What to Include? A Commentary on History Lecture Writing

January 17, 2011 at 11:08 am 2 comments

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris

Constructing an eighty-minute lecture about Canada and the First World War to present in a university lecture hall is a somewhat daunting task. How much importance do I place on the diplomatic alliance structure that raised arms in Europe and beyond after the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on 28 June 1914? Do I reference the contemporary band of the same name? How much time do I spend talking about the military battles of the Canadian Corps – Passchendale, Ypres, the Somme, and Vimy Ridge, to name a few? Or the many domestic and social developments that occurred, including technological developments, economic restructuring, conscription, internment, and the extension of the vote to women? As I sit down to write this history lecture, I find myself grappling with a seemingly simple question: What do I include?

Unfortunately for me, and for historians, teachers, instructors and educators across the country, there is nothing simple about this question. Every day, history educators make choices about what to include in the stories we tell about the past. As I work on my lecture outline I am conscious that experiences of the Great War in Canada were greatly shaped by location, meaning that experiences of the war in rural Canada were not necessarily similar to those in urban settings. Ontario’s experiences of the war did not necessarily correspond to Alberta’s, and experiences for French Canadians were perhaps shaped differently than those of English Canadians. Even within communities there was disagreement, especially as the war went on, about how to approach the war effort. What was the war about? Was this “Canada’s War”? Should men have been conscripted into active service through the Military Service Act? Were those living in Canada of German descent “enemy aliens” of the state? And, at the end of hostilities, how should the Great War be remembered in Canada?

Despite these large questions, I have to construct a story to tell in under 80 minutes. What I do hope to accomplish is to expose students to the constructed nature of the lecture I am presenting. Perhaps even more largely, I want to indicate the constructed nature of the textbooks, scholarly articles and monographs that they are reading. I strive to relate that this story of the Great War, based on course objectives and my own ideas concerning the importance of the conflict, is not the only story. Students do not have to agree with my presentation of events, themes and theories; they may disagree. And a discussion of the grounds on which they disagree can set the stage for a critical analysis of those essential underpinnings of the historical profession being a focus on evidence, critique and scholarly debate.

Any lecture stands on top of, and in relation to, other studies and research that inform, fuel and perhaps even contradict its ultimate findings or conclusions. It is up to instructors to pull out nuance, and provide the incentive to dare to disagree – or agree – with the presented versions of the past. After all, the flip side of the question I started this blog with – “what do I include?” – is of course its negative: What did I not?


Entry filed under: Teaching University. Tags: , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lindsay Gibson  |  January 17, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    This discussion gets at the heart of historical significance. The past is everything that ever happened to anyone, anywhere, but we cannot remember or learn it all. Historical significance focuses on what and who should be remembered, researched, taught, and learned about in history.

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if you had this discussion with your students, or if you gave them an assignment that focused on the issue of significance. If they were going to construct an 80 minute lecture about Canada and the Great War what would be the 10 or 15 events/issues that they would include? To understand historical significance is to understand the very nature of the construction of history.

    Here are four questions that might help students consider why an event is significant or not:
    1. Was the event determined to be important when it was happening?
    2. What was the magnitude of the consequences of the event over time?
    3. Did the event reveal or exemplify enduring or emerging issues in history and contemporary life?
    4. How might perceptions of significance vary depending on different contexts?

  • 2. Lisa Rumiel  |  January 20, 2011 at 10:39 am

    That’s a great assignment idea, Lindsey! Also (Mary), I think your blog post is a great way to begin a lecture, especially on a topic like WWI. It’s a good way to show students the process that goes into teaching (and writing lectures) and also shows them that lectures are not places where they can hear “the truth” about the past, but an interpretation/aspects of a particular time, place, event, etc. It’s also a good way to humanize yourself, the lecturer. Admittedly, not all of my students appreciate it, but I don’t feel comfortable being a talking head, or giving the vibe that I am standing in front of them with all of the answers.


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