Sometime ago I wrote about Mandell Creighton, a tutor and professor in history, who challenged the prevailing teaching methods in late-nineteenth-century Oxford and Cambridge. Inspired by Creighton’s philosophy of teaching which underlined the need to encourage students to critically construct new knowledge I decided to test one of his teaching methods in my survey course on western historiography. The method that Creighton had used was sort of an adaptation of a role play. To stir up discussion in a classroom Creighton asked his students to name one English King they would like to meet over a dinner. Some may think that role plays are childish and therefore inappropriate to venerable university curriculum. Truth told, I might have had such misgivings a few years ago, but the growing experience in teaching and a more conscientious reflection on the methods of teaching have led me to profoundly reassess my role as a university teacher. Indeed, I have come to realize that it is not my duty to spoon feed the students. No, my responsibility is to provide guidance and tools so that students can process the material we go through during the course so that they gain enough competence to challenge their pre-existing views and expand their existing knowledge base. Only by enhancing their independent and analytical thinking it is possible to help them to deepen their understanding about history. These goals in my mind, I bravely ventured to an unknown territory and decided to throw a dinner party to foregone historians.
So, as the very last assignment of the semester, I asked my students to invite one of the many historians we had discussed about along the course and to briefly explain their choice of date and what they intended to ask from their dinner guest. I was of course curious to see who would come for dinner, but apart from satisfying my curiosity, the dinner party had a more profound rationale as well. Since the scope of the course is extensive – from Herodotus to Hayden White – students need to process an unavoidably heavy load of new information. To assist them to grasp what is essential in the course I have designed various assignments with focus on reviewing the matter from various angles and I anticipated that the dinner party would be fun, yet a useful way to review the subject matter once more. Going through possible dinner dates the students could have reflected on what they had learned during the course.
The party exceeded my expectations. The brief half-a-page long invitations revealed that the students had given careful thought to the assignment. The answers did not only show understanding about a particular historian’s thinking, but also showed how the students had grasped the importance of their guest in a wider historiographical context. The papers also displayed historical awareness and knowledge about culinary trends in different historical periods. I received plenty of suggestions on mouthwatering dishes the students wanted to serve to their guests as well as proposals for appropriate venues for the historiographical rendezvous.
Of course I was curious to see who would show up to the dinner and I have to admit that the guest list was quite surprising. First, I was struck by the modest representation of Finnish historians. Only three national scholars – Mikael Agrciola, Johannes Messenius and Alma Söderhjelm – received an invitation. Such patriotic heroes as Yrjö Koskinen were bluntly left uninvited. Another unexpected result was the unpopularity of ancient, medieval and early modern historians. One explanation might be that the students remember better the more recent historians who were introduced during the latter half of the course. Still, Tacitus and the aforementioned Agricola and Messenius represent a markedly narrow sample of early historians. The third surprise was that from a colorful cohort of eighteenth-century historians the invitations were sent only to Gianbattista Vico and Catharine Macaulay. Voltaire, Gibbon and Hume for instance were excluded from our bash. The modernist party was less unpredictable: Thomas Babington Macaulay, Leopold von Ranke, Jacob Burckhardt, Lord Acton, Karl Lamprecht, Alma Söderhjelm and Fernand Braudel were all asked to join our festivities. What, then, exactly happened at the dinner was discretely left as a secret, but it is intriguing to imagine for instance the conversation between the two (unrelated) Macaulays while they enjoyed one of Mr. Macaulay’s favorite dishes, lobster curry.
The queen of our historiographical reunion was Catharine Macaulay. Lamprecht, Söderhjelm and Vico each received two invitations, but Macaulay was the unrivalled star of the night with altogether five invitations. The contested Republican virago who challenged Hume with her Whig-history, contested the existing Whig-ideology with her interpretations and defied all social norms of feminine chastity, was the most sought after dinner date. Adding to Mrs. Macaulay’s success were the two requests that Alma Söderhjelm – the first female professor in history in Finland – received. Thus, seven out of nineteen save the date cards were sent to a woman and six of them were dispatched by young female students. This is a fact that deserves attention because it reveals how important it continues to be to show the female students that already for centuries women have contributed to historical scholarship. Although women’s position within the academia has improved by leaps and bounds since Mrs. Macaulay’s times, the need to advocate more equal scholarly community has not disappeared. Quite aptly, the walls of the lecture hall where I taught the course are adorned with portraits of retired professors in history, and yes, all of them are men in stiff suits. Although Finland is known for relatively high gender equality, the academia has been slow to embrace the skills of its female members. The history department in Helsinki currently has its first female professor. Women become curiously invisible the higher one climbs on the academic ladder. The large body of female students in history has no other option than to learn the unwritten rules and social and cultural conventions of the historical scholarship in a community where women are visible mostly as graduate students and post-doctoral researchers working on short term funding and whose teaching responsibilities are limited to one course per year. These occasional encounters are not sufficient for creating positive role models and therefore it should not come as a surprise that more than two thirds of the female students in my course chose Macaulay and Söderhjelm as their dinner guests.
Some of you might still think that role plays undermine the dignity of university teaching or that such assignments dangerously blur the line between fact and fiction. Well, I have to say that I am glad I took the risk and organized the dinner party. Of course I mostly rely on more traditional teaching methods such as the analysis of original documents and discussions on the core concepts and notions of historiography, but it certainly does not hurt to add some new tricks to the university teachers’ toolbox to enhance the learning outcomes and increase the classroom engagement. Or, can someone argue that it is wrong to adopt methods that increase students’ curiosity, thinking and interest in historiography?