Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.
Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).
The last couple of months have been a busy time, as they generally are for anyone working in higher education. Essay marking, exam marking, exam boards, moderation meetings, and all the other vital administrative tasks required in a moder university. Hence, a scarcity of posts.
In amongst all the admin, though, there have been some great moments. The teaching awards that I mentioned in this post? I won! Thanks to the kind words of my undergraduate students, The Nuclear Cold War won best course (out of the entire university!) at the annual Edinburgh University Students’ Association Teaching Awards. I now have a rather nice glass award on my desk.
Mark and I recorded a sequel to our podcast on nuclear fallout, which turned out quite well. More recently, we recorded an episode on the AIDS crisis in the United States during the 1980s. A challenging topic, but one of great interest.
And last week, I had my first artice accepted for publication by Cold War History. It honestly felt like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. That first publication is – for me – a huge milestone, a step towards a full-time career in academia. The article is on British arms sales to India in the 1970s, and the ways in which they complicated nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy. Not sure when it will be out yet (these things take quite a while), but I’m thrilled that some of my research will be in print.
Over the summer, I should have some time to research and write. Part of that at least will involve more posting!
Tonight is the annual Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Teaching Awards. I’m thrilled that this year my Nuclear Cold War course has been shortlisted in the ‘Best Course’ category.
It’s immensely flattering that the students who took the course thought enough of it to both nominate and give such positive comments that I made it to the shortlist of two. There are two sets of people who really make a course work: students and the admin staff. The latter never get the credit they deserve. Without the fantastic administrative support I’ve received from the department, the course would have been far more difficult to implement.
Students are the heart of any course. Yes, enthusiasm and knowledge on the part of the tutor/lecturer are vital components, but keen, willing, critical, engaged students really make a course work. I’ve been lucky enough to have excellent classes in my first year of honours teaching, for which I’m very grateful.
So, by about 10pm tonight I’ll know if I’ve won or not. Even if it’s ‘not’, I’m delighted to have go this far.
It’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.
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.
The hectic nature of the end of semester means that this penultimate post about the nuclear Cold War course has been more than a little bit delayed. Apologies for that.
Our final class examined the end of the Cold War and the influence of nuclear arms (and related issues) on the conclusion of nearly five decades of confrontation. Did ‘the atom’ have any influence? In the big scheme of things, did the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – as an example of arms control – actually do anything to help? I argued (and many students agreed) that the end of the Cold War is in fact even more complicated than the beginning of the Cold War. Disentangling the various threads (no pun intended) is one of the challenges of studying this period.
Having taught classes on The War Game before, I was genuinely fascinated to see if teaching a class that involved the grim and disturbing Threads would be any different.
The fascinating thing about this seminar was the variety of opinions on the film. Some found it deeply disturbing and moving, others realised the impact it must have had, but were less shocked by the visceral imagery and storyline.
One thing that the class allowed me to do was articulate why I ended up teaching a course like this. Threads had a major (and terrifying) impact on me from a young age, and that terror is one of the reasons I ended up studying nuclear issues: a need to understand what made me so scared as a kid. Threads, the Greenham Common protests, post-apocalyptic cinema in general, and the news media all had a significant impact on me growing up. Teaching a course such as this is an outgrowth of that.
The image to the right scared the holy living hell out me. In fact, it still does. The image of the bandaged, badly burned, rifle-wielding traffic warden is one of the enduring images from the film. There’s something peculiarly British about this: the traffic warden as almost universally despised low-level authority figure, made in this case literally faceless and carrying the ultimate symbol of post-apocalyptic authority.
Important aide memoire for self: those subjects that you really, really know a lot about, have done extensively researched, and that you’ve produced scholarly work about. Those are the ones that are hardest to teach.
For this part of the course, we turned our gaze towards proliferation and the developing world. In particular, the West’s interactions with the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. Which just so happens to be the subject of my doctoral thesis. The intent behind this was twofold: 1) to explore how the media influences perceptions about national (or what they perceive as transnational) nuclear programmes. 2) to explore attitudes towards national nuclear programmes within governments.