Advice to new history instructors with Karen Robert

Published on: 22 Jul 2019

Karen Robert, Associate Professor
St. Thomas University

After more than twenty years’ experience teaching at the university level, what advice would you give to new history instructors? To students?

For instructors: don’t try to do too much. We all try to ‘cover’ too much material when we first start teaching, but students learn more deeply when they have time to consider a smaller range of materials and topics than when they are racing. Moreover, in our information-drenched age, what they really need is guidance about how to evaluate information, analyze it, and communicate their ideas. “Facts” are available to them in seconds.

I would also encourage new instructors to familiarize themselves with the recent literature on the teaching of historical thinking. Those of us with PhDs in History have excelled at classroom learning; historical thinking feels like second nature to us. Yet we should not assume that what worked for us will work for most of our students. History education experts like Peter Seixas, Tom Morton, and Sam Wineburg have done an excellent job defining the specific ‘habits of mind’ associated with historical thinking, though their scholarship may not be well known among academic historians since it is aimed at K-12 teachers. 

I have incorporated this literature into my own undergraduate teaching to help students better understand my teaching objectives. I include the six Historical Thinking Concepts from Seixas’s Historical Thinking Project (http://historicalthinking.ca/historical-thinking-concepts)

in all my syllabi and directly tie specific concepts to classroom discussions and assignments. For example, I used to be frustrated when students did poorly on short exam questions that asked them to define course keywords and discuss their historical significance. Now I understand that ‘significance’ is a concept quite unique to historical thinking and foreign to my students. I now practice it with them in class on a regular basis before exam time.

Finally, bring your passion and curiosity into the classroom. Show students why you find it exciting and challenging to make sense of the past and always address the question of broader significance. Tell them why they should care about what they are learning. When lecturing, raise questions and model how to answer them with evidence rather than working your way through a list of bullet points. Then provide students with classroom activities and assignments that help them to define their own questions and build their own answers. 

When teaching introductory World History, I often bring in news stories, especially for topics that seem remote. For instance, when teaching about early agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia I shared an article about how ancient Iraqi wheat seeds salvaged during the Gulf War are being introduced to drought-affected regions of the United States because of their hardiness. This story demonstrated the continuing relevance of ancient knowledge despite our culture’s disregard for the past. In my Modern Latin American history course, students debated whether the Guatemalan government should launch human rights trials after the discovery of a massive police ‘terror archive’ in 2005. They had to take into consideration the country’s financial and security situation as well as precedents set in other Latin American countries. This topic forced them to grapple with the urgency of the past as well as the challenges of post-conflict resolution. 

As for students, I would invite them to try to get comfortable with the complexity and ambiguity of the material they encounter in their history courses. Historical analysis defies easy answers, and history courses will expose them to aspects of human behaviour that they will likely find shocking and sometimes inexplicable. However, by diving in and learning to sort through evidence and argumentation, they will be better equipped to make sense of the enormously complex world in which we are living today.

How has learning changed since your undergraduate years and where do you think it’s going?

One of the best changes has been the proliferation of primary source materials, whether in the form of published collections or digital archives, virtual exhibits, and recordings. In my undergraduate years at Queen’s in the 1980s we had limited access to primary sources beyond the Western canon of intellectual history. We mainly read secondary sources and debated historiography, at least until the upper years. Today, even introductory textbooks incorporate beautiful collections of primary documents and visual sources along with accompanying analytical questions. This means that we can engage students in doing history themselves from the beginning of their studies. Students love this creative challenge, and it helps them develop life-long learning skills.

I think that learning will continue to move towards the development of problem-solving skills and critical thinking more than content ‘coverage’. Not only is it a more pedagogically meaningful approach, it’s our best chance for staying relevant. Young people living in this world of information overload and ‘fake news’ desperately need the kinds of skills we teach in history courses: close reading, critical assessment of evidence, and the ability to consider another person’s perspective. 


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