Interview with Andrew Parnaby

Published on: 1 Apr 2019

When talking about the ways to approach a teaching and learning blog, we tasked ourselves with reaching out to colleagues across the country. Historians working in Canada can often seem like a small community. And it’s here where we talk to each other about our research findings, new articles, and manuscript revisions. We heavily focus on the history that we write and disseminate to our colleagues.

This blog centres a different, but related, question: how do we teach and learn history in Canadian classrooms?

To find some suggestions, we reached out to teaching awardees in universities across the country to highlight the good work being done in departments large and small.

One of the first to respond to our call was Dr Andrew Parnaby of Cape Breton University (CBU). Dean of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, he is also an associate professor of history. A social historian who researches North America and the history of state security in Canada, Parnaby also teaches courses in Canadian history, historiography, the Atlantic world, and film.

He has won two CBU Alumni Association Awards for Distinguished Teaching in 2011 and 2016. In 2017, he received the Association of Atlantic Universities’ (AAU) Distinguished Teaching Award. Parnaby’s use of storytelling, problem-solving, and debate alongside oral history, primary document analysis, and community-based projects have developed the academic and practical skills of students in each of his history classes.

Below, we are happy to publish a short speech that Parnaby gave upon receiving the 2017 award from the AAU. In it, he shares how small, incremental changes to teaching can sometimes have exponential returns on student learning in history classrooms. 


In recent months I have been thinking a lot about “small teaching”– those simple acts of pedagogical change that can have a profound effect on students and what they learn. 

There is something very attractive, even democratic about the idea of small teaching: all of us are capable of minor adjustments. There’s something intuitive or honest about it, too. I think for most professors most of the time becoming a successful teacher is only ever the result of small incremental changes undertaken over a lengthy period of time. 

I know this has been the case for me.

One of the most important small teaching moments in my career happened about ten years ago, when a student from my “History and Film” class suggested to me that 12 weeks of analysing films had, basically, killed his interest in the subject. 


My small teaching moment thus began with some serious and sustained self doubt.  What did I do?  What didn’t I do?  What’s wrong?

I’d like to linger on that point for just a moment: the self doubt part. I have always found talking about teaching in public difficult because—especially at conferences—you are actually performing the act you are speaking about.

Trickier, too, is the tone in these situations, which is often one of excessive positivity and great success, as though improving in the classroom followed some sort of linear ascent. That hasn’t been my experience.  My teaching life has often felt more like a complicated weather pattern.

My response to this student encounter ultimately came to rest on a basic, simple, small insight. Somewhere along the line, as I progressed from student to professor, I forgot what history looked like to me before I became thoroughly socialized into the academic profession.

Put another way: the joy of discovery brought the original, pre-professorial me to history.I suspect that a similar joy brings most academics to their respective disciplines in the first place too. And that joy sustained me over the years and decades through honours, MA, and PhD work. It was like a form of energy, ready to be metabolized.

Why then, I wondered, was that basic feeling marginal or even absent from my current classes? And more importantly, how might I create a context or method to allow the same spirit to fill out the full range of pedagogical and intellectual possibilities that come with each new group of students?

Self doubt, in time, made room for critical self-examination. And some small experimentation.

Prompted by that brief encounter with my student, I decided to place the raw materials of history at the centre of each assignment and class as much as I could.  That’s what I loved about being a historian. Perhaps the students would love it too.

(And, incidentally, I prefer to use the actual objects if possible, not a digitized version. There’s an aura that comes with the original.)

That’s my small teaching moment.

On its own, this intervention doesn’t sound like much. And I know that its basic premise of inquiry- or discovery-based learning has a deep pedigree all its own, reaching back to Piaget, Dewey, and beyond.[i]  But it is what came after, one small experiment at a time in the context of my own teaching life, that has added up to something new.

As for the “profound effect” part, it may be too soon to tell—even ten years after the fact!  But some signs are encouraging. Let’s start with a simple observation.

Historical documents can bring the joy of discovery to any student. They appeal to the basic thrill of solving a puzzle, of being the detective on the scene after the crime.

I used to reserve this “raw materials” experience for my upper-level students, believing that more traditional pedagogical instruction at the 1000 and 2000 levels was a necessary pre-condition for this more hands-on approach. That was a mistake, for it deprived us of the joy—the fuel—we needed to run.

