Reflections on a new module: concepts, approaches and boundaries

In this post, organiser Helen McCarthy (Queen Mary, University of London), previews her discussion for the workshop on the 28th February. She reflects on the challenges of introducing a new module for undergraduates, Between the Citizen and the State: The History of Voluntary Action in Modern Britain.

Helen+McCarthy+[credit+Jonathan+Ring]At the first Workshop, held in Liverpool in September 2013, I plucked up my courage and placed the draft outline of a new module I was shortly to teach at Queen Mary before the scrutiny of my fellow participants. Entitled Between the Citizen and the State: The History of Voluntary Action in Modern Britain, the module was a one-semester option for final-year students and it ran in the spring of 2014. At the workshop on Saturday, I plan to reflect on how far I managed to realise my objectives in teaching voluntary action history to undergraduates: what went well, what went less well, and what I plan to do differently when the module runs again next spring. In this blog post, I will touch very briefly on three key points which I hope will stimulate further discussion at the workshop.

How should students be encouraged to conceptualise voluntary action? I was keen, from the outset, that students should engage in some relatively sophisticated critical discussion of the problems of conceptualising voluntary action, and to debate the various terms that scholars use in their analyses – whether it be civil society, charity, social movement, or NGO. For pedagogical purposes, I decided to focus these discussions around two key concepts which had been influential in the literature: the first was Habermas’s classic thesis concerning the rise of the ‘bourgeois public sphere’, and the second was Robert Putnam’s well-known work on ‘social capital.’ These worked relatively well, particularly as hermeneutic tools for thinking about the relationship between voluntary action and democratisation, and about the ways in which class, gender and race might structure the quality and scope of associational activity. There were a couple of limitations, however. For Habermas, it was the conceptual denseness of his writing, which students struggled to comprehend. For Putnam, it was the fact that I had overestimated the extent to which historians of voluntary action (as opposed to political or social scientists) had explicitly adopted the social capital model in their work. Students enjoyed debating ‘bridging’ versus ‘bonding’ forms of social capital, but there were very few sources where I could point to historians operationalizing the concept for historical analysis. I now have to rethink how best to facilitate a meaningful conceptual discussion which is firmly rooted in the historical literature.

Should teachers adopt a chronological or thematic approach? I knew that my module would not take students through a sequential narrative of British history over two centuries, but I ended up organising my topics in roughly chronological order all the same: we started with bourgeois coffee houses and literary societies in the early 19th century, moved through friendly societies, Victorian philanthropists, the rise of the welfare state and the ‘New Social Movements’ of the 60s, and ended with The ‘Big Society’ circa 2010. This I think worked well. It relied on students having basic general knowledge of 19th and 20th century British history (which most had from first-year modules), and it meant extra effort on my part to keep several analytical threads running without boring the students through repetition of material. This I managed to do by designing the weekly topics around mini historiographical debates: eg did the emergence of the early 19th-century urban sphere create separate spheres for men and women? Did the creation of the post-war welfare state make voluntary action obsolete? How ‘new’ were the new social movements?

Should I go global? Where I felt more limited was in the domestic focus of my module. As a sometime historian of internationalism, I agonised over this but felt that in the space of 11 teaching weeks it would be impossible to cover the international dimensions of British voluntary action in a meaningful way. This is a problem I want to rethink seriously before teaching the module again next spring. Ideally I’d like to find ways of integrating a global/imperial dimension in a way that is manageable and coherent – but does this mean sacrificing some current topics to make way for ‘international’ ones (eg a week on interwar popular internationalism) or, more challengingly in pedagogical terms, bringing the international into every or most weekly topics in some way (eg thinking about late 19th century philanthropy in terms of transnational networks of feminised social work)? The latter option is more attractive, but it will involve much harder work for me in bringing the two levels of analysis together and will rely on identifying appropriate secondary literature to facilitate this during seminar discussion. It might be that the literature simply isn’t there in sufficient quantities.

If I have time on Saturday, I will also touch briefly on questions of assessment (I decided to go for 100% coursework, including a presentation), classroom strategies (I built a lot of student interaction into the lectures), and partnerships with external organisations (I brought two local community organisers in to give a talk one week). There will be a lot to talk about, and I’m looking forward to learning from the experiences of other teachers of voluntary action history.​


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