The Staples Debate: Pedagogical Awakenings from CHESS 2024

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The is the third post in a short series of reflections from participants of the 16th Canadian History and Environmental History Summer School (CHESS). CHESS 2024 took place in Montreal from June 14-16. Forty scholars interested in environmental history gathered at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) to learn more about commodities, ports, and urban space. You can read the program here, including a link to the readings.

For years at teaching and learning workshops at different institutions and from discussions with colleagues, I’ve heard about the power of in-class debate to engage students with course material. While I’ve never doubted any of these claims, I had yet to use in-class debate in my undergraduate classrooms for one simple reason: I’d never been part of one and had no idea where to start. This changed during the Canadian History and Environment Summer School, whilst I was running on too little sleep in a too-hot-for-thinking Montreal. 

The task before CHESS participants was deceptively simple on the surface. We were broken into four groups (two for and two against) and asked to debate the following: “Be it resolved that the staples approach is important to Canadian environmental history in the 21st century.” Each group would have fifteen minutes to prepare their talking points. Then we would cycle through the room with Group A (for) presenting their points to Group B (against) for five minutes, giving Group B two minutes to prepare their rebuttal, three minutes to present this rebuttal to Group A, and then three minutes for some clarifying questions from our judges. Group B would then present their points to Group C for five minutes, and the cycle would continue. At the end of it all, there was some deliberation by the three judges and a wrap-up and debrief.  

CHESS participants debating the staples approach in Canadian environmental history. Photo courtesy of Colin Coates.

Now, I say deceptively simple because the resulting debate was anything but. There were philosophical questions raised about the difference between Canadian history and Canadian environmental history (Is there one? If so, what?), several discussions surrounding the meaning of the word “important” and whether it was meant in a general or historiographical sense, and musings on whether the twenty-first century was meant to refer to us in the present or the study of twenty-first-century things. 

There was also significant variation in how each group elected to present its points. Some used a single presenter who spoke for their group, while others, like my own group, adopted a more diffuse approach, with an introduction by one person before individual group members spoke to different aspects of our argument. Even one group managed to use visual aids in their presentation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these visual aids were courtesy of the Google n-gram-wielding duo of Jim Clifford and Josh MacFadyen.  

While each group referenced the assigned readings for CHESS, several presenters offered reflections on their careers, research, and comprehensive exams, which added a level of complexity and intimacy that I wasn’t expecting. Our debate was refreshing, and I felt academically invigorated in a way that I hadn’t felt in months after a long Winter term and too many deadlines.  It reminded me of why I loved history and historiographical argumentation (yes, I’m that person, but hey, you’re reading this, so you probably are, too). If I could foster in my students even a fraction of this same joy, then I’ll have done my job as an instructor, and I can’t wait to try my version of an in-class debate in my Fall teaching. Thank you to the organisers and participants of CHESS 2024 for showing me how historical debate could be done and – more importantly – done well.

Feature image: View of the City of Montreal looking back from Grand Quay. Photo courtesy of the author.
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Dr. Erin Spinney is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus. Her research examines late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century British military and naval systems of care focusing on nurses and other women labourers. She frequently considers the intersections of environment and health and how medical officers’ perceptions of landscape, climate, and ‘healthiness’ influenced their decisions. She is now a co-applicant on the SSHRC-funded “Ecologies, knowledge, and power in the Gulf of St. Lawrence region c. 1500-present.”

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