Summer Update

Tuesday September 5th

I hope you are having an enjoyable summer. This is the first of what I aim to be a three times a year update about teaching and learning in the School of History. It’s meant to try to keep you up to date with how we’re thinking about and trying to improve the degrees and modules that we offer, and to encourage a wider conversation between all of QMUL’s historians – staff and students – about how we study our subject better!

This message is quite long. That reflects both some important changes and the cycle of the School year, in which summer is often a period for reassessment, recruitment and the final approval of developments on which we have been working all year. I’ll try to make future updates shorter. I understand that often it can feel as if the School of History and the University are constantly changing things, and that any alteration in what you’re used to can cause concern. But I hope you will understand that our rationale for making changes is always to try to make things better for you. We care deeply about the quality of teaching and learning in the School, and a persistent striving for improvement is one of the professional values we hope to instil. This is a zen process: the perfect ideal may not be achievable, but the satisfaction comes in never stopping trying. If you have comments or concerns, please do feel free to get in touch.

Assessment deadlines.

From the start of next year, submission deadlines for all students will be on Sundays at 11.30 pm. This will represent a change for you if you were in the first year last year, and have been used to Friday deadlines. We have done this to introduce conformity on the degree after we realised, when setting deadlines this July, that next year might see second and third year students on the same module expecting to hand in work at different times. We had to make a decision quickly – which I regret meant that we were not able to consult with you – and we took the decision that would see no-one feel that they had lost out. Please rest assured that we have moved deadlines forward (i.e. to the Sunday after they would otherwise have been), rather than back. 

The exception to the Sundays rule is Special Subject dissertations, which have to be handed in as hard copies, and therefore while the office is open. For these, the deadline will be Friday 20 April 2018 at 4pm. As usual, there will be a party afterwards.

This year, course reps raised the issue of assessment deadline bunching. Some of this is difficult to avoid, since staff often set deadlines at particular points in the year for pedagogic reasons – they have to come around a certain date in order to develop a skill, or can only be undertaken after a range of subjects have been taught. In so far as we can address this, however, we have done so: in particular, by coordinating between first year module organizers so that deadlines are spread as evenly as possible, and by exploring ways to set deadlines outside term time.

Staff changes.

Next year we will be joined by three new permanent members of staff, Dr Aline-Florence Manent, Dr Leslie James and Dr Noam Maggor. Dr Manent works on challenges to liberal democracy in twentieth century Europe; Dr James on the political and intellectual history of Africa and the African diaspora, and Dr Maggor on the emergence of industrial capitalism in 19th and 20th century America. They are excellent and exciting colleagues – and having seen the modules that they’re putting on for us in the coming year, I know that they are also wonderful additions to our teaching team.

We will also be joined by five new colleagues who are temporarily replacing members of staff who are on research leave. Some of this leave comes as part of the School research cycle – to keep and develop world class researchers, we fund period when they can concentrate on working in archives or writing books. Some of it comes from external funding bodies – because part of having those excellent researchers is that they attract support from national and international funders. To make sure that we can continue to deliver as many of our great range of modules as possible, some of these absences are replaced by temporary appointments, usually of between 10 months and a year.

A wonderful consequence of this is that we get to give short-term posts to brilliant, scholars, usually at the start of their careers – and in June and July, we reviewed a huge number of applications and interviewed candidates. I took part in all the interview panels, and I was very excited by the excellent standard of the applicants – including some of the best presentations I have seen in more than a decade at QMUL. We are very fortunate to have joining us:

Dr David Geiringer – Lecturer in Contemporary British History

Dr Jessica Patterson – Lecturer in British Intellectual and Cultural History

Dr Mark Condos – Lecturer in Imperial and Global History

Dr Elena Bacchin – Lecturer in Italian and European History

Dr Alice Dolan – Lecturer in Early Modern British History

Dr Caroline Ashcroft – Lecturer in the History of Political Thought

Finally, Professor Michael Questier decided to retire at the start of the summer. Dr Ceri Law has kindly agreed to step in at short notice and convene both Michael’s modules. Ceri did this previously when Michael was on leave, so she is very familiar with, and got outstanding student feedback on, both. We are very pleased that we have been able to avoid disruption to those who chose these modules, and grateful to Ceri for agreeing to join us.

Step marking and assessment criteria.

In 2017-18, we will introduce step marking for all pieces of assessed work. Grading criteria, aligned with step marks, will be distributed at the start of semester A.

Last year, we brought in a scheme of step marking for third year dissertations only. This reduces the full numeric spread of marks to a more limited set of grades (essentially set at 2, 5 and 8 in each decile). This is a system that has been used for some years by other Schools at Queen Mary, including Geography, and we have been strongly encouraged to make this change by the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. The pedagogic rationale is that stepped marks give more clarity for students and staff about different levels of attainment, encouraging consistency and allowing students to understand more easily what they need to do to improve their grades, as well as speeding the process of second marking, moderation and feedback. We are using the opportunity to encourage markers to use a fuller range of marks to reward excellent work, and to specify more exactly the criteria by which work is being marked. In so doing we are responding both to comments from external examiners and from student module evaluation forms. The process was fully discussed with third years and course reps, who were very supportive.

As with any change, there were positive and negative responses to the introduction of step marking. Although staff were asked to mark up to the next step, some students still worried that they might be marked down. Equally, some academics worried that they were being asked to reduce their standards. In both cases, concerns focussed predictably around the 2.1/1st border. The majority of feedback from both staff and students, however, was extremely positive. Academics felt more confident in using the range of marks from 75 to 95 to differentiate between work that was above first-class standard. 48 Special Subject students – about a fifth of the whole year – received dissertation grades of 78 or above, an increase of 150% on the previous year. Students felt that the discussion around grading criteria had made expectations clearer – in other words, that they had got better grades because they had known what they were doing and submitted better work as a result. Course reps also reported positively on the process, and this year’s second year reps in particular were very supportive of the introduction of step marking across the board in the coming year.

I should reiterate that although this change gives us the chance to show more clearly how work will be assessed, it does not involve any change in what you are being asked to do. Geography’s experience when they underwent this process was similar to our own – that the improved communication involved in the process of introducing step marks is itself of great benefit to students. We use a very wide range of assessments within the School of History – this is an indication of the innovative and imaginative teaching that we do, and it’s something on which we’re regularly complemented by examiners. Making criteria more explicit across all these forms of assessment will take time, and I believe that it is better to start the process of change as early as possible in order to benefit the maximum number of students. I welcome your help in this process: if you feel that grading criteria for any task are not clear, please do ask the module organizer for more guidance.

Let me close by hoping that you have had a happy summer – productive or relaxing as suited you, and that you are looking forward as much as I am to the coming year. I will see you in September.

Best regards

Dan Todman

Senior Lecturer & Director of Taught Programmes