At the Court of King George: the Georgian Papers Programme in the classroom

Benjamin West, George III, 1779

Professor Arthur Burns, Vice Dean for Education, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor of Modern British History, King’s College London

As the first of the digital images of the papers to be released to the public through the Georgian Papers Programme are assembled for the launch, all those involved in it are caught up in the excitement that accompanies a big new research project. Here at King’s the academics associated with the GPP have had the opportunity to explore some of the papers in situ in the Royal Archives at Windsor, and we have all found unexpected items of interest. We’ve also had the opportunity to hear from those scholars visiting the Windsor archives under the auspices of King’s and our partners, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, as they have shared their own discoveries with us on subjects ranging from the agricultural reading of two Georges (King and Washington) via the menus for state banquets to royal responses to British involvement in West Africa. It all offers a teasing foretaste of the archival riches to come.

For all of us, however, being a researcher is only a part of our identity as academics: we are also teachers, continually seeking to find ways to share our enthusiasm for and delight in our disciplines as active researchers with our students. It is relatively straightforward and common for us to teach in the fields we are researching, or to use our skills as researchers to help students pursue their own interests in dissertations. At King’s we have also had the opportunity to involve individual students in academic research projects through our undergraduate research fellowships. But I at least have always felt that it would be wonderful to find a way to enable a whole class to feel involved at the heart of a major research project while it was still in progress.

As soon as the Georgian Papers Programme commenced, it appeared to me to offer a perfect opportunity to do this, as over a period of years it will roll out a rich and steady stream of newly digitized archive, some familiar, but much more previously unexplored. These will cover an extraordinary range of themes, from high politics to the purely domestic, and offer points of entry to students from the full range of humanities disciplines (and potentially beyond). Over the course of the next few years, the academics associated with the project at King’s and elsewhere will be identifying and interpreting documents with the potential to offer insights into the Georgian world; why should students not learn how to do the same?

And so was born At the Court of King George, which will be taught for the first time in the spring 2017 term at King’s to third-year undergraduate students from across the Faculty of Arts and Humanities as one of that faculty’s ‘Opportunity Modules’. These modules are all designed to appeal to students from all disciplines, and strive to offer innovative research-led teaching and imaginative assessments that will showcase the best work going on in the Faculty as a community of Arts and Humanities scholars.

In this case, as the assessment for the module each student will be asked to produce a digital edition of a document or series of documents which they have selected from those released by the Programme. In order to help them do this, rather than focusing on George III, the teaching on the module will concentrate on the skills needed to produce a good edition, and what a good edition should seek to achieve. Thus sessions will focus on palaeography, annotation, commentary, presentation and audience, as well as familiarizing the students, who are not expected to have any prior experience in working digitally, with the platform we will use to mount the editions. For this we will be using Xerte, a powerful open-source suite of resources for e-learning content authors, enabling the students to design and arrange their edition using simple wizards, and which also enable them to build in interactivity if they wish. This is not to say that the students will be unsupported when it comes to researching the materials they will need to produce the edition. They will be furnished with an extensive bibliography covering every aspect of the subjects contained in the papers. Pre-recorded interviews with leading historians and archivists familiar with relevant themes, such as the relationship with Hanover, the royal family and war, the court and the monarch himself as an individual, will introduce students to key issues and approaches; and there will be contributions in class from a member of the Royal Archives team to help them identify documents suitable for editing and which speak to the students’ own interests. Throughout the course, there will be classroom and online exercises in researching and sourcing materials to help them on their way. And, through such exercises, the students themselves will help enhance the resources available to future students on the module.

Aside from the opportunity to participate in the Georgian Papers Programme in this way, I hope the module will have other benefits for the students who take it. The task of preparing an edition obviously involves a range of important transferable skills. Quite apart from those linked to research and writing which arise in other forms of historical study, there are opportunities here to think hard about the ways in which to tailor the edition to a variety of different audiences and to make it valuable for different purposes. How best to arrange the text itself and the commentary upon it so as not to clutter or even obscure the original object with accompanying materials, while ensuring that the materials needed to extract maximum value from it are easily and attractively to hand? Could timelines or maps help the reader, and if so, in what form? Here the very fact that they will be working in an interdisciplinary environment, bringing to the module different skills and interests (and presumptions!) will help them explore these issues. And it is surely appropriate that, studying as they are at King’s College London, one of the most important and pioneering centres for digital humanities in the UK, they should acquire some experience of the possibilities the digital environment opens up for all our disciplines once aligned with some of the key values which have underpinned humanities scholarship over centuries. All these skills should be of enduring value to students regardless of their future career choices.

The course will certainly be challenging, and throw up surprises as we enter new territory. But I for one am looking forward to it immensely.


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