The following post was written by Sam Hitchmough, a Senior Teaching Fellow and Director of Teaching from the School of History. Sam has been a BILT Fellow since September 2018.
I joined Bristol in September 2017 as a Senior Teaching Fellow in US History (particularly American Indian History) and Director of Teaching. Prior to this I was Director of Teaching and Learning for the School of Humanities at Canterbury Christ Church University where I taught on the American Studies programme.
I have longstanding interests in artefact-based teaching and how to engage with especially difficult and sensitive topics. This has involved a large archive digitisation project in Kent, numerous seminars and workshops, as well as conference papers.
The first of my proposed outputs is a case-study on how historians approach the teaching of difficult histories. Teaching difficult topics has made me reflect on my role as someone transmitting/mediating knowledge, the mechanics of how such thorny topics are taught in the classroom, and how student learning experiences might be affected by subject matter or the dynamics of the group.
This case study will discuss the business of teaching difficult histories, using a series of conversations with colleagues in the History department (and historians within other departments) about the difficult/controversial/provocative topics that they deal with, and how they approach and teach them. It will look for patterns and devise strategies that can be applied to classroom teaching. The study will also integrate, where appropriate, wider discussions on issues such as trigger warnings, political correctness, the role of the university, and the role of History itself. The end result will be an emerging companion/toolkit for discussing difficult things that could be widened out to broader canvasses.
The second output will be an opinion piece that explores tropes associated with American Indians, and how these are utilised by two groups in the English southwest that have no historic connection with any Indian nation: the Exeter Chiefs rugby union team and the Bristol Savages art collective. The histories they have constructed featuring Indian images and symbols are concoctions that tap into a rich vein of transatlantic relationships between the UK and the US. It’s a history of representation and appropriation, accumulated and distorted through the lens of popular culture, ranging from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to playing cowboys and Indians.
There’s no long history of American Indian physical presence in the UK, even more so the case in the Southwest, but through an intricate web of signifiers, meanings and values, Indians have had a presence for centuries without largely being present. This piece focuses on the two groups to reveal a tangled conversation about identity, cultural appropriation, political correctness and cultural respect, and to ask whether their names are appropriate in modern Britain.