Teaching the Nuclear Cold War: Conclusions

13 Jan

NCWIt’s well over a month now since the conclusion of my first foray into teaching honours-level history (and only a couple of days until I start teaching my second course). Time to take stock, to assess, and to examine the good and the bad. In this post, I aim to summarise the course, look at how things ended up when compared to how I imagined they would, and think about ways to improve the course for future offerings. Hopefully, this reflection and analysis will make me a better teacher and make the course better in future.

The Good

I was delighted to see students responding to my enthusiasm for nuclear history, engaging with subjects they had never studied before, and coming to their own considered conclusions. Furthermore, I was very pleased to see from the feedback that the course had encouraged many students to think more about contemporary nuclear issues and how they relate to the Cold War.

Innovative learning techniques proved to be a bit of a hit. My ‘bunker game’ (see the entry on Week 7) and the ‘create your own BBC docudrama’ (see the entry on Week 10) were two exercises that were entertaining and educationally useful. It was also fantastic to see students step out from the bounds of traditional academic discussion and use their knowledge in other ways. There might also have been some horrifying insights into the way some people might act in an extreme survival situation!

Initially, I found dealing with honours classes of 23-26 students something of a challenge. However, I’m now much more comfortable with this, having learned how to split the class, focus debate, and engender wider feedback. While not always successful (see below), I was moderately happy that class size did not generally inhibit learning.

Finally, I found myself delighted at how students engaged with primary sources. The Strath Report in particular had a lasting impact. One student commented to me that it’s probably the only primary source they’ll remember when the leave university. Films like The War Game and Threads also got a lot of feedback, positive and negative. Actually, that’s another thing I enjoyed a lot: the way that sources like Strath and The War Game polarised the classes and led to some useful, interesting (and sometimes heated) debates.

The Bad

I’ll break this down into obvious sections: classes and assessment.

One thing that came out of student feedback was that a greater focus in many of the classes would have been appreciated. And I totally understand where this comes from. May of the seminars (for example, arms control in the 1970s) were broad in scope. They could have been improved by having a very narrow focus, but using that narrow focus or test case to think about wider issues. It’s an obvious thing, but one that I’ve only realised about since the course ended. And, I’ve certainly taken this on board for my US-UK relations course that starts soon.

Another bit of feedback was that the reading for the various classes was quite extensive, perhaps more extensive than in other classes. Here I have to respectfully disagree with those who noted that they would prefer to have less reading assigned each week. To my mind, five or six chapters or journal articles is not an onerous burden. However, I do agree with one very small but important point: it was commented that things would be perceptually different if I called the core items ‘Recommended Readings’ rather than ‘Essential Readings’. I entirely agree with this and it’s something I’ve implemented in my current course outline.

Related to the readings, there are certainly things I would change. For example, I still maintain that Francis Gavin’s Nuclear Statecraft and Peter Hennessey’s The Secret State are immensely useful for a course such as this (the former especially). In future, though, I might ask students to purchase a single volume that addresses the entire Cold War period, such as Gerard de Groot’s The Bomb: A Life. Ideally, de Groot, Gavin, and Hennessey combined would be a great core collection for a student of nuclear history. Would it be fair to make undergraduates pay £40 for course books? There might be a bit of resistance there.

Regarding assessment, there are several issues here, many of which I recognised during the course. First off, the notion to having peer assessment of class presentations was – although instituted with the best of intentions – woefully misguided. It created a massive administrative burden for me and led to some awkwardness amongst the students. Indeed, it was related to me that students were very reluctant to rate their peers anything below ‘competent’, thus skewing the marking.

Second, having no fixed essay questions was perhaps a small error. Many students (see above) wholeheartedly embraced the idea of creating their own research questions. others were less enthusiastic and found the process extremely challenging. On one hand, that’s part of the point. On the other hand, though, I can see where students – especially those in third year – might find this difficult. This is without a doubt one of the issues facing mixed 3rd/4th year classes: the 4th years are much better equipped to formulate research questions and engage in their own investigations of a topic. This obviously not universal, but it broadly applies. In order to combat this, for future courses I’ll be offering a fixed list of essay questions, while retaining the opportunity for students to come up with their own topics. Hopefully this will provide the best of both worlds.


For my first go at teaching at honours level, I would argue that the Nuclear Cold War was a qualified success. Many students were enthused about the subject (or parts of it) and – broadly speaking – there was a lot of engagement. Furthermore, I learned a huge amount about creating and facilitating an upper level course. It’s the old argument: practice is sometimes better than theory! In this case, it was only through creating the course and taking classes that the issues became apparent. That my students were willing to engage with this aspect of things is a testament to them. I’ve taken on board many of the lessons of this course and will have applied them to this semester’s honours offering, A “Special Relationship?”: US-UK Relations from World War 2 to the War on Terror. And, finally, I’m delighted to see that so many students from The Nuclear Cold War have enough faith in me that they’ve signed up for A “Special Relationship”?





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