Reflections and Feedback from History Beyond the Classroom

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As the dust settles on the academic year, feedback for our History Beyond the Classroom unit of study has continued to come in (HSTY 3902). We’ve been a little overwhelmed by the positive responses from students, guest lecturers, and our community and local partner organisations. We’ve now got back our Unit of Study Survey (USS) results, and we are in the midst of surveying our community partners. In an effort to be transparent, I’ve written a brief summary of the salient points from this feedback below, followed by a full report of the results, and comments (note, I’ve now separated out our community partner feedback into a different blog post, that can be found here:
Thirty of thirty-eight enrolled students responded to the USS survey, or roughly 80% of the class. Of these, 97% reported that they were satisfied with the quality of the teaching, with only one person “neutral” on the question. Significantly, 100% of students strongly agreed or agreed that the content of the unit “encouraged/stimulated their thinking and helped to develop an enhanced diversity of ideas, attitudes and approached to an beyond the subject matter.”
The positive qualitative comments to the question “What have been the best aspects of this unit of study?,” noted below, speak for themselves. I’ll only say here that students’ enthusiasm for the course was reflected in the results of their work, which was outstanding. In over twenty years of teaching, I have never seen such overwhelmingly impressive work. Students have inspired and energized me throughout the semester, as much as they have obviously enjoyed the course too. While many students noted it has been the best course they have ever taken at Uni, which is lovely to hear, I should also point out that it has been one of the most enjoyable courses I have ever taught! It has been such a treat and privilege for me to see students’ enthusiasm and intellectual development, and to watch these projects grow to fruition.

It seems most students loved the guest lecturers, the field trip (and yes, we will do at least one more next year, to the Parramatta Heritage Precinct), the community engagement, and the freedom to choose and develop their own public history project .
There is obviously some work we can do to improve the unit next year, though as several students point out below, much of the uncertainty students felt this year will be resolved next year as we all have a much clearer template to work from, and a clearer idea of where we are heading, thanks to the great work of this year’s students. We are already working on a website where future students can view the work from 2015, and this blogsite will also remain available.
Certainly next year, we will try and get started on the main projects a little earlier, with Michaela Cameron coming in earlier to speak to students (and hopefully some of the veterans from this year, as some students have suggested), staged deadlines for contact, etc. with organisations, and also weekly posts of diary entries so we can keep a closer eye on everyone’s progress and development (including some mandatory blogging!).
I will be sure to include much clearer guidelines about expectations about the community work and the projects in the initial outlines and throughout. I will also try and provide clearer guidelines to our community partners as well and keep in touch with them from an earlier date. Hopefully, clearer guidelines will also help students navigate the time commitment that a few students felt was onerous.
Next year, we will also have a number of examples to draw from in terms of engagement, and also more links with organisations who are familiar with what we are doing. These will remain options for students, but I am a little loathe to stop students from being able to choose their own organization. And while some students did have a pre-existing connection with their organization, most had never done anything in a historical sense with them. Significantly, it is probably also worth pointing out that most of the best projects produced came from students working with organisations with whom they had no prior connection.
I know that some students struggled in their initial dealings with community or local organisations. We will certainly try and smooth the way next time, but it is also worth noting that many students in their reflective diaries and their feedback have said that these initial starts and false starts were one of the most important parts of the learning experience in this class – that it wasn’t always easy to “negotiate” a project, but they felt a tremendous sense of achievement when they pulled it off.
I think I will also put the readings together in a course reader next time, and we will try and divide our time in tutorials a little more effectively between the lecture readings, and projects. Time always seemed to be short.
Once again, many thanks to all who have made this course so interesting to teach, and a success for just about all concerned. This includes our community partners, our guest lecturers, Michaela Cameron for her wonderful feedback, and Gabrielle Kemmis for her help setting up the blogsite. But especially to the pioneering students who have put so much into it, and made a meaningful – and now measureable – difference in making history beyond the classroom.

