The City in East and Southeast Asia
This is the first time my “Special Subject” fourth year module has run. I had six excellent students take the module, and I understand that this is a roughly normal size for special subjects. The Special modules at St Andrews are generally more narrow in focus and are usually heavily primary source driven. The students take two examinations at the end of a full year of study, with significant writing requirements throughout the year.
The module allows the students to really spend a significant amount of time exploring the boundaries of historical scholarship in an area, their own interests within that field, and also connect with me as a historian and my own research. As one of my students put it at the end of the year, “This was the first time I felt like I had become a real expert on something.”
This module is an example of “research-led” teaching. While my current manuscript on the relationship between betrayal and brutality in the political retribution after Japanese empire might have been better fit for a Special Subject on, for example, the history of political trials and political justice, or a module on war crimes and treason trials after World War II, I decided instead to make things difficult for myself and design a module with a view to a future project I have in mind. I want to write a book that focuses on the experience on certain groups in some of the leading cities of Japan’s empire, just after its surrender, and the way these groups or minorities negotiated the transition and prolonged some of the intra-empire connections that would otherwise have been completely broken at Japanese surrender. More on that project some other time, but I designed this course to help me, as much as my students, get oriented in a completely new field of scholarship: the urban and spatial history of East and Southeast Asia.
My first attempt at this during the past academic year was a rough but very rewarding experience. I’m not sure if my students were aware of how new and challenging this was for me as well as for them. I have a lot of work to go in improving the design of the course and below I’ll explore some of the challenges in greater detail.
I received feedback from five students. Overall, most students rated the module excellent. Areas where improvement was called for was: being more prompt in feedback (which is certainly justified), and some students felt I was not clear in the criteria for marking. Two students were not satisfied with my feedback while the rest found it helpful. Most importantly, though almost all students agreed that the organisation of class activities was “excellent” more than half the students did not “strongly agree” or “agree” that “The module was organised well and ran smoothly” - a sign that this new module really needs more work in organisation and planning.
Some individual feedback notes:
- “Classes were structured well and I generally enjoyed discussion, particularly in class writing exercise. Readings/primary sources were well selected and very interesting.”
- Presentations by students on some supplementary reads were found to be particularly useful
- The time and depth given to individual cities was appreciated
- Group exercises were appreciated
- Students appreciated the freedom and challenge of developing their own topics for research but one also suggested providing at least some more guidance
- The informality and free flowing discussion was felt to create a welcome and safe environment to express thoughts and arguments
- “Studentled seminars…helped to improve not only presentation, but also leadership, skills”
- “despite some teething problems (spatial history, and the actual course construction) I can honestly say this has been my most enjoyable and most engaging module in my 4 years in St Andrews.”
Some criticism I received:
- Not enough guidance on the writing exercises was given
- Most students felt the reading workload was overwhelming, particularly close to the writing deadlines. As one student put it, “I have done more research work this year then numerous colleagues on other modules writing dissertations.” As another put it, it was simply impossible to cover the various themes all even in a three hour seminar.
- “The module was quite poorly organised, and seemed to be a ‘work in progress’”
- “Coursework grades were … unfairly low. Despite approaching the tutor for feedback and ways to improve after every assignment, I felt that I was left disappointed with every grade that I received”
Thoughts on feedback:
Though I was generally impressed by the performance of all my students, I think some students felt they were doing a first job, and were frustrated when they received upper seconds. While I don’t believe I was unfair in my assessment of their work, clearly it is my responsibility to better lay out the expectations for what constitutes a first in the essays. It is also not impossible, given my relative inexperience within the Scottish system, that I will need to better calibrate my issuing of firsts as I become more exposed to the marking practices at St Andrews. This is something I will think about in the years to come. Most of all, however, I believe that far more important than the mark is the quality and depth of my feedback. I put a lot of effort into this but there is always room to improve - even as I work to get that feedback back to students in a more timely manner.
The critique of the organisation of the class is fair. The characterisation of it as a ‘work in progress’ is entirely accurate! This was the first time this module was offered, and I have a long way to go in making it run smoothly. I am still quite happy with how well it turned out given both the newness of the course, and the fact this is a new area of research for me as well.
- One experiment I attempted with this class was to assign, in place of a second presentation, the students an opportunity to lead an entire seminar in one of the final weeks of the semester. The topic and readings was done in collaboration with me, and the students ran the discussion and activities, often mimicking or modifying my own seminar style in the process. Some students found this intimidating, while others found it a very rewarding experience. Unfortunately, this was an innovation that was embraced in the second semester, and it contributed to a lack of balance in the relative work load between the first and second semester. Bad planning on my part.
