Researching and Re-telling the Past: Blogging about Disability History

Providing an innovative, research-focused approach to nineteenth-century disability studies, undergraduate history students at Swansea University combine the use of archival resources with blogging to publicly disseminate their work. Here, Professor David Turner reflects on the multiple teaching and learning approaches to ‘Researching and Re-telling the Past’.

By Prof. David Turner (Swansea University)

Researching and Re-telling the Past is a second year undergraduate History module at Swansea University. Students taking the module undertake primary research with two aims: to produce an academic essay and to create a public output which conveys the findings of the research to a wider audience. The module is set up so that it can be taught by different members of staff and linked to their research interests. In the past, students have worked in collaboration with a Heritage Lottery Funded project marking the centenary of Swansea City Football Club, researched the archives of Swansea University Student Union, produced educational resources for primary school children visiting a Roman archaeological site, and contributed to the regeneration of the Hafod Copperworks by producing visitor materials.

As lecturer on the module this year, I based the module on disability in nineteenth-century industrial Britain, linking to my Wellcome funded Disability and Industrial Society: A Comparative Cultural History of British Coalfields 1780-1948 project. The 8 students taking the class used local archives to research aspects of the hidden history of disabled people and blogged about their findings, with the aim of raising awareness of disability history during UK Disability History Month (22 November to 22 December).

The module was taught using a variety of lectures and seminars. As none of the students had studied disability history before, I used the lecture sessions to provide them with an introduction to the topic, examining key themes such as welfare, education and the perception of disabled children. We also looked at the present political struggles of the disability movement in historical perspective. I introduced the research element to the module straight away, scheduling field trips to the University’s Richard Burton Archives and the West Glamorgan Archive service in the first two weeks of term. Seminars also honed critical analysis of sources, using documents uncovered by my own research and ones found by the students themselves.

Wellcome Library, London
Wellcome Library, London.

In addition to research techniques, I also used the seminars to examine critically different ways of engaging the public, with a focus on blogging and social media. The students used classroom time to find other blogs in disability history to examine their strengths and weaknesses. I encouraged students to evaluate blogs not just in terms of content, but also by their style of presentation and the ways in which they tried to engage readers. We looked at how writing for the public differed from writing a standard university history essay, and discussed examples of other student blog projects using the links on Blogging Beyond the Classroom. This was a valuable experience as students were able to look at what others were doing at different universities and gain tips and inspiration from their work.

Students then formed two groups to create and contribute to blogs on disability history. Initially, the two groups thought of aiming their outputs at their own peer groups. In discussions about what platform to use, students felt that Tumblr would engage a younger audience better than other blogs, and thought that Facebook was more effective than Twitter in creating an audience. However, as the projects evolved, the students’ outlook changed. As they thought about the nature of their outputs, both groups decided that WordPress would provide a more ‘serious’ platform for their work that would enable them to reach a more varied audience. Although both established Facebook groups, they set up Twitter feeds as well (@swandishist, @19DisabilityHis), which attracted followers that included academics and disability organisations on both sides of the Atlantic.

I took the decision to allow each group to set up its own blog, rather than set up a blog for the module as a whole and have students contribute to it. Not seeing material before it appeared online carried risks, but my trust in the students was rewarded. We established from the outset protocols and ground rules for presenting material online and discussed the sensitive issues of language and representation that applied to disability in particular. Allowing the students to manage their own blogs and social media encouraged them to take responsibility for their group projects, gave their work a more distinctive personal ‘identity’, and allowed them full creativity to present their research as they saw fit. Once the blogs had been set up, I asked students to report back regularly in seminars about their blog and social media activity and reflect critically on what was working and what wasn’t. I used my own Twitter feed to promote the blogs which further increased the audience. At the end of the module, the students gave presentations on their work.

You can see the results of the students’ work at http://dhrmonth.wordpress.com and at http://swandishist.wordpress.com. I was impressed by the creativity of both groups and their commitment to keeping their blogs updated. For their assessment, students were told that they had to produce an 800 word end of project article, but both groups went beyond this by writing regular updates about their research, sharing the duties of writing between group members. They fully embraced the principle that the key to successful blogging is to publish ‘little and often’. At a time when we often hear the complaint that students take an instrumental, assessment-focussed approach to their studies, it was great to see how giving students the opportunity to maintain their own blogs encouraged them to write more, take risks by writing about new topics, and think about the value of historical research beyond the university.

Researching and Re-telling the Past is a module that encourages fresh and innovative approaches to teaching and learning on the part of staff and students alike. Many of the students said in their presentations that they would like to continue blogging outside this module, and in particular keep a blog to support their dissertation work in their third year. As a teacher, it has convinced me that blogging is an important pedagogical tool that I want to extend to my other teaching and assessment in the future.

Professor David Turner

Department of History and Classics, Swansea University

Twitter: @DrDavidMT

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