An Analogue Historian Goes Digital In The ‘New Normal’

Daniel A. Gordon

‘None of us, now that we have become acquainted with Mr Tawney and his methods, will be contented any longer with the ordinary University Extension lecture; we want lectures that will stimulate us to work, not lectures that are half popular entertainments.’

Rochdale student, 1908, quoted in Lawrence Goldman, The Life of R.H.Tawney: Socialism and History, Bloomsbury, 2014, pp. 65-66

Having taught, for almost as long as next year’s first years have been alive, at a university with one of the most outstanding records in the UK for educating students from working-class backgrounds, inclusion has long been at the heart of what I do. Nevertheless my teaching philosophy has also been shaped by scepticism towards much of what emanates downwards from management and teaching and learning bureaucracies (to be fair, the latter’s rhetoric is generally more nuanced than the former’s), which too often tends to uncritically equate good teaching or inclusive teaching with high-tech teaching, and to encourage the reinvention of the wheel by fetishising innovation. 

Pre-Covid, my gut instinct as a techno-sceptic was to view the whole business of technology in education as something of a capitalist racket. This reflected an interest in the history of critiques of technology and compulsory consumption, and a scepticism about the implicit teleology behind assumptions that newer methods must necessarily be better than older ones. I still don’t own a smartphone and have happily never had an app for anything, or a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia, etc account or my own website. I only bought a new laptop for the first time ever as a result of the pandemic, having previously relied on a university PC at work, a battered old second-hand laptop shared with other family members at home, plus notebook and pen pretty much anywhere. 

Younger readers might assume my technophobic tendencies are because I am too old, but in some paradoxical way it is because I was the first generation partly brought up with computers, so am aware of the detrimental impact they had on my social skills: the last time I acquired a non-second-hand computer was when my parents bought me a Sinclair ZX Spectrum when I was 8 in 1983. I actually started contributing to blogs back in 2002, at a time when they were regarded as something mildly subversive and best concealed from your employer, rather than, as they later became, something to be awarded public engagement points for (in 500 words or less). My neo-Luddism was never an absolute dogma, since I do use technology in teaching where there is clear evidence that it aids learning. It’s not that IT has no benefits, but that with constant innovation in IT, society eventually reaches a point when the harms outweigh the benefits, and in my view that point was reached quite some time ago: hence signs in recent years among some younger people that it is now cool to disconnect. Even I would concede that technology has brought people in distant places closer together, but that has too often been at the expense of driving people in the same place further apart. 

For, long before 2020, one thing that the average 18 year-old was not short of was exposure to technology; hence it struck me as odd that universities would concentrate so heavily on pushing more of the same. My experience suggests that if you give students something as a physical handout, they rather like it, and are more likely to actually read it than if it becomes lost among a multitude of things theoretically available online; and that if students properly check through their assignments on paper, they are likely to leave less errors than if they only ever read them on screen. By contrast, it is sufficient time reading books in the library, and sufficient time to think and talk through historical problems, that can be the vital missing ingredient in an age of instant gratification. Pre-pandemic, students often told me how refreshing it was for them to have a seminar in which they could just talk with no computers. I thus sometimes joked that I am a specialist in the cutting-edge new field of ‘Analogue Humanities’. 

Since they were first introduced in the mid-2000s, I have been an occasional critic of the use/overuse of Virtual Learning Environments at my university, since it seems to be a heresy to consider whether they might be having a net negative educational impact. At the time of the now-forgotten swine flu scare of 2009, I argued that it was being used as a temporary excuse to bring in compulsory VLE lecture slides which would turn out, a bit like emergency anti-terrorist legislation, to become permanent. Living with the sometimes exhausting reality of Crohn’s Disease, I have tended to experience negatively the additional workload created by bolting VLEs onto already very labour-intensive face-to-face modules (particularly when teaching near the contractual maximum of 18 hours/week). 

I advise students to do their own referencing rather than rely on referencing software that will end up de-skilling them, just as I would not advise a student to use Google Translate instead of learning languages. And when given the choice, I deliberately make VLE settings such that I can’t track what students have looked at, because I respect their autonomy. Particularly when teaching histories involving the abuse of state power through surveillance, it always struck me as hypocritical to do so using technologies that the Stasi could only have dreamt of. It sent a shudder down my spine when colleagues first suggested videoing research seminars, because I am acutely aware how inhibiting that can be on less confident participants and on the expression of people’s real feelings.