- I was really deeply impressed with many of the student essays in this module. Even if they didn’t all earn firsts, I learnt a great deal from almost all of the student long essays, some of which I believe neared publication quality.
- The use of group brainstorming activities in which students put ideas and thoughts from the readings into a google document worked very well, I believe, and helped to set up rich discussions afterwards. These were also useful documents to go back to later in the semester or begin as a starting point for review.
- The presentations on supplementary reading worked really well. While all of our main readings were focused on East and Southeast Asia, much of the supplementary reading was on spatial or urban history from other parts of the world. These presentations often helped give us helpful insights from the outside. I was also very happy to see students use those materials again in their own essays later on.
- We spent a lot of time thinking and working with maps. I felt this worked really well and the students engaged very well with it. It also helped greatly with their spatial analysis. I will be doing more with this going forward.
- We did two very heavy and hard weeks with theoretical readings. It was difficult, miserable even, but I think many students felt that it paid off eventually as it gave them a tool-kit they would work with, or against if they chose, in their work throughout the year. I do think it would help if I cut down and diversified the reading. Not quite so much Lefebvre and Bachelard (which means more rereading by me to pick out things better), and more carefully selected sections from other major thinkers on space and cities. Foucault on heterotopias and Michel de Certeau seem to have been popular, judging by mentions in essays and final exams. Perhaps add some Benjamin and more recent work.
What Needs Work
- The student led seminar worked well, as I said above, but I need to rethink how to do it. I gave the students too much freedom in its design which increased both their effort, my need to intervene late in the process, and the difficulty in making those sessions relate well to the final examination questions. Next year I need to take a much more proactive role in this, but hopefully in a way which doesn’t significantly increase the time needed to prepare them for either myself or the students
- In addition to some specific city-centric weeks, I organised many of the weeks around broad themes, with readings coming, in many cases, from multiple cities. However, a conversation I had with a colleague, Michael Talbot, about how he teaches Ottoman urban history inspired me and makes me think that a much better - or at least promising alternative method, would be to have weeks focused on a specific space: the market, the park, the customs office, etc. While we did plenty of reading on these places, I see advantages to zooming like this and focusing more. In order to do it well, a lot more work needs to be done to choose appropriate reading, so I might make a gradual transition to this approach in the coming two to three years.
- I think significantly more non-assessed opportunities for students to demonstrate progress on the long essay would be desirable. Too many students were still rather lost in their materials very late in the semester. I also could use this as an opportunity to provide more feedback on approaches.
- Not all of the students had taken either of my China or Japanese empire courses. I noted that these often struggled if they had never had any East Asian history and were thrust into the complex historical context without any background. I need to find better ways to meet the needs of these students throughout the year.
- This is a primary source driven class, but the primary sources I’m using are still far too weak. There is very heavy dependence (over 80% at least) on imperial or western perspective sources. Finding good and relevant works written in East and Southeast languages in translation that help offer a non-imperial/western perspective is perhaps the most critical weakness of this course and one I will need to work on for several years, I imagine. This gets reflected also in the essays of students, which overwhelmingly, due to the language challenge of primary sources, must depend on imperial/western sources to talk about cites or spatial history in East and Southeast Asia.
- Special Subjects at St Andrews include a “gobbet exam” at the end of the year (in addition to a regular exam) in which they must write a short analysis of a primary source excerpt. Most Specials, I understand, assign gobbets throughout the year. While they make sense for 19th century history courses where everyone is reading a small selection of, say, treaties or political speeches, I confess, I have yet to be convinced that gobbets are a terribly useful way to engage with primary source analysis when the materials are varied, many, and no single document is exactly central to the history in question. I assign a “primary source essay” in each semester which is longer and more detailed than a short gobbet and is based on source the students select, rather than a short excerpt from something we have all read together. Though I will hopefully learn more from my colleagues on how they do this, so far I think I find the primary source essay a more useful exercise. The result, however, is that there is a gap between what I assign during the year, and what the students are asked to do on the final gobbet examination. I need to reflect on this problem as I tweak the module for the years ahead.
- I want to bring in the “pair writing” exercise that we experimented with in another module I co-taught with a colleague. This was remarkably effective in focusing two students on each other’s ideas in a regulated writing exercise dedicated to developing long essay ideas.
- The long essay for this module is a great challenge for the students and a lot rides on it. I want to spend more time talking to the students about the variety of ways in which articles are written. Without taking too much more valuable time from other tasks, I am thinking of ways we can use our existing readings to make the students more aware of the structure and strategies of argumentation used by historians so that they can keep these in mind when they write their own essays.
- I think next time around I want to give the students more opportunity to engage with my own research in this area, even if the project is still years from completion. I should present them my ideas, my sources, and give them an opportunity to offer their input, suggestions, and critiques.