Unit of Study Survey (USS) Feedback – detailed breakdown and full comments

Thirty of thirty-eight enrolled students responded to the survey, or roughly 80% of the class.
Of these, 97% reported that they were satisfied with the quality of the teaching (with 80% “strongly agreeing” with this statement), with only one person “neutral” on the question. Significantly, 100% of students strongly agreed or agreed that the content of the unit “encouraged/stimulated their thinking and helped to develop an enhanced diversity of ideas, attitudes and approached to an beyond the subject matter.” 83% of students “strongly agreed” with this statement.
94% agreed that they thought the work had been intellectually rewarding, while the same percentage thought they had developed relevant critical and analytical thinking skills, with just two students unsure, or neutral on this question. Similarly, 97% believed they had good access to valuable learning resources, while 83% though the learning materials, including online resources, reading packs, notes, significantly helped the development of their understanding. Five students were neutral on this question.
Again, 97% agreed or strongly agreed that the assessment tasks challenged them to learn, with one student disagreeing, and 93% agreeing that they had been guided by helpful feedback on their learning, with two students unsure, or neutral. And 94% agreed that group work/discussions, whether face to face or online, added to their understanding of the topics studied.
Q10 What have been the best aspects of this unit of study?
– I loved the speakers that were curated for us. Personally, hearing from so many young women doing interesting things in history was really exciting. Michael’s enthusiasm was infectious. He made this course. He was so keen on every student’s ideas and gave us all really helpful feedback and challenged us to go further. It’s the most amount of positive feedback I’ve ever gotten from a course. The groups we were put in were really helpful and motivated you. The freedom within this course, behind Mike’s teaching, was my favourite part.
· THIS WAS THE BEST UNIT OF STUDY I HAVE EVER TAKEN! Mike is really enthusiastic and full of ideas, and this set the tone for a wonderful and honest exploration of what history looks like OUTSIDE academics. I have SO LOVED working on my project, and felt well supported by my peers and Mike. For me, the permission to engage with members of the public and be creative about the way that history is presented has unleashed such excitement! I find myself day dreaming about how else my project could be shaped / presented, as opposed to my other subjects which I dread studying for.
· The unit of study reached beyond the usual parameters of a university subject – it challenged us to engage with the community and to think about how our skills as historians can be applied outside of the classroom.
· Engagement with my community organisation- this has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It has helped demonstrate the practical relevance of many of the analytic skills which I have developed throughout the course of my degree, and has introduced me to the often intense political disputes of public history (which have been fascinating). Although I have greatly enjoyed the more academic focus of my earlier subjects, this course has struck an excellent balance between academic rigour and practical relevance. The guest lectures have also been great. They have raised very interesting questions about the role and importance of public history, as well as the difficulties of working in this area (e.g. funding, moral quandries, political battles).
· Freedom to innovate with assessment tasks Opportunity to explore different types of history eg local
· Group discussions and community engagement. Provided an interesting new way of looking at the way academic history and historical methods can be applied to public history.
· Classes and tutorials have been rewarding and conducive to open discussion. mike is a fabulous tutor/conveyor, he is approachable and challenges discussion. The assignments have been challenging but enjoyable. This course is amazing!! I have learnt more than I have in any other uni course. I was out of my comfort zone on several occasions but that’s when I learnt the most. I think this course puts into perspective what uni is all about. Often, the uni world fails to relate to real world problems and students often feel lost as to where their studies will lead them. This course really made me feel that my skills are wanted and needed in the “real world” , which really brings purpose back into my uni studies. The small class size was also great and made discussion easier. The readings were useful and put perspective on the course content.
· I’ve greatly enjoyed the insight we were given into history as a profession. The guest speakers all gave insightful presentations, and Mike was very encouraging and helpful.
· This is the best subject I’ve ever taken in my degree! I’ve loved being challenged to think about history outside the classic academic context. It’s made me a lot more excited for the prospect of a career in history, and I’ve been noticing more how people around me interact with history in a variety of ways. The flexible approach of the course was great, giving us freedom to explore what interests us and accommodating for the inevitable times that our plans didn’t work out the way we expected.
