Canadian History Survey Syllabus

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…


One of the hardest and most exciting things to do as a young sessional is to create new syllabuses. Finally, you get to decide what your students will learn! Yours will be the most awesome syllabus ever! But as soon as you sit down to actually write the syllabus, selecting which topics you will teach and which readings you will use can quickly make you feel overwhelmed. Did I pick the right one? Will the students find this boring? What about this other reading – which one is better? Which topics do I need to include and which can I leave out? But what about this topic?

While there are lots of resources out there for building syllabuses in general, I’m going to focus on the topics and readings for introductory level Canadian history surveys. There is no escaping them; if you do Canadian history, you will teach at least one survey class. They are often the first courses anyone ever teaches despite being notoriously hard to teach. They are also the bread-and-butter courses for sessionals across the country.

So in this blog post, I’m going to provide a detailed guide to writing syllabuses for Canadian history surveys, from course design, course content, topics and readings, course outlines, and the nuts and bolts of syllabuses. Hopefully, this blog post will make the whole process a little less nerve-wracking.


Characteristics of a Canadian History Survey Course

When creating any kind of syllabus, you will first need to design your course. This is as much of an art as it is a science. Thankfully, for those of us who teach the Canadian history survey courses, much of the work is already done, due to the nature of the course. Here are some of the basic characteristics of Canadian History Survey Courses

  • They are taught at the first year level
  • They are conducted principally as lecture courses, with additional class discussion/participation
  • The class size will be on the larger side of what is permitted by your university
  • They are reading- and writing-intensive
  • Their main learning objectives/goals are:
    • to provide sufficient background information for students who want to take upper-level Canadian history courses
    • to introduce students to the principles of historical thinking and historical method
    • to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills
  • Additional learning objectives/goals may include
    • Applying course themes to real world events
    • Teaching students the basics of writing university-level research papers

At the same time, the students who take these courses are also broadly the same, no matter where you teach. You should assume the following:

  • Most of your students will be in their first year *
  • They will have little to no background in history besides their high school history/social studies class
  • Only a few of your students will be history majors (in my experience, most of the students tend to be from Education, but that might just be in BC)
  • Most of the students will not be taking the course by choice, but because it is a requirement

* The caveat/exception to this is that, in BC at least, Education students take these surveys because it’s part of their program. They are therefore less likely to be first-year students.


Course Frames, or, A Unifying Structure

Good courses are not just information dumps, but have some kind of overarching frame. This includes Canadian history surveys. In many ways, this is a very personal decision. You will need to decide what the overall goal of your course will be and what you want your students to take away from the course once the semester is over.

Jonathan Swainger brought up this very topic in a series of messages to me. As he noted, it often comes down to the question, “Are we training historians who study Canada or Canadian historians?” Another way of framing this question is the content versus skills debate, where some professors believe the surveys should just be about communicating history while others believe that we should be giving students the skills they need to succeed in a broader sense.

This is a decision that you will have to make for yourself. Swainger’s approach is to regard his surveys as principally about training historians. As such, he recently taught the course backwards, to show that history is fundamentally a way of understanding the present.

Like Swainger, I also tend to emphasize skills over content, but I focus on the subject of critical thinking more specifically while deconstructing the notion of what “Canada” means by asking my students the question: “How do we teach Canadian History before Confederation?” I then explain to students that there is no single vision of Canada because there is so single history of Canada. Instead there are many, but some versions are privileged over the rest. And it’s important that we understand how and why this happens.

There is no right or wrong answer. That said, I think that historians of Canada need to seriously think about what we are doing in our surveys.


Course Content

Though I tend to privilege skills over content, that isn’t to suggest that I don’t believe content is unimportant – far from it. No matter how you feel about the subject, the kind of content that you teach in your surveys is political.

In decades past, Canadian history has very much been the history of the white men who made Canada Great. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as Dead White Guy history. These kinds of courses tended to focus on the Great Men of Canadian history, political history, military history, and later, labour history.

