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Guest Post: Teaching Home

Lee Skallerup Bessette makes a guest appearance sharing a profound teaching experience.

January 16, 2020
 
 

Longtime readers of Inside Higher Ed need no introduction to her work. I'm pleased she let me share this piece in this space. --JW

I had long given up on actually getting paid to do the thing I was trained to do: talk about comparative Canadian literature and culture, specifically English Canadian and French-Canadian/Québécois literature. I have taken advantage of all of the other transferable skills and subjects I learned in graduate school, and I have loved teaching all of the varied subjects and topics that I have had the opportunity to do. But geographic (I live in the States) and market (really, no one is hiring a Canadianist) realities had long ago convinced me that, really, I was never going to get paid to teach the one thing that set me on the journey to grad school all those years ago.

Until.

I have long been known informally as “the person who explains Quebec to everyone else.” Friends, both in person and online, have all been subjected to at least one lecture from me on the particularities of Quebec’s history, language, culture, politics and customs. Out of the blue, two opportunities presented themselves to me, almost simultaneously. One was an invitation to write about certain particularities of Quebec politics in a new online publication. The other was a text from an old friend at another institution asking if I would be interested in developing and teaching an online course on Quebec's language and culture.

Readers, I have never responded yes as enthusiastically and as quickly as I did to that text.

The features of this course would cause most instructors to run away as quickly as possible: a three-credit, gen ed course that fulfills a requirement no student is enthusiastic about, crammed into a seven-week online format. Couple that with the lack of quality primary and secondary resources in English, and the students’ general indifference and ignorance of Quebec, and designing an effective course was going to be a challenge.

Added to those logistical challenges was that the class, for me, was deeply and intensely personal. I knew that this might be the only time the students would ever learn anything about Quebec. What, then, did I want the students to take away from it? How did I want them to remember Quebec once the course was over?

And the question of how is twofold. The image or understanding of Quebec they would have in their heads after the course, as well as how I was going to get that image or understanding into their heads. This all sounds very “banking concept of education” with me depositing my version of Quebec into their heads, and I knew that that approach wouldn’t work. Research shows us that that approach doesn’t work.

I knew I had to make the course personal to them. Thankfully, the course’s learning outcomes were focused on general intercultural understanding, which allowed me to come up with activities that foster those personal connections with the content. Each week, the students reflected on what they had read/watched, having them connect it back to their, their family’s or community’s experiences. The subject for them would never be as personal as it was for me, but if I could take how deeply I felt about the place and language and culture and try to connect it to their deeply felt connections to their home and family and culture, I thought there would be something that stuck with them after the course was done.

I managed to create an entire textbook/reader in English, filled with short expert essays as well as primary documents. The Quebec government commissioned a book on (conveniently) 400 years of language and culture in the province in French, published as a book. But somehow, individual chapters in English translation were available online as PDFs. They weren’t linked anywhere, and I ended up spending too many hours googling and compiling them all, first in a spreadsheet, and then as my own curated textbook that wouldn’t cost the students a dime. I supplemented with various other readings and videos online, using Hypothes.is for annotating.

I’ve long been a proponent of student agency and digital storytelling projects, so of course the class also had those elements in them. Students collaboratively created a timeline in timeline.js based off of the Quebec history timeline provided by the textbook, allowing for a more dynamic and interactive overview of Quebec history. Students then had to choose one event to research further and tell a story about, to share with the class. Think of them as our own low-fi versions of the Heritage Minutes.

Students then worked on a larger multimedia project for their final assignment on an iconic Quebec thing of their choosing. The topics ranged from our various sports teams, our unique foodstuffs, various important (pop) cultural events, as well as words or expressions that only exist in Québécois French. I wanted them to make sure to connect whatever they were presenting on back to the larger question of Quebec language and culture: Why were/is this important to the Québécois?

I always end up learning something from these final projects; as an insider to the culture, there are certain things that I never questioned or researched because I took them for granted. This, in turn, pushed me to learn more about the province I grew up in.

I wanted to show them how personal the course was to me, and I did so with informal weekly videos from me, addressing that week’s topic, while also commenting on what was going on in the world (OK, well, Quebec) at that moment. I shared my writing from Popula with them, as a way to show them ways to write and to think about place and home and identity critically and honestly, while also loving and honoring the place that shaped you. I wanted them to understand the connection I had as well as the connections I was asking them to make.

Finally, I wanted to give a nuanced picture of Quebec culture; it is, still, a settler colony, even though for some, Quebec is postcolonial, victims themselves of Anglo imperialism. I point out the irony of their treatment of the indigenous populations and then complaints around similar treatment under English rule. Or how the preservation of the French language has led to a dangerous xenophobic strain within Quebec politics and society. Or that, as a province, we have had a deep history of violence that continues to today.

I wanted to get it right, and largely, I think I did. In the students’ final reflections, where I asked them to tell me what they learned from the previous seven weeks, almost all of them expressed surprise at a) how much they learned and b) how much they enjoyed the course. One even wrote, “This online course has been one of the more informational and most influential courses I have ever taken.” The evaluations vary, with the usual complaints of too much reading or challenges with technology, but I think the most telling sign is that I am starting to get students taking the course because one of their friends recommended it, having enjoyed the experience.

There isn’t much else you can ask for, is there? When you’re teaching about home, you want to know that other people want to learn about it.

--

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a learning design specialist at the Center for New Directions in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. She has been writing about teaching, learning and technology (among other things) for over a decade. She also co-hosts the podcast All The Things ADHD. You can find her writing and other work at readywriting.net. Most people know her as @readywriting on Twitter.

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