The Ends of the Humanities

September 16, 2017

A conference with the same title, held between 10-13 September 2017, at the Université du Luxembourg’s Belval Campus, Esch-sur-Alzette, was provocative, insightful and challenging. Of our contribution later, but it’s worth pointing out that of all the discipline groups it is perhaps the Humanities that increasingly struggles to justify their place in the academic pantheon. The Arts, despite unfunded, at least sees tangible products in its performance. Science delivers the ‘advances’ that our societies demand and the Social Sciences observe, comment on and pontificate over such advances. It is the Humanities that feel so out of place, with the contemporary, with the narcissistic individualism focused on ‘me right now’ and the imminent promises of tomorrow.

There is a clear need emerging from this conference to remind our societies that they depend on the cultural skills and knowledge highlighted through the humanities disciplines. They are invaluable in revealing the present and future, reflected in the past. The Humanities sense of their responsibility towards societies is sadly not requited.

The conference provided multiple tracks all serving to highlight the means by which the humanities engage with, and inform, future societal cultural endeavours. The emphasis, at times with a tinge of defensiveness, was clearly on an acknowledgement of the need to reach beyond established academic practice. Hence there were contributions from neuroscience and linguistics, from political science and social policy as well as some analysis of the curriculum disparities in the humanities disciplines.

Our contribution, that of my wife Dr Jeanette Atkinson and myself, was a presentation entitled “An Alternative Education for the Heritage Decision Makers of the Future”. The presentation documented the course development process I’ve been evolving over a decade, and first taught as a PGCert module at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences in 2011.  It integrates other personal scholarship, notably around educational taxonomies and constructive alignment (S. P. Atkinson, 2013), but the process is in essence a structured professional dialogue between educational developer and academic course teams.

In this case the dialogue originated from a need, identified by Jeanette, based on her experience in researching and writing about the perspectives of heritage professionals in New Zealand (J. C. Atkinson, 2014). This work prompted a desire to inform practice in postgraduate education for future heritage professionals, focussed less on the preservation of the past, but rather on future societal impact through a popular engagement with heritage. Giving primacy of cultural values in any such education, combined with my research on higher education learning design processes, we went through the design process and originated a Masters programme. Given that the programme is currently being considered by a UK-HEI it is inappropriate to share too many details here, beyond the fact that following a sound educational learning design model, resulting in a constructively aligned curriculum, future graduates will develop not just subject knowledge but a range of contemporary and relevant intercultural skills.

The abilities, identified as being key affective and interpersonal domain learning objectives, are believed to be crucial skills for future graduates in an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape to advise and guide international policy processes well beyond the heritage sector. Flipping the process from ‘what’ to teach but to ‘why’ to teach, results in an original programme structure rich with significance. Arming students with these skills is surely one of the ‘Ends’ of the Humanities.

Atkinson, J. C. (2014). Education, Values and Ethics in International Heritage: Learning to Respect. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Atkinson, S. P. (2013). Taxonomy Circles: Visualizing the possibilities of intended learning outcomes. London: BPP University College.




Visual Data Collection Workshop

September 8, 2017

I had the pleasure of working with 9 heritage professionals on Wednesday 7th September at thestudio in Birmingham on a research workshop exploring both a novel data collection methodology and the relevance of a particular educational model to the heritage sector. I have to say that thestudio is a great venue. Accessible, well equipped, well-lit and easy to book and use. It’s a commercial venue so not inexpensive but I figured that since all my participants were doing so for free, the least I could do was to ensure they were provided with a hot lunch and ample supplies of muffins, teas and coffees.

Workshop Photo

thestudio-Birmingham Visual Data Workshop

As a research method it also had the advantage of me not requiring to organize one-on-one interview-style meetings with each individual, paying to travel (and possibly stay over) to wherever they were based. It also ensured that individuals were away from their institutions, working with others, engaged in a professional dialogue as they annotated a large version of learning model. Working in three groups of three, each table annotated a single diagram, recording their existing institutional practices against the elements of the learning model. After lunch, the same teams did the same exercise with the focus of future activity. I borrowed a technique from World-Café workshops I’ve run before where between sessions the teams rotate and can see how other teams have responded.

There is a lot of data to go through, as I plan to convert people’s handwritten annotations into ‘type’. I’m looking forward to going through the responses and looking for any emergent patterns.

Space, Tools and Voice: effective classroom practice

February 3, 2011

Teaching quality interventions are always a challenge for an Academic Developer, walking a thin line between sanction and support, between reassurance and patronizing. Yesterday I ran a small workshop with new classroom tutors teaching Statistics. The challenges of teaching a dozen international students new statistical concepts at 5pm on a wet windy Friday evening in London needs little unpacking.
I sought to provide some tools for staff to think about their role, to reflect on how they might meet discipline goals. We focussed not on ‘tips and tricks’ but on the fundamentals of space and voice, and how to develop engagement with both.
We explored some classroom layouts, including the one we were in, and identified the social conventions of space that determine the learning and teaching styles that are adopted. It’s a nice activity which prompts participants to identify three different disciplines being taught in three layouts illustrated when in fact all three real examples are from the same course on the same day. It prompts the question ‘am I using this learning space effectively or does it constrain, and indeed determine, how I teach?’
The tools available in the space, projector, whiteboard, PowerPoint, Prezi, etc were then discussed in relationship to this space. One of the questions I like to ask is how would you teach if the familiar tools fail you (in this case, the decorators say have removed the whiteboards). On this occasion I was walking the talk because my PowerPoint presentation had no means of being projected on rhe day and I had rearranged the seating to be able to run the session differently. Useful demonstration however unwelcome! It was a nice exploration of the nature of the whiteboard as a ‘canvas’. I suggested students might be encouraged to photograph the whiteboard (the mobile phonecam being almost ubiquitous) to support the idea that this was a group creative process which rewarded engagement not simple the instruction from the board.
We then explored , with some amusing examples, the nature of the English language as a stressed language and the relationship, interplay, between intonation and connotation. This is always fun, not least because I get to remind myself why I never went into acting!
This combination of being more spatially aware, of using the tools with engagement as the intent not information delivery, and of simple appreciating the power of the human voice, will hopefully develop confidence and a sense of each tutors’ unique abilities to communicate.
It was a fun session to run and one I hope I get to run again soon and I would love to run it overseas too.

Researching into Heritage Education

October 17, 2010

I’m embarking on a research process that will look at institutional change and personal transformation amongst heritage educators. It is likely to be a four-year process that will explore the current state of education across the heritage sector in the UK, the influences on educators in this unique and colourful sector, and the impact that digital heritage, digital technologies, and digital epistemologies are having on individuals and their practice. Identity transformation is a difficult thing to measure; there are so many variables, so many factors that can impact on individuals in so many unique and personal ways. This fascinating field, one in which only an interdisciplinary perspective, and non-judgemental and open-minded approach, and the willingness of subjects to share, is likely to yield considerable insights. The extent to which Heritage Education can be analysed through a ‘Communities of Practice’ approach, through the use of interpretive repertoires, or through the theoretical lenses of transformative learning or activity theory, is yet to be seen. I look forward to sharing this research through this online space at a hearing the views of others. As a doctoral program it will have its own pace, its own problems, challenges, obstacles, boundaries and opportunities. But it seems appropriate that work looking at how digital spaces, new epistemologies, new models of interprofessional practice and emerging expectations of our heritage institutions might be researched effectively should be shared as much as possible along the way.


%d bloggers like this: