Pedagogical Practices and the Teaching of Historical Privacy

I think we can all agree that privacy is a subject that affects us. In the current socio-political climate, we are facing unprecedented conflicts with social media exposure, the data economy and the sale of personal information, and increasing systems of surveillance, that breaches the thresholds of our private lives. This concern has led to advocating for the protection of privacy, which is in the mind of individuals and governments alike. At the same time, escalating social anxieties related to cyber bullying, terrorism and criminal activities continuously send us the message that privacy can also be a threat. However, the ambiguity of privacy that exists now was evident in the historical past.

This dichotomy of privacy as both a threat and as a quality is at the heart of the Centre for Privacy Studies’ research focus and methodology. Given the role that privacy plays in our everyday lives, it is natural that the subject of privacy and notions of privacy throughout the past have garnered interest from scholars and the wider public. We believe that a historical understanding of privacy is the key to understand how this issue affects us on a daily basis. However, how can we look at privacy in the past without projecting the notion of privacy we carry with us today? This research needs to be performed with care, with flexible ideas of what the concept of privacy entails, informed by an interdisciplinary approach.

As my colleague, Dr Frank Ejby Poulsen, pointed out in his recent blog post, “privacy is however difficult to conceptualise and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing.” I agree with Dr Poulsen’s conclusion that conceptualising privacy results in “everything and nothing” and never gets us anywhere. To me, this approach just leads us to chase our tails.

via GIPHY

As a solution, Dr Poulsen brilliantly directs us to Daniel J. Solove’s determination to avoid “an essentialist concept of privacy with a defined ‘core’.” (1) This means we must challenge ourselves to move beyond our own defined or experienced idea of privacy and think about it as having multiple meanings, that may be expressed and visible otherwise through various sources (i.e. people, spaces, objects, feelings, and events).

Approaching privacy in this way may be innovative and good for interdisciplinary scholars engaged in historical research. However, the pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy can be difficult. This is due to the problematic nature of not having a defined concept of privacy, which may be hard for some students (across all education levels) to grasp as they begin, advance, or innovate their studies in history or the humanities. Throughout my academic and professional teaching career, I have found that students are not entirely comfortable with abstract approaches for various reasons.

First, while students can use their experiences as a starting point to explore the past, they are cautioned to avoid imposing their views on people, events, and concepts of the past. These experiences and ideas that are formed throughout their lives are the roots that anchor them and makes them feel comfortable in engaging the historical topics or materials. Next, when you take away their ability to rely on their experiences to study history and then add that to the fact that the subject that they are studying is based on abstract notions, then students are less likely to engage with or be interested in the topic. Finally, in living “in a world darkened by historical amnesia and obsessed with temporalities of futurity”, students confronted with abstract concepts, like privacy, may either feel embolden to make strong assertions through written or verbal arguments or may be constrained in fully examining the topic. (2)

Siep Sturrman writes that teaching early modern history (and applicable to other periods) “calls for promotion and seduction skills: one needs to lure students into the project and, far more importantly, to get them to engage intellectually with it.” (3) Far too often, from my own teaching experience, students are apathetic about studying earlier historical periods because it does not relate to them or is ‘boring’. This is enhanced with the case of students from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities because all too often the sources used to teach these periods are not reflective of who the students are or the environments of their lived experiences. There is, thankfully, a growing trend in academia to address this discrepancy and I know some incredible colleagues who are making these changes within their own courses. The fundamental problem, as Sturrman highlights, is to get students to “engage intellectually” with the historical problem. In my opinion, this requires students to connect with the materials. This connection (be it personally, politically, socially, or politically) not only makes students interested but also make them feel more willing to express their thoughts and to engage with the topic. The confidence in expressing their thoughts will increase critical thinking and lead to students defending their points of views, which is the goal of historical analysis. While privacy may be a subject that allows for this engagement, the abstractness of privacy has the potential to obstruct the connection.