· The major project was probably the most challenging assessment I have had to do in my university career.
· It has been a great lesson in both self-driven work and how to work with non academic people and organisations. It has taught me a lot about how to conduct historical work outside of a strictly academic environment, and without the traditional essay format.
· The scope to do something completely different, and to get involved with hands on history. It has been an eye opener to see how history is dealt with in a communal setting, where a mixture of politics, controversy and communal sharing intersect. The guest lectures, were great, and most of all the excursion to the quarantine station! Exellent!
· Freedom, Freedom and Freedom. Thank you Doctor M!
· This unit has been exceptionally enjoyable. I have learnt an enormous amount about interacting with the community and how to conduct interviews and research. The freedom we were afforded when creating our projects has been incredibly refreshing and the process has been enormously fun. From the very first lecture I was inspired, and the continuous support from Michael was fantastic. This is exactly what I expected from a 3000 level subject, and the structure and lectures went above and beyond. Acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples and history is very much necessary in contemporary Australia and I was very glad it played a role throughout the semester. Very enjoyable semester. Unlike anything I have ever done before!
· Practicing public history has been a blast. The non-academic approach to history, while a shock at first, has been extremely rewarding. The course has allowed me to pursue my interests in a fun and dynamic way, engaging with outside communities and presenting history that was both challenging and highly enjoyable. Mike McDonnell has been a great teacher, and extremely encouraging.
· This has been the BEST course I have taken at university. So different to other history units. This unit challenged me to explore history outside of the classroom and I really enjoyed the practical approach to history this created. Mike was an excellent lecturer and put an enormous effort into his students.
· Guest Lecturers
· I actually found doing an assessment in a non-traditional media very fun. I learnt new skills that I can use throughout life.
· Doing real history – handling primary sources Interactivity
· Having the opportunity to present our analytical boundaries in various formats, as opposed to writing a 4000 word essay.
· The intellectual freedom to pursue an original extended project
· I’m really grateful for the opportunity to take a class that actually encourages us to engage in
something useful – to create something with our skills that is beneficial to other people and to our future prospects. This is definitely the best unit I’ve taken in my whole 3 year degree as I really feel like I am learning and developing my skills in a genuinely useful way. Mike’s teaching is excellent and engaging, and the guest lectures have all been great.
· Working with a local community organization and being able to contribute to something that has such a significant impact on the community. Also, seeing the work of other students and being inspired by them. Finally, the guest lecturers and the field trip were very insightful, interactive and engaging. Overall, the course was so different which made it really easy to get involved and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, resulting in some work that we can truly be proud of.
· I’ve loved this unit. The presenters we’ve had in have all been fascinating. It’s opened up my mind to the possibilities that a major in history can give me, I’m now thinking of careers that had never crossed my mind before. I also love that it’s forced me to start working outside the university, the project is such a great opportunity to branch out. I think it will be really rewarding and also hope that I will be able to continue working with the organisation after this semester. Although it’s obviously been a bit rough at times, I have liked the structure of the course. I liked how we went in looking at ideas about public history and then have been able to practically assign them to people’s work and projects.
· Having a variety of guest speakers with a wide variety of jobs and avenues of reaching their current jobs. The freedom in choosing the format our project would be presented.
· This unit has been one of the most enjoyable – and challenging – History units I have taken in three years. It was informative, engaging, and had a real relevance to broader society, forcing me to reconsider my understanding of the nature of history itself. In both the diversity of guest lecturers and the practical community engagement/project aspects of the course, this has been the unit which has taught me the most about the historical discipline, and has therefore been incredibly worthwhile to take as a subject in my final semester. Special mention must go to Mike, who has proven to be a highly approachable lecturer/unit coordinator, who understood the needs of students and sought to ensure an enjoyable and enriching learning experience for his students. Thankyou for challenging us to learn and step outside our comfort zones as university students.
· Mike was a wonderful tutor, and the class structure and atmosphere truly allowed honest and valuable discussion in the tutorials.
