How to teach contemporary history in a coronavirus crisis

Against the odds, a group of professors and former civil servants and politicians have kept lectures on history, politics and the economy running at King’s College London. The new part-online, part-in-person format has proved a hit not just for students but for special guests too, writes John Rentoul

Tuesday 12 January 2021 20:38
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<p>Ed Balls, who has just been promoted to professor at King’s College London, joins Clare Lombardelli during a lecture on the economic history course</p>

Ed Balls, who has just been promoted to professor at King’s College London, joins Clare Lombardelli during a lecture on the economic history course

All universities have struggled during coronavirus to give students the education they have the right to expect, and there have been many heroic examples of good practice, but I believe my colleagues at King’s College London have done a particularly fine job. Before the November lockdown, Jon Davis, director of the Strand Group at King’s, ran hybrid classes, with some of the students attending in person, in a socially distanced hall, and the rest joining online. 

“We decided that our offering really was one where it would be better in person,” said Davis, “because of the very special guests that have always been important to our approach.” Since then, the courses have had to go online only, and when the new term starts on 15 January, that will continue, including for the “Blair Years” class that I co-teach with Davis and Michelle Clement. But we hope to move back to mixed teaching, online and in-person, as soon as possible. 

The result is that, even during this crisis, Davis and his colleagues have continued to build a remarkable centre of excellence in the teaching of contemporary history. It started with the Blair Years course on New Labour in government, but has expanded to include a postgraduate module on prime ministers and cabinet, run in conjunction with 10 Downing Street; a similar module for undergraduates; a class taught by Jack Brown on the history of London’s government including directly elected mayors since 2000; and a course on British economic history since the war, run in conjunction with the Treasury. 

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