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Using Online Resources to Teach Political Thought of the Spanish Golden Age during the COVID-19 Pandemic

David Martín López
University of Castilla-La Mancha

The spread of the novel coronavirus forced the closure of university campuses and a shift from classroom to online teaching. This paper1 reflects on my experience taking online my Political Thought and Institutions in the Early Modern Period course, which is for third-year undergraduate history students at the University of Castilla-La Mancha (UCLM), Ciudad Real campus (Spain). The class is equivalent to six units within the common European educational system (ECTS),2 with half the instruction time (thirty hours) and most of the study and coursework time (seventy hours out of ninety) assigned to the political-thought element. Fifteen students enrolled in the class this year. With the move to an online format, I modified learning activities to enable students to acquire the content and skills required in the course with the help of widely available literary sources in a digital format, videoconferencing, Moodle forums, and other digital-communication tools.

My approach was based on reading and analyzing primary sources from the period under study, with a focus on printed books. Reading original documents enhances students’ motivation and demands greater effort than that required by the modern typeset works on their reading list. By working with original sources, students immerse themselves in the period in which they were written and learn to handle the concepts and expressions used at the time, while other works in the bibliography give students the necessary background to understand the authors’ motivations and discursive choices. This combination enhances students’ capacity for critical thought and analytical skills that will serve them well when faced with printed or manuscript sources from any historical period in the future.

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown in Spain, students had access to physical copies of the books studied in class through the library. While they were also encouraged to find facsimile editions of the originals on the internet, these electronic versions became indispensable once university campuses closed down. Studying the ideas expressed by different writers from one particular period in their context encourages critical and analytical thought. It also helps students develop skills associated with reading and understanding historical texts, apply working methods in critical analysis of sources, and enhance their digital skills through the use of browsers and bibliographical management tools for data retrieval and storage. Additionally, it offers students a way to step out of their passive learning role in lecture settings and embrace dynamic learning, with all the interpretive challenges implied in the case of manuscripts.

Many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century political works are available open access on the internet to be read online and/or downloaded for ease of handling both during lectures and individual study. Working with original works over 300 years old enables us to bypass any intellectual property rights issues applicable to the use of modern editions of the same books. Interdisciplinary learning is further enhanced by combining the study of written texts with artworks and illustrations that reflect the iconography of the period. These include not only author portraits but allegorical references, heraldic representations, and emblems. Most of the works chosen for both online lectures and individual study are available through the websites Biblioteca Digital Hispánica (the Spanish National Library’s digital collection), Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico, and Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. The collections Europeana and Hispana were also used. In addition, the Spanish Archive Portal (PARES—Portal de Archivos Españoles), includes records of book-printing licenses as well as background documentation on authors. Finally, museum websites, the Spanish museum collection portal Red Digital de Colecciones de Museos de España, and Google Arts & Culture provide access to numerous images that are helpful as complements to teaching the writings of Golden Age authors. All but the last of these collections belong to Spanish public institutions with open access 24/7. The breadth of their range makes an invaluable contribution to interdisciplinary study of the subject.

The course combined more traditional lectures focusing on theory and content delivery with an emphasis upon the completion of individualized student projects conducted under the teacher’s supervision and guidance. I delivered lectures live through Microsoft Teams, provided by UCLM, so that each class was assigned its own virtual space to allow students and teaching staff to access materials and take part in videoconferences. These were used for weekly teaching sessions as per the official (pre-COVID) schedule to impart theoretical instruction and answer students’ questions. This virtual space was also used outside teaching hours to solve issues around coursework and tests.

At the beginning of the semester, I introduced students to some of the key aspects of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish political theory paying particular attention to three main areas: (1) the notions of modern state and raison d’état (national interest), the consolidation of the monarchy and the pillars that sustained it (counsellors, judges, army, etc.), and widespread opposition to Machiavelli; (2) intellectual trends of the period (tacitismo, arbitrismo, regalismo); and (3) key authors and works, such as Eugenio de Narbona (Doctrina política civil, 1604), Gregorio López Madera (Excelencias de la Monarquía y Reino de España, 1617), Sancho de Moncada (Restauración política de España, 1619), Juan de Mariana (De Rege, 1599), and emblem books such as Andrea Alciato’s 1621 Emblemata. Furnished with this background knowledge, students worked independently on several activities.

