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.

Continue reading

The Ironies of the Wired Society: The Internet and Contemporary History

By Andrew Nurse

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. ~Antonio Gramsci

Over the last generation, a series of “post” and “neo” ideologies prophesied fundamental change already evolving around us: a new era was being born.

This has not really happened and the diverse manifestos that foretold historic change stand as testimony to unrealized aspirations. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than with regard to new communications technologies (NCTs), social media broadly construed, or the internet. At their most extreme, the internet’s advocates promised a revolution in communications, subjectivity, and politics. As Heather Brooks noted in The Revolution Will be Digitized:

“Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography, replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency”

On an international level, the Arab Spring was its key manifestation. Closer to home, the Maple Spring, student protests, culture jamming, and Occupy were taken as illustrations of NCT’s political potential. Yet, as Andrea Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars form 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right argues to persuasive effect, NCT’s dark side lies in their connection to the alt-right and the most reactionary social movements in contemporary history.

What happened? Continue reading

Manitoba: Student-centric history curriculum?

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This month in our history education series, I’ll be looking at Manitoba’s social studies curriculum. A review of their website and recent news articles suggests that Manitoba strives to be student-centric and responsive in their curriculum. Last year, Manitoba established a new Indigenous-focused school system with a new curriculum, and while most of the provinces heard the call to action from the TRC over the last two years, Manitoba was one of the first provinces to add residential schools as a mandatory part of their curriculum in 2010 and expanded these requirements post-TRC. Recent editorials (fall 2017 and winter 2017) lambasting a skills- or inquiry-based curricula have made little impact on Manitoba curriculum, with their social studies curriculum recently updated with an inquiry focus.

If you’ve been following this series, the skills- and/or inquiry-based focus of Manitoba’s curriculum shouldn’t surprise you. Similar to other provinces, any curricular revisions post-2011 explicitly are tied to Peter Seixas’ Historical Thinking concepts. The Manitoba 2014 revision of the grade 11 Canadian history curriculum includes Historical Thinking as a way to organize history teaching, but the current elementary curriculum updated in 2003 also includes skill-based concepts to organize the curriculum, only without the Historical Thinking language. Continue reading

Immersed in the Past: Room-Scale Virtual Reality for Public History

Sean Kheraj

Last year, I wrote about my early impressions of the possible uses of virtual reality technology for public history and history education. I also led a session in my fourth-year digital history class on virtual reality and its potential for generating a sense of historical presence, an ability to simulate the sensation of standing in past places. I have been somewhat enthusiastic about what this technology can add to museums, classrooms, and other settings for public history and history education.

My focus last year was on smartphone-based VR with stereoscopic viewers (Google Cardboard, Daydream View, Gear VR). This type of VR technology can generate a powerful sense of presence, but the user is limited to rotational movement along three perpendicular axes (pitch, roll, yaw). This is like being a camera fixed in space that can spin around, but cannot move within that space. Tethered VR headsets that use PCs and spatial tracking systems add translational movement (heave, sway, surge) to VR experiences creating six degrees of freedom of movement. These headsets also include tracked motion controllers that can reveal the user’s hand movements in VR environments and enable interaction with 3D objects. Altogether, this is sometimes called “room-scale VR.” The experience is incredibly immersive.

Six degrees of freedom. Source: Wikipedia.

Recently, I put this kind of immersive VR experience to the test by reviewing three examples of public history VR projects that use room-scale technologies. I used an Acer Mixed Reality Headset, part of Microsoft’s line of virtual reality headsets that use “inside-out tracking” in order to achieve room-scale experiences. Two cameras on the front of the headset map and track the environment around me and the motion controllers generate allow me to interact with objects in a 3D space.

What did this add to VR experiences for public history and history education? How best could it be used? What are its limitations? Let’s find out: Continue reading

Podcast: Our Country is No Longer Able to Support Us

On April 22, 2017, Bill Waiser delivered his talk “Our Country is No Longer Able to Support Us.” 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.

Dystopia? It’s a World Without History

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Poster for François Truffaut’s 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451.

Patrick Lacroix

“I’ve got to catch up with the remembrance of the past!”

– Montag, Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

In the last two years, the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as categories of public discourse has prompted fears of a drift towards authoritarianism in the United States and beyond. A casual disregard for truth and campaigns to discredit rigorous reporting are, unquestionably, cause for concern—especially when perpetuated at the highest echelons of power.

An epistemological battle is now engaged, we are told, with the fate of democratic principles hanging in the balance.

Analyses on this website (here and here, for instance) and elsewhere suggest that “fake news” is not a recent invention. But the most instructive cases of public deception may be found in fiction, paradoxical as it may seem.

The essence of current debates was indeed captured decades ago by novelists. Twentieth-century dystopian works hold important lessons about the relationship between truth and history. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are especially revelatory in their treatment of the past. With them, we find that our own public trustees’ approach to the past is indicative of their commitments to an open, deliberative, and democratic society.

Literary dystopias also invite an assiduous study of the past and assign historians an important political mission. In our present circumstances, as cuts to the humanities in the United States foreshadow similar developments north of the border, historical skills may be as valuable as they are rare.

*          *          *

François Truffaut had it right in his film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Guy Montag’s line about remembrance, quoted above, does not appear in the novel, but it captures Bradbury’s message. It also does justice to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. In all three, the erasure of the past enables the construction of authoritarian regimes. The corruption of history as both a body of knowledge and a field of inquiry facilitates the emergence of the dystopian world. Continue reading

Populism Isn’t a Four Letter Word: Reasserting a Progressive Populism in 2018

by Christo Aivalis

In the era of Donald Trump and Doug Ford, populism’s reputation has taken quite the tumble, associated now more than at any time in the recent past with the alt-right movement, predicated in large part on xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and a reflexive aversion to anything that may be connected, however tenuously, to the ‘Social Justice Warrior’ caricature. In this context, populism is little more than a regressive rabble roused by wealthy men with a dubious reputation as ‘regular guys just like you and me.’

Bernie Sanders with arms raises in front of a crowd.

Bernie Sanders, photo by Gage Skidmore

Given this perspective, much handwringing has come from the centre of the political spectrum, as establishment politicians of a multi-partisan bent pine for the political consensus before the Tea Party movement, Trump, and Ford, where it was accepted that a narrow window of political discourse—all cordoned within a general neoliberal consensus built upon a wide-ranging distrust of the common man and woman—reigned supreme.

This is in part why, both during and after the 2016 American Presidential election, Hilary Clinton obtained so much support from those deemed to be moderate republican intellectuals and stalwarts, ranging from George H. W. Bush to David Frum. Such men were mortal enemies of the American centre-left before Trump’s rise, and yet are now welcomed with open arms into #TheResistance because they share a similar overall vision about how society should be run, and most importantly in this context, who should run it.

While a good chunk of this is a genuine reaction to the rhetoric of Trump, it was and is more cynically an attempt to equate Trump to the left wing populism of figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Senator Bernie Sanders. In this narrative—a rift on the questionable horseshoe theory of politics—Trump and Sanders are both demagogues who irresponsibly stoke the fears of the masses to destroy the liberal political tradition for their own benefit. From my point of view as a historian and observer of contemporary politics, however, the two men could not be more different. Continue reading