It’s maybe a bit outdated to talk about ‘reading’ subjects at University these days, but there’s no doubt that History is a reading-intensive discipline. Relatively low direct contact hours, the fundamental role of independent, self-directed working, and the expectation (realistic or not) that full-time students treat their studies as the equivalent of a full-time job, not to mention the culture of the discipline, all mean that reading is at the forefront of what it means to study History at university.
Over the summer, I was part of a team historians led by Prof. Elaine Fulton (Birmingham) who were tasked with revising the Subject Benchmark Statement for History for the QAA (the UK’s body for quality assurance in higher education). This post isn’t so much about that process, but in revisiting the current statement (last fully revised in 2014, with some ‘light touch’ revisions in 2019, accessible here), I was struck by what it has to say about ‘reading’ which thought it’d be interesting to summarise here.
But first, it’s probably useful to explain what Subject Benchmark Statements (SBS) are:
Subject Benchmark Statements describe the nature of study and the academic standards expected of graduates in specific subject areas. They show what graduates might reasonably be expected to know, do and understand at the end of their studies. (QAA, 2020)
QAA leads the development of Subject Benchmark Statements. These Statements are reviewed on a cyclical basis to ensure they are as useful as possible for discipline communities and can inform a range of purposes across the sector, including course design and providing support for securing academic standards.’ (QAA, 2021)
So, the SBS is the vital point of reference for all undergraduate History provision in the UK. It both seeks to encapsulate the breadth of that provision and offers a benchmark for new and existing courses. What does it have to say about reading?
First, reading appears, alongside questioning, discussion and writing, as a core element of what students learn through studying the subject actively and independently (section 2.12). Among the historian’s ‘skills and qualities of mind’ (a term we discussed at some length as part of the SBS review) is listed:
The ability to read and analyse texts and other primary sources, both critically and empathetically, while addressing questions of genre, content, perspective and purpose. (section 3)
Alongside a host of other attributes, reading thus appears as a core element of the historian’s experience and skill-set.
This is underlined when we turn to learning outcomes and achievement (section 8), history graduates should be able to ‘interrogate, read, analyse and reflect critically and contextually upon contemporary texts and other primary sources’ and ‘to interrogate, read, analyse and reflect critically and contextually upon secondary evidence, including historical writings and the interpretations of historians’ (8.1; reiterated at 10.2 in concluding remarks).
In terms of pedagogies for teaching, section 6 (teaching, learning and assessment) offers a bit more detail about how these qualities and skills might be imparted. Module guides and other documentation are to be read by students ‘in relation to departmental documentation which includes details of the degree scheme, criteria for all levels of classification and all forms of assessment in use, the range of available courses, course structures, assessment methods and weightings, and advice about plagiarism’ and should be presented ‘in as clear and straightforward a form as possible’ (6.1). This sort of information structures student engagement in their learning, but obviously isn’t really about pedagogy.
So, how are students actually taught to ‘read’ within the discipline? Well: seminars, workshops and other small-group sessions (including online) ‘are normally preceded by a prescribed course of reading’ (6.5). And, as noted above:
Most of a history student’s time is spent working independently: enquiring, reading, thinking and writing. […] Bibliographies and other reading advice provide students with the necessary starting points, but students are also encouraged by teaching staff to make imaginative use of the library and the internet to expand their knowledge base and their range of historical approaches. History is largely a text-based subject which requires students to learn to read widely, rapidly and critically, to take good notes, to digest arguments and to synthesise information quickly and intelligently. (6.6).
This is all fair enough and certainly is a reflection of my own experience as a student back around the turn of the millennium, but it does put the onus on the student – they read what we provide them with and they work independently. We give them reading lists and encourage them to be ‘imaginative’ and to transfer what they have read into oral and written forms in class and for assignments. There isn’t much detail about how this happens and that’s at least partially because the SBS is not meant to be prescriptive in respect of pedagogy. Departments determine approaches to teaching, learning and assessment (i.e. pedagogy) in their own context drawing on the expertise of their staff.
Now, this isn’t meant as an attack on the SBS or the people who wrote it (I was involved in 2014 and again this year, after all!). The SBS is meant to encompass the broad church of History provision in the UK and so needs to be inclusive and not prescriptive, as I’ve just noted. But the process of reading through the 2019 History SBS and thinking about how it might be developed has made me consider the (acknowledged) pivotal place of reading in UK History HE and the relative lack of focus on how we actually teach students to read in the discipline. In future blog posts I’ll spend some time to lay out why I think this might be the case and how we might bridge that gap.