Workshop: Teaching the History of Voluntary Action

Last week I attended a workshop on teaching the history of voluntary action at the University of Liverpool, financed by the Economic History Society. Following the recent resurgence of voluntary action history in research, this event provided an opportunity to consider how this research can be brought into our teaching and what this might look like. You can find out a lot about the content of the day by reading one of the organisers’ blog on it.Workshop funders

Being fairly new to both the research and teaching of voluntary action history, I was pleased to see fellow PhD and early career researchers not only included in the conversation, but asked to act as discussants, like myself. I talked about my experience teaching a module on social justice in my department that included voluntary placements, alongside Keith Laybourn talking about the use of new media and classroom techniques. This fed into a wider discussion of how we teach voluntary action, once we get past the what to teach and where. It provided a rare reflective space for a new teacher in an area of personal and professional development which can receive comparatively little attention.

That said, we were very fortunate to be able to draw on the experience of many more established academics as well. I was particularly struck by Bernard Harris’ opening remarks in response to the question ‘why should we teach voluntary action history?’ It was a point we returned to frequently and his answers could equally have applied to ‘why research’ as well as ‘why teach’ the topic. When we examined our own teaching it was possible to see multiple drivers; our own interest in the subject, its intrinsic importance, links to other disciplines and fields of history and importantly, for me at least, voluntary action as a social mirror. However the ‘why’ question proved crucial in our consideration of where the balance might lie in teaching voluntary action embedded within other topics, or as a stand-alone module.

What did I take I take away from the workshop? Firstly I was surprised to realise how much of the teaching of voluntary action history takes place outside of history departments; in social policy, social work, public policy, geography, politics and criminology. In terms of embedding voluntary action into teaching, it is clear that other disciplines have made important contributions to this to date. Perhaps history departments are playing catch-up a little here, as it takes time for newer welfare historiography to filter into teaching.

The event also highlighted for me a need for more discussion of why, how and what we teach, especially among those of us earlier in our careers, who can be thrown in the teaching deep-end somewhat, or who need to be teaching already to be offered support. It was a huge boost to me to be able to discuss my experience and do so in an environment where nobody had any answers, but everybody was more than willing to start thinking about the questions.

We amassed a wide range of teaching resources and practice, which many of us benefitted from looking at. We were also able to make connections to others teaching in similar areas. At the end of the workshop we discussed how to make the best use of resources and interpersonal networks to continue many of the conversations which the day had started. We are used to presenting our research and thinking about how we disseminate it, but perhaps it is time we did a bit more of this with our teaching too. Hopefully a follow-up event will help me, and other new teachers of voluntary action history to do more of this. Until then, however, I have plenty to think about.

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