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Nifty assignments: Teaching & Learning Symposium 2013

Mairi Cowan, Department of Historical Studies

Lecturer Mairi Cowan (pictured here with replicas of the Lewis chessmen) will be speaking about "nifty assignments" at the Teaching and Learning Symposium

On Oct. 28, the University of Toronto will host the eighth annual Teaching and Learning Symposium where faculty and staff exchange ideas and novel approaches to teaching. This year’s theme is Learning Across & Beyond Borders.

One of the speakers in that session is Mairi Cowan, a lecturer at University of Toronto, Mississauga (UTM), who teaches History. She spoke with writer Kelly Rankin about her voluntary course assignment “Cultural Events for Participation Marks” and some of her favourite memories both as a teacher and a student.

How does your voluntary assignment, Cultural Events for Participation Marks, fit into the theme of learning beyond borders?

“Cultural Events for Participation Marks” is an assignment that I offer in my second-year courses on medieval and early modern European history. Students choose an event from a list I prepare, attend the event, and then write a brief report that includes a discussion of how the event has enriched their understanding of the relevant historical period. 

At a basic level, the assignment gets students to reconsider the space within which a university education takes place by having them cross the perceived border between a history course and the wider world. Students bring their learning from the course to their appreciation of something outside the course while, at the same time, they bring their enjoyment of something outside the course to their understanding of course material. 

The assignment also provides students with an opportunity to cross beyond the border of their conventional agency as students, which I had not anticipated when I first created it. It seems to encourage them to take more control over course material and how they learn. I’ve noticed that students are more forthcoming or even unguarded in writing about their experiences at these events than they are in their essays, perhaps because they feel less pressure to provide the “right” answer.

You are one of the presenters in the session Nifty Assignments. What makes your assignment nifty?

In reading students’ reports, I have been struck repeatedly by their surprise when they see how their understanding of history leaks out beyond a narrow curricular context. I’m struck not so much because students transfer course learning to situations outside of the course – we should expect that to happen – but rather because they develop a growing awareness of this transferability. That’s pretty nifty.

For example, a student who attended a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert described it as “foreign” at first, but then also made a connection to the course with real emotional resonance when he began to understand the surge of romantic nationalism around the time of Napoleon through hearing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. 

A lot of students are very busy not only with their courses but also with other obligations, and many probably feel that the responsibilities of jobs and family leave little time for cultural engagement, however nifty. I know that most students in a history course won’t become professional historians, but I do hope that they all continue to learn about, and from, history; I hope that when they finish my course, when they finish their degree, they stay engaged with the material they have studied. Cultural events would be a great venue for that.

What is the best question a student has asked you in your courses?

I don’t just want to teach students about history; I want to help them think like historians. So the best questions, for me, are those that show curiosity about the past and involvement with the often messy process of historical understanding.

In an upper-year seminar on medieval and early modern Scotland a couple of years ago, we were reading about the courtly culture surrounding James IV, who reigned as King of Scots from 1488 to 1513. A student asked me whether I thought that a group of people at the royal court, described in the court’s records as “Moor” or “black,” were enslaved. I said that I thought not, based on their salaries and freedom of movement, but that I wasn’t entirely sure and that more research needed to be done. 

This student then decided to take on the research herself: she wrote a research paper tracking the movements of a Moorish drummer at court, and then she pursued her research still further over the following summer, arguing in the end that there were sub-Saharan Africans at the Renaissance Scottish court and that they likely were enslaved.

I thought that her findings were really significant not just for Scottish history but also for Atlantic history, and the two of us are now co-authoring a paper featuring the Scottish Moors.

So I guess my favourite type of question is one that makes me think in new ways about what I’m teaching, one that forces me to think more carefully about what I thought I understood. I’m especially happy when I get a question that challenges something I’ve said in lecture, because it shows that the student trusts me enough to disagree with me. 

What is the most useful thing a student has ever said to you?

Students have said all sorts of useful things to me. The backgrounds of UTM students are highly diverse, which provides very useful assistance in my first-year world history course: students help me with the pronunciation of the names of historical people and places in different languages, they show me their photographs of locations that I have talked about in lectures, and sometimes they even share with me their personal stories of living in a part of the world that we’re studying. 

One student, whose family was from Ecuador, approached me at the conclusion of a lecture on the Inca Empire. She told me that she was descended from the Inca, and that she was really interested to hear a different version of the history of the Spanish conquest than what her family had heard: they had been told that the Inca had behaved foolishly and almost deserved to be conquered, whereas in this course she was learning that the Inca leaders had behaved perfectly reasonably within their Andean context. She then offered to show me an Inca axe head that had been passed down through her family and only just recently authenticated by a museum. I must have sparkled with enthusiasm, because she came to my office the very next day, gently unwrapped the precious item, and told me the family’s history of how they came to have it.   

Students provide useful teaching advice as well, sometimes even without meaning to. A student doing a directed reading course on medieval education re-introduced me to Hugh of Saint-Victor, a teacher from twelfth-century Paris who gave an inspiring piece of pedagogical advice: “Learn everything”, Hugh wrote, “you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous.” 

That courageously expansive approach is definitely useful, especially for someone who gets to teach world history!

Who was your favourite teacher? It can be any teacher from Kindergarten up.

Can I say Hugh of Saint-Victor? Because I’ve been thinking a lot about his advice. All right, I know that he died more than 800 years before I was born and that some people would argue that technically he therefore couldn’t have been my teacher, but I should like to point out that Petrarch, the fourteenth-century humanist, wrote that he spoke eagerly with friends who had died several centuries before him, so I might be able to claim a historian’s prerogative here!

I have had a lot of favourite teachers, from a music teacher who had us taking musical dictation in primary school to a doctoral thesis supervisor who guided me patiently through the process of visiting archives in Scotland. What they all have in common is that they all set high expectations but also quietly showed the confidence that we, their students, could reach these expectations, and they did not just transmit information, but also engaged in the process of learning themselves. Now I just hope that I can do the same for my students.

For more information about the Teaching and Learning Symposium: Learning Across & Beyond Borders, see the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation’s website.

Kelly Rankin is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto