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By Sean Graham
In the spring, I taught HIS 3375, History of Popular Culture in Canada, at the University of Ottawa. Since the course had a participation element, I thought it would be fun to have an ice-breaker activity. So I compiled a list of ten questions that ranged from the hard-hitting “What is the first movie you remember seeing?” to the nonsensical “You get abducted by aliens – would you rather be in their zoo or their circus?” (A question first discussed on Seinfeld) which ten randomly selected students would have to answer. In prefacing the activity, I stressed that the students should not be worried because none of the questions were particularly personal and that I would answer the questions too.
In the past, I’ve been accused of being too private, so it’s not surprising that I wouldn’t include personal questions in the class. Afterwards, however, a colleague asked why I seemed so averse to divulging personal information in class when, on occasion, it might be relevant to the course material. In the case of popular culture, for example, does the fact that I have an irrational dislike of the NHL (hockey is great, but the NHL has destroyed the sport) not shape the way I discuss the league’s significance to Canada?
Not long after that discussion, I read Justin Bengry’s post on Notches entitled “‘Coming Out’ in the Classroom: When the Personal is Pedagogical” in which he discusses the issue of professors revealing their sexuality to their students, with specific reference to queer history courses. In addition to questions over an instructor’s personal background influencing their interpretation of the past, the post also discusses whether including personal information can help foster positive relationships in classes by breaking down barriers, and thus improving classroom dynamics.
In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Justin Bengry about his article. We chat about the utility of revealing personal information in the classroom, the role of the university in fostering discussions on these issues, and voyeurism in the study of sexuality. Justin is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in History at McGill University.
Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.
Glad to read this and hear this discussion. A parallel issue is teaching religious history where the scholarly need for objectivity is wrapped up in post-confessional / revisionist approaches vs confessionalized historiographies that laud a particular religious view, or are essentially a way of binding socio-cultural identities and processes to theological positions. It’s extremely problematic and requires gingerly unpacking in the classroom. I rarely ‘come out’ in those contexts, and if I do, it’s in conversation towards the end of the course where students have come to see their identities as processes, and the complexities involved in their historical construction as something that requires deep respect.
Thanks for your comment Matt! You make a great point on how these issues come into play with a variety of subjects and how it can be problematic. I’m not sure there’s a ‘right’ way to go about dealing with it, but perhaps it’s up to each instructor to figure out what works best for them.