Teaching Emotions in History: A New Module

From time to time historians are tasked with writing new modules from scratch, often because their research has changed direction.

Over the past few years my research has shifted from a focus on the gender identities and consumption habits of the gentry and aristocracy towards the emotions of elites – still with an eye to gender but with a more singular focus on anxiety. I’ve recently published an article on the subject: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/historical-journal/article/male-anxiety-among-younger-sons-of-the-english-landed-gentry-17001900/3DE7E14D600AB63E722CB18560261092

So now I’m designing a new module for our MA History programme, provisionally called ‘Emotions in History’. The module picks up on exciting new directions in historical research focusing on the way people felt in the past and how emotions have changed across history.

It appears that some emotions, such as fear, are experienced differently in different periods or go through periods when experiences of them increase in volume and intensity. The recent focus of the world’s anxieties on COVID-19 is an interesting example of how this can happen.

What feelings do these images arouse in you?

No doubt some of you felt anxious, nervous, unsettled? No doubt when, in due course, the virus has abated these images will take on new meanings, arouse different feelings.

Some emotions do actually disappear: witness the loss of ‘acedia’ the suffering experienced by medieval monks of fever, limb pains and a distaste for prayer. We now experience melancholy or sadness but we do not articulate anything of the type described as ‘acedia’. Honour too, as a disposition, is not experienced in the way it was in the medieval period.

So emotions change in their nature across history, historians generally agree on this. Psychologists and neuroscientists too are beginning to make similar arguments: https://www.theverge.com/2017/4/10/15245690/how-emotions-are-made-neuroscience-lisa-feldman-barrett

This new module explores this new forefront in historical research. It draws on my expertise in the area, but it will also be an opportunity for me to learn more about this subject through my discussions with my students. I’m at an early stage in the design of the module. This is an exciting stage because anything is possible. But it’s also tricky because I’ve not met any of the students on this module or taught a single minute of it in ‘real time’. Here are my thoughts at this point in the process.

We are going to focus on emotions in various times and settings between 1700 and 2020. I want to cover ‘basic emotions’ such as anger and joy as well as ‘complex emotions’ such as anxiety, shame and sympathy.

So we are going to have one week on the rise of sympathy and empathy in the eighteenth century and the development of new humanitarian politics https://books.openedition.org/ceup/1496?lang=en.

In another week we will study the anxieties of the gentry and the aristocracy. We will also analyse the role of envy in the inheritance squabbles of nineteenth century aristocrats, both projects that are currently occupying my attention. We will have one week on anger and the First World War https://www.warfarehistorian.org/emotions-in-war/. We will study fear in the context of the 2001 attacks on the US https://academic.oup.com/jah/article-abstract/94/2/632/730538?redirectedFrom=fulltext

So in each week we will find and study a particular emotion in a specific historical setting. We will discuss how people in that context described their experience of that emotion. We’ll think about the impact that the emotion had on the events of that period and context. Equally we’ll also consider how the context shaped the emotion, altered the nature of feeling itself.

The prime movers of the module will be primary sources: family letters, newspaper media, political speeches, art and photographic images.

So the focus is not on one period and theme, rather we will time travel across a long period of history always with our view fixed on emotions.

For the assessments I want to try new things as well as more traditional types of task. So I’m thinking a 3000 word essay and a 30 minute podcast. The latter could be an interview with a contemporary expert or it could be a ‘lecture’ on a specific emotion/context.

That’s as far as I’ve got – it’s an exciting time and I look forward to meeting the first students on this new module!

Dr Mark Rothery

Associate Professor of History

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