In Pursuit of Excellence: The Importance of Mentorship in Academia

Fence with a sign saying 'This Way' with an arrow

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

Katrina Ackerman

As the winter semester comes to an end and students prepare to enter graduate programs in September, I have thought a lot about the students who turned to me as a mentor and the ways in which professors helped students from lower socioeconomic groups, like me, navigate academia. In the current academic market, mentors should prepare their students for a non-academic career, and this is increasingly important for lower class students who rely on loans to fund their education.

As my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship came to an end in November 2017, I reflected on the professors who shaped me as a scholar. I remember the day my professor, Deanne Schultz from Vancouver Island University, planted the kernel that I could strive for a graduate level education. Coming from a working class background, obtaining an undergraduate education was my goal and I had not considered teaching beyond secondary schools. Although I always wanted to be a modern-day Anne Shirley, I never considered a career in university teaching.

Fortunately, my history professors at Vancouver Island University informed me of the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Master’s Scholarships, which paved the way for my graduate education. Unlike many graduate students from working class backgrounds, I received sufficient financial support throughout my graduate education to conduct my research and complete my theses.[1] However, where I attended school was always determined by financial support. Rather than attending universities in major cities where the cost of living was higher, I always looked to smaller universities that had lower rent and tuition. Because of significant advice from mentors and my good fortune of receiving SSHRC funding, I avoided having to take out loans to complete my graduate education, unlike many graduate students from working and lower class backgrounds.[2]

In addition to financial considerations, where I attended school was also largely influenced by the reputation of the supervisor. Continue reading

Open Pedagogy: The Time is Now

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By Thomas Peace

I’ve been a rather slow convert to the open-access movement. Though ActiveHistory.ca operates under a Creative Commons Attribution, non-commercial ShareALike copyright license whereby you’re free to repost this (or any other essay you find here) so long as you provide us with attribution and do not profit, this was my sole venture into the world of open access.

OER Global Logo by Jonathas Mello is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Unported 3.0 License

Then in 2015, Thompson Rivers University historian John Belshaw approached us about promoting his new two-volume open Canadian history textbook (click here for pre-Confederation and here for post-Confederation) published as part of the BC Open Textbook Project (we ran two posts about it here and here). Belshaw’s books were the first open access textbooks I encountered. I was excited and – having gradually moved away from textbooks in my teaching – integrated them as support material for my Canadian history courses.

Until recently, these were the only open projects with which I have been involved. Though I was never fully resistant to the idea, I also never pursued it with much interest. I have been fortunate enough to move from academic contract to academic contract in such a way that only for a few months have I ever been without full access to a university’s library subscription services. From my vantage point, as a student then professor, all of the on-campus resources I used were free.

This, of course, is not true. Continue reading

Podcast: A Tale of Two Empires: Race and Revolution in the 1860s Caribbean

On April 22, 2017, Melanie Newton delivered her talk “A Tale of Two Empires: Race and Revolution in the 1860s Caribbean.” The talk was part of “The Other 60s: A Decade that Shaped Canada and the World,” a symposium hosted by the Department of History at the University of Toronto as part of its Canada 150 events.

This talk is part of our History Chats podcast series. You can subscribe to the History Chats feed wherever you get your podcasts.

“I have never seen anything finer”: First Impressions and Sightseeing in Depression-Era Soviet Union

This post is part of a series, a virtual tour of the Depression-era Soviet Union, in part through the eyes of Canadians who traveled there and, in part, through Kirk Niergarth’s eyes as he attempted to retrace some of their steps during a trip to Russia in 2014. The previous installment is available here

By Kirk Niergarth

What do you pack for a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1930s? There is the luggage to be inspected at the border, the hard currency to be declared, but there is other, invisible baggage, too (and I am not referring to something clandestine, like the revolver that Saskatchewan farmer George Williams managed to sneak through customs in 1931). The baggage carried in our minds plays a defining role in shaping the Soviet experience, even if it is never unpacked. What we know or think we know about the USSR shapes what we see there, just as it did for Canadians in the 1930s.

For example, in the 1930s, Canadian Communists knew before they ever left Canada that socialism had triumphed in the Soviet Union and they were eager to observe the fruits of victory. As the German train he was on in 1932, crossed the Soviet border, “tears of joy” streamed down prominent-Communist Party of Canada member, the Rev. A. E. Smith’s face. He was overwhelmed with the realization that he would finally have the opportunity to see the “Land of Socialism.” For Young Communist Dave Kashtan, it was the banner at the border reading “Workers of the World Unite,” that convinced him he had arrived at a country that “shared his hopes.”

