Teaching the nuclear Cold War: Week 1

20 Sep

You have to hand it to John Mueller. Decades on from the original publication, ‘The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons‘ still has the power to provoke thought and debate.

The first session of my nuclear Cold War course was – as these things are – initially taken up with the kind of administrative tedium that undergraduate students so frequently have to suffer in the first week of teaching.  That aside, I attempted to outline why this course exists, pondering some of my own research interests, and musing on what future archaeologists might think of the detritus of the nuclear Cold War.

Administrative tedium notwithstanding, what impressed me in this first session was the engagement of students with the readings and ideas that they were asked to study. In both classes, there were great discussions that I barely had to take a hand in. Mueller was –  I think – key to this. The provocative nature of his argument, coupled with a wide range of available critical literature, led to some very insightful commentary.

In light of recent debates in Scotland, we also touched upon the United Kingdom’s position as a nuclear weapon state. In some instances, I was genuinely surprised to see wide-ranging support for a continued British nuclear force. It just goes to show: never, ever make assumptions about your students! Next week, we embark on an exploration of the early Cold War, from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the conflict in Korea.

Both classes also demonstrated in the inherent pedagogical challenges of large seminar groups (23-25 students per class). In such a situation, the more vocal students obviously find it easier to put their point across, while quieter students (who have equally valid interpretations to offer) find themselves lost in the melee. That’s something to address as the course progresses, making more use of small group work, structured debates, and other methods of giving equal time to all those who wish to speak.

On the flipside, part of the way I will be assessing student participation is how well they facilitate the learning of others. This is all about giving space, listening charitably, and aiding understanding. Students who are always willing to talk and share their interpretations play a major part in this by their willingness to help others.

Overall, I find myself very excited by these first sessions. There was engagement, understanding, and a willingness to debate the issues. I’m thoroughly looking forward to seeing how this continues as we turn to our first substantive class on the early Cold War.

As I noted a couple of days ago, my aim is to use this blog as a forum for further discussion, debate, and feedback. I do hope that students on the course (hello out there!) take the time to offer feedback and comment as the semester progresses.


One Response to “Teaching the nuclear Cold War: Week 1”


  1. TEACHING THE NUCLEAR COLD WAR: WEEK 2 | theatomicage - September 29, 2014

    […] the introductory Muellerising of last week, this time we really get down to business. Our class this week looked at the totally […]

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