Hello once again and welcome to the last instalment of my blog!
Firstly I would like to apologize for the tardiness of this final post. My trip to Winnipeg that came right off the heels of my participation at Congress was a hectic combination of air travel, archival adventures & mishaps, and long awaited family reunions. Writing this now, having been back in Ottawa for less than 24 hours, I am finally taking a moment to be retrospective about my experiences at Congress.
Thinking back to Day 3, my final round of panels seems to fall under the broad category of history education; another near & dear interest of mine. Why do and should we teach and learn history? How do and should we teach and learn it? These are the (relatively vague) questions that keep me up at night. And it is my interest in finding answers to these questions that stop me from ditching the historical discipline for greener, more lucrative pastures.
The eclectic group of panelists presenting at the panel Practicing the Discipline of History had some interesting responses to these questions. Though less concerned with history education per se, they had much to say in relation to how they personally practice “history” and how they believe others should or should not practice it themselves.
For example, Carleton University archivist Patti Harper encouraged a rapprochement between archivists and historians. Not only that, but she called for a renewed effort to once again problematize and historicize the role of the archive as a filter and gatekeeper of documents and materials and its role in the creation of historical narratives. Already somewhat familiar with the issues that she brought up, I could not have agreed more with Harper. That being said, I would go a step further and say that everyone, not just historians and archivists, should be concerned with understanding the archive as a political institution that has immense power over what sources are available for us to use. Going forward from this understanding, we are better placed to hold those who collect and guard these sources to account and to question their practices.
Self-described “Jill of all trades” Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, while not as analytical as Harper, pushes us towards involving the public in our discipline’s endeavour to think critically about our work and practice. Though a good portion of her work as Edmonton’s third Historian Laureate involves using history as a form of light-hearted entertainment for residents of the city, she has attempted to incorporate a certain level of critical reflection into her many different community driven projects. In this way and in others she strives to create as many bridges as she can between residents and academia.
Why should history education research matter to historians?, which was put on by students involved with the History Education Network known as Then/Hier, looked directly at the field of history education. Though they study a varied set of topics and contexts, the panelists seem to agree that whether it’s at elementary or secondary school, Cégep or university, a heritage site or museum, history education in Canada could stand to be improved. What would this improvement look like?: A combination of creative teaching styles (by way of new media, stronger student participation and collaboration, etc.) and an emphasis on critical thinking (having both instructors and students actually think about how/why historical narratives are constructed and why they are teaching/learning about history in the first place). Cynthia Wallace-Casey for example encourages her students to deconstruct museums’ narratives and hold them to account not only for how they choose the stories that they tell or not, but also how they tell them. Using popular myths about feminism as a case study, Marie-Hélène Brunet pushes her students to challenge received knowledge about the past (from the media, family members, figures of authority) and think about history as a holistic and interconnected process as opposed to a set of separate and individual anecdotal facts. Another one of the main points running through all of the presentations was that that history education needs to be more than content; more than the date of confederation, the name of the first Prime Minister, and the one-sided story of Canadian state-building. This education instead needs to be about critical and lateral thinking, challenging authority and received knowledge, and actually practicing history for oneself.
Upon my return from lunch and before running back off to work I attended my last panel, History in the Classroom. Once again, teaching students critical thinking was an important focus of the discussion. Caroline-Isabelle Caron’s presentation was particularly poignant in this regard. Discussing a fourth-year seminar course that she taught in 2014 called “History Vs. Pseudo-History,” Caron underlined just how much work is left to be done by educators prior to (and especially during) students’ university careers. Through the experience of teaching this course Caron discovered that her students, mostly in the fourth and final year of their history degrees, could still not properly differentiate between the pseudo-history expounded in popular literature & television programs and the factual history created through a combination of holistic research, deliberation, and rigorous attention to the sources. Caron went on to discuss a host of reasons why this is horribly problematic and listed an array of skills that students should be acquiring to remedy this, yet ended on a somewhat bleak note by stating that she doesn’t really know how to fix the problem.
Of course there’s no easy solution, though the insights provided by the many panellists that I had the pleasure of listening to will be a start. Looking back at Day 3 and the rest of Congress, I know that the many lessons I have taken away will be directly applicable to my future work, both academic and professional.
Should you be reading this and have not had the chance to attend Congress, I highly recommend you do so the next chance you get. I promise you won’t regret it.
This is Brad signing off!