Figure 1 Advertisement from The Worker, 18 January 1930, 4.

These hopes prepared Canadian Communists to observe the USSR in “particular, mediated ways” that amounted, in Lisa Kirschenbaum’s phrase, to a “communist way of seeing: measuring the bright Soviet future against both the backward Russian past and the grim capitalist present.” The USSR, Kirshenbaum continues, “could be ‘seen’ in its ‘marvelous’ form only if the true communist heart somehow filtered the raw data captured by the speciously accurate eye.” For Canadian communists “revolutionary truth structured their observational truth.” Or, as Kirschenbaum’s metaphor would have it, “they saw not with their eyes, but with their hearts.”[1]

The opposite was also true: Continue reading

Assessing Critical Reading Assessments at Huron University College

Students sitting at tables in a library.

Students in the library of a British Columbia high school, 1930-1960. Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 4369768

Geoff Read, Tom Peace, and Tim Compeau

As the most recent professors in Huron University College’s signature first-year course, History 1801E, “Controversies in Global History,” we have struggled for several years with an issue that appears to plague university instructors far and wide: many of our students are not doing the readings for their weekly tutorials. This poses quite a problem since the premise of the tutorials is that through discussion of the readings, students will learn how to identify and assess arguments, particularly through the critical evaluation of the historical evidence upon which they are based. Students who do not do the readings for the tutorials, therefore, not only cannot participate in, or contribute to, the discussion, but actually cannot even follow the course of the conversation. They essentially learn nothing in the process.

So what to do? We increased the participation grade to 15% of the final mark to emphasize that we valued this component of the course. This had no apparent effect. We incorporated student-led discussions hoping that class members would feel obliged to help each other out by doing the readings thereby enabling them to answer each other’s questions. Again: this had at most a negligible impact on students’ reading and participation. For a few years we instituted content-based quizzes at the start of each tutorial. This made some difference but was labour-intensive for the professors and encouraged the kind of rote-learning that was at odds with our desire to encourage students to think of History as more than just the memorization of facts.

Then in 2016-17, following the Historians Teaching History Conference at Mount Royal University, we tried a new approach, requiring the students to fill out a critical reading assessment form available below for every tutorial where a reading was discussed. This assessment would then count for half the participation grade each applicable week. We hoped to convey several messages with this mechanism.

First, we wanted our expectations to be clear – we require students to come to class prepared, having done and reflected upon the assigned reading in a rigorous way.

Second, we hoped that by encouraging students to prepare properly, we would not only ensure that a critical mass of them would do the reading, but that they would be ready to discuss it at a relatively sophisticated level.

Third, we designed the forms to reinforce our in-class teachings. The form asks students to identify the thesis, the sources on which the argument is based, the author(s)’ position in the historiography, connections to other class materials, and three strengths and three weaknesses of the argument. Further, the form requires students to explain why, or why not, they found the argument convincing.

Fourth, we hypothesized that part of the culture of not preparing properly for classes was a general sense students had of disengagement from the course. Accordingly, we hoped that the continual evaluation and feedback provided on the assessments would be one means of keeping students engaged in the class material. Continue reading

Podcast: British North America and International Law in the 1860s

It’s a special mid-week History Chat!

On April 22, 2017, Brad Miller delivered his talk “British North America and International Law in the 1860s.” The talk was part of “The Other 60s: A Decade that Shaped Canada and the World,” a symposium hosted by the Department of History at the University of Toronto as part of its Canada 150 events.

This talk is part of our History Chats podcast series. You can subscribe to the History Chats feed wherever you get your podcasts.

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Innovating Pedagogy in Canadian History: Infusing the Classroom with Primary Research, Analysis, and Collaboration

Room with tables and audio visual screens

Flipped classroom setup. Photo by author.

Thirstan Falconer and Zack MacDonald 

Not every history student is going to become a professional historian. The challenge, therefore, is an obvious one: how can professors transcend traditional pedagogical models that emphasize written exams and research papers to incorporate elements that better prepare students for life after an undergraduate degree? Some individuals teaching Canadian history are especially interested in reinventing the traditional lecture teaching style for a hybrid model that explores digital history, experiential/active learning, inquiry/problem-based learning, and public history. Through collaborations with other scholars, as well as partners in other departments or faculties, Canadian history professors have the opportunity to transform the way students interact and learn in university classrooms.

