Today I gave my last lecture, although I have one more class to teach next week and an archive trip booked for the week after. I currently teach on the core module for an access to HE course, and designed the module around the theme of national identity in the British Isles with a medieval (and later medievalism) focus. It covered a lot of ground: from the Danelaw to the twentieth century, in fact. I have taught a modern history course before (1750-1980) and my background prior to my tumble into Medieval Studies was largely in nineteenth and twentieth century political history, with an interest in postcolonial theory and literature. That meant that I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted the classes to cover, and while out of my comfort zone in some of the lectures, it was a really fun learning experience for me too from the other side of the podium.

Lectures were small and took place in a large seminar room rather than a lecture theatre, and were followed by the seminar class after a short break.

I designed the module to suit my interests, and that was a really interesting experience too. I have designed seminar series before for Medieval Europe, a Year 1 module where we had free rein over seminar content, reading lists and source material provided we followed the structure of the lectures, but in this case I was the one lecturing as well, so that added an interesting dimension to things!

I was helped and supported by previous tutors, especially Gideon Brough and Richard Marsden, from whom I inherited the module, and Paul Webster, and I am really pleased with the way the course structure turned out, including the three assignments I have set my students, which I’m in the process of marking.

My final class today drew the threads of the module together, and I recapped the historiography and concepts of writing history through the lens of national identity construction. I wanted the students to think about the case studies we had looked at with a wider appreciation of the broader questions and concepts, and get them to apply these to other things.

Thursday came around, and I had no idea how to make this last seminar engaging. Part of my role is to build the students’ confidence in group situations and feel able to present their ideas to one another in a range of situations, so I wanted to get them building on the partner work and small group work they had done already. They had already debated topics like Scottish independence (an activity I appropriated from Richard M), but theory is a tricky one.
I came up with this, which I think I can work on for next time!

I printed off two copies and mixed up the cards (I used a card template in Word which was meant to be place settings for a New Year’s party) using ‘A’ and ‘B’ as neutral dichotomies.

According to each card, you are born in either A or B; speak language A or language B; recognise either King A or King B (but ‘political leader’ would also work instead of giving a specific title) and be affiliated with either religion A or B or not have a religious affiliation. The kings in this context  ended up not being a great point of discussion for time reasons, but I wanted to get them thinking about High Kingship or issues around homage. Also because this course straddles such a wide time period, we decided at the start to think of kings as ‘political leaders’ and the group debated the importance of this from a modern democratic viewpoint in contrast with early modern and medieval understandings of the political world. Seriously, we could have been there all night just on that.

The students picked a card at random from a bag (oh alright, a plastic wallet I fortunately happened to find by the PC) and then had to go around the room talking to the other students to see who was closest to their ‘identity’.
They discussed the following issues:

1. What were the most important unifiers on the card as far as they were concerned, and why? When looking for their ‘match’, or matches, what were they looking for? Why? What was the least important factor to them, and why?

2. What happens if they think they found the person closest to them, but the other person disagrees? (Someone jumped in with this one and asked before I could explain – I love it when that happens! I gave some space for them to pose their own questions as well as working from the pointers I had on the board).

3. What factors were not on the cards that would make them change their minds about their matches?

4. Given their identity markers on the cards, did they consider themselves to be an A or a B? Why? Did others agree? Why/why not?

The question of religion as a means of Othering – particularly in a British Isles context – would have been a really interesting thing to explore in light of national identity formation for Ireland and Scotland, for example, but we didn’t have time to get to this either! It’s basically an activity you can stretch over to two classes, I think…

They were then told that people from B were the colonising force, and A was a postcolonial society.

1. How did this information affect the way they saw themselves, if at all?

2. Did this change the way they saw the other students (not just their matches)? Why? In what way?

3. Did this change their views on the relative importance of the identity markers, and why?

4. Would they change their match based on this information? Why or why not?


This discussion could easily have lasted an hour; my students were really up for this and I loved the way it evolved. They came up with more questions, too, and that organically developed into some really interesting discussions, with anecdotes and examples pulled from personal experience (listened to and engaged with in a respectful way) and examples from the case studies we had used in the module. Facilitating that discussion was a joy; I think I got as much out of it as the students did!

I think I will definitely be using this as a way in to the theory-based stuff again, although an activity like this is always dependent on the dynamic within the class. I think it’s a good exercise to be adapted, too, so I will have a think about the various topics I could use something like this with. I would love to hear about versions of this and how it works for bigger groups, or if a more basic version would work in a large lecture by having a show of hands, rather than asking students to chat to each other and move around. Lots of potential there! And also the cards are quite pretty. So.

Have you tried this or something like it? What for? How did it go? Please comment and let me know!