And it deprived me of the opportunity to model the “habits of mind,” to borrow from educational psychologist Sam Wineberg, characteristic of historical thinking early on in the students’ university experience.

The more we worked directly with the raw materials of the past, the more I could see the structure of the class changing, becoming almost inverted. I don’t mean that my classroom has been flipped—although there is an element of that. What I mean, really, is the shape or direction of our approach has altered.

We find ourselves beginning with the details, the small stuff.  A smudge, a line, a shadow on an image; a stamp, an address, a salutation on a letter. Then moving outward, building as we go, filling in the contexts, and backing in to scholarly literatures.  I can’t recall the last time I delivered a full, uninterrupted lecture to an undergraduate class.

Details like these—the small stuff—are accessible to students.

Handling them builds confidence. Seeking connections requires imagination. Our mutual “ignorance generates [further] enquiry.” And documents, especially photographs and maps, can make wider pedagogical issues, like Indigenization and decolonization, feel less overwhelming. A single Mi’kmaw basket in a single image may be all that’s needed to get that difficult conversation started.

The more we worked directly with the raw materials of the past, the more I could see students’ angle of vision changing – and widening.  If we could read a letter in certain ways, why not an artefact, a building, a landscape, an entire era?

Beginning with something that is small and accessible to illustrate something big and foreign isn’t exactly a new idea. It is teaching by analogy. Plato would have recognized it. But as part and parcel of my own pedagogical journey, a deliberate career-spanning act of self-clarification and student engagement, it feels new to me. And sometimes that’s enough.

Working directly with the raw materials of history in class has had the added benefit of revealing to me how students learn in the context of historical inquiry. And the related challenge of assessing that learning process as a process, and what is gained by not waiting until the end of a course, when it all appears as a semi-finished single-use product on a final exam. 

Critically, all of this hands-on stuff also makes clear to students—and reminds me—that interpretations of the past do not emerge from the historian's brain fully formed.  To pretend that they do is to assume a level of authority that one does not deserve and leaves the impression with students that history is something that is done to them, not something they can do for themselves.[ii]

This is Ira Shor’s territory: power and authority in the classroom needs to be shared. If it isn’t, you run the risk of creating a passive, not active, classroom and reproducing the worst of the students’ experiences prior to coming to university.  It also prepares them for passivity once they graduate—a disaster in every possible way.[iii]

Looking outward, I can see some of the places where this approach to teaching might end up.

Course preparation, for example, is starting to look differently to me on a consistent basis; it’s less about “content selection” and more about “pedagogical design.”  Or at least a different balance between the two. Mastery of one requiring mastery of the other.[iv] 

More importantly, I am beginning to see the classroom less as a set, proscribed, physical spot where “I do my thing” and more like a “potential space” where the talents of everyone in the room can be mobilized in unpredictable, playful, and occasionally joyful ways.

Pushed further, I suspect it will be necessary to think again about educational philosophies like constructivism and its relationship to not only life long learning, but what Christopher Knapper has called life wide learning.

Please don’t get the impression that all of this has worked out for me.  It hasn’t—at least not all of the time! I am still capable of inspiring student evaluations like this: “Before I took this class, I really, really hated history.  Now, I just really hate it.”  But I am starting to see observations like this one, too: “So being able to go to an archive and get a real understanding of how things looked in the past and what we have discovered since then is an almost magical feeling.”
The student I spoke about at the beginning of this talk—the one who expressed his misgivings about my course—would likely be shocked to know what he set in motion. 

Ten years later, I’m a little surprised, too.

[i]Roland Case, “Beyond Inert Facts: Teaching for Understanding in Secondary Social Studies,” in Case and Penney, eds., The Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Secondary Teachers (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, 2008), 41-53. 
[ii]I am pretty sure that this insight belongs to one of my mentors, Mark Leier at Simon Fraser University, and it appeared in a citation for a teaching award that he received. But, I have to honest: I can’t find the reference! 
[iii]It’s also the focus of Bertell Ollman’s hilarious How to Take an Exam...and Remake the World (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2001); https://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/books/h2.php
[iv]This is one of the insights in George Perry’s The Grand Regulator: The Miseducation of Nova Scotia's Teachers, 1838-1997(Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).


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