When William Stubbs resigned his professorship in Oxford in 1884, he published a selection of his lectures. In a strikingly honest preface he admitted that lecturing had been a burden to him and he had consented to lecture only because the university statutes had required this of him twice a year. Stubbs deplored how two times every year and under pressure, weariness, and vexation, he had been forced to produce something that gave him a little pleasure. The teaching load felt heavy also because the lectures attracted only “an idle audience.” Lecturing had been “so irksome that never once, in the course of my seventeen years of office, did I think that there would come a time when I could look back on this part of my work with pleasure of grateful regret.” Together with an extraordinary illustrating subtitle, “Delivered at Oxford under statutory obligation”, the preface made it plain that lecturing had not been the highlight of Stubbs’s academic career. While Stubbs bemoaned about his teaching duty, educating the young souls was a delight for Mandell Creighton, a young tutor in Oxford during Stubbs’s professorship. Creighton was a teacher and a scholar par excellence, but while Stubbs struggled to find time to prepare lectures, the teaching load prevented Creighton from completing his study about the renaissance popes. Stubbs and Creighton illustrate the difficulty of combining the most essential tasks of a modern university: research and teaching.
Scholar as a teacher, or, teacher as a scholar; academics are expected to swiftly jump from one role to another and to multitask between pedagogical and research specific methods, theories, and tasks. The conventional solution has been to focus on research and manage teaching on the side, but this might no longer be enough. Universities are slowly waking up to notice that the traditional methods of lecturing are outdated and one solution to improve the quality of teaching is to require formal training in university pedagogy from the teachers. Returning to school to learn the basics of pedagogical theories is not necessarily a field trip since it tends to expose how the traditional teaching methods that most of us use actually obstruct deep surface learning. It also accentuates the fact that designing courses and teaching that meet the criteria of constructive alignment requires time and effort adding even more pressure on the junior staff which is already strained by the demands of publishing, publishing, and more publishing. Yet, students deserve better teaching than they have been given so far. It is more than time to ditch the monkey with a jug –method that Creighton criticized already a more than century ago, but which has remained the prevailing mode of teaching until today. Although he was unaware of the elaborate concepts of the deep approach and constructive alignment and the accompanying pedagogical theories, his notions of teaching in late-Victorian Oxbridge still appear highly relevant: the essence of teaching is to embrace curiosity and encourage analytical thinking.
The aims and methods of teaching as well as the roles and responsibilities of a university teacher were re-defined in the nineteenth century when the professionalization and formation of new disciplines fundamentally shaped the teaching in the universities. The age-old tradition of transmitting established knowledge was no longer sufficient. Instead, professors were expected to actively construct new knowledge and share their latest discoveries with their students. It was also vital to train students in the particular skills and methods of each discipline. In history, the Germans introduced a research seminar where students worked together with a professor to learn critically evaluate primary sources. Pedagogically the seminar was a novelty: instead of passively following lectures, the students were actively engaged in the process of learning and producing new knowledge. The rumors of this innovative teaching method spread rapidly and eager students from all around the world flocked to Germany to learn the historian’s craft. When they returned to their home institutions, they brought along the notion of a seminar as an efficient way to teach history. There were, however, significant differences in how the new ideas were received and applied in different national contexts.
In England, the debate about the purpose of university learning revolved around the venerable universities in Cambridge and Oxford. The key question was whether university should prepare students for the examinations, or, to offer guidance on moral edification? Another hot topic was the division of tasks between tutors and professors. The debates divided the academic community that was pitched between the traditions and reforms. The German style seminars did not rouse enthusiasm and instead the model in which tutors prepared the students for the examinations and professors lectured on esoteric topics continued to prevail. Consequently, as Charles Oman complained, students were left at the mercy of their tutors who jealously protected their own territory by discouraging students to follow the professorial lectures. Oman, who attended Stubbs’s lectures with the “idle audience,” later wrote how students went through the university without ever hearing a professor to lecture. The majority of students stayed away from lectures preferring a strategy to work as little as possible by narrowly focusing on the topics that they knew would help them to pass the examination. University fostered cramming, not the cultivation of independent thinking.
