Making a Class My Own

Published on: 3 Feb 2020

by Carly Ciufo, McMaster University

I’m sitting in my shared sessional instructor office about an hour before my first lecture. I was asked to take over this class while I was away at Congress in the summer. The professor who usually teaches the course became department chair. Taking a lighter teaching load, she asked if I, her former TA, would be interested in teaching the course. With way more confidence in my pedagogical capacity than I have in myself, she emailed me to outline all of the pros—and a few of the cons—of me taking this on. 

Now, six months later, it’s the beginning of the winter term. I’ve inherited the course. Although this is not my first lecture, it is my first lecture in front of my own class. I’ve upped the Canadian content in the course as a whole, adjusted the primary document collections, and really tried to take charge of how this history class for communications studies majors will teach students how the tools of my discipline will better equip them for their own.

So, for me, this term is going to be something completely different.

In thinking about what I kept from the original syllabus, the bones of the course will stay the same. When I was a TA for this class in winter 2018, it had just gone through a major overhaul. It moved from being a second-year required class to a third-year required class, with a professor intent on teaching students “historical mindedness” (Calder 2006). Rather than a survey course on the “History of Communication” for all of time and space, she grounded the material in a Canadian context as much as she could. There was a fair late work policy, some well-scaffolded assignments, and a lot of room in tutorials for TAs to lead undergraduate students in skills development. The overarching goal was to connect student understandings of media with some sort of historical trajectory on this land.

Walking into the course, I did not want to upset the gains that were made by these positive changes. I did, however, want to build on my strengths and expertise, so there were a few changes I could implement. From a TA point of view, I had seen that a blurring of Canadian and American histories had made it difficult for some students to parse the Canadian history from the American narrative. Perhaps a more Canada-centric approach could alleviate some of this confusion without sacrificing an appreciation for the overall history of communication, I thought. Readings were one place to start. Although the original reading list was full of key Communications history texts and theories, I seized the opportunity to substitute in more Canadian content. For example, instead of material on African-American newspapers, I incorporated some pertinent Canadian case studies to include some of Carla Marano’s work on The Negro World and Carrie Best’s release of The Clarion. This permits discussion of newspapers used in African diaspora, African-Canadian, and Black Nova Scotian contexts that are important to the overall understandings of Canadian history through newspaper as a medium.

Keeping the scaffolded assignments, I changed the topics away from primary document collections concerned with American advertisements of radio and television that did not necessarily permit a solid understanding of Communications history in the Canadian context. While seeking out alternatives, Historica Canada released three short videos around the historicity of fake news with three different case studies: advertisements for land in Western Canada in the late 19th century, Second World War propaganda posters, and the SARS outbreak of 2003. Selecting three online primary document collections to match each case, I now had my Canadian-focused research topics ready for students to jump into.

The three scaffolded assignments depend on a clear differentiation between primary and secondary documents. This is something that students in other disciplines do not have to concern themselves with in quite the same way as History students do. Throughout the term, students will be interacting with primary and secondary resources in their readings, throughout my lectures, and in their assignments. As a historian, I can, of course, shine light on the differences between these sources, how they are found, and how they are used. But, for non-History students, I worry that this may be a stumbling block for some. I asked the archivist at McMaster University, Myron Groover, to come in early in the term to give a guest lecture on sources. Devoting this time to source material and letting the resident expert teach students fosters relationships across the university while also showing students where historical thinking can be seen in the university environment and elsewhere.

It’s time for me to pack this in, walk over to the lecture hall, and introduce myself to the new crop of students. Best of luck, all, for the new term!


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