· Interesting unit and very different to all history units I have studied previously at uni. I really liked how it was a more engaged unit, both in the classroom (in discussions etc) but also in the content and in our assessments and work: how it was very much oriented to focusing on public history and engaging in public activities and discussions. I liked also how we heard from different historians who each work in different capacities and fields, which showed us how history can be applied beyond the classroom and potential career paths for ourselves.
· The best unit I’ve done at the university so far! Doing a public history project opened my mind to so many exciting career possibilities and I’ve never actually enjoyed doing my assignments so much. Gushing aside, I’ve loved the array of guest lecturers and the seminar format has worked well, even as a big group. Encouraging us to engage with a local community group was also a really good idea and helped reign us in but still provided plenty of scope.
· Everything! One of the best courses I have taken (also one of the reasons I chose USYD for my exchange program). It was really inspiring and eye opening for how history can be used outside (and inside) an academic setting. The guest lecturers provided valuable information and stories that I feel will be useful for my future life and career. The course text was also engaging and reached from conceptual to practical. Above all, the support and engaging approach of Michael really allowed for confidence and inspiration in our projects to develop.
Q11 What aspects of this unit of study most need improvement?
· I think blogging should be mandatory. Perhaps not just about your project but in the early week about the readings so people get engaged quickly with the course. More access to equipment. If you wanted to make a video or do a podcast you have to find the equipment yourself and for of us that was very limiting.
· There was a bit of confusion as to how each assignment was to be formed, but I understand that this is the first year that the course has run, and Mike is still trying to get a handle on the whole concept.
· Clarity of what is expected of us from the beginning
· Access to resources- when we are asked to produce a novel and interesting public history project, we really need access to the appropriate resources to do so. e.g. Filming equipment, audio recorders, editing software, photoshop and other image-manipulation facilities etc. Pre-existing connections with community organisations would be really helpful too. It would be nice to have a bit of a connection with the group before cold-calling them. Although this would obviously not suit everybody, it would really have helped during the early stages of my project.
· Provide opportunity for past students to present/discuss work with students.
· perhaps earlier troubleshooting for projects and community engagement.
· I understand that it is the first time this course has run. Maybe a bit more guidance as to what is expected, types of projects. I was sometimes confused as to what was expected but that is undertandable. I hope our work this year gives some guidance for students next year
· Not a complaint, but I think I’d have liked at least one other field trip just so we can see the practice of history in a variety of workplace environments.
· While the flexibility was great, it might also have been nice to have a bit more direction early on in semester so we knew better what sort of challenges we might face. Of course this wasn’t possible since it’s the first time the course has been run, but think about it for next year!
· Being the first year of the unit, however, meant we were shooting in the dark a little with the projects, but this will be easily fixed next year once there is a body of work to draw inspiration from.
· The course could use more early instruction on how to approach organisations, and more early structure, discussion and feedback. The “ten hour” requirement caused a lot of confusion, and many people were unclear exactly how rigid that was as a structure, or how it would help with the project. I felt that in certain circumstances it could distract from the work.
· I understand that this was the first year it is running, but occasionally the classes felt mildly aimless. But at the end of the day, I think this made the project into a healthy challenge.
· Nothing
· My only suggestion would be to change the name of the unit to something along the lines of ‘History beyond University’ or ‘Public History’. The word ‘classroom’ gave me the impression that I would be learning about primary and secondary schooling and so had to completely re-adjust my approach.
· Now that our class has provided major works, using these as examples will help to alleviate future students’ anxiety about this project. But it has been fun working it out for ourselves, too. This is a very minor suggestion.
· As this was the first time it was run there was a lot of ambiguity surrounding the major assessment. In future years, it would benefit from using the work of past students as examples for students.
