My subject area is early modern history, and is based in colonial America and Calvinism through to the end of the 20th century. The key elements are the contested notions of remembrance and bereavement. Underpinning stories are the primary source documents which students learn to interpret and are examined on.
I find it helpful to set the rules with my students early. I advise them of the set times of the week I will address their issues, and request they make an appointment if they want to see me outside of those times. Pestering me will not get a response. This approach helps me manage. I take large classes that generate an enormous workload, and only find it all ‘doable’ if I plan my units well ahead of time and break down the tsunami of work into small waves. To reduce the marking load I have experimented with different assessment approaches that still meet the subject goals. Currently, I set one essay to test a set of assumptions, and an exam because it does not require detailed feedback.
If you can engage students, subjects will take on a life of their own. To keep subjects alive I consider student feedback and implement suggestions; however, I do draw the line. I allocate a certain amount of time, I revise and then I say, ‘that’s it’. I engage my students by entertaining them and keeping the spoken word fairly simple. I developed a computer assisted learning program in one unit; in others I use role play, debating and group work. Prior to lectures I also upload a one page summary of content. To stimulate discussion, I ask students to read two out of four readings and post a blog on them before tutorials. I read the postings to challenge their ideas and ask them to explain or defend them. To place my units in an international context I lead battlefield study tours to Gallipoli and the Western Front. The effect on the students is amazing.
There are assumptions about what this role is supposed to be and it is still fuzzy around the edges. However, I am passionate about my subjects and this sustains me. In the past, I have run subject outlines past colleagues who usually pick up areas that are unclear. I have also worked with a colleague to co-write units, which is rather like playing a game of ping pong. The writer who gets the last version wins the game. Sometimes, conflict arises in the School. Experience tells me you can harbour resentment, which feeds and poisons your working relationships, or you can decide not worry about it. I chose not to worry about it.
Having spent a great deal of time getting my units right I advise sessional staff to stick to the subject outline. We have regular meetings to maintain contact and I encourage them to talk to me about anything they are unsure about. I also invite feedback from my experienced tutors about what works and what doesn’t and they confer with one another, which suggests to me that a mutually supportive network is happening. When marking, I ask my tutors to select examples of the best, worst and middle and send to me to moderate. However, I mark all exams because that is the ultimate form of checking. Finally, to help with my tutors’ professional development, and to provide them with experience in subject coordination, I encourage students to go to their tutors first. They seem to appreciate my approach.