Many history graduates have found themselves in jobs for which their research and analytical skills are important factors in their success. To get into these positions, applicants encounter employment competitions that force them outside of their comfort zones and challenge their creative thinking skills. How can we expect our history program alumni to innovate in the workplace if their post-secondary education employed pedagogical models that were pioneered before the arrival of the digital age? Employers are looking for skills and experience that are often overlooked by traditionally structured history departments. Moreover, the contemporary employment landscape is increasingly collaborative while academic history training rarely requires meaningful collaboration. Consequently, recent graduates often lack the practical experience of conducting media scans, summarizing complex ideas, or writing clear and concise summaries. While it is true that Canadian history departments encourage undergraduate research, how many of them have integrated real-world scenarios into their classrooms?

Canadian history can offer students the opportunity to engage in problem-based learning in an active and experiential learning environment. The authors of this post have collaborated to reimagine learning within the scope of a third-year Canadian international relations course. In addition to a final exam and research paper, we envision that students participate in in-class exercises that require them to write a briefing note in an allotted amount of time. Continue reading

Thalidomide and the UK Welfare State: How a Unique Tragedy Showed the Problems of All People With Disability

This post was presented to the Carleton University Disability Research Group earlier this year and is cross-posted on their website.

By Jameel Hampton


Beginning with the recognition of the special needs of disabled schoolchildren in the 1880s, the British state took on the welfare of groups of disabled people perceived to be deserving of statutory welfare. Disabled ex-servicemen and blind people were recognized in legislation both during and after the First World War. The creation of the post-Second-World-War welfare state brought the possibility of new benefits in cash and services for all disabled people, but millions of disabled people were largely excluded, and remained a relatively ignored group throughout the 1950s.

With the “rediscovery of poverty” and the liberalization of British society in the 1960s, the welfare of disabled people emerged as an important political and policy issue. This breakthrough in recognition developed into small, targeted legislation in cash benefits in the early 1970s, as well as the landmark 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. While disabled people appeared to have made great gains with the extensive cash benefits of 1974-1975, these benefits proved ineffective, and appeared just before the rolling back of the state and a renewed focus on non-statutory welfare. Perceptions of the welfare of disabled people changed greatly from 1940s to the 1970s, and while there were psychological and representative gains, policies during the post-Second-World-War welfare state did little to improve their welfare.


Thalidomide became available in Britain in 1958 under the name Distival.  A sedative used to combat nausea in pregnant women, it was used until 1961 when links were made between its use and limb deformity.  The British distributor of the drug, the Distillers Company, withdrew the drug from distribution in December 1961.

Approximately 400 children in Britain suffered deformities because of the drug.  The tragedy led to procedures in Britain for the examination of new pharmaceuticals, as it did in many of the 46 countries where thalidomide was distributed.  The Committee on the Safety of Drugs was established in 1963 to check the safety of new drugs for sale or clinical testing.  The parents of thalidomide children fought a long court battle for compensation.  In July 1969, Distillers eventually settled the claims by giving known victims £3.25million over 10 years: this equated to about £15,000 for the worst affected.  Assessments at the time stated that victims with severe deformities would need at least £100,000 to cover their welfare throughout their lifetimes.

In September 1972, the Sunday Times began to publish a series of articles on compensation for thalidomide children detailing the efforts of Distillers to avoid paying any considerable compensation. Continue reading

Podcast: Cosmopolitanism in James Barry’s Diary: The Atlantic World Views of a 19th-Century Nova Scotia Miller

On April 22, 2017, Dan Samson delivered his talk “Cosmopolitanism in James Berry’s Diary: The Atlantic World Views of a 19th-Century Nova Scotia Miller.” The talk was part of “The Other 60s: A Decade that Shaped Canada and the World,” a symposium hosted by the Department of History at the University of Toronto as part of its Canada 150 events.

This talk is part of our History Chats podcast series. You can subscribe to the History Chats feed wherever you get your podcasts.

Re-launching Remember l Resist l Redraw: RRR# 13, Anti-Colonial Lawyer Charles Roach

In January 2017, the Graphic History Collective launched Remember / Resist / Redraw: A Radical History Poster Project as a year-long artistic intervention in the Canada 150 conversation. Our goal was to create a series of accessible radical history posters that can serve as a resource for activists to lean on and learn from as they struggle to bring about radical social transformation. We were overwhelmed with the positive response the project received.

Though the original goal of RRR was to challenge Canada 150, we quickly realized that one year is not enough time to remember, resist, and redraw the world we live in. As a result, the GHC has decided to make RRR an ongoing project.

Earlier this week we re-launched RRR and released Poster #13 by Naomi Moyer and Barrington Walker, which focuses on the life of Black activist and anti-colonial lawyer Charles Roach.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for radical change. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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