January 27, 2005

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Making History Vibrant and Important

SFU News asked associate history professor Mark Leier, an SFU 2004 excellence in teaching award winner, to express his thoughts on teaching and how it influences the professorial role.

I face 300 students in our first year post-Confederation survey course, and most of them know only one thing about Canadian history: that it is boring.

And based on their experience, they are right. Too often they've been given a list of facts and dates to memorize. Too often they've been handed a collection of myths they must assimilate without debate or dissent. In either case, boredom, disengagement, and cynicism become forms of self-protection.

How can we break through to make history vibrant and important, to allow and encourage learning? I've approached the problem from two angles. The first is to use a range of teaching methods, from lectures to dramatic readings to films to singing to creative assignments, from using primary documents such as diaries to using the internet.

At the same time, what we teach is as important as how we teach. Getting 300 students to sing The Maple Leaf Forever breaks down barriers and gets attention. But it is when we analyze the song that we understand the meaning and uses of history. What does it mean that the song that was English Canada's unofficial national anthem for years mentions the thistle, the shamrock, and the rose, but not the fleur-de-lis? We can read speeches calling for a Canadian empire from sea to sea, but whether the writer was a father of confederation or an oppressor depends on what we think about imperialism.

My goal, therefore, is to show students that history is about interpretations. These interpretations matter because they form and inform values. People become passionate about the teaching of history in a way they don't about geometry or woodworking because how we understand the past shapes how we understand and act in the present. What we think about Louis Riel, for example, both determines and is determined by what we think about the present.

Interpreting the past means that history becomes something students do, rather than something that is done to them. I ask students to bring their concerns about the present to bear on the past and to take on large political and ethical questions.

Should Canada send troops to Iraq? Should we have sent troops to the Boer War? The First World War? When is war justified, and on what grounds? In all of my courses, the underlying theme is that history is as crucial to acting in the present as it is to understanding the past. History uses what historian Harvey Kaye called “the powers of the past: perspective, critique, consciousness, remembrance, and imagination,” to understand the past, to challenge the present, and to think creatively about the future.

We apply these principles to contemporary society when I teach labour studies. Students are constantly getting gobsmacked with conventional and sanctioned ideas about how our society works, but it is when they ask “who rules whom and how?” that they begin to understand the world they live in.

Students need skills to do this properly. They need to learn how to find, examine, and evaluate evidence and interpretations. They need to present their ideas clearly so others can engage in discussion with them.

So I create assignments that develop each of these skills. But they are built on the fundamental idea that our history is not a simple, inevitable unfolding of eternal truth and virtue. History is about the struggles between groups with very different interests and values, and the winners often won because they were more powerful, not because they were right. Once we understand that history is about conflict, not consensus, we understand that the future is up to us to make.

That's an idea that is central to my research as well, and so teaching and research are complementary, not antagonistic. They're complementary in other ways. We have bright, inquisitive students who ask good questions. Often the answers demand research. I've just finished a book on the nineteenth century anarchist Michael Bakunin, and it was questions from my students that helped start me on that project.

Teaching also forces you to arrange and re-arrange your thoughts so they make more sense. It allows you to try out ideas on an attentive audience, and the response is immediate: when you hear snoring, it's time to re-say what you're thinking and to re-think what you're saying.

Of course teaching and research compete for time, and I can never get that balance right. I hope for a dynamic tension but sometimes have to settle for creative scrambling. But teaching is an important part of our job. It's important because intellectual work doesn't take brilliance. It takes time. We're given the time to reflect and think and write, and teaching is one way to acknowledge that. Research is another way, but if we only write for specialized audiences of other professors and experts, it's a much less direct acknowledgement.

If research is a way to say something precisely to a few people, teaching is a way to say something a little less precisely to a much greater number. Teaching demonstrates to a wider audience why our research matters. Teaching can get people excited about what we're doing and thinking, to show them the power and consequence of research, and to put aspects of our work on public display where it is open to broader criticism. In an era when funding for education and research are under attack, teaching is perhaps the most important way we can build broad support for the university. If we aren't in the classroom delivering meaningful concepts and critical skills to students, we can hardly be surprised if people become cynical and skeptical about the value of our work.

This doesn't mean that we should only be teaching things that are practical or utilitarian. One of the worst things that can happen to teaching and the university is to insist that it all be profitable and cost-effective, measurable and quantifiable, judged solely on the basis of whether somebody makes money off it. For that's the way we enforce orthodoxy and convention in our society. That's why too many politicians and business leaders are content to offer more seats at universities without bothering to ensure that the quality of teaching remains high. It is why they leap at cheap fixes, such as using poorly paid sessionals instead of research professors to teach, increasing class size, and relying too much on technology.

They like technological and managerial innovation, but they hate social and political innovation. The problems we face, however, are social and political ones and these require unorthodox and unconventional thinking. Once we free our conceptions of our past, we are free to imagine our future. That's the challenge and potential of history I try to develop through teaching.

Mark Leier is an associate professor in the department of history and director of SFU's centre for labour studies. He has written or co-written four books on Canadian labour history and has just completed a manuscript on Bakunin for St. Martin's Press.

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