By Danielle Kinsey
In March 2018, Professors Michelle Hamilton and Michael Dove, both public historians in the department of history at the University of Western Ontario, received the Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) Award for Excellence in Collaborative Teaching.
Prof. Hamilton teaches public history, material culture, social memory, and Indigenous history in Canada for undergraduate and graduate students. Prof. Dove teaches courses about the history of Canada, brewing, business, the global maritime world in the early modern period, and public history for undergraduate and graduate students.
What does effective collaborative teaching mean to you and what does it add to the learning experience? (Hamilton and Dove)
At the core of public history is the desire to share historical knowledge with communities and connect with broader audiences. None of this is possible without collaboration. Collaborative teaching can occur on many levels – between instructors, between students, and with community partners. The larger and more in depth the collaboration the more challenging yet potentially rewarding can be the final product. No matter the size of a project, effective collaboration requires members to shape a relationship based on shared goals and respect for one another’s abilities and experiences. This is also the reality of the workplace.
Each year, our public history students complete a group project with a community partner. Following the concept of ‘sharing authority,’ public history practitioners help mentor our students in real world experiences at museums, archives, and heritage organizations. Not only does this expand the students’ professional network, working on these projects bolsters resumes and act as career training. Working in small groups, students also learn from each other.
Our litmus test in terms of teaching effectively is in how well our students develop collaborative skills and exhibit them in the field. Our students, as with the majority of people, learn best by doing. Collaborative projects enable them to merge theory and hands-on practice, thereby cultivating their desire and ability to ‘do’ good public history.
What needs to be done at the level of teaching and learning to foster more engagement with history in universities and more broadly? (Hamilton and Dove)
One of the most pressing concerns for history departments is sheer survival within an environment of decreasing enrolments and scaled-back resources while a need for greater historical consciousness among people has perhaps never been greater. University administrations and history departments should recognize this as a call to action rather than a time to mourn over an impending calamity. Rather than turn inward, we must focus more firmly on our public service role. Analytics do not reflect the complexity inherent in human relationships, past or present. They also do not reflect the enormous amount of time and effort involved in effectively delivering courses and programs that seek to lift peoples’ engagement with the past.
Experiential and community-engaged learning are new buzzwords for university administrators, but many history faculty already incorporate such aspects into their curriculum, from internships to guest speakers to collaborative student projects. What is needed is financial and personnel support for their endeavours at the university level.
Fostering more engagement with history can also be achieved through recognizing, appreciating and rewarding faculty who incorporate collaborative learning techniques and projects into their courses, participate in community events and on non-academic boards and committees, and take an active role in promoting historical understanding with broader audiences through more accessible mediums.
Who was a great teacher who inspired you and what made them such an effective educator?
(Hamilton) Professor Terry Crowley, who taught my Historian’s Craft course at the University of Guelph. Diverging from the course syllabus one day, he gave a lecture with his usual enthusiasm on potential careers for history majors like me. One of the options he mentioned was museum employment. That struck a chord in me; the following summer I volunteered as a school programs interpreter at a local museum. Subsequent years of volunteering and employment at museums led me to graduate work in Public History.
(Dove) Mr. George Meadus, my sixth grade teacher at Virginia Park Elementary in St. John’s, Newfoundland. He certainly did not feel confined by curriculum expectations, for daily life in the classroom featured regular discussions about history, whether or not we were in a social studies period. His teaching of all subjects recognized that everything and everyone had a past. We were engaged with history through a local lens, be it his ‘this day in Newfoundland history feature’ or one of several field trips to various sites in town to re-discover our home through the past. He used the history of what surrounded and connected us locally to explore larger events that had occurred within the contexts of Canadian and world history. I think this is where it first dawned on me that history did not always happen in other places, that history happens everywhere to everyone. His personal interest, enthusiasm and passion for history inspires me to this day.
How has learning changed since your undergraduate years and where do you think it is going? (Dove)
My sixth grade experience with history was certainly memorable, in part because it was so exceptional. It was some time, second-year at Memorial University to be exact, before my passion for the past would be stoked in similar fashion. Again this was because of the stories which my professors often shared. Content was not all ‘facts and dates’, rather it was delivered in an engaging fashion. Sometimes the stories were personal and we were encouraged to share our memories of the past and to think about why we remembered certain events in a certain way, and also how to relate to the stories of others, which encouraged our development of historical empathy.
