In Conversation: Teaching and Learning Canada’s First World War

By Sarah Glassford and Ruby Madigan

Preamble

During the winter 2014 semester, we (the authors) experienced HIST 309A “Canada and the First World War” from opposite sides of the teaching-and-learning equation. Sarah was teaching the course, offered by the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) Department of History, while Ruby was a student taking the course as an elective.

We came at the course from very different angles: Sarah pursued a traditional “straight-through” path from high school through undergraduate and graduate education to the professoriate; Ruby followed a more circuitous route, returning to university as a mature student. Sarah was a single working woman; Ruby was a wife and mother of a young child, attending school full-time. Sarah was a Canadian citizen teaching Canadian history she had learned within Canada; Ruby was an American citizen, now encountering the Canadian version of the First World War for the first time.

We talked outside of class about many things, including the fact that we were uniquely positioned to think together about what it means to teach and learn the history of Canada’s First World War in the early twenty-first century. This post is the product of several conversations and a more formal Q&A email exchange over the two years since the class ended. We draw no broad conclusions, but hope to spark further conversations about what and how we teach, and how that teaching is received and experienced by students.

Our Conversation (More or Less)           

Sarah:
Let’s start with the fact that I was very happy about getting to teach this course. I still have great memories of a First World War course I took as an undergrad at Western, and wanted to re-create the experience for my own students. Since it’s an area I’ve researched and written about as a scholar, it was also a treat to teach something I felt completely confident about. Normally there are at least a few weeks in a course where we say to ourselves “sure I can teach that… as soon as I learn something about it.” And when the enrollment in the class was high (by UPEI standards), I knew we would have the numbers and energy we needed for a good class. What led you to take the course?

Ruby:
Aside from a general interest in studying war, I felt I was over-saturated with education regarding the Second World War. I also thought it would be interesting to learn about the First World War from a Canadian perspective. And, really, just the idea that a war “to end all wars” had fed into the Second World War made me want to know more about how and why it all began.

Sarah:
Did you know anything about the First World War before the class started? One of the challenges of teaching a course about something that is out there in the realm of popular culture and public memory can be that students bring a lot of mental baggage with them. It’s great when they’re enthusiastic about the subject and bring prior knowledge to in-class discussions, but (for example), seeing Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” does not give you an infallible understanding of Scottish history. It can be hard to get students to let go of ideas they’ve picked up along the way, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Ruby:
I knew a fair bit about daily life in the trenches, although the section we covered on trench language and newspapers was new (to me) and compelling. It was intriguing to think about the ways soldiers sought the everyday in such extreme conditions.

Sarah:
I think I shocked some of your classmates with my demonstration of trench language in use! (It was fun to see the expressions on some of their faces, from my position at the front of the room.) I chose those readings in hopes of rounding out the vision people often have of unmitigated misery in the trenches. There was plenty of misery, of course, but as a social historian I’m always interested in seeing how people cope with the conditions they face. Human beings are remarkably resilient – and endlessly creative, too, in the ways they find to deal with situations outside of their control. I tried to weave that theme into our week on women and the home front too.

Ruby:
The course certainly helped to flesh out what life at home was like. In particular, one thing that stood out to me were the social pressures that existed to “do one’s part” for the war. The way that crept into every corner of life, down to filling spare moments gathering Irish moss and fashioning bandages, was really striking. It was interesting to explore home front contributions beyond knitting and darning socks.

Sarah:
It’s funny that you mention the moss. As a professor, teaching a subject you’ve personally researched means you often go off on tangents in class – or at least have a trove of anecdotes and fun facts to draw on, beyond the assigned readings. The moss-gathering comes from my research on the Canadian Red Cross’s work for the sick and wounded during the war, but I only said maybe two sentences about it, in one class. Yet you’ve mentioned it here, and several of your classmates worked it into their final exam answers. I wonder if the idea of people on the East and West coasts wading through bogs collecting moss for use in bandages is memorable simply because it’s so unexpected. That kind of unglamorous voluntary work doesn’t make it into the movies or Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Ruby:
Exactly! I think the image is so appealing because of what it represents in terms of scope – that this war was so big, so encompassing, even a small place like PEI had something important to contribute. I think island communities tend to feel somewhat cut off from others, and it’s incredible to think about how meaningful their labour was during the War.

