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Teaching the World of Queen Elizabeth I in the Age of SARS CoV-19

Christopher Maginn
Fordham University

As was the case for so many university lecturers around the world, my spring 2020 semester was abruptly altered from a planned, in-person and lecture-based learning format to an unplanned, digital distance-learning format. Suddenly, there were a range of platforms—like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts—available to instructors to maintain the continuity of their courses and finish the semester. But, in addition to having to choose between these technological options, another, more philosophical, decision had to be made: should continuity be preserved synchronously or asynchronously, or should a hybrid of the two be employed? Here, a number of factors needed to be weighed. How to account for the varying number of students in courses; for example, teaching ten or even twenty students is not the same as teaching thirty or forty. Should students, who now might be in different time zones and burdened with new responsibilities, be made to stick to the day and time of a class they had originally committed to? And what of the social inequalities that the virus had laid bare: could students be expected to have high-speed internet access which synchronous instruction typically demands? In wrestling with this decision, amid the backdrop of mounting fear and uncertainty, I took solace in the support of my institution, notably the reassurances that “teaching online … will not be a perfect equivalent of the courses you would have taught in person.” Reassuringly, the semester was already half-way through when the disruption came. Whatever the pedagogical path taken by an instructor only a few weeks remained to see it through.

As the spring 2020 semester was winding toward its inevitable conclusion, however, I was asked to teach my summer session seminar “The World of Queen Elizabeth I” entirely online. The course is an upper-level History elective but fulfills the major/minor requirement for a multidisciplinary Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. Elizabeth I is one of the most fascinating figures in history. The queen is that rare bird: a person of some historical antiquity whose name and face are instantly recognizable today and whose life remains compelling more than 400 years after her death. The seminar thus attracts an eclectic mix of undergraduate students, typically a dozen or so in summer. The majors of students taking the course range from History to Fashion Studies to Communications and most everything in between. This summer, with the need to be physically present in a classroom removed, the number of students enrolled increased by 30 percent. The students were drawn from across the United States, and from as far afield as Moscow and China. The course they found themselves in seeks to move beyond the standard biographical studies of Elizabeth by exploring the world the last Tudor monarch inhabited. It does so by looking at four overlapping themes that together shaped the Elizabethan world: state and society in the kingdom of England; the politics and diplomacy of Reformation Europe; the extension of Tudor rule in the kingdom of Ireland; and England’s overseas discoveries. For five years now I have offered my Elizabeth course in an intensive and compressed five-week summer session. For the last three, I have taught it as a hybrid, that is, a course which has synchronous and asynchronous components. In this time of SARS CoV-19, the synchronous sessions—very much the linchpin of the course—in which I had in years past lectured, moderated class discussions and listened to student presentations, would have to be conducted remotely through Zoom.

But what of the course content? We are, as any self-respecting modern school of education would be quick to point out, living through an interminable “teachable moment.” Students might benefit from the perspective on pandemics that history offered. For instance, I might concentrate to a larger degree than previously on the existence of and struggles with disease in the sixteenth century. Henry VIII lived in fear of the enigmatic “sweating sickness,” and ever the hypochondriac, he invented his own prophylactic to fend off the plague. Englishmen in sixteenth-century Ireland complained of what they called “an Irish ague,” which was probably an unidentified malarial sickness, though perhaps it was equally a subconscious longing for home. Elizabeth herself survived a serious bout of smallpox in 1562 and the plague ravaged London periodically throughout her reign. Yet some pointed comments by students, collected by my institution in an effort to gauge the success (or not) of the move to online instruction, stuck with me. Some respondents found it forced and tone-deaf when instructors unexpectedly changed the focus of their course to encompass the pandemic. Worse, students reported back that they hoped to find in their third-level education an escape from the grim reality encroaching on their extracurricular lives: the last thing they wanted was contrived academic discussions of pandemic by nonspecialists in courses not previously devoted to disease. With this in mind, and quite alive to the dangers of writing and teaching present-centered history, I retained the course’s original four-part thematic structure and concentrated my energies on sourcing new and existing online material to highlight aspects of Elizabeth’s reign.

The historian teaching the world of Elizabeth I, and Tudor history more generally, is in a privileged position. At an academic level, research into the age, from political and institutional history to the study of gender, sexuality, and female rule, has been robust over the last half century and shows little sign of abating. Primary sources, in particular, have become more widely available online and many are placed there for undergraduates to see and explore. At the same time, however, the presence online of an abundance of popular history, blogs, and historical fiction can make it difficult for students to distinguish scholarly from nonscholarly material. An essential component of teaching Tudor history in an online environment is to provide students with the skills to navigate innumerable digital sources and to assign them tasks that put these skills to use.

