Thinking About Teaching

"Cavaliers Québec 2014-03-22" by Asclepias - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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This is the first in a regular series of posts on teaching environmental history and the humanities, edited by Claire Campbell. If you would like to contribute a post to the series contact the editors at

A couple of days ago, I was tweeted (who am I, and what have I become) a message from a reporter at the Guardian. She found me, I assume, because my Twitter bio includes “teacher.” She was collecting stories from teachers around the world, based on the following questions:

  • What is the biggest challenge you face as a teacher? (200 words)
  • What do you consider to be the best thing about your country’s education system? (100 words)
  • What single success are you most proud of in your teaching career? (200 words)
  • We’d also like you to upload a picture of yourself in your classroom.

Well, I’m not doing that, but I thought it would a fun exercise, given that I’m now teaching in a new place, and a place where teaching well is considered a really big deal. I taught for 8 years at Dalhousie, a school of about 17, 000 that wants to simultaneously seem bigger and smaller than it is, and that is promoting heavily its ocean sciences. This year I started teaching at Bucknell University, a small and lush private liberal arts university in central Pennsylvania, where environmental humanities are an actual thing. And I’m discovering that my challenges here are rather different than they were in Halifax.

So this is pretty preliminary, but I’ll be thinking about teaching about as the year progresses. This fall I’m teaching a first-year class on “Canada since 1860: Territory and Nationality,” an environmentally-based history with three major clusters: settling the interior, wilderness mythologies, and claiming the north. The class is mostly sophomores, and mostly American (one Brit, one Canadian).

  • What is the biggest challenge you face as a teacher?

Right now, it is striking a balance between some aspirations for theoretical sophistication and absolutely basic content. I don’t want to patronize the students, and it is a university course, but they simply know nothing about Canada. So I find myself shuttling back and forth between entry-level material (what is Confederation, how is Canada governed, where is Nova Scotia) to larger questions about state formation, national identity, and environmental change, which I hope can be applied elsewhere.

There is a second, related issue. This week we watched the Heritage Minute about Sam Steele in the Klondike, and a segment from the series finale of Due South. These are great examples of the nationalist image of Canadian law and order defending a pristine wilderness against uncouth (unshaven and intoxicated) American violence. (“Men don’t wear pistols in Canada,” says Steele, ramrod straight and unflinching. “Please stop shooting,” say Due South’s Mounties in red serge, as they walk quietly toward American arms traders on a frozen northern lake.)

But while I wanted to highlight the power of the image, I’m afraid my students saw more the stereotype than the satire of it. They lack both historical background and the requisite psychology to get the joke; they weren’t raised in a culture of quiet superiority, of how-we’re-not-American, of wanting the world to like us, of perennial handwringing about not knowing your history.

I encountered a bit of this in Denmark twelve years ago, but Danes – a people with a northern self-image who have had to deal with being a small cultural entity atop a much larger, more aggressive one for the past two hundred years – were more inclined to understand the impulse behind the expression, even if they were as new to the content as my students here.

  • What do you consider to be the best thing about your country’s education system?

This question brought me up short because so much of what I read about higher ed, from both Canada and the U.S., is negative: the growing numbers of insecure part-time faculty, the hardening distance between a swelling administration (seriously, we can’t need any more) and faculty members (seriously, we do need more), the futile efforts to compete with Facebook (if I hear once more about “student engagement”…)

I’ve been so privileged my entire educational-turned-professional life that it all seems pretty good, especially compared to other parts of the world and especially for women.

Maybe if I have to pick it would be: you can craft a course of study and a career out of things that matter to you. Even, or especially, in the liberal arts. And that appears to be true on both sides of the border.

  • What single success are you most proud of in your teaching career?

I sat and thought about this for a while. A number of particular lectures come to mind – ones where I searched for hours for just the right image, or had a moment of spontaneous interpretation when I saw something I hadn’t before, or when a connection between history and citizenship and the state of things out in the world was right there between me and the students and what we were talking about. There’s the cumulative effort of redesigning courses for new audiences, in new circumstances (although – currently that’s more of a challenge; see above). There’s the unusual dynamic of team-teaching, which I’ve done a lot and which requires flexibility and a lot of coordination. Or honouring my father’s memory by being a teacher in the first place.

But I think about a young woman named Haylan, who came to Halifax from Inglis, Manitoba, and probably felt like the only Manitoban, maybe the only prairie girl, for a thousand kilometres. And one day in class we were talking about the prairie grid and grain elevators, and I showed a photo I’d taken of the row of grain elevators in Inglis. And she lit up. And she went on to thrive at Dal – president of the History society, honours in Canadian Studies – in part because she now believed that where she was from mattered and it had a story to tell, both large and small. And now she is teaching Canadian history in a small town just north of … Inglis, Manitoba.

And I think of a young man named Chris, who wrote a thesis about the ranchlands of Alberta where he is from, and a young woman named Fiona who wrote about the Pictou shore where her heart is, and I know they’re out in the world doing any number of things but also believing that these places matter, and there is work to be done in protecting and promoting their historical and ecological integrity. And I’m happy about that.


So, what about you, NiCHErs? What’s the best thing about higher ed in Canada? What are we, as environmental historians, good at in the classroom? What can we share with others? And what do we need to get better at? Can we talk more about our teaching?

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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