Mini-series: Classroom communities – A conversation between Ewen and Rachel (Part 2)

History Society winning ‘Place for All’ at the Student Awards 2019


In this Mini-Series on Embedding Belonging in the Classroom post, Professor Ewen Cameron, Head of School for History, Classics and Archaeology, and Rachel Irwin, fourth year History Student and President of History Society, continue their conversation together about building classroom communities. In Part 2, led by questions from Eleri Connick (Student Communities Project Officer), Ewen and Rachel chat about creating camaraderie amongst peers and staff, and the role of Academic Societies….

Who is responsible for creating belonging in the classroom? Is it on one person or is it a co-partnership between both students and staff?

Rachel: It is definitely a two-way street: community involves everyone. As a school, we focus so much on collaborating between the staff and the History Society because it’s the main way outside of classroom time that we can interface with one another. This year, the History Society have been trying to communicate more with staff (not just upper management) by sending a monthly email to tell staff about what we’re doing, how to get involved, and to approach the Society if there’s a topic they’d like to lecture for students in an academic lecture.

And what would your top tip be for students who can’t engage outside of the classroom, and so their entire school belonging rests upon their classroom experience?

Rachel: Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Even if it’s to the person sat next to you. Some of the best conversations I’ve had are when I’ve just nudged the person next to me and been like, ‘do you know what they are talking about?’, and then we just laugh, and it just breaks that feeling that everyone needs to be at a certain level. Because if you’re feeling lost, and that you don’t understand something, then it’s easy to shut down and not engage. You need to ask those questions and sometimes you just need a friend to say, ‘it’s okay to ask because we will answer, and we won’t make you feel stupid about it’.

Ewen: I absolutely agree. At all levels of teaching, you want to try and reduce that distance between yourself and the students. So we use things like Autonomous Learning Groups – a fancy name for encouraging the students to get the sense that, once you go out the door, the class and learning continues. As Rachel was saying, you can learn a lot from one another. I used to run a course on ‘Scotland in the Great War’, and I divided the students into groups and named them after Scottish regiments. It was one year in particular where the students got really into this, and they developed a sense of identity as the Black Watch or Seaforth Highlanders. It was little things like that, setting them particular tasks like find out about what war memorials were built for the regiments they came from. It’s about giving students agency, and it helps to break down the barrier Rachel was hinting at. The best teaching happens when the barrier has been broken down and the distance between the students is reduced.

How important is the relationship between the academic society and the school in embedding belonging?

Rachel: It’s vital. I think it’s really important because a lot of the time in these societies, it’s the group of students in the department who are most pro-active and keen to create that relationship, but they need the help of staff to engage people who aren’t automatically going to get involved. They need to be used as much as possible to bring those poles closer.

Would you see a benefit in every school having an academic society?

Rachel: I really would, especially in creating a sense of community amongst the students themselves. Having first years who know older students. That’s a really great thing the society can provide, that link between year groups which are helpful in a practical sense but also in a social sense. It’s nice to know different people, mingle, and learn from each other outside the classroom.

Ewen: I agree with all of that; that’s really well expressed. I think that from a staff point of view, we have five societies within the school, which is great, but the difficulty is always achieving continuity. The School has a responsibility to help societies as much as possible. The other way to reduce the distance is through the incredible programme of research seminars we run. For some reason, despite how much we encourage students to come, they still don’t feel it’s for them, but I think students would really benefit. The other thing is thinking about the different forms of assessment – like you were saying about advice from other students, Rachel. When I was a student, we used to swap and read each other’s essays, and that was incredibly useful for revision and the way in which it was a shared exercise. The sharing of work was a big part of the culture. I don’t know if students do that now?

Rachel: Well I don’t know if that culture has slightly eroded by this competitive atmosphere from the culture of being constantly assessed? I’ve asked people for notes from a presentation which would be helpful on an essay, and they’ve said no because they want to use it for a similar essay in a different course. I can’t argue with that but it would be nice to have that sharing environment.

Ewen: Do you feel that? That there is this competitiveness?

Rachel: Yeah, almost. It’s hard to measure because there’s this kind of secrecy. There’s never a paper copy of someone else’s work. I very rarely read someone else’s work unless a friend asks me to proof read, and I would almost never read the work of a classmate in the same course. Maybe it’s to do with plagiarism because it’s so easy on TurnItIn. I think people are hyperaware of that and so I don’t think there’s that kind of sharing

Ewen: I think there’s been improvements like the common marking scheme and statistical exercises we do to analyse marking patterns, but we have lost something along the way and become more individualised. There is less of a shared experience amongst students, as well as between students and staff.

Rachel: That might just be a product of wider culture, rather than just higher education, that people are more competitive or individualistic or whether it’s just the way the world is going at the minute, I’m not too sure…

Part 1 of Ewen and Rachel’s conversation about classroom community can be found in the Teaching Matters blog post: Mini-series: Classroom communities – A conversation between Ewen and Rachel (Part 1).

Ewen Cameron

Ewen Cameron is Head of History, Classics, and Archaeology (HCA), and Professor of Scottish History. He was a student in Aberdeen, where he sat a lot of exams, and Glasgow in the1980s. He has taught at Edinburgh since 1993. He has been Head of HCA since 2016. His teaching and research focuses on modern Scottish History.

Rachel Irwin

Rachel is a fourth year History student from Liverpool. Her subject areas of interest are environmental history, modern American history, and contemporary world history. She is currently the President of the Edinburgh University History Society, as well as a Student Ambassador for the School of HCA.

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