So for the pre-Covid me, pedagogical inclusiveness was essentially about inclusiveness face-to-face: about listening, about empathy, about equality, about respect, about not judging people, about trying to raise the intellectual level without taking yourself too seriously, about all the facets of human communication that are not magically improved by being mediated through a screen. For example one of the things that (at least until the advent of breakout rooms on Teams) is hard to do properly online is group discussion. As a teaching mentor to Graduate Teaching Assistants, I always advise breaking up groups where possible during seminar discussion, because it makes the world of difference for less confident students to be able to express their views to one or two other people rather than a large group. I have also become increasingly aware how this issue is a gendered one, and the extent to which mixed gender large group discussions can be dominated by a small number of male students unless this problem is explicitly addressed with students. 

Reflecting historic patterns of local student recruitment at Edge Hill from Merseyside and West Lancashire, and comparatively low numbers of international students, our student body is more predominantly (though by no means exclusively) White British than on many contemporary UK campuses. Given glaring inequalities in language provision at school level, it is also very unusual for a student to have more than a GCSE in French or any other foreign language before entering the course. So I am conscious of cultural diversity as something that sometimes needs to be consciously imported into the seminar room: an eclectic series of guest lectures and live interviews I have organised over the years, from a Syrian refugee living in Skelmersdale to a retired West German general, from the founder of Southall Black Sisters to a French-Algerian migration history curator, have enabled students to meet interesting people they would probably not have done in the normal course of things. 

To give some students the opportunity to go on Erasmus has been truly life-changing (you might call it ‘levelling up’, to borrow a phrase from the guilty men who took this opportunity away), but even for the non-internationally mobile majority, ‘internationalisation at home’ has been a quiet revolution, aided by the establishment of a University Language Centre to which I donated some of my collection of French magazines. There have been multiple occasions on which the broader social context of the expansion of higher education has intervened in the seminar room, such as when explaining the Marxist theory of false consciousness to a student who enthusiastically took lots of notes and commented that that was exactly what she saw happening in her home town of Wigan during the Brexit referendum.

So what on earth did the techno-sceptic lecturer do when Covid smashed like a meteorite into his preferred mode of teaching? As regular readers of the French History Network Blog may be aware, I became ill with Covid myself early during the first wave in March 2020. Much iller, in fact, than I let on at the time in my Historians In Lockdown post – because I didn’t want to scare or bore people with the gory details at a time when we all needed some collective cheering up. And also because I think as a coping strategy I had been trying to mentally disassociate what I was experiencing (‘mild’, surely?) from the horrific images from Italian hospitals that filled TV screens. I now know that I had severe Covid with heart inflammation.

At first I unwisely tried to work whilst ill, but at least I followed the head of department’s sensible advice to everyone not to try new innovations and instead use things you were already familiar with. So my version of that early improvised phase of remote teaching involved nothing more complex than posting Word documents on the VLE and getting students to deliver practice oral presentations by a combination of telephone and Powerpoint sent as an email attachment. I think this worked as OK for students as could be expected in the circumstances, but the pressure on my chest after delivering feedback was an unpleasant experience. After taking two weeks off, regrettably again I tried to resume work and struggled to mark online and write the Historians in Lockdown post. But my condition deteriorated, so I did not finally return to work until January 2021, after seven months on sick leave, several more hospital visits, two long rounds of medication and one emergency admission to an Acute Medical Ward, so entirely missed the experiment in hybrid teaching of autumn 2020. 

Mitterand’s Coup D’Etat Permanent

I therefore feel an imposter in this feature, peculiarly unqualified to comment on teaching in a pandemic, like some Fourth Republic politician stumbling unconvincingly into the ‘new normal’ of the Fifth Republic after 1958. Nevertheless, this distance has enabled me to observe clearly some changes in the higher education landscape, both for better and for worse. Although my health is now thankfully much improved, during my phased return it was clear that I could only physically manage it because I was working part-time, and from home because it coincided with the start of Lockdown 3. As someone who’d been critical of the cult of presenteeism in universities for at least a decade before the pandemic, I have to be grateful for that and acknowledge that remote learning has potential for aiding inclusion during the latter stages of recovery from illness. 

That said, distance learning shouldn’t mean facilitating people to carry on working when acutely ill, because there are times when people need complete rest, and unrealistic expectations can be counter-productive. One of my most persistent symptoms was dizziness, and it was many months before I could look at text on screen for any length of time without bringing this on. So bombarding a student in a similar position with catch-up work on screen would not be doing them any favours. This goes for staff as well as students, and for non-Covid illness as well as Covid: as someone who has experienced plenty of both, my view is that a more enlightened attitude towards illness should not be limited by what we might call ‘Covid exceptionalism’. As my GP put it on hearing of universities setting up parallel absence policies for Covid different from their normal ones: ‘they shouldn’t treat you any less favourably with pericarditis than with Covid, because pericarditis is a more serious condition than Covid’. 

