As a scholar who studies how institutional structures quietly, but irrevocably shape the types of knowledge we create through our teaching, my pedagogy and research are inextricably linked. When teaching any course, but particularly those on the literatures of Canada, I engage routinely with the challenges I describe in Sanctioned Ignorance (U of Alberta Press 2013). While it’s true that, as I argue in my book, our choices of texts can have an indelible impact on students’ perceptions of an entire nation’s literary history, my pedagogy is also rooted in the realization that, as one of my interview subjects argued, how we teach is far more influential on student learning than what we teach.
My primary objective in any course I teach is for the students to gain enough understanding of the subject and confidence in their own increasing knowledge of the material so that by mid-semester they see themselves as capable of making astute observations about the course material without my assistance. I use self-deprecating humour and positive reinforcement in the classroom routinely as a way of helping them to see that I am sincere in what I tell every class on the first day we meet: that by the end of the semester, I will have learned more from them than they will have learned from me. As I remind my students, we all learn far more from doing than we do from listening. I work carefully from the first moment we meet to ensure my students feel like they are fellow explorers on a common journey to discover new texts and ideas. I may use my skills as an experienced navigator to keep us from drifting too far off course, but my students are as responsible for helping us reach our learning objectives as I am.
One of the ways I enable my students to achieve this sense of ownership and responsibility for their own learning is through my innovative use of technology in the classroom. Having used the Internet as a teaching tool since 1994, I began in 2004 to use blogs in my courses as a means of making course discussions, syllabi, and other course materials easily accessible and fully open to the public in ways that the “walled gardens” of course management systems like Blackboard aim to avoid. My use of course blogs in nearly every course I have taught helps my students to become more active learners in the classroom. By asking them to respond in a public space on a weekly basis to questions about the texts, I find my students are less able to sit back in class and wait for their classmates (or me) to speak. Every student in my class winds up having a voice online, and this invariably seems to carry over into the classroom. I make participation on our course blog a required part of my course that counts for a significant portion of their grade. This allows students to be thinking and writing about the course material on at least a weekly basis and keeps them on top of their reading, which in my courses can be considerable.
I also design and teach online courses whenever possible. Courses I designed for the University of Vermont, such as “Studies in Canadian Writers: Atwood, Ondaatje, and Poulin” and “Hero of the Play: Hockey in Canadian Literature,” were extremely popular even though they required students to do far more writing and reflection than they are often asked to do in face-to-face courses. What I discovered through teaching online is that this added component of the course that asks students to reflect on and articulate what they are observing and learning almost always leads to better student engagement and demonstration of deeper learning than I saw in my early days of teaching face-to-face classes. My experience teaching online led to a significant shift in my pedagogy in the classroom as I work to provide my students with as many opportunities for writing and reflection as possible. By sharing my genuine excitement about the questions and observations students make through their writing, whether in class or on the course blog or LMS discussion board, I encourage them not only to be on top of their reading but also to take the time outside of class to reflect on what they have read.
One of the most successful ways that I have found to help my students to gain a sense of the context of the literatures of Canada is to bring, as one student put it, “real live Canadians” to campus. Over my eight years at the University of Vermont, I hosted visits by many different Canadian writers, including Michael Ondaatje, Eden Robinson, and Alistair MacLeod. I have been fortunate at MacEwan University to be able to continue this type of work by overseeing the MacEwan Book of the Year, a program that each year honors a work of Canadian fiction written within the last five years. This program allows MacEwan to bring some of Canada’s finest writers to campus where they will meet with the hundreds of students who study the Book of the Year as well as with faculty and staff. Over the course of the seven years I have led the Book of the Year program, we have hosted an impressively diverse array of Canadian writers, including Richard Wagamese, Kim Thúy, and Dionne Brand. Pedagogically, there are risks to author visits; hearing the author speak about their work can easily lead students to buy into the intentional fallacy and privilege the author’s interpretations of a text over their own. In our follow-up conversations after an author’s visit, however, my students frequently bring up this issue themselves; while intrigued by the author’s comments on his or her own work, the students resist seeing these as the final word on how to read the text. Such visits, then, can have far greater implications for the students’ understanding of literature than simply the enrichment of their reading experience of that novel. It also helps students to see more clearly that although literature, like all art, can speak to an audience of any time, nation, or place, it is nevertheless rooted in the historical, cultural, literary, and material context in which it is produced.
On the last day of every course, I tell my students that if they pass the course but never again think about any of the texts or subjects with which we have engaged then they may not have failed the course, but that the course will have failed them. It is my goal as a teacher to do everything that I can to ensure my course will have a lasting impact on the students’ sense of literature and its myriad possibilities. I aim to inspire in my students a sense that learning never stops, and that their time in university should not be the end of anything but the launching point for them to discover and pursue further knowledge in whatever field piques their interest. Whether they plan to study English further, I encourage them all to keep reading and to revisit the works they have studied in our course. As I seek to demonstrate regularly through my teaching, what I find most exciting about my field and the works that I have chosen for my students to read is that, on each and every page, one can always discover something interesting or even, if one asks the right questions of the text, something wondrous.