Starting in the 1980s, more and more courses started to include women’s history, Indigenous history (though they didn’t call it that), and the history of ethnic groups.   But these tended to be one-offs, not the main content of survey classes, and were often framed in such a way as to reinforce the larger patriarchal and colonial attitudes of the surveys.

I’d like to say that we’ve moved on from this. But the sad reality is that too many professors still teach the surveys as The Great Men of Canadian history, plus some other people who aren’t as important. You’ll get maybe one lecture on Indigenous people, often at the beginning, that amounts to “they were here and then they died/their population was significantly reduced – the end.” Maybe there will be some discussion of residential schools. Women will sometimes be mentioned in connection with social reform, and Nellie McClung will be trotted out to talk about feminism and suffrage. And people from ethnic minorities will appear when discussing immigration and war (head tax on the Chinese, discrimination against Jewish immigrants, Japanese-Canadian internment). Once a in a blue moon there will be some discussion of queer history. But the core structure remains unchanged.

I firmly believe that this needs to change. In a recent article on the Australian Women’s History Network, Anna Kerr commented that introductory history courses continue to emphasize that history is “a series of male power struggles in which women have played a tangential, often supporting role” and that “male military adventures are the centrepiece and the domestic concerns of women are rendered inconsequential.” As she argues, we cannot expect there to be any substantive change in gender equality until we correct this imbalance.

I happen to agree, but I would take it a step further. We must also acknowledge that the nation that we now call Canada was built on stolen lands. Without accepting that Indigenous history is Canadian history, Canadian history survey classes replicate and reinforce the Canadian colonial regime inside their classrooms. I believe that all Canadian historians have a responsibility to disrupt this narrative and to instead focus on how the Canadian colonial regime came to be and how it continues to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples in this country and teach students to recognize that all non-Indigenous peoples are complicit in this regime.**

So I would urge you to please think very carefully about the kind of content you include in your surveys.

** As I said, the teaching of survey courses is inherently political. I am clearly staking a political position here, but it is disingenuous to suggest (usually by omission or silence) that what we are teaching is apolitical. The inclusion of women’s history and ethnic history in the 1980s that I mentioned above were political acts, just as their previous exclusion was political.


Syllabus Basics

Once you have a grasp on the overall thinking behind your course, it’s time to move on to the syllabus itself. Here is a quick rundown of the required elements of any syllabus:

  • Course name, number, section, and term
  • Dates and times for classes and room number/building
  • Your name, contact information (email required, but Twitter is a good idea too!), and office hours
    • The same for your TA(s) if you have any
  • Course description
  • Learning Outcomes/Course Goals
  • Course Outline
  • Readings
  • Assignments, including due dates and specific details
  • Course policies (variable)
    • Lateness policies
    • Class attendance policies
    • Electronic devices policies
    • Rules regarding overall conduct
  • Required Institutional Statements
    • Grading breakdown (what letter grades mean – different at each school)
    • Academic Dishonesty statement and policies

Now obviously, many of these are pretty self-explanatory. I presume I don’t need to tell you how to find the room number for your course and I can’t tell you what your required institutional statements should say. So I’m going to focus mostly on the topics in the middle.


Start Counting

The first thing you should do is to figure out just how many classes or weeks you will be dealing with over the course of the semester. This is not as straightforward as it seems. Different universities have different semester lengths. Some have readings breaks and others don’t. There are also statutory holidays, which may or may not affect you (depending on which day they happened to fall on). Then there are more personal matters to consider, such as if you be away at any point during the semester and any religious holidays you observe. Also, if you are planning to attend a conference or even have a doctor’s appointment that conflicts with a class, it’s best to think about it now!