Sarah:
Do you remember any other aspects of the course – either topics of discussion, or things we did in class – that seemed to “stick” with you and your classmates?

Ruby:
I found the wet-versus-dry canteens debate and poster exercise interesting, and it seemed to hold the attention of most in the room. I was chosen for the pro-prohibition side of the room, and found it both interesting and a little challenging to step into a mindset so different from my own.
As far as learning strategies go, I believe that it is important to continue to adapt as many new technologies as is comfortable. YouTube is awesome, but there is so much more. I enjoyed the online archives we used, and thought that you did a good job of incorporating digital and online sources into the class.

Sarah:
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to online teaching resources for the First World War. The ongoing public and scholarly interest in it means that those documents, images, and artifacts have been among the first collections to be digitized and posted online by many museums and archives around the world. We could have had equally great results with international collections, but for a Canadian focus we were well served by the Canadian War Museum’s online exhibits and the weird and wonderful array of ephemera posted on www.wartimecanada.ca .  I enjoyed seeing what you and your peers made of the various artifacts I assigned to you, for your presentations.

Ruby:
I did as well. I think propaganda is always an interesting topic, and I appreciate the way that it is no longer automatically villainized. I remember we discussed two sides of it – its uses for the war effort, and its dangers – in class. We are a visually driven culture, and propaganda holds an aesthetic appeal that can be compelling.

Sarah:
It’s true, twenty-first century students always perk up in response to visual materials. Along the same lines of students connecting or not connecting to aspects of the subject, do you think your personal history influenced your experience in the class, or your perspective on the material we studied? Not only are you not a Canadian, but someone very close to you is a veteran of a more recent war.

Ruby:
Yes, absolutely. Much like being a parent, it is quite difficult to remove the lens of being a veteran’s wife when studying war and war culture. It did make it easy for me to choose an essay topic, however.

Sarah:
As the reader of that essay, I would say that it brought a depth and sensitivity to your interpretations and even the style in which you wrote about First World War veterans. You also brought a certain amount of (justifiably) righteous anger about the shoddy treatment they often received, and I imagine that stemmed at least in part from your own experience.

Ruby:
Thank you, and I agree that it coloured my language and my approach to topics like PTSD and its progenitor, “shell shock.” It was very moving to discover that the symptoms and causes were well outlined in medical journals contemporary with the First World War.

I’m also certain being an American influenced my perspective. The U.S. has a very different narrative about their participation in the First World War than Canada. It’s more along the lines of “we (men) saved the day,” as opposed to Canada’s “manly men must answer the call of duty for Mother Britannia.” Sort of a “rugged individualism” versus an “all for one” approach. It was quite interesting to observe the sorts of institutionalized memory that Canadian public schools had imparted on my peers.

Sarah:
Those narratives certainly reflect the two countries’ different engagements with the war. The U.S. lost more men than did Canada, but had a very different relationship to the conflict given its much later entry date. Did anything surprise you about Canada’s First World War (or its memory and commemoration of the war) as opposed to the American version you were more familiar with?

Ruby:
Yes, I was surprised to learn that the First World War was such a pivotal moment as far as Canadian identity, even if in memory only. Once I took the time to really reflect on the difference in population, however, I couldn’t help but be struck by how many small communities gave and lost so much.  So, the U.S. might have lost more in terms of numbers, but I might now argue that the impact was no less on Canadian lives than on American ones.

Sarah:
From my side of things, one of the big “take-aways” from the course was a new appreciation of how close this history remains to us today:  on multiple occasions I had one or more of your classmates come up to talk to me at the end of class, wanting to share some personal connection to whatever we had discussed that day. The war’s direct participants have now passed on, but their stories and tin helmets and spent shell cartridges and knitting instructions are prized by those they left behind. I wish we hadn’t lost two of our final classes on commemoration and the war in popular culture to snow days, because they would have allowed us to talk about that more than we did.

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Ruby Madigan works in qualitative research and is a native of the United States. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Prince Edward Island in 2015, and is thrilled to now be living with her family in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands.

Dr. Sarah Glassford has taught at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Prince Edward Island, Carleton University, and the University of Ottawa. She is the author of Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.

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