· I think that the aspirations of this course are noble, and that something extremely valuable could come from students who participate in this course. However, what is being asked, is too ambitious for a course that only runs 13 weeks – especially given that it is usually one of four courses being taken by students. Engaging with tiny heritage societies, or other historical societies, can be rewarding but they too exist as microcosms. Their reach is not that significant, and to engage with them with an intention to ‘do history beyond the classroom’ I think falls short of the aforementioned goal inasmuch as most history ‘beyond the classroom’ is not experienced in these small local societies but in places like the quarantine station, newspapers, politics, everyday interactions with the pasts and monuments. I think the greatest challenge, like I said, is the time aspect. Speaking personally, it was extremely time consuming, and difficult to try and co-ordinate with external organisations within a 13 week timeframe, while participating in other studies and while working too and perhaps the way this course is structure should be changed to accomodate this.
· I found it quite stressful, particularly as it was only worth 6 units. There was a lot of work to do independently.
· Readings became less relevant to tutorials as semester progressed. Often weren’t discussed in tutorials which led me to prioritise reading for other subjects. Tutorials understandably focused on projects towards end of semester, which was fine.
· Just a little thought for the next time this unit will be run: There is a structural flaw in this unit: People who have pre-existing links to organisations are readily able to begin their project – therefore making it unequal for students who are not as able to find an organisation from the get go. · More structure in tutorials – more engagement with assigned readings, so as to expand on what the conception of what local history is.
· Maybe clearer assignment guidelines – the ‘4000 word essay or equivalent project’ caused a bit of confusion early in the semester but this is totally understandable and I’m sure will be improved as the course continues in later years.
· I think the larger group discussions were far more effective than when the group split into 2 separate groups for tutorials. Having said that, the small group discussions tailored around each category of organization was very useful. The course generally was well-thought out and organized, especially for the first time running it.
· I would have liked a clearer idea of what was expected of us at the beginning, I think that it was inevitably hazy being the first time. But now that this course has been run once, I think using examples of our work for students next semester will be invaluable.
· A bit more support at the beginning of semester in terms of suggestions on what direction to take. However it’s the first year the course has run, so it’s only an issue this year, and something that will available in future years
· If anything, in future years when this course will have been in existence for a little longer, a little more guidance on the Project throughout the semester would have been great. In particular, perhaps bringing forward the Proposal due date, and/or dedicating a little tutorial time every 2-3 weeks to discuss issues in our ‘cluster’ groups may be beneficial.
· Potentially more connection between lecture material and assessment criteria. However, the lectures were very interesting and it was wonderful to hear from professionals (not all academics!) in the history field, particularly in a senior level class where questions of employment are beginning to emerge.
· While the community project was a great experience and a unique mode of learning and assessment, it was at times stressful to organise and undertake. Perhaps there could be a group of organisations who have been approached prior to the semester who understand the nature of the work required and who agree to take a student on board for the semester. It was just difficult at times to liaise with organisations and for them to understand speicifcally the type of work we need to do. Also, it was difficult finding the extra hours outside of uni and other work committments etc to volunteer at times. But overall it was an enjoyable and enlightening experience.
· I understand that this was the first time the course was run so a few suggestions. I think we need to have the lecturer on project ideas and considerations at the start, hear from past students and also be encouraged to play to our strengths. It is the last week of the course and everyone is hurriedly learning new technical skills, whereas I thought it best to use skills I already have and offer those to the community, although learning new skills has been fun too (just slightly stressful). A reader would be a huge help too!
· I could not be more satisfied. Perhaps as mentioned in class, a field trip to the Parramatta Women’s Factory would have been useful and interesting.
Additional Informal Feedback from students over the semester
“The course has been the most stimulating and challenging one of my degree, so thank you for coordinating it in the way you did.”
Many thanks for this course, as it has challenged me to think of history in different
ways, and has been an appropriate finale to my undergraduate history coursework.
I’d also like to thank you for a great semester and a very unique and rewarding Unit of Study. It has been a challenge to create what is here, but I am very glad to have done it, and have learned much in the process.
Again – Thank you! It has been a great experience, very rewarding and I’m very happy you and Michaela liked the project. The Haberfield Association is quite pleased as well. I will continue to be involved with them over the Summer especially, and in that time I will begin organising for John Colville to help with the website maintenance (thought you might be interested to know).