So how do you figure out how many classes or weeks you will have over the course of the semester? Start with your university’s official calendar. Every university has one. Figure out when the start and end dates of the semester are. One you know this information, you can make a general outline of your semester. I like to do this in a word document, using a generic calendar on my phone. You can also work it out by hand if that’s more your thing. Here’s one of mine from 2013, for a semester that lasted 14 weeks and a course that met once a week for 3 hours:

Course Outline

Once you have a rough outline, go back to your academic calendar and take note of any statutory holidays or holidays that your university observes. I was lucky in the semester noted above since none of the fall holidays fell on the same date as my course.

Expert Tip: Don’t forget to pay attention to non-Christian religious holidays!


First and Last Days

There is one additional decision you will have to make regarding the number of classes you have: whether or not you will teach on the first and/or last days of the semester. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some people believe that you need to try to cram in as much content as possible into your semester, and should never give up any days. Others believe that it is a waste of time.


Selecting Your Assignments

Most people will go one of two routes:

Option 1

  • Participation grade/Discussion groups (10 to 20%)
  • Mid-term exam (20 to 30%)
  • Several short essays (20 to 30%)
  • Final exam (20 to 30%)

Option 2

  • Participation grade/Discussion groups (15 to 20%)
  • Bibliography (5 to 10%)
  • Research proposal or primary source analysis (10 to 15%)
  • Final research paper, about 8 to 10 pages (30 to 40%)
  • Final exam (20 to 30%)

There is no right or wrong answer here. I tend to use a version of option 2 simply because of my emphasis on writing skills. But there are many professors who believe that first year students don’t have the capacity to write full research papers, which is why they tend to go for option 1. I don’t personally agree with this, but it’s not an uncommon view. Keep in mind that these are also generalizations; different professors will have different methods for assessing participation and different goals for any writing assignments.

Expert Tip: Don’t miss this great brand new post from ProfHacker on Estimating Student Workloads!


Scheduling Assignments

Now is also a good time to think about when you want to schedule your assignments (Most universities will assign your final exam dates, so you don’t need to figure that part out). I try to space my assignments evenly over the course of the semester, with at least 3 weeks between each one (this gives me at least a week or two to hand back the assignment and gives students enough time to implement any suggestions I included). I also have my students submit their final paper on the last day of class so that they can study for the final without any distractions.

You will likely also want to schedule at least one small assignment early in the class, before the add/drop date. It’s an unfortunate reality that in the first month or so, students are essentially shopping for classes, and a significant number will drop yours before this deadline. Many students want to have some idea of how your assignments work and how you are as a marker. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, they want to know if they can get a passing grade in your course before committing to it. Some universities also require that a certain percentage of the course mark has already been assessed by the add/drop date so that students will know how they are doing.

Expert Tip: This is not a reflection on you, so don’t take it as a personal failure! It happens to all of us.


Picking Topics

Once you have an idea of how many classes you will have over the course of the semester, you can start picking topics. Start brainstorming a large list of topics that you may want to include.

The number and types of topics you select will be broadly determined by the format of your course. For instance, when I was teaching at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, my courses met once a week for 3 hour blocks. Since I’m a big fan of active learning, I divide each class in two, a lecture and an active learning activity. As a result, I tended to pick a broad theme for each week and addressed different aspects of it during the lecture and active learning portions of the class.

If your course meets several times per week for an hour or an hour and a half, with additional scheduled tutorials, and you prefer to stick to lectures, you can have a much larger list of topics and have the ability to go much deeper into certain areas.


The Real Confederation Debates

 One of the most controversial decisions you will have to make will be whether you teach the topic of Confederation as part of your Pre-Confederation or Post-Confederation Canadian history class. As well all know, history is messy and doesn’t conform to the system set in place by history departments across the country. You can really go either way, depending on your personal preference.

So far as I can tell, a large percentage of professors teach Confederation as part of their Pre-Confederation course. The justification for this being that the “pre” part includes all of the deliberations that were part of the Confederation debates. For those who teach Pre-Confederation as ”the history of how the country was born,” discussing Confederation at the end makes a great deal of sense.

Personally, I prefer to talk about Confederation in my Post-Confederation courses. This is largely because of my focus on teaching multiple visions of Canada as the overarching narrative. It just makes more sense to me to talk about Confederation in Post-Confederation, where I talk about how one particular vision of Canada won out over all the rest.