The first of these (Activity A) required students to work in groups on a set book to produce an essay and a presentation at the end of the semester. This was scheduled as a classroom activity before lockdown and subsequently adapted to enable students to work in teams, using digital resources of their choice to communicate among themselves (WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, etc.). Each group was expected to submit an essay exploring the themes and issues in the treatise assigned to their team, addressing the author’s background and, particularly, the main ideas found in the book. Students worked together at every stage of the project to complete bibliographical research, write the essay, and create a presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint or Prezi to highlight the main points in their collective essay. Towards the end of the semester, the presentations were delivered to the rest of the class through Microsoft Teams. Including teamwork in the online adaptation of the course gave students the opportunity to practice task allocation, cooperation and exchange of ideas and technological know-how, acquiring skills that will be invaluable to them in their future professional careers.

In addition, I devised two types of group discussions, whole-class and in teams, to encourage students to brainstorm and debate the main ideas found in excerpts of works not featured in the book assignment. The whole-class discussions (Activity B) were a pre-COVID course element that I now delivered through Teams, with students contributing as individuals rather than in groups. Five to seven days before the meeting, I uploaded two or three excerpts of books onto the virtual class space in Moodle. At the session, students took turns speaking to pick out one or more of the main ideas in the first text, taking care to avoid repeating what others had already said. Students also commented on their initial reactions to the text as they read it. Students raised their hand to intervene and make a comment or I choose a student at random if no one volunteered. This initial brainstorming prompted debate on the ideas expressed by the author in the chosen excerpt. Two excerpts were discussed in each 90-minute session, with two or three sessions taking place over the semester. In terms of assessment, I took several factors into account, such as willingness to speak up, number of interventions, ability to express ideas orally, and direct engagement with differing views. Videoconferencing made it possible to apply these standard assessment criteria during lockdown, and the small size of the class enabled me to accurately monitor student performance.

Using the online databases of digitalized works listed above, I chose two types of texts that would give students an understanding of the different formats in which political theory was presented in the early modern period: on the one hand, aphorisms or political concepts expressed in one sentence; on the other, excerpts of a treatise that introduced several ideas. These two formats, together with emblems, which are more analytically complex, helped students understand the diversity of approaches encountered in Golden Age Spanish political theory. Aphorisms form the basis of a number of works, such as Doctrina política civil by Eugenio de Narbona, and the final section of Arte Real para el buen gobierno de los reyes, by Jerónimo de Ceballos (Toledo: Diego Rodríguez, 1623), and I have appended a sample set of aphorisms that students discussed. The texts were supplied either as a single PDF or as a set of instructions for finding the treatise in the online archives listed above and locating the aphorisms by number. Having obtained, read, and studied the aphorisms, I expected students to identify and explore the common theme running through each set. The sample set of aphorisms detail how a king should choose his advisers, and what attributes they must have to act for the benefit of the realm. An example of the second type of text proposed for class discussion is a 200-word excerpt from chapter 5 of Restauración política de España by Sancho de Moncada. This text appended below is useful for illustrating the concept of arbitrismo. A primary goal of the reform-minded intellectuals who produced this literature was to propose economic measures to turn around Spain’s declining economy, which continued to lose ground despite the resources extracted from the Americas.

A further type of discussion exercise (Activity C) was developed specifically as an online activity, with the aim of testing the potential of the educational platform Moodle as a teaching and assessment tool. In this group exercise, students discussed texts and ideas by posting messages in a virtual space where they could only be read by team members. This enabled debates to develop over a period of time. By selecting the option for teacher-created forums, I was able to introduce a set of questions as a starting point for discussion. Taking the appended excerpt as an example, I might ask: What were the qualities a king should look for in his advisers and privy counsellors? Was the king answerable for his ministers’ decisions? What was the relationship between Spanish markets and those of other European powers in the context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world trade? Discussion was triggered by these questions, but students were free to comment on any other issues that arose from their fellow students’ replies.

In Activity C, each of the groups formed for Activity A was assigned a set of longer excerpts, about two to three pages each. Based on the texts and questions provided, it was up to the students to make their own comments on the ideas presented by the author. There were no set turns for participation but, in order to encourage all students to engage, and to prevent one or two people from dominating the discussion, I configured the forum limiting the daily number of messages posted by each student to two. Additionally, I expected every student to post at least two or three messages on each text. For assessment purposes, the parameters considered were: the number of messages posted by each student, analytical skills demonstrated by the ability to extract ideas from a text, the student’s response to issues that spontaneously arose in discussion, and the quality of writing.

