Take Six with Mairi Cowan
By Danielle Kinsey and Mairi Cowan
In October 2018, Professor Mairi Cowan, a specialist in the medieval and early modern histories of Scotland and New France at the University of Toronto Mississauga, was awarded the E.A. Robinson Teaching Excellence Award for Senior Faculty.
Prof. Cowan teaches courses on world history, medieval and early modern Europe, religion, and teaching and learning history. She has published on how educators can foster critical thinking skills in large history classes as well as the gap between high school learning and the expectations of university educators.
She has also recently begun a study of the effectiveness of different kinds of feedback on students’ work.
Shot of Prof. Cowan teaching students about the Columbian Exchange in Santo Domingo
1. How has your own research on historical pedagogy informed the way you teach?
My first inclination is to answer that question by thinking about “historical pedagogy” as how people taught in the past. That’s probably not what you mean though.
We can start there if you like.
Thanks. I might sound like a grumpy medievalist here, but newer is not necessarily better. Hugh of Saint Victor, a teacher in twelfth-century Paris, said “Learn everything. You will see afterward that nothing is superfluous.” I think that’s probably still good advice today. I still try to follow it as an example of historical pedagogy, even though we’re encouraged to chase what’s new. Educational institutions often support innovation rather than continuity. We have centres with the word “innovation” in their names, criteria for assessing teaching excellence that reward innovative approaches, and grants for the introduction of innovative methods. To be sure, innovation has the potential to be really good when well supported and carefully measured. But I don’t think that innovation for innovation’s sake alone should be a teacher’s goal. If you know, in an evidence-based way, that something is working well, then don’t mess around with it unless you have good grounds for suspecting that you can make it even better. And if an innovation fails to produce improvements, don’t be afraid to abandon it in favour of whatever you were doing before.
What about the pedagogical research that you have conducted? Has it changed your teaching?
It has, although sometimes along paths that twist and turn in unanticipated directions. When we studied the connection between high school preparation and university expectations, for example, we learned that only about a quarter of upper-year students at the University of Toronto Mississauga thought that they had been “well prepared” or “very well prepared” for historical studies when they first arrived at our university.
The other three quarters felt unprepared?
Just over a quarter thought they had been “poorly” or “very poorly” prepared, and just under a half thought that they had been “somewhat well” prepared. Our sample was quite big, over 450 students, and we were surprised to see almost no correlation between how many high school history courses they took, and how well prepared they felt they were for introductory history courses at university. They said that their high school classes had prepared them well for some things, but they identified other skills and methods – taking notes, citing properly, and writing essays that are longer than five paragraphs – as areas where they had not been ready to meet their professors’ expectations. These students were looking back at their transition from high school to university with the benefit of hindsight, and I figured that this position gave them a perspective worthy of serious consideration: they were the ones with immediate knowledge of what first-year students needed to know in order to succeed at university. I decided to heed their advice, and therefore I shaped the priorities of HIS101 according to what these students said were the biggest gaps between high school education and university expectations.
So that study helped you decide what to teach. Has your research also helped you decide how to teach?
Yes. I have also done some work to measure the effectiveness of teaching strategies, because while it’s good to know what I should be teaching, I think it’s also important to know whether I’m teaching these things well. I was curious about whether new technologies could help improve the critical thinking skills of students in a large course, and so we examined what impact online quizzes and classroom response systems have on students’ abilities to select appropriate sources for historical research. We found that these engagement strategies did have some positive effects, but that the benefits were not equally distributed among all students, and that the technologies need to be used well to have any meaningfully positive effect at all. With these rather mixed results in mind, I have adopted online quizzes and classroom response systems into my large Introduction to History course, but as just two ways among many to help more students advance from a good level of performance to an excellent one.
Beyond these specific examples, has your historical pedagogy shaped how you teach more broadly?
Absolutely. Research projects like these have informed my teaching practice in specific ways, but the very act of engaging in and with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning has reminded me of something broader and more basic: my own impressions are not always a reliable guide for how best to teach. Just because I remember something that seemed helpful to me when I was an undergraduate student, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be helpful for the many students I teach. And just because something I try in the classroom seems to be working well in the moment, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is actually helping students learn the material.
It sounds like you don’t trust your impressions.