Mandell Creighton – first a tutor in Oxford and then a professor in Cambridge – was troubled about this attitude and the weak learning outcomes of the students. He was convinced that proper guidance would help to change the way students approached learning history. His method was simple: to challenge students, to rouse their curiosity, and to encourage them to learn and discover on their own. But it was not only the students who were to blame for the situation. Creighton recognized that teachers were equally responsible for it. They were comfortable in their role as performing monkeys who poured knowledge into students’ heads like they poured water into a pitcher. The easiest way for a teacher to make sure that his students passed the exams was to spoon-feed them with ready-processed information. Students, for their part, happily swallowed what was offered to them because it saved them the trouble of reading themselves. This method of teaching gave, Creighton admitted, an image of a teacher as a “clever fellow” but it did not teach the students how to think. Thinking, however, was the skill that they needed once they entered the professional life, and it was the skill, Creighton noted, that was wanting in England. He even expressed these concerns in his inaugural lecture in Cambridge.
Fostering independent thinking entailed that teachers encouraged students to take responsibility of their learning. As a professor Creighton lectured on subjects that complemented, but not replaced, the reading that was required for the examinations. He also tried to get his students to talk freely, rise points for discussion and form their own opinions. It was vital to stir students so that they would be “dissatisfied with their own attainments” and discover the joy of learning. Another advice that he had for teachers was to challenge the students with demanding assignments. Only when students were pushed out of their comfort-zones were they truly learning. When Creighton assigned Stubbs’s constitutional history of England to one of his young private students, he admitted that he had chosen her “the hardest subject and the stiffest book” in English history but explained that serious reading “must be hard work”. Stubbs’s study certainly met the criterion.
Apart from his mandatory lectures in Cambridge, Creighton experimented with different methods of teaching research skills. He knew that English history students usually passed the university without handling original sources or learning about source criticism. This was a serious predicament for anyone who aspired for an academic career and therefore Creighton designed courses that helped students to learn the vital methodological skills. He tested his ideas on the female students at the Newnham College in Cambridge. He introduced a conversation course where the students were asked to explain different views in historical studies and to work with original authorities. Creighton concluded that the great benefit of such exercises was that they prepared students for scholarly work and trained their minds without taxing the memory as the cramming did. His hope was that both his teaching and personal “example of a life devoted to the pursuit of knowledge” would have inspired a small group of dedicated students to devote to scholarly pursuits and make “a worthy contribution to historical literature.”
Although Creighton was not familiar with the scores of pedagogical research that are available today, his modest steps in transforming the performing monkeys into a pedagogically more valuable kind has not lost their currency. Reading the twenty-first-century university pedagogical literature leaves one with an impression that only thorough knowledge and extensive studies in the field can yield excellent teachers able to implement the principles of constructive alignment and enhance the learning outcomes. This may appear as a daunting task, but the truth is that a degree in pedagogy is not necessary to realize that the performing monkeys are a thing from the past. Even an introductory reading of pedagogy is enough to convince that a classroom should not be a circus tent or teachers the performing monkeys juggling with power point slides. Nor should the students be passive audience applauding every now and then when the monkey pulls off a trick or two. What truly matters is to realize, just as Creighton did, that the key to learning is to cultivate independent thinking and encourage students to express their opinions and construct new knowledge. Of course time is needed to draft new ways to teach the content of the course and to create novel methods to engage students in the process of learning ensuing that the intended learning outcomes can be reached. Since time is a limited resource, one step on the road towards better teaching and learning outcomes could be to provide teachers with opportunities to share ideas and experiences. It is too common that teachers sit alone by their desks reinventing the wheel. Creighton provides help even in this, because he wrote about the practical exercises he adopted when he tried to make his students talk freely. With some simple tricks he inspired his students to reflect on what they had been learning. I will test one of his exercises on my students later on this semester and I’ll get back to that later on to report how an assignment that was used in the Newnham College in the 1880s works in Helsinki in 2014.
Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton ( vol. I). Ed. Louse Creighton. London: Longmans, Green , And Co., 1904.
Stubbs William, Seventeen Lectures on the Study of Medieval and Modern History and Kindred Subjects. Delivered at Oxford, under Statutory Obligation in the Years 1867–1884. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1887.