The FASS freshman seminar, “Representing War,”
had two main objectives and two peculiarities.
The objectives were for the students to learn to
ask good academic questions and for them to
take charge of the module as much as possible.
The peculiarities were that the module had a tiny
enrolment of six, and that it was taught by two
people, both of whom were present at every class.
The small enrolment caused us to think hard at
the beginning of the semester about whether or
not to continue in that way. We decided to go
ahead because of the module’s experimental
We tried to make explicit from the start the first
objective of encouraging disciplined questioning.
The IVLE schedule began with the module’s
overarching questions, and each section included
sub-questions. We reinforced this by emphasising
in class the centrality of questions in academic
Even so, the message did not get home in the first
half of the semester. The aim was for students
to ask about how war, warriors and victims are
represented, and about what kind of assumptions
about war underlie different representations.
Instead, they tended to describe the poem, song,
movie or play they were dealing with, and
sometimes, to forget that it was a representation.
So, they moved straight from the text to talking
about war itself.
By the middle of the semester, we felt we were
failing, and we tried to turn things round with
two kinds of intervention. Firstly, we focused in
two classes on academic questions, showing with
specific examples how they can be formulated,
framed and answered. The examples came
from our own experience. Secondly, there were
individual conferences preparing students for
the final assignment timetabled for the end of the
semester. We devoted a good portion of these to
pushing students to articulate and improve the
question behind their assignment.
The final assignments were good, and most of
them pursued a valid and well defined question.
One considered the war novel, Catch 22, for
instance, in which the central character, Yossarian
is represented as a hero who will do almost
anything to avoid fighting. This student asked
what kind of hero Yossarian is, and answered with
a finely modulated and wide-ranging account
of different kinds of heroism. Another paper
examined how three characters in the Romance
of the Three Kingdoms realised, or failed to
realise, a warrior code we would analyse in the
Iliad, while yet another parsed an exchange from
the film Dr Strangelove. We were pleased with
the vigour, and variety, of the questions students
We wondered about two things as we reflected on
this element of the seminar:
|| First, was it our interventions which changed
students’ perceptions, or would they have got
there anyway? The answer is probably the
usual one in teaching—a bit of both.
||Second, should we have intervened earlier?
We reached a point that was almost a crisis
halfway through the semester. The students
were not developing the central skill we
wanted, and we felt we had gone wrong
somewhere. Could that have been avoided?
This question is more difficult than the first,
but probably, the timing was about right. When
we discussed questioning in the abstract at the
beginning of the semester, the students missed
the point simply because there was no point
for them. They were just beginning to become
familiar with the materials, and their energies
were properly concentrated on that task. It was
only once they had read and watched and heard
a number of different representations that they
could begin to understand why questions were
needed and what form they might take. In other
words, the crisis was probably inevitable; it
probably even helped.
Students taking charge
Freshman seminars give students a chance to take charge of a module while they find their way at the university. We think a dawning sense of group endeavour helped students take charge with a feeling of intellectual adventure. We think, moreover, it was vital for each student to realise he or she had information, interests, perspectives and life experiences which others did not—with those others including their instructors. Once that was recognised, students had plentiful and apt suggestions for materials we might study and shouldered the responsibility well.
Key we think to this was care, at the start, to open
the door wide to students’ input but to set limits,
too. The most important limit was that we chose
a definition of war and stuck to it. This stricture
was simple but focusing. An early discussion
of its merits gave students a chance to practice
taking a stand, and replying to dissenting views.
This discussion also justified the texts around
which we structured the seminar (one epic, one
play and one novel). Recognition that texts had
not been selected randomly, or for a trivial reason,
helped students explain how they chose materials
for later discussions, presentations and papers.
Due to the size of our group, we were able to
host four lots of presentations. We made the
first an ungraded trial run and emphasised the
importance of Q&A. We expected stumbles,
nerves, laughter, and saw all three. But we saw
this too: once students started reflecting, in
ungraded writing, on their presentations, they
asked us to revise the syllabus to provide more
presentation opportunities. Talk about taking
charge of the module! Over the course of the
term, students found representations of war
in a death metal video and a folky pop song,
assorted films old and new, Shakespeare, WWI
recruitment posters, an NS marching chant, “The
Charge of the Light Brigade,” historical accounts
in comparison to pictorial images of the face-off
at Agincourt, a Chinese television serial—and
more. The instructors supplemented this variety
with a bit of their own. But we made sure when,
for instance, we discussed photographs of the
Vietnam War or a few episodes of “Blackadder”
that students did most of the selecting and
initiated the analyses.
The seminar’s success owes a great deal to the
students who thought they would give this
educational initiative a try. We learnt later that some of our students’ friends wished they had
been as daring. Evaluations were positive about
our ability to create an encouraging and open
environment, and to set limits yet provide freedom
and multiple opportunities for students to lead the class. One suggestion for improvement was
nonetheless to give students even more teaching
responsibilities. That is a good suggestion we
may be able to implement next time.