It’s the time of year when work starts on updating course material for the Autumn. This year the major activity will be transforming INSTG004 Cataloguing from class-based to lab-based as we move away from AACR2′s loose-leaf folders to the RDA Toolkit (of which more anon), but I’m beginning gently with more subtle changes to INSTG012 Historical Bibliography.
Every year I solicit feedback from students, and, of course, as part of my PGCLTHE I conducted interviews as well as employing more detailed questionnaires to assess the impact of the practical work students undertake . From this, we know that students learn most through active learning – that is by engaging with materials directly and putting concepts into practice as soon as possible after learning them.
Developing a module is, of course, an iterative and a reiterative process. The bare bones are fairly straightforward: constructive alignment makes it simple to derive intended learning outcomes and appropriate assessments . Finessing the activities organised from the front of the room (teaching) to achieve the maximum amount of impact on the maximum number of students (learning) takes somewhat longer … it could be argued that it is the career-long task of all teachers. After all, there is always that one student who is just taking the course in order to pass, and so is subconsciously resistant to engaging with material that is not assessed (strategic learning), and grabbing their attention takes real hard work.
Historical Bibliography in its current iteration (since I became module coordinator in 2009-10) is regarded as a successful Masters module. We recruit high numbers (25-35 students each year); the pass rate is high; students report satisfaction in both official (departmental evaluation questionnaires) and unofficial (module questionnaires and verbal feedback) measures; we attract a few short course students for CPD; and, arguably of supreme importance in a vocational Masters, recruitment into the related profession (heritage librarianship) is successful, with a few students each year going straight into rare books roles and a higher number gaining dedicated heritage positions 1-3 years after gaining their Masters.
But everything in life that involves humans can be improved, right? If we believe that undergraduate study in Arts & Humanities teaches us anything (and I do), it must follow that spending 3-4 years engaging with a type of material and taking part in a particular style of debate must give us (a) a skillset and (b) confidence in that skillset. So bringing a group of Masters students from different backgrounds to the same level of confidence in historical debate is, to my way of thinking, quite different from bringing a group of students some of whom have never catalogued and some of whom have catalogued for a few years as paraprofessionals to the same level of confidence. There is a similarity in the skill, but a difference in the scale: cataloguing is based on interpreting a set of rules (in textual form) and applying them. Cataloguing class involves discussing these cataloguing decisions, and these are deemed “appropriate” or “inappropriate” based on the textual evidence supporting them. There’s one text – AACR2, soon to be RDA. In historical debate we discuss our understanding of the past, based at Masters level mostly on secondary sources with a smattering of contemporary materials. It’s still textual interpretation that forms our evidence, but the evidence is hugely diverse: students can start with a text set from the front of the room but can add in other texts they have read at any time in the past and from which they can evince their point of view.
I’ve run seminars, on narrow topics like what makes a good Masters History essay and on wider topics like censorship, of which everyone feels some level of ownership, but I’d like to do more of this, in a way that supports confidence-building and empowers people to take part in the debate equally, no matter their background discipline. However, far and away the most effective seminar last Autumn from this point of view was relatively impromptu.
The lecture I dislike giving most in the session is the one on the spread of printing. There is so much we still have to discover on this topic that I find it hard to communicate the key research in the topic without feeling like I am over-simplifying things in some way. It’s really something I’d prefer to have groups of students reading different research and presenting to the group and then discussing, but it happens so early in the chronology of printing history that it feels like a topic that would expose students without a History background a little earlier than is fair. So every year I diligently give an overview lecture and then there’s an open discussion, in which the keen and confident can hold forth and others can hide a little if they choose.
This year, though, I was able to show Harvard Metalab’s data visualization of 15th century printing. What a brilliant discussion starter that turned out to be. It provided a way in for students from a wide range of disciplines – History, of course, but also Geography, Politics, Digital Humanities and Computer Science. Even better for our students, all of whom had taken or were half way through taking the compulsory Cataloguing course, the building of the visualization from catalogue data was a real gift. So much to discuss; so much that was accessible, even to the strategic learners – we had already talked about cataloguing backlogs and hidden collections and the growth of Venice was one of the essay topics from which they could choose. Following the discussion of the visualization, the rest of the session was much more interactive; as everyone who teaches knows, once students have found their voices there is no going back to the initial shyness (and why would we want there to be?)
My take-home from this experience is that the non-textual nature of visualizations opens up discussion to students from less text-based first disciplines and that, as such, they are great tools for getting everyone speaking with confidence. So I’m surfing around for other visualizations to use as discussion starters, pairing them with article and book chapter readings I’d like this year’s cohort to undertake. I also feel heartened by a blog article that’s been doing the rounds on twitter this weekend:
Yes, accessibility, understanding, and insight are the wonderful products of wonderful visualizations. But truly transformative visualizations invite people to touch, stroke, and go deeper into the data that underlie them. They engage. They encourage engagement. They give their users a new way to view each other, as well as the data. 
 Anne Welsh. ‘Experiential learning in Historical Bibliography’ in Raphaele Mouren (ed.). Ambassadors of the Book: Competences and Training for Heritage Librarians. (IFLA Publications 160). De Gruyter, 2012.
 John Biggs and Catherine Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does, 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill, 2007.
 Michael Schrage. Data Visualizations Should Be As Much About Facilitating Interaction As Conveying Meaning. LSE Impact of Social Science, 5 April 2013.
Image: Emma Booth at work in a bindings practical. As featured (with her permission) on our INSTG012 module leaflet (pdf)