Policy Briefings in the History Classroom

A Pedagogical Experiment

Dane Kennedy | Dec 17, 2018

How do we help students understand that history has relevance to their lives? This is an enduring challenge: every generation of students—indeed, every cohort—is shaped by its own distinct array of experiences. In order to make history meaningful to them, we need to connect it to their interests and concerns, finding new ways to make our classrooms places where the past informs the present. It was in this spirit that I decided to update one of my courses last spring. I did so by adapting the History and Policy Education Program (HPEP) offered by the National History Center, which I direct. The program offers a curricular model that history faculty can use to connect their course content to contemporary policy concerns.

A British squadron sails from Hong Kong to attack Amoy or Xiamen in China, 1841.

A British squadron sails from Hong Kong to attack Amoy or Xiamen in China, 1841. Rundle Burges Watson.Wikimedia Commons

The original idea for HPEP came from the center’s Congressional Briefings program, which brings historians to Capitol Hill to inform congressional staff members and other policy makers about the historical contexts of the issues they face. In HPEP, students prepare briefings that highlight how the history they are studying can help illuminate current issues. They might present these briefings to fellow students, to departmental or college groups in forums, or even to invited local officials, representatives from NGOs, and the like at public events. The program has been tried out by faculty members at several institutions, including Jessica Roney of Temple University, whose students produced a briefing on the history of poverty in Philadelphia, and Caroline Sherman and Amanda Moniz, whose Catholic University students teamed up for a briefing on religious liberty in the age of revolutions.

I decided to test the program in my course on Victorian Britain. It may seem counterintuitive to take a subject that seems so remote in time and place from the lives of contemporary American students to serve as the vehicle for an initiative designed to help them gain greater awareness of the relevance of history. But if we are to take seriously our disciplinary commitment to the principle that the past provides insights into the present, then the aims of the program should be attainable with almost any historical subject.

It wasn’t necessary for me to radically revamp my Victorian Britain course, which I’ve taught for several decades. I made room in the schedule for two new assignments—the group briefing itself and an accompanying individual paper—but otherwise maintained much of the existing structure and content of the course. Yet the new HPEP-inspired assignments gave a whole new sense of purpose and energy to the classroom.

It wasn’t necessary for me to radically revamp my Victorian Britain course.

With 40 students in the class, it didn’t seem feasible for all of them to take active roles in a single group briefing. Teams of 10 provided everyone more of an opportunity to participate and pursue topics that interested them. I proposed eight possible briefing topics for the students to consider, and they made their choices through preferential voting. The topics chosen were rich vs. poor, science vs. religion, women’s rights, and military interventions overseas. Each of these issues preoccupied the Victorians, and each preoccupies our own society. The division between rich and poor manifested itself in Victorian society in terms of class struggles in the workplace, the political arena, and more. Today, we face the growing gulf between the “one percent” and everyone else. For the Victorians, the clash between science and religion arose most famously over the issue of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection; evolution remains one of a number of issues that divide scientific and religious groups today. The feminist campaign came into its own in the Victorian era, and the struggle for women’s rights persists to the present, with the #MeToo movement appearing as its latest iteration. And the countless military interventions the Victorians conducted across their empire have plenty of echoes in contemporary American policy, not least in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The purpose of the briefings, then, was both to explain how the Victorians grappled with these issues and to consider how they persist in our own time.

The ground rules for the four groups were as follows: (1) a 20-minute presentation, followed by a 10-minute question-and-answer session; (2) an accompanying PowerPoint slide show; (3) a one-page briefing paper that summarized the group’s main findings; and (4) a social media campaign (Twitter, Facebook Live, and so on) to disseminate those findings. It was entirely up to the team members to determine who would carry out which tasks, how they would structure their presentation, and what its content would be. I set aside two and a half class days for the groups to meet independently to plan their projects, divvy up responsibilities, and practice their presentations. Students also met outside class hours. The final two days of class were devoted entirely to the briefings, which I filmed with the students’ permission. Clips from those presentations can be viewed at nationalhistorycenter.org/victorian-britain-then-and-now/.

The other assignment was more conventional, though crucial to the briefings’ success. In order to ensure that all students brought some historically relevant expertise to their group projects, each was required to research and write a paper on a topic related to the subject of their briefing. I prepared lists of potential paper topics, but also encouraged students to pursue ideas that interested them. As is always the case, some students were more skilled, motivated, and resourceful in carrying out this assignment than others, but it ensured that every student contributed a historical perspective to the issues addressed in the group briefing.

The briefing program is attractive for a variety of reasons. For starters, its collaborative character appeals to many among the current generation of students, whose schooling has encouraged group work. Evaluating such work can prove challenging for grizzled history teachers of my generation, but that simply suggests that we may have need for remedial education. Another attraction of the briefing program is that it allows students to play to their different strengths and skills. Some enjoy speaking in front of an audience; others prefer to design a PowerPoint presentation or to live-tweet or make other behind-the-scenes contributions. Whatever those contributions might be, they are there to be viewed and judged not merely by the instructor, but by their peers, and possibly by others. This can be a powerful incentive to prepare and perform well. Finally, the program encourages students to become more self-reliant and take ownership of their education. They find they are no longer simply consumers of knowledge, but contributors to its creation and dissemination.

The program encourages students to take ownership of their own education.

Student learning was enhanced, I believe, in several distinct ways. First, students had to work collaboratively to shape their project’s overall scope and goals. Second, they had to gather the information and insights that the team members had acquired in their individual papers and integrate them into the group project. Third, they had to identify and develop a common theme and cohesive structure for that project. Fourth, they had to figure out how to communicate what they had learned through a range of methods (written, oral, visual, and via the Internet). And, of course, they had to think seriously about how the historical issues they examined are echoed in our own time. Most of them did so in thoughtful and nuanced ways.

Let me take as an example the briefing on rich vs. poor. The student presenters focused on the spatial inequality in industrial cities between working-class slums and middle-class suburbs; the social inequality experienced by domestic servants in the homes of the well-to-do; the educational inequality that determined occupational opportunities; and the workplace inequality that spurred the labor movement. On each point, students drew comparisons to their own society (McMansions and the subprime mortgage crisis as manifestations of modern spatial divisions, for example). They concluded by observing that current debates about how to overcome poverty—individual responsibility vs. social welfare—reproduce arguments made by the Victorians themselves.

I don’t want to suggest that that this experiment was an unmitigated success. It was not. I realize in retrospect that I should have set an earlier due date for the research paper, which would have given students more time to assimilate their individual research findings into the group presentations. It also became evident that one of the four groups had failed to fully grasp the purpose of the project, a problem I might have forestalled if I had set aside time for a preview session. And, predictably, some groups were more sophisticated and successful than others at drawing connections (and contrasts) between the Victorians’ concerns and those that preoccupy us. Still, HPEP worked far better than I expected. I came to the end of the academic year enthused and inspired by what had taken place in the classroom, confident that many of my students set off that summer with a heightened appreciation of how history can enhance their understanding of the world they confront and hope to change.

Dane Kennedy is director of the National History Center and professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.

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