look forward to this being over. In my experience, however, there has also been much that has simply been different, and much that has forced us to rethink things for the better. I, for one, have no wish to go back to teaching those conventional histories of Nazi Germany, and hope that when the pandemic is but a fading memory, the pleasures of teaching new materials in new ways will remain.

Originally posted at https://neilgregor.com/2021/01/21/teaching-in-an-age-of-covid/

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