Embedding Employability in the Department of History: Historic Themes in Practice by Professor Lindy Grant

The Department of History has been running a module for Part 2 students called Historic Themes in Practice (HTP) for the last three years. It is an innovative module in conception, organisation and structure. It is designed to make second year students enlarge their views of career possibilities, particularly within the heritage sector, and learn to work together in teams to bring a group project to fruition: in short it is designed to embed employability into the teaching of history. And it takes employability one stage further. Every year, the options from which students choose their group project includes at least one group placement, working to a brief provided by an institution within the heritage sector.

This all sounds like a bit like heavy corporate-speak, so how does this module run? What do the students actually do?

Team work.

The students work on a project as a group, mentored by a member of History staff. The ability to work together as a team is highly prized by employers, but it certainly is not part of a traditional history degree, where the writing of essays and preparation of class presentations tends to reflect the ‘lone scholar’ model. Division into groups is ruthlessly impersonal – just by the good old-fashioned method of dividing up an alphabetical list. So students might find themselves working with people they know and like – but they might also find themselves having to work alongside people they have never met before, or dislike intensely – or both.  But then that is just like life beyond the academy.  Mostly, the groups work together really well. But every so often there is someone who doesn’t pull their weight, or is difficult or obstructive.

We have two mechanisms to manage this.  All groups must submit a log recording the workings of the group as part of their project portfolio. The log is important, and counts for 20% of the final group mark. We encourage the students to produce minutes of meetings for the log, recording who was present or absent, and how the various tasks for the project were assigned. If they have to deal with an absent or uncooperative group member, they should record their attempts to manage the situation, and all attempts to contact the unhelpful colleague, and to ensure that they are kept in the loop. These situations often bring out the best in the rest of the students, and result in more carefully produced and reflective logs.

The second mechanism for dealing with an uncooperative team member is peer assessment. At the end of the module, students have to rate their own and their colleagues’ contribution to the project. We use a method based upon co-efficients. The students rate each member of the team’s contribution within a mark range of 80-120, assuming 100 as average. In exceptional circumstances, they can go outside that range (this is usually to give zero!) The peer assessment group average, and then each individual student’s peer assessment average, is then calculated. Dividing the individual student average by the group average produces the Student’s co-efficient. The individual student’s final mark will be the Examiners’ mark for the group project multiplied by the student’s co-efficient. A totally uncooperative student will be subtracted from the group calculation, so that their zero does not affect the rest of the team.  It is complicated, and sorting out the results can be a challenge to a historian’s grasp of mathematics. But it seems to work. And it is a fair way of assessing team group work.

The projects:

Each team of students is offered a choice of projects to work on. Five ‘standard’ projects run each year, alongside a variable number of placement projects. The five standard projects are all designed to mimic actual projects that one might find oneself working on within the heritage sector, broadly defined. In designing them, I drew on my own background working in collections, and my own experience curating two photographic exhibitions at the Courtauld Institute, advising English Heritage on their high profile restoration and interpretation of the Great Tower at Dover Castle, and sitting on the advisory board for the Heritage Lottery Funded Cistercians in Yorkshire project. The five invented projects are: to provide a website and leaflets for a historical walk round Reading; to design an exhibition in Museum of English Rural Life’s (MERLS’s) temporary exhibition space which shows the history of the collections at the University of Reading; to produce a courtyard garden on a historical theme for the Chelsea Flower show, incorporating some plants from the University of Reading’s plant collections; to animate the remains of Reading Abbey buildings using live performers – but on the tight budget of £75,000; and to produce an exhibition on the history of the Reading Festival, together with a set of specially designed wellies in honour of the Festival’s regular sponsor. All of these projects are designed to increase the student’s awareness of the local context, collections and heritage of their own University and of Reading itself.

I am fortunate to have the help of some distinguished practitioners within collections for this course. Dr Alan Borg, who has been Director of the Imperial War Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a Visiting Professor in the Department of History and the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies. He is also the Honourary Librarian of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, and was thus able to set up one of our placement projects this year.  Alan, along with Kate Arnold-Forster and Isabel Hughes from MERL, led a lively discussion session on the opportunities and the challenges of working in the museum world for the students. Alan also joined the HTP staff team to assess the project presentations.

The projects are submitted as a presentation and as a portfolio. The results of these projects reveal extraordinary levels of wit, ingenuity and lateral thinking. The walk round Reading and the Chelsea Garden have turned out to be the most popular projects. We have had some brilliant Chelsea Gardens. The sixties psychedelic garden complete with cannabis and opium is a perennial favourite. Some of the walks round Reading this year were particularly impressive. One group produced the ‘ReadingRoyalRamble’; two groups focussed on war in Reading through the ages. I hadn’t realised that one of the most important British battles of the later seventeenth century took place pretty much outside John Lewis in Broad St.

The placements:

In addition to the standard projects, we offer the option of group placements, where the student teams work to a brief provided by an institution within the heritage sector. Last year, two groups took the opportunity to work with Reading Museum on a preliminary analysis of the historical interpretation in the Reading Gallery, which the Museum is currently seeking funding to redisplay. This year, one group took up the option to work with the Museum of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, which is in the early stages of developing ideas for a ‘Pavement Museum’, to develop awareness of the destroyed medieval buildings of the Commandery of the Knights of St John in Clerkenwell, in a difficult, intensely urban setting. This is a challenging project, but the group thought very carefully about the issues of urban context, and explored a wide range of comparable projects in Europe and beyond, to come up with a set of carefully researched and genuinely viable proposals.

Practicalities and challenges for the future:

HTP is an immensely satisfying module to run. The results are impressive, and the students enjoy it, though some have doubts about group work at the beginning.  The comments in the students’  logs, and on their feedback forms, suggest that they grow to appreciate the value of teamwork, and that the module opens their eyes to both employment opportunities, and to the skills that future employers will demand. One of our external examiners was so impressed by the module, that he has, with our permission, introduced a course based on it to his own university.

It is very gratifying to be able to offer the opportunity of a group placement within the context of this module to all our part two students. But the placement element provides challenges. Whenever one asks an institution in the heritage sector to provide placements for students, one is calling in a huge favour. I know from my own experience running a photograph collection just how much work placements create for host institutions. It is difficult to craft a project that will give the student or the student group something that is genuinely worth doing, but that will not take up too much of the host institution’s time. The economic downturn has made this even more difficult. Many institutions in the heritage sector have suffered cuts. The staff still in post have even less time at their disposal, and there must be no suggestion that the institution is using placements or internships to offset redundancies.  In spite of this challenging context, we will continue to work with colleagues in museums and other heritage sector institutions both within and outside the University, to ensure that viable and enticing group placements are available for the HTP module.

Up till now, the module has been worth 10 credits. We feel it should be worth more, and so do our students. So from 2012-13, the course will be more substantial and worth 20 credits. The employability agenda will be even more overt, with lectures from Emma Butler and colleagues in SEECC at the beginning of the module to really focus students’ attention on this issue. The employability agenda will also feed into a new module set up by my colleague, Dr Elizabeth Matthew, to provide Part 3 teaching placements for History students intending to apply for a PGCE in History.

And HTP can deliver real outcomes of considerable value to the University. This year, the historical walks round Reading were so enterprising, and presented with such élan, that I hope to persuade some of the students to develop their  historical walks as part of our Open Day and Visit Day provision. There is much more to Reading than meets the eye, and now that the students have discovered this, they will make wonderful ambassadors for the richly historic environment on and around their University Campus.

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