The future of the past
Colleague spotlight | Dr. Jessica van Horssen
Dr. Jessica van Horssen teaches on the suite of UG and PG History courses within The School of Cultural Studies and Humanities. Her scholarship focuses on the history of environmental health in North America and the wider world. Her work highlights the connections between modernity and toxicity in bodies of land, human bodies, and the body politic. She uses innovative digital tools in her research and teaching to develop new insights, analyses, and understandings. She loves teaching students how to do the same!
Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working with the school you are in?
I think teaching, learning, researching, and writing should be fun activities. This includes flipping the classroom so that students are the ones who lead the discussion, bringing in digital recordings of marginalized populations to bring their voices to our study, and allowing students to experiment with new methods and concepts, creating safe spaces for them to test things out. The support for this sort of innovative work that the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities (CSH) provides is what brought me to my current position, and it’s what makes me so happy to be part of the wider team. Sharing best practice among colleagues to enhance the student experience is a really motivating factor in my work. This includes sharing Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality equipment to deepen the student understanding of module content, and setting up skills-based tutorials to enable students and staff to create innovative projects of their own. We do things differently in CSH, and it works.
What makes you passionate about your work around History and why is it important?
I know it’s an old saying, but history matters! I truly believe the work that the field of History entails is important and valuable work, intrinsically linked with celebrating, healing, and understanding.
My job first and foremost is to inspire students to explore the past in new, creative ways, whether that’s through building a website, creating a video game, or writing a fantastic dissertation about an aspect of the past very few people know about. These activities bring light to people and experiences all too often forgotten, and adding digital outputs to this work immediately links the growing expertise of our students to the wider world. This enables others to share in new insights, but also for students to build up their CVs in a way that speaks to the digital world around us. This puts them ahead of the competition with they leave LBU, and empowers them with new skills they can’t wait to show off.
How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?
Collaboration is a central component to my work, and it’s an inspiring one as well. To have a support network of innovative and inspiring colleagues (and students!) around me is a driving force behind the things I do.
One collaboration that has been meaningful to me is with my Media colleague Gaspard Pelurson. Both Gaspard and I use video games in our teaching, and ask students to create their own games as part of their assessment. Together, we have spoken about the innovative work we do in CSH at university-wide forums, and we’re in the process of writing a journal article on the benefits of gaming in HE.
Another collaboration I’m proud of is the Digitising the Curriculum working group I’ve established in CSH. Alongside colleagues from each subject area, we reassess module assessment, finding ways to infuse our teaching and learning with new digital skills and content that students are eager to engage with. From podcasts to vlogs, websites to video games, we’ve brought innovative methods to CSH that enhance teaching and learning, and equip students with key digital skills they can use for their future success.
What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in Cultural Studies and Humanities?
Students have nominated me for several Golden Robes Awards, which the University gives at the end of each academic year. This is such a rewarding process and motivates me to continue looking for new ways to engage students in course content.
I performed an immersive time travel experience at Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 to showcase my research on plastics contamination, which was also a career highlight. In 2020, the Royal Historical Society recognized me for my teaching innovation, largely due to the Digital History and Civil Rights in North America modules I’ve developed since starting at LBU. These modules use the digital world to offer new insights into the past, and students are active participants in each, creating content, discussing key themes and issues, and experimenting with new technologies to develop their growing expertise. Indeed, seeing students excel on these modules is something I’m most proud of while working at CSH, and I look forward to this each year.
How does your style of teaching help equip students for a future career?
Researching and writing is a central component of Cultural Studies and Humanities degrees, including History. Without diminishing this importance, the fact that we now live in a world where people are expected to have digital literacy when they enter the job market motivates me to infuse my teaching, learning, and researching with innovating digital methods to deepen my practice and equip students with new skills—and a new confidence—they can take with them after graduation.
I use the principles of Augmented Reality (AR) in my research on the history of plastics contamination in the environment, and I bring this to the classroom as well, using AR to immerse students in our subjects each week, and enabling them to create their own AR experiences as well. This is exciting stuff that puts CSH staff and students ahead of the curve.
Links to Dr. Jessica van Horssen's work:
Dr. Jessica van Horssen's scholarship focusses on the history of environmental health in North America and the wider world. Her work highlights the connections between modernity and toxicity in bodies of land, human bodies, and the body politic.