Teaching

“The Past in the Present: Reflections of a First-Time Instructor”

Published on: 21 Oct 2019

“The Past in the Present: Reflections of a First-Time Instructor”
By Shawn W. Brackett

Today’s world weighs on me. I’m sure it weighs on many of you. In North America, we are part of societies that increasingly struggle to deal with the flood of information and misinformation coming from all sides. And yet those same societies, via their elected officials, undervalue the humanities—disciplines whose approach to the truth involves not only discovery but also critique, analysis, comparison, and questioning. We desperately need more humanistic skills to handle an uncertain and unstable world. 

It was in this context that I prepared to teach my first course—History of Post-Confederation Canada—as the instructor of record. I had previously worked as a teaching assistant for many courses and was well-acquainted with the student body and academic programs at my institution. I was nervous but had done the hard work. I felt like Dr. Ellie Arroway in the film Contact as she prepares to embark on her mission in an unproven spacecraft: “I’m okay to go. I’m okay to go.” 

My goal as a first-time instructor was to guide students as they learned and practiced historical thinking skills. I’m indebted to the work of the Historical Thinking Project for providing a valuable framework. In the process of preparing my course I found myself devoting more time to discussions and explorations of method than I expected. Typical undergraduate history courses—especially surveys—focus on content over method, while the undergraduate historiography courses flip that balance and focus on method. I came to that position because of my growing conviction that the content of history cannot stand alone. That is not to say students should not learn key moments, figures, and movements in history. The North-West Rebellion (Resistance) of 1885, for example, is critical to understanding Settler-Indigenous relations that followed and continue to this day. I believe that teaching students content without sufficient background in methods (to develop their own historical research and conclusions) limits the potential of historical thinking.

I also think historians have a specific responsibility to help undergraduates make sense of things by encouraging and—at times—forcing them to think through how they get sources of information. What we do in preparing lectures and publications is begin with research questions, locate reliable sources of information that may speak to those questions, critically analyze the (sometimes conflicting) sources, and weigh the evidence to come to conclusions about the past. What I wanted to do in my class was connect what historians do every day with the urgent need I see in our societies to increase the capacity for historical thinking…and do so in a first-year survey course. My goal was ambitious and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but I can claim with confidence that my students engaged with historical thinking skills to a level that pleasantly surprised me.

The course learning objectives (click on that link to go to the course syllabus I uploaded to the CHA Syllabi Central) included one devoted to historical thinking: “analyze historical and contemporary sources, ideas, and arguments in a critical manner.” I prepared a “Guide to Evaluating Sources” that incorporates definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources; common repositories of reliable, risky, and unreliable sources; and an extended discussion of why I categorized those sources in that way. In the process of creating the guide, I developed a series of questions for students to use when analyzing new sources: the credibility-accuracy-reasonableness (CAR) test. To reinforce the guide, I wove in primary and secondary source discussions to every class and drew upon the questions from the guide and included a source quiz on D2L (the university’s learning management system). We discussed Treaties and the Treaty Relationship, blog posts from ActiveHistory.ca, historical yearbooks, podcasts, and works from the Graphic History Collective.

Throughout the course I contemplated whether my mix of content and skills was appropriate. Survey courses in history often enroll non-history majors who will never take another history course. Was I expecting too much of students in an introductory course, most of whom would not take more courses in my department? Based on my observations of student discussions and their own feedback, I don’t think so. After each discussion, I encouraged groups to share their findings with one another and the questions they asked showed evidence of nuance and a desire to understand that encourages me. Their responses also demonstrated to me the capacity of first- and second-year students in fields outside of history and the humanities to learn and hone tools that will aid them in navigating a tumultuous world. What matters most to me is not that students in history courses retain the exact sequence of events for a given historical moment, but rather what questions to ask and how to think through sources of evidence—both historical and contemporary. It is my hope that foregrounding historical thinking skills will contribute to societies’ more nuanced understanding of the past and how that past informs the present.

Shawn Brackett can be contacted at: shawn.brackett@ucalgary.ca 

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