Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.


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Some 2013 activities to report:

SK Sense of Place.imagesCAFVW9ZL

1. Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place — Guest Speaker:

On February 21st, 2013, I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan Archives to be the guest speaker at their Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place exhibit. Located in the annex between the main Murray library and its north wing, the exhibit showcased Saskatchewan novelists and writers, a selection from the extensive postcard and poster collection, and a fantastic display of Saskatchewan local history books. As the guest speaker, I had my choice of topics — but for me, it was simple. My MA work, back in the distant past, studied Saskatchewan local history books and I had a ball regaling the audience with backstories of mice, murder, and mayhem (the stories that didn’t make it into the history books — and why!). It was a hugely successful event and I enjoyed the beautiful music provided by Carolyn and Sonia, to round out the afternoon.

2. Adjunct Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability:

In September 2013, I accepted an adjunct faculty position with the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan. Think of it as an ‘association’ or perhaps an ‘affiliation’ if the term adjunct is too weird. What it means: we have a formalized relationship, where I have a home University base at the U of S, and can advise or mentor students whose projects fit well with my own research strengths.

3. The Future of Farming: Guest Speaker:

October 23, 2013 saw me troop back to the U of S campus to visit with students from the new Interdisciplinary Learning Communities group at the U of S. (Find them at http://www.usask.ca/ulc/lc/about). Along with soil scientist Terry Tollefson from the College of Agriculture, we hosted an open forum on “The Future of Farming”. The session was live-taped, and when the link becomes available, I will post it HERE. (That could take some time — bear with me!). Learning Communities coordinator Joel Fonstad said afterward, “we’ve never had so many questions!” What will the future of agriculture look like? Three thoughts from my corner were: increases and market gains in the farm to fork movement; increased growth in Hutterite colonies and perhaps a lesson there in how agriculture will look; and some thoughts on climate change and the pole-ward progression of farming. It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward a future that will — yes– bring change and growth and difference to western Canadian agriculture.

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Please note: this blog first appeared on ActiveHistory.ca 20 June 2013. See http://activehistory.ca/2013/06/tap-dancing-and-murder-in-a-grade-seven-classroom/

“My tap dancing just isn’t good enough,” she wrote. She: my daughter’s high school English teacher. Tap dancing: teaching (to pubescent, smartmouth, intelligent, tired kids at the end of June in rural Saskatchewan). “I remember a staff meeting conversation from some point where you were willing to come in and talk with students.” What’s the topic, Mrs. J? Reconstructing Past Lives.

Excellent. That is EXACTLY what historians do, right? So I set off to find out if I could tap dance for teenagers. Just for a couple of hours. After all, I tap dance for University students on a regular basis. How hard can it be?

Amid recent media controversy about the conservative federal government looking to choreograph the tap dancing of Canadian history (see here and here), I was curious to find out just what a typical Canadian grade seven student already knew.

We decided to focus on source hunting for the first hour. Here’s the question: if you’re writing a movie, let’s say, set in 1931, what do you already know? Great Depression! And we’re off and running. Where do you look for more information? Google (of course. Duh.). Grandparents. Books. My daughter said ‘archives’ but then had to explain what they were, and what kind of stuff is kept in there.  She sounded bored and resigned, smart and engaged, all at the same time.

Then it was time to get personal. What was going on in our town, Biggar, in 1931? How do you find that out? Was there a newspaper, Mrs. Massie? Yes. Same newspaper we have today, the Biggar Independent. I had borrowed a microfilm copy from the local museum, and brought it in, along with a microfiche reader (which are small, light, and more portable than a microfilm reader, even if you can’t see as much). Is that a television, Mrs. Massie? A really old computer? So I took it apart, and let them look inside. COOL! It’s nothing but a mirror and a light!

Really, I felt like a magician. Ta DAH!! Old newspaper, on the wall of the darkened classroom for all to see. I had scanned and digitized it properly, so we put that on the smartboard. And I’d made paper copies. Triple the technology – but the students liked the micro just as well.

Front page news: MURDER near Biggar. Really, I hadn’t planned that part. I chose 1931 at random. I chose a date as close to my classroom visit as possible – June 11, 1931. Serendipity pulled us along.

Not only was it a murder (manslaughter, actually), but the murderer was none other than Louis Forchetner. He’s not famous. You’ve never heard of him. But I had – because my husband’s grandfather was there when the murder happened, and bought our farm from the murderer. Family lore knew the story, albeit slightly corrupted by the years. At a Farmer’s Unity League meeting (we thought it was a dance), a fight broke out. Forchetner stabbed Reid Hayes, who died in hospital after giving a deathbed statement. The enraged stabber went to jail for five years, in the depth of the Great Depression.

COOL! Murders (think CSI Biggar – you think we can franchise that?) pop kids eyes open. But there were other neat stories and advertisements in the paper. “What are piles, Mrs. Massie? Where’s your dictionary? [three minute wait…] OH GROSS!!!!” Did you know that Ogopogo was dead? And that some scientists added green and purple serum to fertilized eggs and came up with green and purple chickens? Grey Owl had moved to Manitoba, and Queen Mary was in her 60s. There were no speed limits on cars in Saskatchewan, but you had to slow down when passing horses, and pull off to the side of the road for hearses.Glaciers were melting. Attendance was down severely at the year-end fairs and picnics. A sense of despair exuded from the paper, but a Mickey Mouse cartoon was at the theatre.

“Mrs. Massie, why were newspapers so much more interesting back then?”