I do trust them, but only so far. Impressions are good places to start, but they are usually not good places to finish. As in our historical research, so too in our teaching, we should test and measure our impressions before we decide once and for all that they are accurate. Let’s not lose sight of the distinction between a feeling that something is working, and evidence that it is effective.
Historical pedagogy should be evidence-based.
Exactly. When possible, we should make pedagogical decisions based on evidence and reason.
2. What needs to be done at the level of teaching and learning to foster more engagement with history in universities and more broadly?
There’s a puzzle here, and I’m struck by an apparent disconnect between history’s appeal to the general public and the declining enrolments in history courses. The public has a great desire to know about the past. We can see this in the popularity of history podcasts and books, in the number of films, television shows, and video games set in real or realish historic contexts, and in the energy driving debates about monuments and commemorations. Yet, despite this vigorous and enduring public interest, the number of history students at postsecondary institutions is falling. One report after another confirms that enrolments are down in history programs, and this is a real problem – one that reaches beyond just history courses in Canada, of course, into humanities courses in North America more widely.
What do you think history instructors can do about that?
I don’t really know. We should probably look at which individual programs and courses are faring relatively well, and try to find a pattern among them, analyze which elements are attracting students to study our discipline. We should also become even better spokespeople for our discipline – evangelists, if you like – when speaking to potential students, their parents, and their high school teachers about the value of a history education. Outreach is important, and can take many forms. I do, however, have misgivings about trying to sell history primarily as a way to get a job. We shouldn’t hide the fact that a history degree can prepare a person for a really good career, and I’m very proud of our history graduates who have gone on to make important contributions to the world through their jobs, but we shouldn’t slip into a presumption that job training is what we’re all about. If our graduates are well-trained for the workplace, great; that should be a by-product of their education, not the goal.
Can collaboration beyond the history department help?
Yes, most certainly. I have found to my delight that colleagues in other fields are genuinely interested in history, curious about what we are teaching, and willing to help us when they can lend their expertise to our projects. Historians are accustomed to single-author publications, but our research is never really conducted alone. We rely on the assistance of librarians, archivists, supervisors, colleagues, students, and peer-reviewers. None of my pedagogical projects was mine alone. They were all undertaken in collaboration with students, both undergraduate and graduate, and with colleagues in other disciplines – such as statistics, psychology, sociology, biology, information, and writing. Collaboration with colleagues in other disciplines builds alliances across the academy.
3. Who was a great teacher who inspired you and what made them such an effective educator?
I’m lucky to have had many inspiring teachers. The first person to inspire me in a formal education setting was probably my elementary school music teacher, Jean Ashworth Bartle. She was (and is) amazing. She just accepted that a group of young kids in a regular public school would be capable of singing in counterpoint, of taking melodic dictation, of memorizing songs in different languages… and she was right. Under her direction, we could do all that. When I joined the choir that she ran outside of school, the Toronto Children’s Chorus, she always insisted that we be referred to not as “kids”, but as “children, artists, musicians”. She said that we were her instrument, and I was so proud to be able to create beautiful music with top orchestras around the world, all with no annual dues for choristers. What an education that was.
Do you recognize anything that you learned from her in your own teaching?
I have taken from Mrs. Bartle a stance that sometimes the final product is more important than the wishes of the individual people contributing to it. When I was working with a group of undergraduate research assistants last year on a project about a case of demonic possession in seventeenth-century Québec, I reassured them quite often that although their struggles with the work may have been frustrating to them, and seemed to slow them down, the students were nonetheless still helping with something bigger than any of their own individual efforts. They didn’t all get their first choice of tasks, but each could contribute in a way that was the best match between their skills and the needs of the project. In speaking with them, I was thinking back to my own experiences in Mrs. Bartle’s choir. Sometimes I was initially disappointed at not getting a solo that I wanted, but I was able to understand and accept that the music as a whole would be better for the decision. Mrs. Bartle never pretended otherwise, and I always respected her straightforward approach. I still contributed to the whole sound, and could add humbly to the excellence of the music. I learned that one can derive a deep sense of satisfaction from contributing to something larger than oneself.
Now, I also recognize that not every student was as fond of Mrs. Bartle’s methods as I was. Some flourished less than I did, and they found other environments in which to grow in a direction that was more to their liking. So I try to remind myself that not every student is going to like every teacher, and that if a student is not getting what they need from me, there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to find it with someone else.