This course has been one of the most valuable courses I’ve done at university. It is the first course where I’ve been asked to apply my skills and knowledge in a non-academic setting. This was terrifying at first and still is in that I’m accountable to professionals and not just an academic. But it has made me aware of the multiple directions my academic background in history can take me. Just even the other week with Catherine Freyne I found myself thinking of the ways I can reconcile my creative interests with my academic ones as she talked of her involvement with Radio National. Catherine like so many of the speakers reminded me of the pervasiveness of public history, we are engaging with it all of the time and it is valuable to every individual, every community. I’ve started thinking differently about the history I’ve engaged with, at university this has been mainly Renaissance and Early Modern history. I’ve loved studying this period but as I’ve been prompted to think about the different purposes and facilities of history I’m beginning to think of how I can engage with a more local, Australian history.
Thank you for creating and involving us students in such an interesting as well as practical subject, it helps to get us out of the classroom and working in the real world, all the best for you and your book by the way, it was a privilege learning from you as well as your colleagues.
Thanks for everything, I enjoyed this unit a lot, it was a great way to explore an area of history that I had no idea how to deal with. Good luck with the future classes!
Thanks again for your help with my project and the course generally- I have really enjoyed it.
Thank you for everything this semester! I can’t wait to see everyone else’s projects, I’m a tad envious of you both [for marking them all]. Which makes me wonder, is there a way we could get everyone to share their projects in one place? I know it’s not really the norm with assessment tasks, but I think these projects are so much more than that and I’d love to watch everyone’s movies/read their pamphlets/see their blogs if they’re willing to share.
Thank you again for a great semester, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed doing an assignment as much as this one!
Thank you so much for allowing us to engage in this project. I’ve never such had fun taking part in a university project before. I am also going to continue my work with the PBA and UBL beyond this season. I have agreed to keep taking photos for them indefinitely and to keep developing this book.
Thanks so much for all your positive feedback. I thought I’d let you know that I have just submitted my project for the PHA prize. Thanks again!
Thanks!! This subject has been a great end to my degree and I hope it is even more successful next year!
“I think this has definitely been a learning experience in working with other people, and also the intricacies and at times difficulties of public history. It has definitely been a worthwhile experience and something I think uni students could benefit from more!”
“Thank you for your encouragement- it is really wonderful to have teachers like yourself being so positive and encouraging with these things!”
“Definitely one of the most helpful, understanding and encouraging teachers I’ve had! So thank you.”
Thank you for the semester it has been excellent!

Once again, thank you very much for making this course. As you said, creating this project was much more rewarding than writing another essay, and I loved being able to give back to my community in a meaningful way.
Thank you for running such a fantastic course! It was my favourite unit at University in three years, and was the only unit that was able to make a positive contribution to the broader community. I hope it continues for many years to come, and will inspire more units like it.
I have entered the project into the PHA prize – thank you for letting me know about this.
I’ll keep yourself and Michaela updated on the progress of the project beyond the course. The community is loving the website and are very excited for the restoration of the Civic. I’ll let you know when the Civic is restored and the museum display is up and running.
Thank you again for a fantastic semester!
And more than happy to talk about my project to students next year if you would like me to.
Thanks so much! I really appreciate your and Michaela’s comments and am really keen to see the rest of the projects from the class.
Thanks for being so understanding and helpful over the semester. Without a doubt, this is probably the most engaging and useful course I’ve done in my whole degree (Finnish master courses included) and I’m really grateful to you for pioneering undergrad public history studies in the department, as I’m certain its a field that will feature greatly in the futures of my history graduate class. I really hope the department is inspired by our work and develops more options for public history – particularly in Honours!
Thanks Michael. This has been one of the MOST enjoyable units I’ve ever studied at USYD. Thank you for your wonderful feedback too. I’d recommend this unit to anyone to be honest, it was simply fantastic.