For ten years I was a year tutor, and found the pastoral aspects of this one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, but a few years before the pandemic, I was almost relieved to be moved to other duties. That relief was because my professional judgement and natural inclination to be on students’ side, and just believe them when they told me about their sometimes devastating personal/health/caring/family/ bereavement issues when explaining absences or requesting extensions, felt increasingly thwarted by demands from higher up that students supply ‘evidence’ of such situations to satisfy demands of bureaucratic accountability – despite the insensitivity of making such demands on students at a time of crisis in their lives. And yet suddenly in the case of Covid, this requirement was abandoned: any reason related to Covid did not now need any evidence. That was fair enough, but thinking about ‘Covid exceptionalism’, I wondered why this sense of trust couldn’t be extended equally to other reasons. One other small thing my experience has taught me is that well-meant comments like ‘You’re looking well!’, or the all-purpose admonition to ‘Stay safe and well’, aren’t very helpful if the listener/recipient actually doesn’t feel well, but is putting on a brave face for the world. Hence I tend to use the formulation ‘Hope you’re OK?’, which sets the bar lower and doesn’t make too many presumptions about the answer.

However, one clear positive has been to transform the nature of the research environment for researchers at institutions where they may be the only or almost the only person working in their field – and let’s face it, if you are a French historian working in a History department outside the Russell Group, that is probably the case. The REF tends to steer individual universities into pretending they consist of self-contained research groups, whereas the reality for historians is that we largely work individually and network nationally and internationally. Yet if you only see your French history colleagues once a year at a conference or a rare visit to Paris or London, the above point is less inescapable than if you can get to the IHR Modern French History Seminar every couple of weeks on Zoom. 

In recent months, despite not going anywhere further than walking distance from my home in Chester, I have amongst other things: chaired a panel at a postgraduate conference on migration at Nanterre University; joined the organising committee of a research seminar on social movement history at Sciences-Po Paris; interviewed the author of a new biography of Antonio Gramsci at the Gramsci Society UK, which started as a few people in a room in Ormskirk but is now run from Sardinia, drawing a wide range of international participants from Spain to Turkey; and heard a visually impaired Mexican social anthropologist talk, while his daughter operated the Powerpoint, about the ‘Jewish question’ in Marcel Proust and James Joyce at Limmud, the Jewish festival of learning normally held in Birmingham and this year linking with parallel events in Latin America. The further you physically are from centres of power, the more equalising effect this shift has. So, I have encouraged my postgraduate students, experiencing all sorts of other challenges like the closure of archives, to get involved in external research communities, seeing how excellent initiatives like History Lab have suddenly become much more accessible to postgraduates outside London as a result of going online. Though by the same token, I would be unhappy if all research events stayed all-online forever, and not just because I miss the social side of conferences: the above opportunities all came about because of people I already knew in ‘real life’, whereas it is especially hard for new researchers to forge new networks without any element of face-to-face contact.

Closer to home, once I learned how to use Teams and met my undergraduate personal tutees on it, an interesting unintended consequence of the government’s furlough scheme emerged. As a year tutor, I would sometimes listen with sadness to students explain the reason why their attendance had dropped was because they were doing 30 hours a week in paid work, and were surprised to hear that the university officially advises no more than 15. Too often, for fear of losing their job they had been coerced by unscrupulous employers into excessive hours incompatible with their studies. So it was lovely to hear that those students whose pre-Covid jobs were in bars or non-essential retail were now furloughed, and hence having the transformational experience of effectively being paid to be full-time students – something which students in other places and times who have better off parents, or studied in the era of full grants, might take for granted – and saying how much this was improving their academic work. Yet students who worked in supermarkets missed out on furlough, and had to carry on working while studying, which made the impact very uneven and arbitrary. If this doesn’t make the case for Universal Basic Income, I don’t know what will.

With help from colleagues, I also learned to use Panopto to record lectures (whereas previously just the sinister name had put me off – you might as well call it Big Brother). In doing so I was inspired by a mix of: firstly, research I’d first seen and implemented some years earlier that Powerpoint is best used for images, not the ubiquitous bullet-pointed text; and secondly discovering the joys of podcasts for the first time while convalescing and realising that audio has a lot to commend itself as an accessible medium for many. I think I knew I was ready to go back to work when, before falling asleep, I managed to get quite a long way through the cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert’s wonderfully soothing, erudite yet very accessible three hour riposte to one of the odder recent salvoes fired in the UK’s culture wars: International Trade Secretary Liz Truss’ claim that Michel Foucault was responsible for declining literacy standards in Leeds in the 1980s. 

