First Times & Finding Your Footing

Published on: 15 Jul 2019

This past winter, I taught a second-year survey course on the history of Atlantic Canada since Confederation. Barring the odd guest lecture in the classrooms of supervisors or friendly faculty, this was my first teaching experience. In the lead-up to the first day of class, I drew upon my years on the pupil’s side of the lectern to develop a sense of what kind of teacher I wanted to be. Thinking about the diverse cast of my favourite history teachers who inspired and challenged and truly taught me when I was an undergraduate, it became clear that they all had one significant quality in common: they told stories about the past that were conscious about the act of narration as interpretation. The stories they told were complicated, multi-perspectival, and deliberately open-ended.

One course from my undergraduate degree was particularly formative in shaping my understanding of History as a discipline, though I only realised it years later. It was actually not a History course, but an English class on modernist drama. For one of the assignments, students had to reimagine the stage direction for one of the plays on the syllabus; we had to think about stage and costume design and blocking. My own questionable foray into dramaturgy aside, the assignment got us thinking about how stories can take on entirely different meanings depending upon the texture and details of the background where the drama unfolds. 

The work of the historian on paper or in the classroom is, I think, rather like that of a stage director; so much of our interpretation of the past has to do with the contexts that we place it in. Regional history, in particular, demands an acute awareness of this. While the story of nation-building in Canada can be told one way in the centre of the country, the implications of the British North America Act looks very different when teaching “East of Montreal.” Even more significantly, Atlantic Canada as a regional entity exists uneasily alongside—and often sits on top of—other geographies and sovereignties, like Acadia and Mi’kma’ki.[1]

In the weeks leading up to the first day of classes as I prepared my syllabus and lesson plans, I tried to channel the spirit of my best-loved teachers. I resolved not to lecture my students on the “definitive truths” of Atlantic Canadian history (whatever those would be!); instead, I hoped to help them cultivate their skills in critical inquiry, and to encourage them to resist simple or teleological historical narratives.

All of this planning and imaginative projection was wonderful in December. As I struggled, fumbled, and flailed through my first few classes in the New Year, however, I discovered a gaping void open up between my pedagogical theory and my practice. Not to belabour my dramaturgical metaphor but, in the lead-up to teaching, I had failed to really consider the theatricality—the matters of blocking, intonation, and costume—of undergraduate teaching. Standing in front of my class for the first time, I experienced a serious flare-up of imposter syndrome.

A big part of this was my sense that, as a relatively young female instructor, my physical presence in the classroom didn’t meet students’ expectations of how a university educator looks and acts (read: an older white cis male). As a result, I felt a strong temptation to project all the confidence, authority, and brilliance that I felt I lacked by putting on my tweediest blazer, with the biggest shoulder pads and elbow patches that I could find to do my best imitation of an Oxford don from the early twentieth century. I worried that my plan to approach Atlantic Canadian history from a deconstructionist perspective—one that would offer as many questions as answers, and telegraph the voices of marginalised groups who complicate our understanding of any historical issue—would be read by students as “wishy-washy.” It would signal a lack of authority and knowledge on my part.

Over the course of the semester, though, I tried to put my insecurities aside and follow my original lesson plans. I tried to talk about the many strands of human experience that are braided together to form a region’s history, but cannot be collapsed into a single narrative of historical truth. I was more successful in some classes than others, but I hope to have the opportunity to teach again soon. I want to continue to work through this tension between my preferred pedagogy and my concerns about my authority in the classroom. 

These reflections are inspired by Andrew Nurse’s post on Active History last month, where he explores myriad factors that affect teaching and learning. When I was in April’s end of semester madness, I took a tremendous amount of solace from his frank acknowledgement that even experienced educators struggle when it comes to teaching. While my class did not “go wrong,” it did not unfold as I expected. So, in the spirit of solidarity, and in the hope that I, too, might offer some consolation to other incumbent or very newly-minted course instructors, I offer these honest reflections on my first teaching experience.  

[1] One of the first readings I put on my syllabus, for example, was Martha Walls’ wonderful piece on the significance of Confederation, and the Indian Act that followed in 1876, for First Nations living in the territory we now refer to as Maritime Canada. Martha Walls, “Confederation and Maritime First Nations,” Acadiensis 46:2 (2017): 155-176.

Katherine Crooks is a PhD candidate in Canadian gender history at Dalhousie University. Her research looks at settler presence and exploration in the Canadian North. Her thesis will consider the experiences of settler women who saw themselves as Arctic explorers in the first half of the twentieth century.


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