Well, why do you think? (Imagine the 13 year old collective BORG scrunching their eyebrows in thought). Answer: there was no TV or internet back then. I nodded my head proudly.

Mr. Harper, they’re doing fine.

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I admit it: I am an odd academic. When I have a great idea for a story or some new research to share, my first instinct is to find a way to craft it for a public audience. Colleagues somtimes raise their eyebrows — public writing, no matter how much you do or if it is successful, will not help you achieve tenure. Only peer-reviewed chapters or articles in books or journals will help you achieve tenure.

Fair enough. I do some of that, too. And it has its own satisfactions. But my first love will always be public writing. Short. Snappy. With a heartbeat, a story arc, maybe a villain and a hero and a damsel (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), some narrative tension and a sweeping conclusion. (Heads up: I’m still working on the sweeping conclusions. Mine tend to slink into a corner, confused…)

But help is at hand. Following a rather cataclysmic shift in the ivory tower (take a look — I’m sure it moved several feet closer to the ‘public’!), I feel a sea change. Academic writers are looking to make their work more accessible to a public audience. What’s more, universities are starting to realize that fewer and fewer university students will spend their careers working in universities. So, teaching students to write ten page papers, complete with footnotes and a bibliography may be a good starting place, but it does not prepare them for ‘real life.’ Reports. Public presentations. Media releases. Newsletters. Memos.

To capture that energy, I have organized a one-day symposium for the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, and opened it up to graduate students and colleagues in several related departments. The result? A capacity crowd registered to attend an all-day session built to encourage an appreciation of good writing in general, and writing for a public audience in particular. I’m grateful to my NiCHE colleagues for starting me out — I have been lucky enough to attend similar conferences through NiCHE, and they were superb.

And, I have snagged some big guns to come out and help me. Colleen MacPherson, editor of On Campus News, leads the pack with a basic writing seminar. Bill Waiser will talk about vision, voice, and crafting a good narrative lead with an arc. I have the tough slot of the day, right after lunch — and my topic is the plain language report. Others might call it the executive summary, or the lay language report. Perhaps a more plodding document, but a good first step in learning to cut technical jargon from your research project. But at the end of the day, we have a treat: Kathryn Warden, director of Research Communications at the U of S, will guide us through media relations, press releases, and op-ed pieces.

It promises to be a fascinating day. April 10th, 2012 at 144 Kirk Hall, University of Saskatchewan. Pop by.

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Conference Workshop Poster

On Friday, January 13th, I will be giving a presentation to Department of History graduate students. The topic? Conference presentations: tips, tricks, and things to remember.

I’m going to take a somewhat different tack than I normally would. It would seem, on the surface, an obvious place to design and give a lecture (complete, of course, with power point and copious note-taking by the audience). I’ve decided, however, to give the first ten minutes of a conference presentation that I have given to a real audience. Then, I’ll ask the students to dissect my presentation and give their own tips and tricks that they have used, read about, or think might be a good idea. A roundtable discussion, rather than a formal and one-sided presentation, will (I hope) be more effective.

Ideally, I’d like to see each of them give five minutes of a conference presentation that we could evaluate and give constructive critique, but that would take more time than we have.

Some points MUST be brought up, and I’ll be sure to do so if the students don’t spontaneously bring them up:

1. Choose a SMALL part of your research to present (part of one chapter, one strand of research, or one story to dissect).

2. No more than 8 pages double spaced (10 pages if larger font size, say 14 points) for a 20 minute presentation.

3. Practice it OUT LOUD. Time yourself. NEVER go over your time limit.

4. Use visuals and/or audio and/or artifacts; but DO NOT talk to the powerpoint.

5. NO JARGON! (And I would say, limited to no theory… save that for the written paper).

6. Dress nicely. NO casual clothes.

7. Use humour and storytelling. SHOW don’t TELL.

8. Voice techniques count: project, enuniciate, head up, look at your audience, slow down.

9. Leave room for questions (i.e. allude to ideas, points, etc. to give audience something to latch on to for questions)

10. Point out areas where you need help or would like audience ideas/response. Conferences are a super place to ‘workshop’ ideas in progress.

11. Re-word each question to be sure you understand it, before you answer it.

12. Thank the audience before you begin, and when all the questions are finished. This leaves a professional impression.

13. Have fun! Networking is best part of conference participation.

14. Remember: stuff happens. Powerpoints fail. Power goes out. Images don’t load. You get a rotten cold. Someone else has presented research that is too closely aligned to yours. Your methodology is old news. And, the airline lost your luggage and you have to present in your 2-day old clothes. Give it your all anyway — your audience will appreciate your humour, forthright disclosure, and modesty. There is always another conference…

All the best to you.

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I’ll be back in a classroom again after a hiatus, working as a tutorial leader for a first-year pre-Confederation history course at the University of Saskatchewan. You may wonder what local and community history has to do with Canadian history prior to 1867 — especially out in western Canada! But I love to remind students that Cumberland House was founded long before York (which, of course, eventually became the thriving metropolis of Toronto…). Canada was in no way founded from east to west, although the formal political system may sometimes make it seem as if that is true.

It is also intriguing to watch students bring their own passions and interests to a history course. Often, their local and family history and identity provide the ‘signposts’ through which they view the past. I, for example, have a soft spot for Orangeville, Ontario, though I’ve never been there. My great, great, great grandparents migrated there from Scotland and Ireland in about 1830.

Here’s to a great semester, and I wish all my colleagues (and students) an exceptional year.

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