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 31 Aug 2020

Part Four 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 K-12 education and public history practices. This week, we will look at: 

The "Public" Sphere

We all lament the flawed process of peer review, but we still rely on peer review for most of our readings in our courses.

If you want to broaden the voices and experiences you’re curating for your students, if you want to engage in doing history to make change, look to popular/public articles/posts, twitter threads, podcasts, and other ways that people (often people marginalized by the very systems we teach in) communicate complex and multilayered histories outside the gatekeeping mechanisms of peer review. I think of public historian Adam Bunch’s twitter thread on Toronto’s support for the American Confederacy in the 19th century (something he teased in our video together) or the podcast The Secret Life of Canada as examples. Who was Private Buckam Singh and how is he connected to Lt. Colonel John McCrae? The Secret Life of Canada podcast(/CBC radio show) has you covered.

By broadening the types of scholarship we want students to engage in, and with, in our classes, we create more opportunities for students to learn from and with ideas, experiences, and histories of racialized and indigenous peoples, which are essential for developing more equitable futures that respond to our vast and complex history.

You can use these different types of media for discussion and content (cited content!) for lectures, but also use them to inspire new assessments, assessments with meaning beyond one university class.  Erica Buddington, founder of the Langston League and host of the web series de.colonized (and former middle school teacher), did a live field trip on her Instagram page. The Instagram story included historical text, walking narration, interactive questions, spaces for reflection, and critical analysis of lieux de memoire. Could your students create an Instagram story of history(ies) they learn in your class? Can their engagements with these ideas be public and interactive, rather than (just) textual and didactic? Again, drawing on the digital humanities can be helpful here to think of assessments. In other words, embrace different forms and functions of how and what you teach. Being open to the conversations you draw on to build your teaching and assessment, opens up different worlds and knowledges for students to learn from and with.

You may not that this series of posts have been written in a conversational style, with call outs to the reader as well as links to/through my thinking. This was purposeful, because the form and function of traditional linear writing just didn’t seem right to talk about the stressful teaching environment we are about to go back to. This is the same impetus that made me write an academic book with (what I hope is) an engaging and conversational tone. I channeled my analysis of the pandemic into a video series that went up immediately, rather than developing an article that wouldn’t be read until at least 2021 (although I’m working on this too). Because the medium is the message, and I want to communicate different messages with the media I choose. Think of the medium and the message in your teaching too. How can you teach students in your classes how history can demonstrate and model actual change making? How can they bring in imagination and creativity to develop future(ism)s that go beyond the ways we expect history to unfold?

In sum, I hope this series has provided some inspiration, but I recognize that it may be overwhelming.

Iamge Cutrara 4
Dave Garroway at the filming of his CBC show at the CNE, Photographer: Alexandra Studio, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 3044.[1]

I want to leave you with this: You do not need to be an expert.

Move forward with developing your classes and creating assignments that build a community of exploration, co-creation, and creativity. Know your job is to guide students through learning, not to teach them everything.

You’re not going to do everything and get it all “right” in September or January. But start preparing yourself.

Prepare yourself to think of new ways to facilitate students’ learning. New ways to activate their thinking. New ways to demonstrate how learning history can be a conduit for making change. Be open and aware of what students are communicating to you about your needs and develop accordingly. Watch when you are engaging in student blame and use those moments to change your practices.

Because nothing will be the same after this.

We need to start building a future we want, and our classrooms can be part of that.

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 September 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] https://www.flickr.com/photos/torontohistory/24797392280/in/album-72157664211419640/ 



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