Doing History: Profiles of people working in history but not necessarily as history teachers. We encourage you to show these to your students. 

Risa Gluskin e-interviewed, Sean Boyle, a Ph. D candidate at U of T.

Tell me about yourself and your unique point of view.

I am a PhD candidate in History at the University of Toronto. My primary field of study is 20th-century American capitalism and labour. Currently I’m immersed in research for my dissertation on the political, economic, and labour aspects of Federal Express in the 1970s through the 1990s. For the past four years at UofT I’ve also been a teaching assistant for American, Canadian, and global-imperial histories. While American history has always been my focus, I have been drawn to the varieties of global and trans-national histories that have been in vogue the past fifteen years. Looking outside the borders of America gives a perspective on the nation that some scholars lack. Ideas, goods, capital, and people all move across borders. Scholarship should too. This is partially why I came to UofT. Being an American from New Jersey, I felt that UofT offered opportunities to get out of the national bubble and hopefully acquire a fresh outlook. Studying Canadian history hasn’t only helped me understand my new home but has also given me new insight into American history. I think as national historians we can overemphasize the importance of the nation in historical events. While there are definite political, economic, and cultural differences between Canada and America, cross-border regional histories highlight congruities and provide a perspective that is absent when national boundaries circumscribe scholarship.   

What have your experiences with first year history students been like? In what areas are they well prepared? Unprepared?

I find that first-year students who are specializing or majoring in history or related fields are quite prepared. They understand the basic structure of essays, the difference between primary and secondary sources, and have a sizable general knowledge about the topic. The students who take an introductory history course solely to fulfill a humanities credit are often the ones who have the most difficulty. Many of these students find research challenging and historical writing unfamiliar compared to STEM or even other humanities writing. One aspect that many students seem to have trouble with, is the concept of ambivalence in history. This may be more philosophical than pedagogical, but students frequently have trouble seeing historical events outside of a “good/bad” binary. Seeing grey in a world that prefers black and white is both critically important to understanding the past and something that students have found challenging. In general, I’m surprised by how little many students know about Canadian history. Often they have more knowledge of American history than Canadian, especially regarding politics. My limited understanding of the Ontario high school curriculum is that the province only requires one year of Canadian history. From a teaching perspective and the ability of students to retain the material, adequately covering centuries of history within one school year seems improbable. At my high school, every student took two full years of US history and I think it would benefit students in Ontario if the province expanded Canadian history to two years.

What would you like high school history teachers in Ontario to know about history education at the university level?

I think in many ways it is still in the stone age. Pedagogy is limited by scale at university in ways that affect primary and secondary schooling much less. Though I’m sure many at the university level see the limitations in the lecture format, there’s not many options to educate a thousand students in twelve, two-hour blocks outside of lecturing. And probably the greatest issue in education at the university level is the lack of educational training. While there are academics interested in pedagogy, I think it is safe to say it isn’t a priority. Professors, graduate students, and the administration are primarily interested in research. Unfortunately, I think this breeds disinterest in trying new ways to educate university students and many of the interesting and useful techniques don’t make their ways into university classrooms.

Are essays still king in university?

Absolutely, and I think it is beneficial for most students. Writing a research paper makes students read primary and secondary sources critically. It helps improve their grammar and writing, while also training them to create arguments and to support them. Most of all, I find that research papers force students to actively think about the topic rather than be passive receptacles for a lecture.

How do you feel about the US election as an American in Canada? 

Selfishly, I’m happy that I don’t live there. It’s still surreal that Americans voted in Trump. Canadians and other people around the world often stereotype Americans as insular and ignorant of the world. This past election has had many aspects of this kind of thinking but it has also mirrored global far-right movements that espouse xenophobia and retrenchment from globalization. Paradoxically, a global reactionary outlook has driven many Americans towards an increasingly insular ideology. So, while Donald Trump is another example of this ultra-nationalism he also draws off a global reaction. I hope that in the coming years Canada can be a counterweight to this reactionary surge and doesn’t do something foolish like require a test of “Canadian values” for immigrants.

What are your concerns about teaching in the age of Trump?

A year ago I worried that bigotry was having a resurgence in online, male-dominated, communities like Reddit and 4chan. Whether that truly was an increase of bigotry or just a pseudo-anonymous way of airing counter-liberal emotions that never truly receded is up for debate, but I was shocked that so many teenagers and young adults were so ignorant and hateful. Now with Trump’s victory, I am concerned that the bigotry that underlined much of his campaign is now becoming acceptable in modern American society. And with America’s hegemony on the internet, websites that cater to bigots or at least tolerate them through the guise of “free speech” have had global influence. Though Canada has less of a problem with outright bigotry than the US and many other countries, one just needs to read Desmond Cole or newspaper articles about unsafe drinking water on Indigenous reserves to see that injustices are pervasive against non-white people in this country. I worry that these conceptions of straight-white-male supremacy may find hold in young impressionable minds. I hope that by learning history and other social sciences, young people will see the outright lies and deception which have provided pseudo-intellectual support for the far Right. One heartening example from my students is their understanding of residential schools. I have found that they are knowledgeable about ethnocentrism and its destructive effects on minority cultures. Clearly, primary and secondary education has done well in this respect and I hope that together with post-secondary education we can keep bigotry and its pernicious effects at a minimum.   

Risa Gluskin

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