Teaching in a Time of Crisis: History of Medicine, Pedagogy, and Student Supports, A Blog Series

Published on May 4, 2021

In this four-part series, Dr. Karissa Patton, Letitia Johnson, and Derek Cameron reflect upon their experiences teaching a 100-level History of Medicine course during the Winter 2021 term at the University of Saskatchewan. Over the course of this blog series, we will speak to individual and common struggles, successes of the teaching team, challenges faced by students, and pedagogical shifts, among other themes. In this first post, we introduce the details of the course and some general reflections on the successes and challenges of the course.  

As we taught about the history of disease, pandemics, health, and medical experimentation this semester, we all reflected on how the weight of course material increased as we personally navigated a global health crisis and witnessed our students do the same. The three of us worked as a team to adapt assignments, course content, and expectations as we embarked on this virtual teaching adventure.

Written assignments were broken down into smaller and more manageable projects that focused on skill building. In particular, the First Year Research Experience (FYRE) project broke down the typical research essay into four parts: a short secondary source analysis, a short primary source analysis and essay proposal, a 4 to 6 page analytical essay, and a Social Media Infographic. Breaking down the parts of the historical research process into these manageable chunks allowed many students to improve their research and historical thinking skills, understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, and apply these skills to their own analytical research essay. The Social Media Infographic assignment allowed the students to share their research with their peers and their community more broadly.  

Providing students with a creative outlet to share their research was a remarkably successful part of this First Year Research Experience. The social media infographics allowed students to condense their research to suit public engagement. Their projects ranged from class, nationalism, and post-war lunch programs, to concepts of race and sexuality in 1980s AIDS activism to Indigenous women’s health and motherhood activism from the 1960s-1980s. (You can check out more of the students’ work on twitter, #USaskHIST1652021, and on Instagram @hist1652021.) Because the students posted their infographics on Twitter and Instagram, many of them had the opportunity to engage with some of the historians the cited in their work, which some of them described as “pretty cool!”  

These modified course assignments proved successful overall in building skills and community within the course and beyond. At the same time, seminar discussion took on a different form this semester using virtual synchronous seminars. In the final post of the series, Derek Cameron reflects upon the ways he built community in his virtual classrooms.  

Along with assignment modifications, we revised the course reading expectations to better fit with the conditions of virtual learning during a health crisis. Students were still expected to read academic articles regularly, but many of the usual academic readings were replaced with short blog posts or podcasts written or produced by historians. In her forthcoming blog post, Letitia Johnson will speak to student engagement levels in seminars and with various forms of assigned reading and listening materials for the course. 

The most common challenge we faced as a teaching team was the overwhelming email load. While a high email load, especially around due dates, is a typical part of teaching responsibilities, we nonetheless found it particularly demanding this term. Perhaps it was because students had limited outlets for interaction and were anxious about succeeding in a virtual learning space. But, regardless, we all found the email load heavy. The questions became increasingly frustrating because they were typically already answered in multiple places on the course website. Usually, the common questions could be addressed in person, during shared lecture time, were now repeatedly sent via email from many of the 106 students enrolled in the course. The level of demand for instantaneous replies, the informal language used in emails, and even a few cases of abrasive demands for leniency from students were nonetheless jarring for all three of us. 

Within these email exchanges we quickly picked up on the bitterness and dread students felt based on some of their online learning experiences. From panicked students sending time-stamped screenshots of technical difficulties to students thanking us for “caring about [their] mental health" it was abundantly clear that many students have had a rough go of it in some of their virtual learning experiences. Next week, Dr. Karissa Patton will discuss shifts in pedagogy and considerations of mental health among students and the teaching team. 

Despite the challenges for all three of us and our students, this semester has been marked by adaptation by everyone. By sharing our successes and challenges, we hope that this series will aid others as they teach through the pandemic and beyond. 


Derek Cameron studies the history of vaccine hesitancy and public health in Canada. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. Alongside his research, he is currently adapting resources to be used for counselling vaccine hesitant individuals. You can find him on Twitter at @DerekHilCameron.  

Derek - 4 May

Letitia Johnson is a PhD Candidate at the University of Saskatchewan who studies the history of race, ethnicity, and health in Canada. Her dissertation examines Japanese Canadian internment during the Second World War through a healthcare lens. She is also the current Graduate Student Representative on the CHA Council. You can find her on Twitter at @leti_johnson

Letitia - 4 May

Dr. Karissa Patton is a historian of gender, health and activism who studies 1970s women's health activism in southern Alberta. She earned her PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @karissapatton

 Karissa - 4 May

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