Although the two discussion exercises were similar, they differed in some of their features and objectives. The size of the excerpts studied for each of the exercises differed, from the few lines discussed by the whole class in Activity B to two to three pages set for team discussion under Activity C. Other differences related to the duration of the exercise and the teacher’s role. In the former exercise, each debate took approximately forty minutes by videoconference and I played a more active part in guiding and keeping the exchange flowing. The latter, on the other hand, took two weeks to complete, and my role was limited to observing, guiding, and providing tools and materials, while letting students have free rein, within the limits described, to act and express their own opinions. In both cases, I wanted students to improve their reading and comprehension skills when confronted with a historical text, and to develop skills around reflection, critical analysis, and contraposition of ideas. However, whereas one developed oral skills, the other focused on written expression. Forum posts were more thoughtful, mindful of previous comments, and more carefully expressed than comments delivered orally in class discussions. On the other hand, the latter required students to read the texts beforehand, prepare ideas they had extracted from them, and identify potential topics of discussion that might arise in the session. As a result, the class debates were, unsurprisingly perhaps, more natural and spontaneous than those conducted via posts in a team forum.

Course assessment was based on the criteria mentioned above, together with an online questionnaire testing knowledge of the range of topics studied, which was delivered on the pre-COVID scheduled exam date and time. Students were able to discuss their performance and results with me by requesting a videoconference by email.

Naturally, I encountered some challenges implementing these changes. First, I could only assign open-access materials. Second, virtual access to content was limited by the socioeconomic circumstances of each student, giving rise to imbalances between those who had a computer for their own exclusive use and good internet connectivity, and those who did not. Third, any approach had to be fully inclusive, and therefore alternatives had to be made available for students with disabilities (e.g., visual impairments) to access and explore manuscripts or printed books. The need to work exclusively with open-access sources was not so much a problem as a limitation to bear in mind when choosing teaching materials. On the upside, it provided an opportunity for students to become familiar with the use of the different databases subscribed to by the university.

The issue of levelling the field for all students regardless of socioeconomic circumstances goes beyond the remit of the classroom and indeed of the university. As campuses were closed, UCLM extended their existing computer loan scheme and issued 4G cards to students with justified need. To supplement the institution’s effort, it was important for me to be extra flexible in terms of deadlines and assessments, and to make access to study materials as easy as possible to prevent lower-income students falling behind. Finally, with regard to students with visual impairments, the key to adaptation lay in the choice of compulsory reading to ensure digitalized versions were of sufficient quality to be read with the help of ICT resources such as POET, VoiceOver, or Daisy Translator. The websites mentioned above were more than adequate with some of them even providing audible versions of their online content. The same applied to online bibliographical resources, which are easily read using audio software mentioned above. Any issues were solved by supplying the student with materials complying with the technical requirements of their chosen accessibility application.

Despite these drawbacks, I found this learning method to be more effective than traditional note-taking and memorizing, because it enhances knowledge acquisition and retention over time, turning primary sources into a powerful memory support in the learning process. Students confirmed this positive outcome in a survey distributed at the end of course. Almost every student who replied agreed that the digital resources chosen were a suitable introduction to course content and greatly enhanced their interest in the subject. The course’s practical approach was highly appreciated because it helped students understand political concepts and trends such as raison d’état, arbitrism, regalism, or tyrannicide. Students placed high value on the bibliographical research component that complemented the analysis of political works because it contributed to their training as future professional historians, both in terms of content and research methodology. By contrast, moving lectures from a physical classroom to videoconferencing was the least-liked feature of the adaptation from the students’ point of view. The most widely reported reason for their dislike was the anxiety they felt at having to rely on ICT to follow lectures or, particularly, assessment sessions given the possibility of internet glitches or power cuts.

Personally, I had a positive teaching experience online, despite the enormous amount of time and effort spent quickly converting the class to an online format. Although a section of the course was already designed to include online activities, the COVID-19 lockdown required me to prepare extra coursework and to develop visual resources as a complement to online lectures to make them more enjoyable for students. I believe this experience has made me grow as a teacher and I intend to continue using this approach when campus teaching resumes, including activities such as debates and analysis of historical sources, both in the classroom and through online teaching tools.

