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A Patchwork Empire: A Pedagogical Experiment in British Imperial History by Christina Welsch

Published: December 16, 2017

This is the first in a series of posts on "Teaching Britain and the World." The NACBS would like to thank the British Scholar Society for permission to cross-post these blogs. To learn more about the British Scholar Society, see: http://britishscholar.org/

In 1883, J. R. Seeley famously called students to the history of the British Empire in a neat set of lectures, framed around a smooth, aspirational, titular narrative: The Expansion of England.[1] In the generations that followed, many who engaged with British imperial history did so only to produce understandings of that past (and present) that are richer and more complex than Seely sought to imagine. Histories of the empire as a uniform structure have been superseded by analyses that instead reveal a global set of shifting, frequently renegotiated, and rarely stable relationships. These welcome developments, though, have brought new challenges to the classroom. The perennial question of undergraduate surveys has grown ever more daunting: how can a single semester be stretched to cover the dynamism and heterogeneity found in contemporary studies of the British Empire?

The richness of today’s imperial history—the necessity of pushing beyond a metropolitan center and of engaging with marginalized voices—is easy to suggest, but difficult to demonstrate through lecture without resorting to an endless series of examples that would lose the attention of all but the most careful note-takers. Fortunately, just as British imperial history has changed since Seeley’s day, so too has modern pedagogy developed more dynamic approaches to the classroom. Drawing on recent trends in collaborative learning, my survey of the British Empire works to make the diversity of the British Empire a pedagogical advantage, one that provides unique opportunities for student engagement. The class is built around a multi-step independent research project, in which students work as a class to piece together a “patchwork” understanding of an empire—decentered both from the metropole and from the lectern.

Early in the semester, after a brief overview of the British Empire in the mid-eighteenth century (our starting point), each student selects a colony on which to become an “expert.” Over the course of the semester, students complete a series of assignments examining these colonies, producing short essays, formal presentations, and even videos or online activities (e.g., quizzes or lessons on an LMS such as Moodle). (The latter possibility can be particularly helpful in large classes, where individual presentations might eat up too much class time.) The exact parameters of these assignments can be framed to emphasize particular themes in imperial history. For instance, to develop skills in primary source analysis, I have students find newspaper articles, which in turn foster discussion about how print journalism sparked new connections and tensions across the empire. Later in the semester, students are tasked with finding propaganda posters from the Second World War, using analyses of visual objects to produce an imperial understanding of Sonya Rose’s useful question—“which people’s war?”[2]

These assignments ultimately pave the way for a research paper exploring how the British Empire was experienced and understood in the students’ respective colonies. Yet, for me, this final product is less important than the scaffolding along the way, in which students’ research is used to enrich day-to-day class activities. As students engage with each other’s work, their findings help to create conversations that reveal the diverse experiences that constituted the British Empire. Both classroom debates and written responses provide students the opportunity to explore their own connections, allowing a more active style of learning than a traditionally designed class might allow. Equally importantly, as students tackle each new question from far-flung regions of the empire, they must work to put together a variety of perspectives, giving voice to historical agencies that can be obscured when explored from the metropole.

At its core, the “patchwork empire” project should encourage students to reconsider what scholars mean by the British Empire—and whether that meaning has remained stable over time. For some students, these questions appear immediately as they wonder which colony to select. A student interested in researching Kenya or Australia might wonder how to study a colony that did not yet exist in the mid-eighteenth century. Here, I push students to reframe the question: rather than exploring the history of a colony, they should explore the relationships between their region, Britain, and the rest of the world. This allows the class to discuss interactions, exchange, and even informal empire in a way that goes beyond the “pink” areas on the map.

Of course, turning over class time and energy to students’ independent inquiry has potential pitfalls. An emphasis on student-led discussion means that the learning objectives for the class necessarily shift away from mastery of specific content to an emphasis on overarching themes, tracing moments of agency, negotiation, and constraint as they existed across the empire. Nevertheless, there is always the risk that students’ understanding of the “patchwork empire” might be too patchy. For many students, the task of research itself can be intimidating, and they may struggle to articulate key ideas about their findings. I try to foster a sense of collaboration in the classroom, working to treat misconceptions as areas for further discussion, rather than errors to be critiqued. If students are working with a wide range of colonies and regions, the possibilities for comparison and contrast across regions can push students to work through their own mistakes. Fortunately, the increasingly global nature of the student body at many institutions ensures that students come to the course with diverse geographic interests, such that their own curiosities expand the perspectives with which the class can engage.

The research required of each student to produce a “patchwork empire” is considerable, but I have found that strong scaffolding allows even freshmen students to rise to the challenge. The result is a classroom in which each student knows that their voice is valuable part of a conversation, bringing a unique perspective not only based on their own experiences, but also on their own research. That dynamic possibility is both a pedagogical ideal and a reflection of British imperial history at its most innovative. Where Seeley at his lectern spoke of the expansion of England, today’s imperial scholars have built up a more vibrant understanding of imperial history. Surveys of the British Empire must mirror that conversation, and students’ active, decentered inquiry can play a significant role in achieving that goal.

Christina Welsch is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Wooster. Visit her website at: https://www.wooster.edu/bios/cwelsch/


[1] J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures, (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883).

[2] Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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