Lessons Learned from 18 Months of Trial-By-Fire Teaching

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In the summer of 2013 I took up a two-year teaching fellowship with the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The position required me to a prepare undergraduate courses in Canadian and environmental history for an annual teaching load of 3-3-1, more courses than I’d ever taught before (let alone all at once!). At the 18-month mark of my two year appointment, I’m taking stock of what I’ve learned. The reflections below do not apply specifically to environmental history, but I think they’re relevant to anyone taking up a teaching position in history, or the humanities, for the first time.

Specialization isn’t as important as you’d think. Teaching in the class and for an online masters degree course firstly involved operating outside my comfort zone. For me, the prospect of teaching pre-Confederation Canadian history, or writing a lecture on the Diefenbaker years, was a little daunting. I calmed myself down by repeating a little mantra to myself: I may not be an expert in this area, but I bring some acquired skills that are just as important. The ability to locate quality information, to sift through a lot of it relatively efficiently, to synthesize it into something meaningful and communicate it intelligibly to a group of people with a range of knowledge on the subject—these are the skills that define us as humanities PhDs. Period and regional specializations certainly make the job easier, and help immensely in boosting one’s confidence in facing a room full of undergrads for the first time, but as successful early-career academics we have carefully honed skills of synthesis and communication that we can bring to just about any subject. So trust in yourself.

Consult your colleagues. There is a tendency, when feeling overwhelmed with work, to make oneself feverishly inaccessible. Between the commute, the course load, and family responsibilities, I often found myself racing in to the department to finish off a lecture behind closed doors before hurtling across campus to give it. The deep breath afforded by teaching a couple of courses a second time allowed me to slow down a little and ease in to my new role as a member of a faculty—a collective body of researchers and educators, I reminded myself, and not simply a group of individuals occupying the same floor. In the small amounts of time I have spent meeting with colleagues over lunch, or chatting informally in the hallways, I’ve gathered tips and perspectives that have influenced how and what I teach and deepened my understanding of the “fit” of a particular course within the broader departmental curriculum. Not to mention gaining a new familiar face to greet in the hallway. So don’t be a shut-the-door-and-work-like-a-maniac new colleague. Instead, talk to other faculty members—about teaching, about research, about balance, about life. (And to this end, Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members offers excellent guidance and practical tips for a successful academic career based on the motto of nihil nimus—nothing in excess).

Pay it forward: sharing lecture notes is good karma. There is no greater gift than a collection of relevant lecture material for someone approaching a survey course for the first time. In my case, I modified the material I was given considerably to reflect my individual voice and areas of interest, but the comfort and guidance provided by the collection of developed lectures was invaluable. With this material, and additions of my own, I could test out the boundaries of a fifty-minute lecture, experiment with multimedia illustrations, and really develop my own style as a lecturer. Given the amount of work that goes in to any individual lecture I can see why the practice of lecture-sharing isn’t more common, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive such generosity, there’s some satisfaction to be had in knowing you may one day repay the favour, to someone else.

Don’t be afraid to change strategies mid-stream. In one of the earliest courses I taught, a pre-determined format of student-led seminar discussions turned out to be a real discussion-killer. After a couple of weeks of torturous discussion sessions, with efforts by me to guide and redirect questions that fell flat, I reclaimed the leadership of the discussion and shook up the weekly meeting format considerably, introducing a mix of smaller and larger group discussions, debates and other activities. The resulting reinvigorated class environment was worth any awkwardness involved in the change of plans. I’ve since returned to student-led discussions for a portion of class time in my upper-level courses, but with clear supports for seminar leadership and question development.

Assigning your own writing (in small doses) doesn’t have to be awkward. This fall I had the pleasure of teaching a fourth-year seminar in Canadian environmental history for the third time. While I hesitated at first to assign any of my own articles, for fear that students would be somehow less candid, my article on Toronto conservationist Charles Sauriol fit well with the broader course themes—and it gave me a welcome late-term break in preparations. What surprised me about its reception was the added value that it generated. It provided an opportunity to engage advanced undergraduates in an impromptu “author Q&A” on the writing and research process behind the article. We were able to discuss the kinds of source materials I worked with and the decisions involved in their selection, the development of my arguments, and the process of turning the work into a published article. And, of course, you can also talk about what the article didn’t do, and what you would have done differently.

When stuck, go for a walk. And there are few better places to do that than Cootes’ Paradise, in McMaster’s back yard. So thanks, McMaster History department colleagues and students, for the education.

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Jennifer Bonnell

Associate Professor at York University
Jennifer Bonnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University. She is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia (Royal BC Museum, 2023). She is co-editor with Sean Kheraj of Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and with Marcel Fortin of Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2014). She is currently working on an environmental history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


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