Student presentations are a central component of most any undergraduate seminar. However, striking a balance between such a participatory endeavor—and the class-time it gobbles up—with explaining what exactly happened in Elizabeth’s long reign and how historians have interpreted events is difficult. To reconcile the two, I assigned each student a figure from the Elizabethan court and asked them to explain, in a brief three-to-five-minute presentation, the courtier’s role and significance there. There is a galaxy of interesting persons to choose from: from the expected, like Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, to the recondite royal astrologer and thaumaturge, John Dee, to the much-married social-climber Bess of Hardwick, to the lesser known, like the former soldier and comptroller of the queen’s household, Sir James Croft. By exploring these individuals, the seminar was introduced to the character and the characters of the court in a breadth and detail that the instructor could hardly replicate. Students were asked to engage with the digital version of Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, a wonderful and easily accessible tool for exploring such prominent sixteenth-century lives. This assignment was designed to acquaint students with the essential historical skills of interpreting and analyzing secondary source material and challenged them to communicate their findings gracefully, through the spoken word, to their peers. For what Zoom lacks in intimacy and an ability to communicate subtle social cues, it makes up for in a student’s ready ability instantaneously to call up images like portraits or maps or PowerPoint in aid of their presentations.

Meanwhile, I assigned a range of material to be accessed digitally outside of class-time, asynchronously, to complement student presentations and live discussions. Reading and engaging with books and academic articles is essential to foster a student’s ability to reflect upon and argue the merits of conflicting historical interpretations. However, with libraries closed and the materials they contain temporarily out of reach, we had to lean more heavily on online journals and, where possible, digital version of books to accomplish this end. In addition to this traditional method of learning, I assigned several documentaries that can be watched free on YouTube. David Starkey’s four-part documentary on the life of Elizabeth I, which aired on Channel 4 in 2003, is overly suggestive at times, but is a stylish and compelling watch that delivers the reign’s moments of high drama well. No less important, if a bit earthier, is the series of episodes of Tudor Monastery Farm, which reveals a great deal about Tudor England from the ground up. There is aural material available, too. History Extra offers a series of podcasts devoted to the Tudors.1 The Tudor/Stuart Ireland Conference has made public on iTunes and SoundCloud podcasts of each paper presented at their annual meeting going back nearly a decade. And the Folger Shakespeare Library has made available an interview with Elizabeth Norton on “The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women.”

No history seminar on Elizabeth’s reign would be complete without at least an introduction to manuscripts from the age. Seeing the papers touched by the hands of the people discussed in the seminar can bring the events of centuries ago to life. The National Archives’ interactive “Paleography” tutorial is especially useful in showing students the basics of the Secretary Hand. There is older material, too, which is still helpful and readily accessible, such as Muriel St Clare Byrne’s “Elizabethan handwriting for beginners.”2 I posted several manuscript letters from Elizabeth’s reign on our course Blackboard page. A five-week course is insufficient time for students to learn the technical skills necessary to read sixteenth-century handwriting with any kind of fluency, but students were strongly encouraged to attempt to transcribe parts of these letters. For incentive, students were offered credit toward class participation for their efforts. Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online (MEMSO), meanwhile, is a treasure trove of (searchable) printed primary sources.3 Using MEMSO, I supplied each student with the date and title of a document to look up in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic for Elizabeth’s reign. After discussing the document’s calendar entry, I then accessed State Papers Online, 1509–1714 to show the students the complete manuscripts that lay “behind” the often-abbreviated calendar entry.4 While working with such manuscripts can be technically difficult and, at times, a bit dry, the same cannot be said of the 400-year-old Virginia Pars map. Here, as shown on The First Colony Foundation’s website, students viewed the location of a fort hidden under a recently discovered patch on a map of the “lost colony” of Roanoke.5 Students were expected to incorporate several printed primary sources, or other examples of material culture from the age, like images of maps, coins, or portraits, into a final, extended research paper. Students were permitted to conduct research on any aspect of the world of Elizabeth I that interested them so long as they could identify, in conjunction with the instructor, sufficient evidence upon which to base their research. The resulting papers, springing in large part from the student’s own scholarly initiative, were wide-ranging in their subject matter. The instructor’s insistence on a narrow scholarly focus for the papers allowed students to achieve some depth in their research in a relatively short amount of time.

Prior to 2020, I was of the view that there is no substitute for in-person learning and the human connections it engenders. My view on this is unchanged. But we live in extraordinary times which demand extraordinary responses. Thankfully, we are also living through a digital revolution which allows us to continue to teach and to learn while physically distant from one another until such a time as something of the old ways can be resumed. The subject-matter of a course like my “The World of Elizabeth I” is timeless. We can, I have discovered, be true to the history while engaging with new technology and digital materials to communicate a better understanding of it.

Christopher Maginn is Professor of History at Fordham University in New York. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of late medieval and early modern Britain and Ireland, with a particular focus on the Tudor period and the relationship between Ireland and England.

2 Muriel St Clare Byrne, “Elizabethan handwriting for beginners,” The Review of English Studies 1, no. 2 (1925): 198–209.

3 Tanner Ritchie, Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online (MEMSO 4.5).

4 Gale, “State Papers Online, 1509–1714,” Early British State Papers.

5 The First Colony Foundation, “Hidden Images Revealed on Elizabethan Map of America,” 3 May 2012. 

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