I believe this has become compromised over the past twenty years, to some extent due to the competitive nature of post-secondary education and the workplace, which has placed an overriding emphasis on grades and career readiness. There seems to be less room for discovering and appreciating the benefits that come with trying new things, learning through making mistakes, and formulating one’s own theories and arguments based on sound research and careful deliberation. This has widened the disconnect between university historians and the communities they serve, which has in effect severely reduced the sense of history’s immediacy and relevance that we know increases meaning and motivation among students.
That said, I am very optimistic for the future. I see a growing realization, mostly because of peoples’ general wishes for hope and for stronger community relationships, that society will ‘re-discover’ those lessons of historical thinkers who saw folly in forgetting one’s past in trying to understand the present and chart a course for the future. Ending the myopia inherently present in privileging some disciplines over others is receiving traction, reflected for instance in the gradual shift from STEM to STEAM. Another enormous change of course is in the rapidly evolving world of digital media, which can be a powerful tool for historians in shaping historical understanding among undergraduate students. Through its remarkable strengths of affording accessibility and communication, digital history wonderfully facilitates our work and places students in the potentially rewarding position of being able to both engage with history and to share that with others around the world. It is just one way of facilitating active learning, which can also be achieved through other methods designed at merging theory and practice, such as collaborative course projects and community internships.
What has been a particularly effective assignment or pedagogical strategy for you? (Hamilton and Dove)
We strongly believe that the foundational elements of public history which merge theory and practice make for more participatory and more satisfying learning experiences for students. Consequently, students must have real-world opportunities that model best practices with community partners and collaborative teamwork. In our MA Public History program, we have worked with over one hundred community partners at the municipal, provincial and national levels. In each one of these experiences, our students are tasked with completing all stages of a project, including archival research, collaborative writing, exhibit design, public presentations, community consultations, budgetary approval, and media promotion.
In 2014-15, Hamilton’s MA students produced This Hour of Trial and Sorrow: The Great War Letters of the Leonard Family. In small groups, the students transcribed and edited almost 500 letters written by the Leonard family of London, Ontario, wrote short introductions about the family, and the Western and home fronts, designed the book cover, secure quotes for publication, and presented the historical content at a launch at the London Public Library in the spring of 2015. In doing so, they practiced paleography, archival research, writing for the public, and learned digital editing and design skills.
For Dove, one recent collaborative project that was particularly effective was the MA public history group project with The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Through archival research and oral history interviews, students curated the content for a new virtual gallery exploring the topic of American immigration to Canada. In the fall term, student groups completed major research reports on historical migrations of people from south of the border to Canada, including New England Planters to the Maritimes, black slaves to Upper Canada via the Underground Railroad, and those seeking the riches of the various gold rushes in British Columbia and the Klondike. During the winter term, students gathered the stories of more recent American immigrants to Canada, including members of the LGBTQ+ community and objectors to the Vietnam War. Staff from Pier 21 visited Western to train our students in oral history techniques and to guide them through their interviews. Students performed all tasks involved in producing an oral history project, from identifying participants and researching the relevant historical context, to conducting, transcribing and completing video post-production of the interviews, and writing a reflective report on the process. They participated in the promotion of the project within the larger community from start to finish, and faced the uncomfortable realities related to re-shaping the prevailing narrative to include difficult and often agonizing pasts. One student was given the opportunity to bring the project to completion as she served a summer internship at Pier 21 under the supervision of its digital media team.
Do you have a favourite website you want to recommend for folks interested in teaching and learning history?
While we regularly consult the excellent websites administered by the National Council on Public History (NCPH): https://ncph.org/publications-resources/educators/graduate-and-undergraduate/, its blog History@Work: https://ncph.org/history-at-work/
and ActiveHistory- History Matters: http://activehistory.ca/, our favorite for keeping up with news, resources and best practices in history education within a Canadian context is that of Canada’s History Society: https://www.canadashistory.ca/education/highlights
If you want to get in touch with Profs. Hamilton or Dove, their email addresses are:
Prof. Michael Dove: firstname.lastname@example.org
Prof. Michelle Hamilton: email@example.com
Please feel free to leave comments below and if you would like to write a reaction piece to something that has discussed above, please contact Danielle Kinsey at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca
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