One of the larger issues I have faced during my PhD is the problem of the difference between what is taught and what is learnt. As any teacher will know, what students take away from a class is often different to what was intended. However, how do we investigate this difference from a research perspective?
Through what students choose to write down we can infer a lot about what they take away from a class. If we take a look at the student notes of Charles Darwin from his days as a medical student (available via John van Wyhe’s fabulous Darwin Online resource), we can clearly see the difference between learning and teaching. In these notes Darwin takes down some information about differences in bone colouration with relation to race and ‘dropsical people’. Mere lines later, he writes ‘This is all general & useless Anatomy’, finishing his note taking for the class. Here, we can quite clearly see the subjects which peaked the interest of young Darwin and those which did not.
So does this not solve the problem of finding what was actually learned by students? Unfortunately not. Whilst the student notes of Charles Darwin and other famous figures have been relatively well-preserved by scholars, curators, and historians, those of your average student are not always so well kept. In specific cases, notes found after many generations are donated by family members to an archive. However, in my experience these instances are few and far between. This can leave the large concept of ‘the student experience’ to be extrapolated from a single set of notes from just one term of classes; an unsatisfying arrangement.
One option for dealing with this issue is undoubtedly to go through every annual class list for each year and search for records from the student days of each class member in archives across the globe. I am certain that my research will lead me to this path in the future, however this is long, arduous, time-consuming, and potentially unrewarding work.
Another method for dealing with this issue of ‘missing’ materials in the words of Glenn Adamson, author of ‘The Case of the Missing Footstool: Reading the Absent Object’, is:
‘When faced with an unexpected ‘hole’ in the historical record… look at the edges of the perceived gap, in the hope of delineating it’s precise contours, and thus… guessing at the reasons behind it.’
In my case this means looking at courses offered, classroom resources available, class lists, lecture topics and much more to understand what medical students of the nineteenth century might have learnt in their anatomical classes. This technique is the historical equivalent of negative space imaging- we create the edges of the space to understand what’s inside.
Clockwise from top left: Maggie Enterrios (Instagram @littlepatterns), Ileana Hunter (Etsy shop), Aimee Davies (andstitches.blogspot.com)
Obviously this research methodology has its flaws; it does only create an outline of the topic (and a potential outline at that). However, it does allow me to fill a much smaller space with the few sets of notes I can find.
This ‘negative space’ method provides a rather neat workaround for historians who find themselves missing materials they know once existed. However, it is never ideal to be short of research material. I’m not suggesting that we should inundate the archivists at our alma mater schools and universities with old class notes but… maybe flick through them again before throwing them out?