4. How has learning changed since your undergraduate years?
In a lot of important ways, learning has not changed. Not since my time as an undergraduate student, and not for centuries before that. People still learn better when they want to learn than when they don’t, they still feel vulnerable as they explore new domains, and they still require support in order to improve.
But surely learning has changed in some ways?
Oh yes, of course. The ease of access to information is a whole new thing. The first time I ever searched the Internet was when I was an undergraduate student. I suspect that many undergraduate students today cannot remember a time before an answer to a question (or too many answers to a question) was just a search box away. The cost of higher education has also risen substantially. While pursuing my undergraduate degree, my summer job could almost pay for a year. Now that’s nearly impossible. My students are working more hours outside of their studies than I did, or they’re going further into debt, or both. The financial situation of many of their instructors has changed too. As universities have come to rely ever more heavily on teachers hired on temporary contracts, many of our students are finding that their favourite professors are hard to find on campus because they are teaching at several different institutions, and that these professors are unsure of what – or even if – they’ll be teaching the following year.
Where do you think it’s going?
I wish I knew. I hope we move in a direction that is not so much “teacher-centered” or “student-centered” as it is “learning-centered”. I hope we make decisions for our students and ourselves based on what is likely to lead to more learning by all.
5. What has been a particularly interesting assignment or pedagogical strategy for you?
In my seminars, I have begun offering students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in unconventional ways. The standard trajectory is for students to write an outline, an annotated bibliography, and an abstract, all leading up to a research paper, but students may culminate their process with an alternative assignment if they prefer. I tell them that this assignment must fit within the scope of the course, draw upon primary sources and scholarly secondary sources, develop an understanding of an appropriate historical topic, and communicate this understanding in a clear and persuasive manner. When students choose to take on such an assignment, they create some very interesting projects! They have prepared meals that nobles might have eaten in fifteenth-century England and France, sewn clothing like that worn by children in Renaissance Europe, and drawn a new frontispiece for Athanasius Kircher’s 1667 China Illustrata. I like these alternate assignments for the latitude of expression it grants to engaged students. The students must still demonstrate a solid understanding of the past, and they must still conduct research responsibly, but they may express their understanding in ways more conducive to how they hope to remain connected to history after they finish their undergraduate degrees.
An interesting pedagogical strategy has been the revise-and-resubmit assignment in my first-year course. Students write a short research essay, get it back with feedback from their TAs, and then resubmit it a few weeks later. They need to indicate what changes they have made in light of feedback, and also write a cover letter explaining what strategies they employed for revising and editing. Half of the grade on the revised version of the assignment is based directly on the assignment itself, and half on how well the students have taken feedback into account.
And how well do they take the feedback into account?
Good question! My impression is that some students take it into account more than others, and that certain kinds of feedback are more likely to lead to improvement. But, this being only my impression, we’re measuring the effectiveness of the feedback more rigorously in a study. Stay tuned, because I hope to have results in a few months. One unanticipated and positive result of the assignment that I’ve already noticed is that it has helped the TAs give better feedback. They usually don’t get to see what happens to the comments they write on students’ work, and so have no way of knowing if it’s helpful, or confusing, or what. Now that the TAs see what students do with their feedback, they can get a better sense of which comments are most likely to lead to improvement, and which are most likely to be misunderstood or ignored. Many TAs involved in the assignment have told me that they have altered their comments as a result of seeing how students interpret their feedback, and I’m very happy that they are getting the opportunity to improve their work too.
6. Do you have a favourite website you want to recommend for folks interested in teaching and learning history?
I don’t have any one favourite, but I like the general genre of websites and group blogs that present academically-responsible history to a general audience – places like Active History, Histoire Engagée, Unwritten Histories, Borealia, Findings / Trouvailles, and the British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog. The podcast that I most often recommend to my students is In Our Time. It’s not especially slick, but it presents excellent research from top historians.
Writing History : A Guide for Canadian Students (OUP), co-authored with William K. Storey, will come out soon.
If you want to get in touch with Prof. Cowan, her email address is: email@example.com.
Please feel free to leave comments below and if you would like to write a reaction piece to something Prof. Cowan has discussed above, please contact Danielle Kinsey at Danielle.Kinsey@carleton.ca.
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