This conundrum brings me to the key part of this post. To teach privacy within historical periods and to have students engage with it intellectually calls for educators to use a combination of traditional pedagogical practices of source evaluation, group discussions, and critical thinking. But, by employing practices of collective reading, incorporating interdisciplinary research, bringing in interdisciplinary scholars, and soliciting personal observations, the chances of success in the intellectual engagement of students is exponentially increased. The exchange within the research seminar with Professor Heide Wunder, that I alluded in my previous post, provides a good example of this approach.

At the end of Professor Heide Wunder’s lecture, the Q&A session provided the first idea of ways in which to teach and think about privacy. Through talking with my colleagues, there were two statements made that really helped to solidify an approach to privacy: privacy is always in relation to something and privacy is most often personal. This reference to considering privacy as personal will be expanded further down.

The second day of Professor Wunder’s visit consisted of an intensive research seminar, which illuminated the pedagogical potential of teaching about privacy and discuss how we could develop the notion of privacy in relation to notions of secrecy and intimacy. The seminar began with Wunder sharing her journey, through her research, from examining 12th-century multi-ethnic populations (i.e. Baltic and German people) that settled in East Prussia. This overview was followed by a discussion of each PRIVACY member’s research and Wunder’s generous suggestions of further sources to consider within their own historical investigations. Through presenting various topics via disciplinary scopes (architectural, legal, social/cultural, political and religious histories), the exchange between PRIVACY scholars and Wunder illuminates the ways in which privacy can be used but also how disciplinary perspectives can inform interdisciplinary characterisations of privacy. Furthermore, the experience highlighted how privacy was fluid and can be identified in all fields through different markers and expressions. Using the approach within the classroom would help students to refine and articulate precise questions that are crucial for historical studies. This personal connection and generous exchange drew us in to actually think about privacy, not in a defined context, but as a fluid and collaborative exploration.

The final section of the research seminar was, in my opinion, the best and most insightful part. Wunder provided a copy of a letter (included in her book) that was written in August 1783 between Sophie von La Roche to Elise zu Solms-Laubuch. (4) It was at this point that Wunder asked us to read the source together, after appointing our colleague to read it aloud. Next, she asked us: “In relation to the notion of privacy, what stands out for you?” Immediately discussions ensued and really pushed us to analyse hidden meanings that point to privacy or how descriptions articulate what was private. By asking the group for our personal observations, she allowed us to utilise our experiences and to look for points of significance for us.

What resulted from this was having our eyes opened to the possibilities of employing privacy in a variety of ways and the different ways in which we can identify privacy within the evidence. Through reading the letter, we were able to identify physical and metaphorical boundaries that signified the construction or designation of private spaces within a public space. We noticed the privacy that was inherent in everyday work and public practices, as well as privacy in relation to family and time shared between people. This particular pedagogical practice was particularly successful because it involved people coming from different backgrounds and specialisms, applying interdisciplinary approaches. If implementing this in a classroom or university setting, this practice could be combined with interdisciplinary readings that would encourage students to think beyond one specific discipline. Utilising the two statements about relational privacy and privacy as personal, this exercise would tap into individual life experiences, and each participant could see something unique that provokes further discussion. Through encouraging students to think about privacy in these two ways (privacy as relational and personal) helps students formulate questions and establish a strong starting point to engage with and contribute to how privacy is historically conceptualised and characterised.

This reflection has allowed me to delve further into my research and apply new (to me) ideas that have already helped me to form the theoretical underpinnings of political privacy. I can attest from first-hand experience to the benefits of the collective engagement with sources in the classroom. Therefore, in summary, I would encourage researchers, teachers, and professors to utilise the traditional pedagogical approaches in historical studies in an interdisciplinary way to effectively teach and efficiently research various historical subjects, especially ones that may involve abstract concepts.

The pedagogical practices and teaching of privacy (and similar topics) discussed here is definitely something to consider and to foster a dialogue about. What do you think?


(1) Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, 8; see also Daniel J. Solove, “Conceptualizing Privacy”, California Law Review, 90:1087 (2002), 1099–1123.
(2) Siep Stuurman, “Exploring the Limits of the Thinkable”, in David Conroy and Danielle Clarke (eds.), Teaching the Early Modern Period, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 77.
(3) Ibid., 76.
(4) Heide Wunder, He is the Sun and She is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998, 63.