Teaching on Something You Know Little/Nothing About

by Tom Beaumont (Bristol)

It was four weeks into my second semester as a Teaching Fellow (TF) at Bristol when a fellow TF in the department told me about a conversation he’d had with one of the third years. ‘So, what units are you doing this term?’ he’d asked. ‘I’m on Tim Cole’s ‘Holocaust Landscapes’ came the reply. My colleague laughed. ‘No’, he said, ‘you’re not.’

The student laughed too. ‘Oh, right…Tom Beaumont’s ‘Holocaust Landscapes’…’

Looking back, this exchange is slightly troubling. Nearly half way through the term and at least one of my students wasn’t even associating me with the unit I was teaching, except as an afterthought. At the time though, I took it in my stride. Or, more accurately, I shrugged it off with the air of fatalism which any TF would recognise. It was, after all, Professor Cole’s unit. It was based on his research. The only reason he wasn’t teaching it was that his duties as Head of Department didn’t allow him the time. And, in fairness to the student, the whole department back then was plastered with flyers for Professor Cole’s inaugural lecture on…Holocaust Landscapes – a fact which didn’t exactly ease my sense of being an interloper in the classroom.

The history of the Holocaust is not what you’d call my ‘core research specialism’. I wrote my PhD on French railway workers and the Communist Party and am currently working on the history of communist internationalism. True, its very definitely ‘in my period’, but it would also be true to say that my knowledge at the time was confined to what I’d seen in TV documentaries and read in a book or two. Now I had to teach it. To third years. Who’d signed up to be taught be one of the world’s leading historians of the Holocaust. I was not, its fair to say, brim full of confidence going into that first class.

I was hugely lucky though. I was walking into a unit which was fully planned and mapped out, conceptually exciting, with a very full reading list and an all singing, all dancing blackboard site. Professor Cole was also hugely generous with his time and advice. Taken together these formed a fantastic safety net, but still I had to learn the topic and write up my own lectures – I did at least want to put my own stamp on things.

Early career historians are accustomed to imposter syndrome. Teaching a unit on the Holocaust, I felt it doubly so. There was the usual sense of insecurity – who am I to be teaching people about all this? – but also a nagging sense that to do it justice, a subject such as the Holocaust required more than a non-specialist to teach it. On the one hand this is clearly false, no one aspect of history is necessarily more important than any other, and every topic demands rigour whether in research or teaching. Except, there were students in my class whose family members had been caught up in the events we were discussing. When we talked about deportations, ghettos and camps there were students clearly following a grandparent or great grandparent in their minds eye. Even for those of us without direct connections the material was often difficult. I’d never before taught a class in which people were fighting back tears. There were also students who, through work experience or similar, had been involved in Holocaust memorial museums in Britain and around the world, including at Yad Vashem, and who, frankly, knew a good deal more about the topic than me and had a keen sense of its significance.

In the end though, it worked. Some of the sessions were a bit bumpy. In an early attempt to demonstrate that I knew my stuff I gave what was, in effect, a two hour lecture on the Warsaw ghetto, trampling all over the idea of it being an interactive class. But I quickly learned from this – if nothing else speaking for two solid hours was knackering. I gave the students space to say what they thought, admitted what I didn’t know and readily drew upon the wide-ranging expertise in the room. Some of the sessions went really well, particularly the week on trains. I didn’t pretend to be a Holocaust historian and the students didn’t seem to mind. At the end of the semester they were extremely positive in their feedback about the unit. Some of them even said nice things about me and my teaching. And I learned a lot. About the Holocaust, yes, but also about teaching, and how to engage students with a topic and with complex ideas and concepts. And all of this has fed back into the teaching I do now on France and on Communism.

I went on to teach the Holocaust again the following year and, when students were asked, it was definitely Tom Beaumont’s ‘Holocaust Landscapes’.


Special thanks to Tom Beaumont for his blog post! Tom is currently a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, for more information see http://research-information.bristol.ac.uk/en/persons/thomas-w-beaumont(60a8df84-32a0-4551-b722-eb9b8715af97).html   Catch him on twitter @twbeaumont




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