Teaching voluntary action history: a personal perspective

In this post one of our organisers, Dr Caitríona Beaumont, offers her perspective on teaching voluntary action history across a range of topics and disciplines. Caitriona Beaumont

As a lecturer in social history at London South Bank University I teach across a number of courses in the Department of Social Sciences.  These include undergraduate degrees in Politics, Sociology and Criminology and the MSc. Criminology and Social Research Methods.  Despite this rather disparate list of subject areas the common theme in all my teaching is the history of voluntary action in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  My interest in focusing on the importance of voluntary action in different contexts relates to my own area of research expertise.  When I am not teaching (or engaged in admin) I work on the history of female voluntary action in a range of mainstream and popular women’s organisations.  These include the Mothers’ Union, the Women’s Institutes, the YWCA and the Townswomen’s Guilds.

Not surprisingly it is this interest in both researching and teaching voluntary action history that has led to my involvement in the Teaching Voluntary Action History Workshop.  What myself, Helen McCarthy and Charlotte Clements hope to achieve from the second workshop on Saturday 28 February is the opportunity to share experiences of teaching, to discuss good practice and to contemplate innovative ways to use resources and develop interesting and challenging assessments.  Looking further ahead we hope that the workshop will allow for the creation of new networks, which will further facilitate exchanges of ideas and good practice amongst academics teaching voluntary action history.

At the workshop I will be sharing my experiences of teaching a number of modules in Criminology, Sociology and Politics.  For example I currently teach a final year Sociology/Politics module entitled Politics and Protest.   This module critiques social movement theory and considers how such theories can (or can’t) be applied to a variety of social movements in western societies from the late 1880s to the present.  As part of the course students are asked to focus on a number of key social movements, for example the women’s suffrage movement, the gay liberation movement, the black civil rights movement, far-right groups and the women’s liberation movement.  At LSBU we teach through Moodle, our virtual learning environment (VLE), and this makes it much easier to embed digital sources, online images, sound files and film/video clips into weekly lectures and seminars. For instance when discussing the international women’s suffrage movement, students have access to Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 speech at Halford, Connecticut, where she explains why militancy is a justifiable tactic in the suffrage campaign.

The Moodle site also allows students to access a wide range of digital sources on the history of women’s suffrage in the US, Australia and New Zealand.  (Some examples include: the US Library of Congress: Women’s Suffrage Archive; New Zealand History: women and the vote ; State Library of Victoria, Australia: women and the vote). Whilst the final assessment for this module is a traditional three-hour seen exam, during the twelve weeks of teaching students are required to work in groups and post a summary of a key primary source as a blog (for example the 1974 Working Women’s Charter, London Metropolitan University Archive) on the Moodle site.  The use of blogs for formative assessment is particularly useful when teaching voluntary action history.  Posting blogs helps students consider how difficult it can be to encapsulate the views of a whole movement in a short statement of intent.  Working in groups with other students not only enhances employability skills but also provides the students with an insight into how problematic it can sometimes be to work with other people.  This in turn allows them to reflect on how successful voluntary action often requires the individuals involved to compromise, delegate and strive towards agreement to ensure their objective is met.  Once the blog is posted to the Moodle site the students are required to present to the class some of the key features of the document (which can be a text, an image, a song or a film clip).  The experience of presenting their ideas verbally in class allows students to comprehend how important rhetoric and good communication are when attempting to convey a message to a wider audience.  Such oratory is key when persuading others to support your cause and in motivating them to engage in voluntary action themselves.

 I also use digital sources, blogs and student presentations in my Year 2 Criminology module Issues in Criminal Justice History. For Criminology students the use of digital resources to explain why individuals engaged in voluntary action to reform the Criminal Justice System (CJS) is crucial.  Giving students access to the files of young offenders, for example the case of eleven-year-old John Greening, sentenced to one month’s hard labour and five years reformatory school in 1873 for stealing a quarter of gooseberries, ensures that the history of crime comes alive. (The National Archives: Prison record for John Greening 5997 (PCOM 2/291)).

Cases where the offender can be visualised and their personal details known, demonstrate to students that behind every penal policy and statistic was an individual whose life was altered by crime.  As a result the students have a much better awareness of what motivated voluntary action around the themes of gender and crime, youth crime, penal policy and policing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  On this course students critically analyse a range of primary source documents published by groups and individuals engaged in voluntary action.  These include the Borstal Association, the Ladies Association Against the Contagious Diseases Acts, the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene and the Howard League for Penal Reform.  There is now a wealth of excellent digital resources available online for historians working on the history of crime.  These sources can be easily co-opted to allow students to gain insights into the motivations, objectives, and actions taken by those involved in campaigning for change and reform within the justice system.

Writing this blog has already set me thinking about how I can introduce new sources and methods into my teaching of voluntary action history.  As a result I am really looking forward to hearing the views and experiences of others on Saturday 28 February.  I am in no doubt that the workshop will enhance not only my teaching, but also how I think about my research.  It will allow me to meet likeminded colleagues who will have much more to say about the teaching of voluntary action history.  I look forward to seeing you there!

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