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Emergency Remote Teaching and Environmental History


Dr. Heather Green, Saint Mary’s University

The CHA Teaching and Learning Committee welcomes blogs that address personal experiences of online teaching and learning. We offer an opportunity for scholars to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities, failures and successes in teaching methods, assignments, and in-class activities.

In this post, Dr. Heather Green reflects on the adjustments she made to her Environmental History of North America undergraduate course as classes shifted to remote delivery in Fall 2020.

In July 2020 when my university made the decision to go remote for the 2020-2021 academic year I scrambled, like so many of us did, to readjust my courses for online teaching. Having not taught in this format prior to the pandemic, I approached remote teaching with apprehension. How could I maintain the hands-on workshops I include in my courses? How will seminars succeed over Zoom? How much can I expect of students while also ensuring I provide a quality course? These were the questions I struggled with while reworking my HIST 2833 Environmental History of North America course. This post provided me an opportunity to reflect on the adjustments I made for this course, and to share some of the small wins and the struggles in adapting this class to online teaching.

Environmental History of North America is one of my staple courses. I greatly enjoy the interdisciplinary enrollment of this course, as it often attracts students from disciplines outside history. Environmental history, for whatever reasons, does not seem to have the same uptake here in Nova Scotia as it has in other provinces, and the course enrollment tends to be low for this class. In a way, this has been a blessing, as it has allowed me to structure this class as a lecture/seminar blend and to include short field trips near campus. Each year when I design this course, my primary goal is for students to leave the course with new insight into the evolving relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world over time into the present and new ways of thinking about their own relationships with the natural world. Keeping this goal in mind, I redesigned the course with structure/format, assignments, and pedagogy in mind.

Course Structure: I was thankful for the ability to take a blended approach to this class with pre-recorded lectures and a set seminar schedule, even though I had to drop my planned field trips to the Nova Scotia Archives and the Halifax Harbour. Overall, the weekly seminar discussions on Zoom were a very positive experience. There were only eight students enrolled which made for a very manageable number to work with on a platform like Zoom. A small group allowed for a collegial atmosphere when we discussed our weekly topics and readings and I was impressed with how well the students did with contributing to the discussions each week. It was the most enjoyable part of my online teaching experience, and several times throughout the semester individual students expressed to me that very few of their other courses included interaction with professors or their peers which they soon began to miss about the usual learning experience. In course evaluations, many noted the seminars as a particular strength of this course, much to my relief as I had worried it may be too burdensome.

Lectures, on the other hand, were not such an enjoyable experience. Recording them each week was an onerous process in ensuring tech operated properly, editing, and uploading. I missed the social cues from being in the classroom. On numerous occasions in recorded lectures I’d say, “and normally here we would discuss this together.” My own enjoyment aside, I worried that recorded lectures wouldn’t be as beneficial to students. I still can’t be certain how well students received the lectures, other than a few positive comments and the deep level of engagement students displayed in discussions and assignments. In the end, giving students more control over their own schedule was the right decision. While they did have to attend a weekly live seminar for an hour, they were able to do the rest on their own time. Recording lectures was also useful for students in different time zones.

Image 9 February
A beautiful watercolor from one of the students in HIST2833 whose project focused on at-risk species in Nova Scotia. Printed with Permission from L. Cormier.

Assignments: My assignments didn’t drastically change, but I made some adjustments and introduced some new concepts. The graded work included class discussion and facilitation, a primary source quiz, a major digital research project and presentation, and a reflective journal.

In the past, I’ve had students lead seminars by providing an overview of the readings, but this time I decided since we had such a small group to have students facilitate our seminars most weeks. They signed up for a topic at the beginning of the semester and by the third week we got into student-led facilitations. Each week, the facilitator sent me a list of discussion questions in advance to share and on the seminar day, they kicked things off with their own thoughts and questions. I would interject to add any missed points or redirect to ensure we covered what we needed to, but they did an excellent job. The original idea was that students would lead the first half and I would then take over, but they all did such an excellent job that their facilitations took up the full class each week. I found this to be a very beneficial exercise; each student, informed by their own educational background and lived experience, provided their own take on the discussion questions and their own questions also helped me to think about these topics in different ways. Several students suggested I should keep this exercise for the class, as they felt it allowed them to take responsibility for their own learning and provided a deeper analysis of course texts and ideas. I was pleased it was a fruitful exercise for them and have decided to adopt this exercise in future small seminar courses.

With this course, I attempt to connect the past with the present as much as possible as well as connecting academic material with the public realm. I usually provide students a wide range of options for their final research projects and this year the only adjustment I made was that I required digital research projects. I shared these on my website for students to look at in advance of our final seminar where students presented their research questions and findings in a mini-conference of sorts. This was a fun project for everyone and I’m going to keep the mini-conference format for presentations in future classes as well.

I like final assignments that allow students to employ the wider concepts and skills they’ve learned throughout the semester, so I assigned a reflective journal where students wrote a weekly entry discussing what they learned from course materials, what may have shifted their thinking about human-environmental relationships, and what new questions they might have. They ended their journal at the end of term with a conclusion entry where they wrapped up the broad course themes and their main takeaway from the class. This allowed students to think critically week to week and in a holistic manner at the end of the semester. They could also track their own thinking over time. I tremendously enjoyed reading their journals. Not only did they allow me to see which topics, readings, and lectures resonated most with students, I was struck by how different each students’ experiences with environmental history have been. This journal was meant to be a low-stakes assignment, where they work on it a little each week, and reflect back on the end, and after reading them I’ve decided to try this assignment in other classes.

Pedagogy: Aside from that outlined above, enforcing a pedagogy of kindness and flexibility was important this year. Each student is coping with the state of the world in their own way, and have unique challenges, triggers, and stressors. The fast switch to online teaching back in March and the subsequent switch to online for this academic year has allowed some students to really thrive where others are struggling. Regular check-ins with students guided my flexibility. I only provided extensive feedback on assignments to those who wanted it and I pushed deadlines back for the class when it seemed we needed it. I also sprinkled in some “low stakes” weeks throughout the semester where they got a break from lectures or had a light reading load. I found it difficult to balance how best to cut students some slack while ensuring they still got the same quality of course that they would in regular times. At the end of the day, I would rather question if I graded more generously than regret creating unnecessary struggle.

As pleased as I am to have come out of my first semester of online teaching on the other end feeling good about how it went, it remains a mystery what the next semester has in store. This specific course felt like a win for remote teaching, but many of the factors that contributed to that success are not a result of my planning: small class size; the specific group of students, their interest in the subject, and willingness to contribute; cooperation of technology. There is no formula for successful remote teaching. My courses this semester have shaped up to be very different experiences to HIST 2833, with higher enrollments and the added challenge of teaching a first-year survey and adapting a film course to the remote setting.

Heather Green

Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary’s University where she teaches courses on environmental history, histories of Indigenous and settler relations, history and film, and Canadian history. She serves as an editor with the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE). Her research interests include environmental histories of resource extraction in Northern Canada, histories of Indigenous-Settler relations, and Northern tourism.