Monthly Archives: July 2013

History and Climate Change: The Learning Experience

Increasingly important within the discourse of the University is the need, with rising fees, to provide value for money. Yet how does such an institution go about providing ‘value’ in the first place? In an environment where the consumers (students) come from a variety of different backgrounds (culturally, personally and intellectually) ‘value’ becomes extremely difficult to define. This has however, not prevented the University in an age of increasing competition for graduate jobs articulating value along the lines of employability. As a student, I am wary of university discourse being framed in this way. The pre-emptive move to seek value in employability has the potential to reduce the amount of critical engagement with degree programmes. For subjects such as history this is potentially catastrophic. I want to argue that the Wiki project I worked on, along with two classmates, for the module ‘Past Actions Present Woes: The History of Anthropogenic Climate Change’ offers the opportunity to develop key transferable skills whilst not sacrificing engagement on a critical historical level. The Wiki project therefore offers the opportunity for the contemporary undergraduate programme to sit within universities definition of ‘value’ without losing the core of what an undergraduate degree is, in my view, all about.

Before expanding on the usefulness of the Wiki, there are some problems that need to be raised. Firstly, is the need for at least one member of the group to have a sound knowledge of IT. This might not be so problematic these days with most able undergraduates more than capable of mastering all the latest technology, I however, do not count myself amongst such company. Yet even when the basic techniques have been mastered, to really exploit the full potential of the Wiki requires an exceptionally creative mind and a lot of time, without which the finished product can appear conservative. With restrictions due to other commitments, there is simply not the time to fully explore the capabilities of the Wiki programme, especially since most of the marks come from the content rather than how it is presented.

Leaving these problems aside, our specific task placed a lot of emphasis on critical thought and the ability to bring a new perspective to a contemporary climate issue. My group decided to investigate the conception of a ‘sustainability’ discourse and the potential ideological and political imperatives that its use concealed, which we referred to as the ‘absent referent,’ a concept that we developed from our Lecturer Dr Tim Cooper. Evidence regarding the perceived lack of coal within the British Empire around the turn of the twentieth Century allowed us to investigate explicit references to sustainability. We argued that the use of ‘sustainability’ is a political move to sustain a particular way of organising society and the power relations that are embedded within. By playing on fear of societal collapse, those who control the sustainability discourse are able to reproduce their power through the legitimation of certain practices, colonial expansion being one among many. It should be plain to see how in this process how critical historical thought is developed. While given guidance, the onus is on the group to find relevant historical material and to utilise it in a critical and original way. I cannot think of a better way to develop a history undergraduate’s scholarship.

Gradually however, module programmes have begun to centre themselves around ‘transferable’ skills, often at the expense of other skills. The Wiki project in my experience does not; instead its unique nature, catered for the development of both critical and transferable skills, particularly when we were required to identify a specific audience that our project would ‘speak to’. This took learning out of the traditional lecturer-student complex because we were communicating with an independent group. We therefore had to think carefully about the language we used and how we organised our material to best fit the context we were operating within. The audience for my group’s project was the sustainability committee at Exeter University. To figure out how best to communicate to the audience, we interviewed the chair of the committee to understand their view on sustainability. It was then possible to engineer our argument towards these specific assumptions. By learning to communicate to a specific audience outside the traditional university environment of lectures and seminars, the Wiki allowed us as a group to develop a valuable transferable skill.

‘Past Actions, Present Woes’ used historically relevant material to shed light on contemporary debates and the Wiki project was the perfect way to explore this. A group task, that involved using a critical historical perspective to inform a particular audience about contemporary climate issues allowed students to develop critical scholarship as well as key transferable skills. In the ‘Wiki experience’ there are, I think, two critical components that could provide value for the current and future undergraduate. The first is the development of critical thought. Second, is the conception of a new way of learning, one that moves beyond the current lecturer-student relationship, opening up the production of knowledge and encouraging the development of new skills.

Dan Webb (2nd Year, History)