Reading Jacques Ellul

My first two attempts at Panopto were for a module on Comparative European Politics. The first, on the ‘Green Wave’ in the 2020 French local elections, seemed to work better than the second, on ‘Citizen Power in France’. Whereas on the second I extemporised more, complete with ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, because it was on a broad topic I already knew much about, the first needed more preparation, being on very recent events, so I wrote out a complete script for what was basically a podcast with illustrations. A photoshoot of me reading the anarchist philosopher Jacques Ellul’s The Technological System in the snow in Chester’s Roman ampitheatre both advertised my existence to students who might never have actually met me, and helped illustrate my point that all three of Pierre Hurmic, newly elected Green mayor of Bordeaux, Noël Mamère, former Green mayor of the neighbouring commune of Bègles, and José Bové, McDonalds-dismantling pin-up boy of the international alter-globalisation movement, had been students or comrades of Ellul in Bordeaux back in the 1970s.

But the amount of work I put into this one lecture would be unreplicable if multiplied across my normal teaching load. To continue my Fourth/Fifth Republic analogy, there is a risk that hybrid teaching becomes a coup d’état permanent, as François Mitterrand famously labelled De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic in 1964, of overwork. For it involves adding a digital job (the ‘presidential campaign’ of producing demagogic populist slick online content) to our existing analogue job (with all the cumul des mandats implied in the non-stop round of lower-profile but arguably more vital responsibilities at other levels within the typical lecturer’s job, like the député-maire’s constituency ‘office hours’) without taking any responsibilities away. 

Despite everything, many students coped very well with the challenges of the pandemic and I am proud of the excellent work they have produced. Some students’ wellbeing, though, was clearly badly suffering from lockdown: no matter how much online support the university (which has an outstanding record on student support) was offering, they just missed the regular routine of physically going to campus and the human interaction of attending their seminars and lectures. And international students were the most obviously directly impacted by the pandemic and state reactions/overreactions to it. Three Erasmus students, for example, followed official British government advice that studying was a valid reason for travel, only to be interrogated for hours by a border official in Calais about their finances then refused entry to the UK, on the basis of that official’s interpretation that universities were all currently online so they could follow their course from their home country. They all made the most of their studies online and we gave them plenty of support, but this was no substitute for a proper study abroad experience and to pretend otherwise would be absurd. 

That was only the starkest indication of the elephant in the room: the online world can be a fascinating place, and a refuge in troubled times, but it is no substitute for real human communities and all the gloriously messy and unpredictable interactions that go with them. Which is why the typical student – whether or not they remain, as many of our students do, living in their family home – tends to seek a physical university experience rather than take courses at the Open University. The virtual is called virtual for a reason: it isn’t quite real. Plus there is the digital divide. Apart from the rather overlooked point that there is no particular reason to expect people who are good at Humanities to be good at using computers, not everyone can afford the same level of hardware or internet connectivity. Hence why my university decreed that students should not be obliged to turn cameras on in seminars, though some colleagues found teaching a row of blank screens demoralising. Overall, while interested to hear the views of colleagues with more extensive experience of teaching in a pandemic, my interim verdict is thus: online learning is better than catching Covid, better than everyone being stuck at home feeling isolated, and better for lectures and tutorials than seminars, but on the whole, for most students, worse than face-to-face teaching. Universities should have been more upfront that going online was an improvised response to a public health emergency, not some exciting pedagogical innovation.

Nevertheless the professional achievement I am most proud of during the pandemic was rearranging as an online event the undergraduate conference I had planned on 1989-1990: The Birth Of Contemporary Europe?. The idea was to spark an intergenerational conversation among the Edge Hill History community around the 30th anniversary of this dynamic period in European history, by inspiring students with perspectives from East and West, inside and outside, witnesses and academics from a variety of disciplines, and set them in dialogue with students’ own work across a broad range of modules and year groups. Yet pedagogically just as important was to give students a flavour of what an academic conference is all about, and boost their confidence in speaking in public. This was emphatically to be an assessment-free zone, where no-one was going to be marked or judged on what they said.  I first had this idea in 2019 and got to work inviting speakers, persuading students to speak or chair sessions, coordinating timetables, booking rooms, buying packets of crisps and recruiting student helpers, and set what seemed at the time, because it was when students on a particular module would be doing the collapse of Communism, a good date: 16 March 2020.

Cannes 1939 & 1946

As the date approached, I started to feel like the organisers of the first ever Cannes Film Festival, who pencilled it into their diaries for what also seemed like an excellent date at the time: 1 September 1939. After I cancelled the conference – a cancellation which, a bit like the collapse of Communism itself, seems inevitable in retrospect but was not quite so at the time – while relieved it had not become a super-spreading event, I regretted that all the work that people had put in, especially students, had seemingly come to naught. So, perhaps it could be re-scheduled, at least as an online event, before the students involved graduated and the moment passed forever? That was my number one priority on my phased return, and it all came to fruition on 22 March 2021.

I adjusted the years in the conference title to 1989-1991: The Birth Of Contemporary Europe? so as to keep the 30 year anniversary theme, and reassembled most of the original speakers and chairs for a live conference on Teams with an audience whose numbers peaked at 55, which mostly worked very well from a technical point of view. I emphasised to students that this was a dialogue, in which they all had something valuable to say, or a valid question to ask. The fact that speakers ranged from a second-year undergraduate to a professor I think helped to flatten hierarchies away from the ‘students passively consume star speaker’ model, and give the event more of a History Workshop-type vibe. I also used the example of Timothy Garton Ash scribbling down notes in the midst of the Velvet Revolution in Prague in November 1989 because ‘If I don’t write this down, nobody will’, to encourage students to practise their note-taking skills (‘You’re all going to be Timothy Garton Ash for the day!’).

The results were remarkable and even moving at times, particularly when speakers connected their academic research to their own or family lived experiences – from the Romanian colleague who recounted the grim reality of growing up under Nicolae Ceauşescu as part of her defence of the argument that 1989 really was a revolution, via the young student from a post-EU enlargement Polish migrant worker family background who weaved into an analysis of the collapse of Communism in Poland her family’s experiences of migrating from a small city in northern Poland to the North West of England, to the student from Liverpool giving a paper on legacies of injustice from the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 whose own father was at Hillsborough. Given the sensitive nature of all this, I did not record the live session and it was all the better for that, but an account of the conference by a student will be published in the next Edge Hill History Newsletter (itself an example of an inclusive joint initiative by students and academics – a sample back issue is here). One of the speakers commented after the conference, ‘Thank you for organising such a great event! I can easily imagine how inspirational it will have been for students, as well as showing how to turn adversity, and forcible separation, into something still so meaningful and communal. And those students who presented and chaired, were scarily good. Well done all of you!’.

Although this live element could probably have been done just as successfully, if not more so, as an in-person conference, I added an additional element, namely pre-recorded oral testimonies made available on the VLE in advance of the conference. For this I got a few friends who had experienced 1989 in East Germany or Estonia to record testimonies about their experiences (one of the joys of being middle-aged is that your childhood and adolescence becomes of historical interest). I did one as an oral history interview on Teams, which worked very well as testimony but had some sound difficulties; others recorded amazing monologues to camera and I worked out how to convert them to video mp4 files, which played back more smoothly but took a long time to upload. This pre-recorded element could thus be preserved for the benefit of future students, while maintaining the spontaneity of the unrecorded live sessions.

I also pre-recorded my own three-part introductory conference lecture on Panopto. This meant less time pressure on the day of the conference, that was kept to two sessions of two hours each (at the normal times for two of the relevant modules – an old trick I’ve learned to maximise attendance for visiting speakers), with five minutes break halfway through each session, an hour’s lunch break in between and no obligation to attend both, all serving to minimise ‘Zoom fatigue’. My lecture was subsequently put on the EdgeHist YouTube channel so I offer it up in case it is of use in teaching elsewhere. Although this was not primarily a French history event, nevertheless Tony Judt, François Mitterrand, Michel Rocard, Jessye Norman, Elisabeth Badinter, Régis Debray, Alain Finkielkraut, Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Channel Tunnel all made walk-on appearances. 

The conference’s focus on a single historical moment, considered across a range of countries, and from a multiplicity of diverse angles, served to maximise student audience from across a range of modules and provide plenty of variety and serendipity. You might have come along expecting something useful for your essay on East Germany, but also ended up learning something about, say, Silvio Berlusconi or Gerry Adams. And the anniversary element meant there was plenty of recent media coverage and popular memory culture to draw on. So although a lot of work to organise (made easier for me by colleagues kindly contributing, for example, technical support), the general consensus was that people would definitely want to repeat a similar event in future. This might be on another single historical moment – say 1973 in 2023? – and, fingers crossed, in ‘real life’. As ever, French has an elegant phrase for this, my favourite of the moment, so I am looking forward to more of life en présentiel.

Dr Daniel A. Gordon is Senior Lecturer in European History at Edge Hill University, and the views expressed here are his own.

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