Activity B: Aphorisms Example
  1. 5. Mucho importa a los príncipes tener a su lado quien les advierta y dé noticia de los hombres beneméritos de su reino para premiar a cada uno conforme a su virtud, como lo hacían los romanos.
  2. 6. El privado del príncipe ha de anteponer lo justo y lo honesto a su particular interés.
  3. 12. Los privados de los príncipes no han de dar esperanzas falsas a los pretendientes, despachando a todos según sus servicios y merecimientos.
  4. 26. Los vasallos tienen obligación de socorrer la necesidad de su rey, aunque se haya causado por sus gastos y excesos, como hacen los médicos con los enfermos, aunque ellos hayan tornado las enfermedades por su mano.
  5. 27. Cuando en las consultas hay pareceres contrarios, tomese resolución con medio que concuerde las dos opiniones.
  6. 31. Tenga cuidado el príncipe [de] como sirven sus ministros, porque no es regla cierta que el que hizo bien el oficio menor lo hará también en el mayor.
  7. 32. Procure el príncipe que sus vasallos anden ocupados porque la ociosidad es madre de vicios y motines.
  8. 37. Miren mucho los príncipes a quien dan los oficios y plazas porque la ambición de los pretendientes inventa mil modos de engaños.
  9. 38. El consejo de los hombres virtuosos y llanos debe seguir el príncipe, y no el de los cavilosos y noveleros.
  10. 39. Los consejeros del estado de los reyes han de tener amor a su rey y experiencia de los negocios, valor en la resolución y amistad entre sí.
  11. 43. Conózcase el príncipe cuerdo en la buena elección de sus ministros.3
Activity B: Treatise Excerpt Example

La razón primera es, porque con este comercio sacan los materiales y plata de España para siempre, que el daño que dentro de ella hiciesen unos a otros, o uno a todos, resultaría en provecho de alguno del Reino, y se quedaría en él, como si se pasase el dinero de unas gavetas en otras, o de muchas en una. La segunda es, porque extranjeros tienen desahuciada a España, pues la prosperidad que suele ser la vida de otros Reinos es la muerte de España, sea fertilidad, flota, remisión de alcabala, etcétera. Porque en toda prosperidad de España tiene parte el extranjero, y no sólo se la chupa y quita a España, sino que lleva todo ello a los enemigos, y los arma [4v] contra España, de que le resulta gran peligro; y el buen Capitán clave las piezas, porque no aprovechen al enemigo, y así toda pítima es inútil a este enfermo, si primero no se le toma la sangre; y es corto remedio conquistar una frontera perjudicial, cercenar el Real gasto, reformar los ministros, ni otro alguno, si primero no se cierran las puertas (o puertos) por donde entra el daño, y así se debe procurar tal comercio que sea útil a las demás naciones, pero que no dé fin de la Española. Y digo lo primero.4

David Martín López is a lecturer in the History Department at the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, where he teaches undergraduates taking history and primary school teaching degrees. His research interests are: the Toledo division of the Society of Jesus, its territorial expansion and consolidation during the sixteenth century, and its heritage after the Jesuits were expelled from Spain in 1767; the University of Toledo in the early modern period; Hispanic political thinking and its relationship to ethics in the Baroque period; and the use of digital cultural heritage resources and manuscripts in the history classroom.

1 This essay is part of the research project REPUCLIO (reference PGC2018–093833-B-I00) and the research group “DeReHis” (UCLM, reference 2020-GRIN-28716), co-financed through FEDER funding. Thanks to María Fernández for her translation and linguistic advice.

2 The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is used by European universities to quantify the amount of work required for each subject for scheduling purposes within the European Higher Education Area. The system assigns university degrees 240 ECTS, spread over four academic years, and most subjects/modules are allocated six ECTS each. One ECTS amounts to ten taught hours and twenty-five to thirty hours independent work by students. The overall time students are expected to put into each subject is therefore 150 to 180 hours.

3 Francisco José Aranda Pérez, Jerónimo de Ceballos: un hombre grave para la República (Córdoba: Universidad de Córdoba, 2001), 392–99.

4 Sancho de Moncada, Restauración política de España (Madrid: Juan de Zúñiga, 1746), 6 July 2020.

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