Let me start this blog by making a bold, unstudied, anecdotal, entirely presentist, and not unemotional statement: teaching history is way harder than it used to be.
I recall my undergraduate courses in the 1990s. The syllabus was maybehalf a page long. It contained the title of the class, a list of required books, and the professor’s contact information. We didn’t know to ask for more. The use of technology in the classroom extended from the chalkboard to an overhead projector, used sparingly by most. On special days, a VCR showed grainy movies with subtitles that I could barely make out because of “tracking” issues.
No one complained.
Each course had three assignments: the midterm, a term paper, and a final exam. All were worth at least 30% of the overall grade. These were all some sort of essay question that, it was understood, scores of students before me had already written on. They felt like rites of passage. We expected nothing else.
While the classrooms may have been diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity, I don’t recall anything about “different learning styles,” accessibility or “scaffolding” assignments. I remember, with horror, moments when inclusivity was exactly the opposite of what was being fostered in a classroom.
I don’t know if learning now is easy, but I can say confidently that it was not easy then. It was, very much, a DIY endeavor. Was that when the tide turned? Also becoming visible in the 90s, I think, was the rise of Teaching and Learning Centers in universities, places to go for students with all kinds of learning challenges, and more and more tools and resources for instructors. There is, certainly, a lot more support such as the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education or the still pilot-light-operational Historical Thinking Project. But does that make it easier?
Syllabi, now, take hours and hours to write. Sometimes, I find myself paralyzed about how to teach something. I want to create an inclusive space, and decolonize the classroom, and scaffold my assignments, and make everything accessible, and be available, and fair, and clear in my always-posted-beforehand grading rubrics, and cover content I don’t feel 100% confident about because it wasn’t in my PhD comps but is vital to the course, and be creative in my approach to topics while also encouraging good foundations, and offer experiential learning, and a student-centered approach, and connect history to the “real world” and to jobs! and my university’s Four Pillars of Action or whatever they’re called and maybe even flip the classroom next time I teach this course and better prep my TAs (even though that doesn’t count as graduate teaching) and …
I also need to finish my monograph.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, dear reader, and you are grappling with the trials of teaching and learning any kind of history in Canada, so are we! Welcome. We are the Teaching and Learning Committee on the CHA Council, whose intrepid members include Jo McCutcheon, Carly Ciufo, and myself. And right away we must admit this: we do not have “The Answers.” But we do have this space to talk about what the answers might be and, certainly, the challenges.
In posts to come, we will feature interviews with teaching award winners, guest posts, re-publications of past “Teacher’s Corner” features from Intersections(formerly Bulletin), and more! This blog is a space where people can share how they’ve grappled with questions of teaching and learning history, the challenges and solutions they’ve come up with, and celebrate their successes. If you or someone you know would like to contribute to this blog, we would be happy to hear from you. Please email me at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca.
Going through past CHA Council Minutes, I found a report filed in November 2013 that nicely outlined a short history of teaching initiatives by the Association. Since the 1970s, and no doubt much earlier, members of the CHA Council have discussed the amount of attention teaching and teachers have received within the Association, its publications, and its annual meeting. In 1976, a “Committee on the Teaching of History,” was created to, “investigate the state of the teaching of history in Canada, to advise Council on the manner in which the CHA can assist in furthering the teaching of history, and to provide a voice for history teachers generally in the affairs of the CHA and its annual programme.” In 1984, the committee set out to feature articles in the CHA Newsletter that would “concentrate…on innovative ways to teach introductory-level history courses: course outlines, suitable textbooks and book readings, assignments and examinations, new courses, etc.” Efforts in the 1990s sought to publish a CHA/SHC SCHOOLS newsletter, create a new national committee on the teaching of history in high schools, and “provide a forum which can help teachers of history in the Universities and the schools get around some of the barriers caused by institutions and geography to talk together about common problems and interests.” It is safe to say that the CHA has sought ways to foster teaching culture within its membership for decades.
Despite these initiatives, at some point the committee fizzled out. In 2014, it was rebooted as a permanent portfolio within Council under the direction of Lisa Todd. One topic of perpetual conversation has been the question of a teaching award or, indeed, awards to be given out alongside the numerous CHA prizes. At present, we do not have any such award. Looking at the AHA’s offerings, it recognizes teachers and teaching with a handful of prizes but certainly nothing that compares to its many research publication honours. Do you have strong thoughts on the situation and would like to air them in a guest blog post? We’d loveto host it. But watch this space because work on this issue will be ongoing!
With that, we launch the blog! Please stay tuned for more!
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