"An original idea...The library must be full of them"*

While Gerald Ford and James Brown were dying, people were remembering the over 250,000 people who died two years ago in the South-east Asian tsunami, Ethiopia and Somalia were warring, England was getting soundly beaten once again and Saddam was readying himself for execution, I did what any non Christmas-celebrating person in this wonderful town of ours does—ate Asian food (Thai on Xmas eve and Chinese on Xmas) and watched films. It is one of these that is the subject of today’s post.

The History Boys takes Alan Bennet’s play about a group of young kids preparing for the entrance exam to Oxford and Cambridge and turns it into a marvellous afternoon movie, full of references to literature and philosophy. It’s a film about literature, growing up, love, the class-system, life and all those big things but it's fun.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this semester, especially with the class I taught. Research methods in the social sciences are not something that people get excited about. It’s hard to care about bloody research when you’ve got math and stats and sociology staring at you. But, that’s not the point. The point, in any class I suppose, is whether you are going to be teaching and talking more about the subject itself (be it “World Politics” or “21st Century Terrorism”) or about a specific way of going about doing things. I, as I found out, have a preference for the latter.

Reading the final essays of my kids I realised that I don’t much care whether they got a specific research method (or not) but whether they could come up with good questions about their research topic, whether they showed if they had thought about it, whether they could argue and position themselves along the Great Methodological Divides. A bit of understanding and a lot of curiousity goes a long way. In other words, as I kept on telling them through the semester, “just talk to me, damn it!”. For someone (as E would tell you) who remained silent throughout an entire class (yes, I did manage to do that quite well), I find this emphasis I have on (other people) talking rather amusing. Oh, and I don’t mean just talking in class—talk to me wherever and whenever. Just talk.

The problem with this though is that it could lead to people wanting to go on (and on) about their own pet peeves. Who hasn’t been in a postgraduate class where a few people loved to talk and often dominated the discussion to the exclusion of all others? So, that’s where I think teaching something like research methodologies helps—talk and then let me or your peers push you on what implications your views have. Knowing about the different assumptions about knowledge production and communication helps in discussing whether you are looking for a picture of the world out there or discussing the (re)creation of worlds in and through language. A research topic becomes useful as a means to get at different ways of knowledge production and to discuss how we know things.

Examples help—as I had mostly seniors in my class, it was tough to get them to even start talking to me, far less arguing and pointing out that most of the stuff I was talking about may well be incomprehensible. Usually, at least in my case, I had examples from sports (rugby mainly or football!) or television shows. Or, even just general statements like “calling a spade a spade”. What does that mean? How such seemingly ordinary statements draw upon a background of cultural understandings in order to be understood. But, in general, getting the kids to talk about their views was challenging**.

So, what about the History Boys? I’d recommend it to anyone at uni—whether teacher, student or both. The theme about conflict between the older folks who teach “General studies” (which encompasses various snippets of poems, French songs and acting) and those who teach these (Northern) kids “polish” and flair so they can compete with the (Southern?) posh kids is pretty relevant, especially here to both of us at PTSD. I am not quite sure how academia requires me to behave and a class on training me for academia, like the one these kids had, would have been much appreciated. At times, I wished the film were longer—there’s a great scene about whether the Holocaust can be taught (or not) and though the arguments trotted out are nothing new (well, to us academics anyway), the actors go back and forth arguing for (and against), making one wish all classes would be like that. Arguments and a willingness to act the fool, on the parts of both the students and the teachers, are needed if anything useful is to be got out of the whole learning process.

So, go and spend some of your holiday time in seeing the History Boys. It’s not really about History (though there is an impassioned call for a less-gendered version of history to be taught) or about Boys (though there are only two women in the entire film) but about learning—both in terms of subject and in methods. It’s got great dialogue and quotations***, good acting and is one of those British films that manage to say a lot of things in a short amount of time. I’m not sure “general studies” is still relevant but the way the boys learn in that class and the institutionalised test-taking they have to go through to get into OxBridge is well depicted. The final scene—telling us what happens to the History Boys after they all grow up—makes one wonder whether there is any relevance to this whole “going to uni to get a good education and have a proper career” business. Watch it and think on it.

And, yes, talk to me about it, if yous like.

* by Stephen Fry

** So, if yous have any tips (and keep in mind my next class is at 8.30am for Spring 2007), pass them on, please.

*** Unlike LilSis2, who recognised all the literary references as they were from her O and A level literature classes. Not having taken O or A levels, the only ones I recognised were the Witty quotes. And, “Knee-Shaw” of course.


At 12/28/2006 9:18 PM, Anonymous BenP said...

What do they do???
Withoutabox - Film Festival Submission
By sandeep
Withoutabox allows independent filmmakers to easily submit their independently produced films to almost every film festival in the world, and to allow festival operators to easily accept those submissions, including fees, the film ...
Online Video Punch - http://www.onlinevideopunch.com/blog

At 1/16/2007 4:21 PM, Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

Aaah the blessed Os and As...I missed watching HB but am going to hunt for it in one of the run-down theaters to see if I can find it someplace.


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