Macro Snowflake, Aaron Burden via Unsplash
Can February march?
No, but April may.
...it's been a long year folks...
It's Black History Month. In this issue, we'd like to highlight one excellent resource for the history of Haiti - H-Net Haiti and its associated Twitter Feed. We'd also like to share with you this discussion of the work of Roman historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta in the NYTimes Magazine. Peralta grew up as an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic in New York, and is now one of the most compelling voices in Classics. His sustained critique of the field is worth your time.
To whom do we 'communicate', as a Departmental Communications Committee?
I suppose the answer depends on what 'communications' mean. Are 'communications' something that we broadcast outwards? Are 'communications' something that we are meant to facilitate amongst ourselves? Do we talk to each other or past each other?
The way I see it, we do both of these things at once. The work is narrow and we are talking to ourselves: this newsletter to the individuals who receive these Issues in their email inboxes. The work is broad because the newsletter exists in the public square as it were, where anyone who finds this thing online can listen in as well. When the work is broad, we are mindful about putting a version of ourselves, a vision of ourselves, out there where potential students, administrators, and the wider world, might find us.
We both narrowcast and broadcast at the exact same time to a wide variety of potential audiences.
And one audience that I think we - as a committee, as instructors, as faculty, as higher ed professionals - sometimes forget is the student audience. In December, the History Undergraduate Society produced a report on student experience in the pandemic. Students are on the receiving end of a lot of official University communications, giving instructions, links to resources, and so on: broadcast missives. The report by HUgS I believe is one of the first times that students themselves in our department have sent a concerted message to us.
In which case, the other point of a 'Communications Committee' is to listen, to hear. (And 'listening' versus 'hearing' imply different kinds of attentiveness). What have we actually heard from that student report?
Silent Call, by Possessed Photography via Unsplash
We, the Communications Committee, asked faculty and CIs: how have you adapted your teaching to the realities of the pandemic, and in response to the student concerns voiced in the HUgS survey? Below are some of the responses we received. Thank you to those who participated.
The HUgS survey put into words what I could sense my students were feeling - anxious, nervous, preoccupied with other things, and concerned about their futures. I decided this semester to extend some of my assignment deadlines by one week, and to build a two-week period at the end of the course for students to really focus on their major written assignment. If I’m reading what the undergrads are saying to us, they need more time and space to think, breathe, and write (and don’t we all?)
Shorter weekly total times: 7.5 hours. Attaching goals to each activity more systematically. Making instructions and number of moments of engagements in asynchronous activites simpler and less frequent.
I did already have the basic structure of my cuLearn page up and running before I read the HUgS survey, but it caused me to relook at what I'd done and make sure that it was set up in a user-friendly way. I tried to put myself into the shoes of students enrolled in the course, thinking about how they would best learn what I wanted to teach. [...] Video taping lectures (ugh!!), and also providing separate transcripts and Powerpoints, is significantly more (unpaid) work than showing up to class and talking. However, without that personal interaction, this seemed to be the best way forward. And it seems to be working.
I received positive feedback from the HUgS survey, but I still felt it was necessary to cut content from my weekly lessons. I think I prepared too much or I should have at least made certain learning exercises optional. I also had too many assignments ...
Empathy for our students seems to be what unites those responses. So - how do we keep this conversation going?
Jesse Stommel, the co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy: the Journal of Critical Digital Pedagogy sums up his pedagogy in four words: "start by trusting students". Dialogue starts from a position of trust. Maybe the point of a Communications Commitee is to foster more of this kind of dialogue. What would it mean to be a Department where students and faculty trusted each other? Dean Rankin said in a recent Faculty Board meeting that the goal of this year is merely survival. What kind of a version of ourselves are we narrowcasting/broadcasting? I would suggest that listening to each other, trusting each other, is key to answering these questions, and to keeping this conversation going.
Kudos to HUgS for getting this ball rolling.
In this issue, we chat with Dr. Jill St. Germain about her course HIST3908B 'Creating History: Writing Historical Fiction'
Why do you teach this course?
I saw a place for the writing of historical fiction within the discipline of History. The practice combines research, storytelling, and writing – three core components of historical work. But it also opens up the writing part. In a history program, we often emphasize the critical/analytical elements of historical writing over the storytelling. Offering this course is a way to give students an opportunity to expand their writing range. I went looking for a model and found only one such course in a History department, at Duke University, and have to thank Dr. Simon Partner there for his advice on setting up a course.
I wanted to give students an opportunity to write for a different kind of audience, a popular audience, while maintaining a commitment to historical research methods. And the emphasis on writing is also important to me. Almost every week students have a writing exercise where their writing skills are assessed structurally and stylistically. We talk about grammar!
Finally, I write historical fiction and I enjoy it. I thought students might, too.
How have you challenged yourself in designing this course?
Much of the work for the course involves group discussion, with students broken into groups of 5 or 6. The conversations can get intense. I’m not really a group person and I found even the idea of this format a little daunting. Would it work? How would I manage it? What role would I play when peer review and engagement is so much part of the time we spend together? The groups have turned out more successful than I could have imagined and the structure has given me time to speak individually to each student in every class about their assignment of the week. The role is quite different from that of lecturer or seminar leader.
What do students like about your course?
Students tell me that they really like being able to choose their own project and to explore subjects/topics that they don’t find an outlet for in other courses. They often come to the course with subject knowledge of a particular period or historical experience, but writing a work of historical fiction allows them to explore an aspect that isn’t suited to a more academic approach – for example, a First World War ghost story.
Another aspect they enjoy is the peer engagement. Much of the class is taken up with students discussing their work with other students in a very comfortable and supportive setting. They get to know the other members of their group very well. I had one student tell me that this third-year course was good preparation for fourth year seminar work where peer interaction is so important.
What has surprised you about your students?
I’ve been surprised by how many students really want to write historical fiction. They don’t take this course by chance. It’s something that draws them. Their passion for their stories is palpable. Many of them have been writing fiction for years. The main assignment is a 25-page story, which is a demanding requirement, and they’re not put off at all. I find myself reminding them that their assignment is a short story, not a novel, so keep to the page length.
What student work in the course sticks with you the most?
I’ve been amazed at the range of story ideas. Students in this course have taken me into corners of history that I’ve never traversed and I learn so much every year. I’ve been to ancient China, Reformation-era Toulouse, medieval European battlefields, 16th century Malta and 17th century Iceland, the Northwest Passage, and 20th century Eritrea in civil war, and the scope expands with each new group of students. I’ve also had stories about Indigenous characters and gay characters from students determined to make historical fiction more inclusive. It’s exciting to read about familiar settings – British North America, Nazi-occupied Europe, or the Cold War America – from different perspectives. I’ve also been riveted by some “small” stories, ones with more modest historical contexts – small-town Canada, the home front during the Second World War, Algonquin Park – and by classic accounts of soldiers in combat and civilians coping with occupation. Students have produced very good stories. And what is stunning about much of this work is the depth of research that has brought each of these tales alive to me and made me want to read more.
...and a bonus question: What would you do differently next time?
I’ve been trying to figure out whether or how to incorporate the “next step” of the writing process into the mix – what do they do with the story once they’ve written it? Getting the project written is, after all, only the first half of a writer’s work. Publishing, in one form or another, is a process unto itself. I’m still working on how to develop that.
Vintage Words, by Thom Milkovic via Unsplash.com