History provision at JMU was originally offered as part of a social studies degree course. Students took four subjects in the first year and specialised in two of them subsequently. A core first-level module was offered, which included a quantitative methods element. The module was not taught by historians and was not liked by students - it was pitched at too high a level and students could not see how it was relevant to their needs. Nor did historians want to be involved in teaching it.
Given these difficulties, the historians decided to introduce their own historical methods module, with quantitative elements still featuring. They started from the perspective of what historians need to know, incorporating relevant exercises using historical data. Going back to first principles was a key consideration, but more advanced elements were also included, correlation amongst them. These elements were seen to be good for the students creating a sense of achievement, even if some students did not get very far.
Provision at level 1
A core module Making History is provided, which is structured around a weekly workshop. A key concern is ‘to develop basic but fundamental skills of data collection and analysis’. Students work in groups on set exercises, several of which deal with quantitative dimensions. They are:
- Presenting and interpreting historical data
- Change and continuity: time series data
- Summarising historical data
An accompanying handbook gives student a considerable amount of help in undertaking the exercises, as well as setting them in their historical context. In addition, extensive online support is provided via Blackboard, enabling students to revisit exercises completed in class, to see further examples and to obtain virtual interactive support.
Group exercise examples
A group exercise relating to summarising historical data involved students analysing a table showing the numbers of workers employed at 32 private pits in the Lancashire coalfield in 1953. In relation to the size of the workforce, the students were tasked to find:
- The median value
- Upper and lower quartile value
- The mean value
- The standard deviation
They then had to comment on the relationship between the results they obtained from using the different techniques.
In an example relating to time series analysis, the students were given a table showing the growth of the Labour Party’s membership from 1909 to 1931. They were required to construct a simple line graph showing the trend in total membership and to comment on possible causes. They had to decide on such natters as the scale and layout of the graph and to deal explicitly with defects and problems in the data.
At the time of writing, the assessment of the quantitative aspects for the module are being revised.
The skills and knowledge acquired principally through this level-1 course are consolidated and extended throughout the degree programme. In the first instance, at level-2 in the Key Skills in Historical Research module students are tasked with collecting primary source material, entering it into both a database and spreadsheet before analysing and explaining their findings. Alongside this, other modules that deal with economic and business history engage with numerical analysis and many students choose to take a quantitative approach to their final year dissertation.
Dr John Herson, Professor Sam Davis and Dr David Clampin