Teaching through Learning: The Importance of Passionate Educators

Published on: 5 Aug 2019

As I sit at my desk, a warm summer breeze carries the scent of ocean air through my office window. I’ve recently began my new position as assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax, Nova Scotia—my home province. With September classes in mind, I get to work on revising syllabi for the fall term. This provides me an opportunity to pause for reflection on my pedagogy, which has been shaped throughout my own undergraduate education at Cape Breton University (CBU).

My plan upon entering university was to major in English and become a high school English teacher. This plan quickly changed. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the first history course I took in university, “Ascent of Humankind” with Dr. Andrew Parnaby, shaped my career trajectory. By the end of my first year in university, I switched majors and registered for as many history courses as I could. What intrigued me about taking History was twofold: the amount of independence students had to explore and shape their own projects, and the creativity employed by many of CBU’s History professors in teaching.

I clearly remember the feeling of collective accomplishment felt by Dr. Scott Moir’s entire “Scottish Witch Hunting” class in my third year. Along with paleography assignments, which brought students together outside of class time, Moir assigned us roles for a mock witch trial. This assignment encouraged us to place ourselves in the shoes of historical actors and investigate the socioeconomic and political dynamics that shaped a witch hunt - it truly felt like we were solving a mystery. The more teaching experience I get under my belt, the more I think back to that course assignment, how much work Moir put into it, and how many ways it could have gone south without careful thought and preparation.

Parnaby also employed active learning in most of his classes. His openness with assignment creativity was foundational to my learning. In his historiography course, Parnaby provided students a completely open approach to the major assignment. I distinctly remember the excitement among the class while working on these projects, and though I don’t remember all my classmates’ projects (other than one student who carved a replica wooden Viking ship), I do distinctly remember my own project. Early in the semester, we worked in small groups to analyze and interpret specific sets of historical documents from the Beaton Institute. We later used these sources to write research papers independently. The set of sources my group analyzed was a series of photographs featuring Mi’kmaq families. So, when it came time for our major project, a classmate and I did further research into Mi’kmaq history with the information we gleaned from the photographs. With lots of help from Parnaby, we organized a Mi’kmaq basket making workshop and an oral history interview about the history of baskets with Flo Young, an elder from Eskasoni locally renowned for her weaving work.

The whole department was on board with our project. Dr. Graham Reynolds, Chair at the time, invited a class from a local high school to come to campus and join us for a basket weaving workshop with Young. The event was filmed and deposited at the Beaton Institute. This successful event took a tremendous amount of planning and support from professors and students in the department, but the end result was so worth it. It felt like we made a meaningful contribution to the practice of history.

The CBU History Department also had many internship opportunities for students. I did historical research for professors in the department, worked for the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources through a partnership with the history department, and worked as an archival intern at the Beaton Institute for a year. All of these experiences were invaluable. They provided me hands-on experience and gave me an edge when I began my graduate studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

All of these learning experiences influenced how I structure my own courses. I’ve incorporated active learning, field-based learning, and creative/reflective learning in my courses, but it is a challenge to truly dive into doing so while precariously employed. Now that I will be at one institute for a while, I’m very excited to start developing and expanding on some of the teaching approaches that were so important for my undergraduate education. As I go forward with my own teaching, I remain impressed by Parnaby’s passion for teaching History as well as his capacity for self-assessment and reflection on his own pedagogy.

Working in the History Department at SMU and living in Halifax will give me many opportunities to test the waters on new assignments and classroom approaches as an instructor. My desire to include experiential learning and creative projects is rooted in the various experiences open to me as an undergraduate student at CBU. Having completed by Bachelors degree nearly a decade ago, I’m constantly reminded of the importance of fostering supportive, exciting, and meaningful learning experiences for students through committed and passionate pedagogy.

Dr. Heather Green is an assistant professor at Saint Mary’s University interested in environmental and Indigenous peoples’ histories, histories of mining and resource extraction in the circumpolar North, environmental tourism, and energy production and Indigenous peoples’ activism in the American Southwest.



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