Nothing Will Be the Same After This: Four conversations that can help you (re)craft your history pedagogy to respond to an unknown future

Published on 17 Aug 2020

Part Two of Four

By Samantha Cutrara

I mean … even if you thought, you wished, you prayed (in whatever way that meant to you. As R. Eric Thomas says, maybe your church is “blasting showtunes and going to brunch”) that fall would be kinda of normal. Or, if not fall, definitely winter. By winter we’ll be back to normal.

I mean, even if you thought that there will be an element of normalcy or familiarity in the 2020/2021 school year, I’m sure you see by now that nothing will be the same after this.

Even if the “space” of the “classroom” (and by “space” and “classroom” I mean both the literal and figurative understandings of those concepts) is what we know and expect them to be (my memories immediately transport me to sitting in a 1960s retrofitted classroom at University College at UofT gazing out the window at the quad listening to my professor in a bulky sweater lecture about political theory in the abstract) nothing will be the same after this.

What will it be, we do not know.

But this moment has put an imprint on our generation, and the generations to come, in ways we will forever be changed by.

The confusion of it all, but also its sorrow, its grief. The confusion of sitting in/with the confusion.

Thus, even if classes, classrooms, or course outlines seem to be the same in fall or winter…

They won’t be

We won’t be.

We’ll be forever changed by this moment: the #ShutDownCanada movement, COVID-19, worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the literal tearing down of political statues, the commemorative remembering of the Siege of Kanehsatà:ke, and the fear of the increased erosion of democracy and due process in Canada and around the world There is so much change that it is hard to keep up, let along process. We will be, we have been, changed.

And so even if we tried to pretend things would be the same in our classrooms this academic year (who hasn’t found performative solace at the front of the room when things in our “real lives” are going wrong?), the world outside the classroom won’t be the same.

Our students won’t be the same.

Their(/our) futures won’t be.

Their opportunities and needs won’t be.

Nothing will be the same after this.

You shouldn’t expect that and you shouldn’t want that either.

A central theme that has come from the Pandemic Pedagogy video series I’ve been hosting since March (on June 30th I posted the 35th -- and final -- video in the spring series!) is how the pandemic has revealed the brokenness of our social, economic, and political structures – or perhaps another way to put this is that the pandemic has laid bare how our social, economic, and political structures were designed in broken ways; how they were designed to create, exacerbate, and maintain inequities along lines of class, race, and gender.

Many of us already knew this, but the pandemic made us see this in ways we may have ignored before.

To move into our unknown future, we could use this knowledge the pandemic forced us to look at and actively make change for the better. We can (and many of us certainly have) fight against inequities, demand changes to our systems, and learn and grow in ways that perhaps makes us uncomfortable. To help influence the changes we want to see in the world, we cannot leave unquestioned the ways we operate in inequitable systems and, in this series of posts, I argue that this involves our teaching and learning practices too.

More specifically, in our work of “mobilizing the past” in our classrooms, we have to act upon, not just hope for, a new, more equitable and this will involve going beyond what we know in our pedagogies and practices.

Because we don’t know what that future will be or who our students will be within it,[1] our response to this moment in our classrooms needs to revolve around navigating the unknown in ways that don’t long for what was but that believes in the promise of what could be. As we move into fall, we (and I put myself in this category) need to stop thinking that our “regular” practices are “on hold” until this moment is “over” and things will go back to “normal” and we’ll feel “comfortable” again.

Nothing will be the same after this. There won’t be a “normal” to go back to. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

Think of this moment as razing and rebuilding teaching, for yourselves, but also the future of the profession. Think of it as laying the seeds for the practices that will be considered “normal” in 20 years – practices, that will again need to be redeveloped. Because that is how change works.

This isn’t an easy, one term thing. It is a long-term commitment that starts by imagining and testing practices that could inform what this looks like, and feels like, to you.

So, where do you begin?

A good way to start is looking for and drawing on conversations that go beyond the reactive reflection of this moment. These ideas are important, don’t get me wrong, but to start laying the foundation of new practices and pedagogies, we can start by humbly listening to, and gradually participating in, conversations that have already been happening before the pandemic.

These conversations have already planted seeds as to new ways of teaching and learning. What fruit can you reap (I don’t know if this metaphor is working) to put in your new pedagogical jam (I mean, it kinda works…)?

Four conversations topics that I have found myself being drawn (back) into include Digital Humanities, Learning Outcomes, what I’m going to call “K-12 education and public history practices,” and the Public Sphere.  In last week’s post I discussed the Digital Humanities.

This week I’ll look at:  Learning Outcomes

I recognize that the phrase “Learning Outcomes” has an icky residue of neoliberal infringement on the teaching and learning process. I get it. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Learning Outcomes support student-centric education. Student-centric education can be interpreted as an assessment-driven matrix of performance OR it can be interpreted as education that is focused more on students than on students expressing unquestioned reverence for the canon, grand narrative, or strict disciplinary standards.

I’ve been advocating for student-centric history education for over a decade and I was confused by the pushback I saw to this idea in higher ed until I saw how some of this language has been co-opted. Learning outcome can seem, and be, administrative, detached from the actual work and interactions in the classroom; but it can also be a valuable way to think about and frame those interactions.

How would your practices be different if you focused on learning over teaching? There is a big difference between running a class to focus on what students are going to learn versus what you are going to teach. How would your class be different if you understood your objective to be getting students to “articulate the connections, if any, between the Spanish Flu and a greater fight for workers’ rights” rather than being “lecture on the Spanish flu and Winnipeg general strike”?

Same content, different framing. These small(ish) changes make a big difference.  

 Cutrara 2 Image
Industrial arts teacher teaching his students woodworking in Lucasville School, Chris Lund December 1952.[2]

I once had a faculty member laugh at me when I said I was going to pull up a list of verbs we could use to develop Learning Outcomes. Why? How are your teaching practices shaped when you ask your students to “understand” (a passive action that you can’t really check to make sure is happening) rather than “construct” (active and analytical. Students will have to “understand” in order to construct). Learning Outcomes can help us build in, and see, the multiple layers of our teaching.

A focus on teaching over learning can often be thought of as filling students’ heads with information versus asking students to activate and scaffolding new knowledge. The activating, the doing, is what leads to learning. Filling head leads to memorization. As we move into the future, consider these supports for student-centric teaching so that your classroom can be more of a community of conversation, where you can, for example, “share the stage” with students, as Dr. Mary Chaktsiris talks about.

Comment below to share effective Learning Outcomes you’ve found for your courses. New to this language? You may find these links helpful to develop SMART learning outcomes that can change the world.

Next week I’ll discuss “K-12 education and public history practices.”

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist based in Toronto and is currently working in the Office of the Vice Provost Academic at York University as a Curriculum Specialist. Her first book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New ‘We’ will be published by UBC Press in summer/fall of 2020. Find more information about her work on her website: www.SamanthaCutrara.com. Contact her directly if you’re interested in participating in either her Pandemic Pedagogy or Source Saturday video series launching in the fall.


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

[1] One of my favourite ideas from the Pandemic Pedagogy series came from teacher Ian Duncan, who said that he was sure that teaching history will change after this, but he doesn’t know how, because he doesn’t know who his students will be when they get back into the classroom.
[2] Photo credit: Chris Lund. Canada. Office national du film du Canada. Photothèque. Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, PA-205820 (https://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3587294).



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