But again, I cannot emphasize enough that there is no right or wrong answer here. Just do what feels right. And don’t be afraid to change your mind next time you teach the course!


Picking Readings – Does a Textbook by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

 There are basically two routes you can do with the readings: using a textbook or using individual readings. I’m personally not a fan of textbooks in general, with a couple of exceptions. Not only are they expensive and hard to read, but most of your students won’t even end up reading them. They will end up as decorative doorstoppers before being dumped at a local used bookshop.

Adding to the fun, many sessionals aren’t hired far enough in advance to actually order textbooks, or, in most cases, coursepacks, forcing many to rely exclusively on journal articles or e-books for their course readings.

Expert Tip: Although now BC Campus has digital free textbooks for both Pre-Confederation and Post-Confederation courses, and I do like these ones!

Because of this, I tend to use readings for my survey classes, rather than textbooks. Which raises the question: “how I do pick the readings for a course?”

I really hate this question. It’s one that often comes up in job applications. But like essay marking, it’s a holistic process that is hard to describe. There are many factors that can go into your decision. Here are some things to think about:

  • Significance to the field (are there any classics in your field that you can’t leave out?)
  • Relevance (do you want it to supplement your lecture or provide additional information?)
  • Length (For intro classes, I rarely assign more than two articles per class, which works out to about 30 to 40 pages.)
  • Readability for students (Remember this is a first year class! Avoid overly theoretical or jargony articles).
  • Accessibility (I like to pick articles that are available through electronic databases. But you should also keep in mind that some of your students might be vision-impaired, and having readings where the text can be altered to make reading easier is extremely helpful.)
  • Likeability (I try to pick articles that I find interesting or enjoy reading.)
  • Innovation (Is there anything new and exciting in your field that you’d like students to know about?)
  • Diversity (It’s imperative that you make an effort to avoid having a syllabus that is composed solely or mostly of white male authors. Aim for balance.)

Feel free to be creative!

Expert Tip: Don’t forget movies! I like to show at least one film per semester, but more often two. This gives both you and the students a little break!


A Crowd-Sourced Readings List

Some of your may have noticed that I’ve been soliciting readings recommendations for Canadian history surveys. It’s often really confusing, as a young sessional, to select the best readings for your course. Most people will go with through a trial and error process. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see someone else’s syllabus, but that’s unusual.

Expert Tip: In general, you will find that it is hard to get a hold of other people’s syllabuses. There is a very good reason for this: they are a ton of work and no one wants someone else to benefit from that hard work without some kind of compensation. This goes double for sessional instructors, who often aren’t paid to write their syllabuses and rely on their ability to teach unique content to secure new positions. That is also why I don’t recommend asking other people for copies of their syllabuses, unless you know them very well. Think of them as trade secrets, or your grandmother’s secret recipe. The CHA does have a collection of syllabuses available on their website that you can use as inspiration. But the collection remains very limited, and there are only two options available at this time for survey classes in Canadian history.

That’s why I’d like to create a crowd-sourced master syllabus for Canada history surveys, a list of readings that experienced professors have used and liked. I believe that not only would this be a great way to share resources in such a way that allows individuals to retain proprietary interests over their own syllabuses, but new scholars could be exposed to new sources that they might not have considered.

I’ve been inspired by some amazing initiatives in creating and sharing collaborative or crowd sourced syllabuses. Probably the most well known is the Lemonade Syllabus. I also really like The Black Lives Canada Syllabus as well. Theses syllabuses are forceful acts of protest against race-based discrimination in Canada and the United States, and particularly the invisibility of the Black experience and the work of Black authors. But I also believe that they have an important pedagogical role to play.

So with that in mind, I’m hosting a Google doc along for Canadian history classes survey classes. You can access the document by going here: Readings Recommendations for Canadian History Survey Courses. Anyone can edit the document, so please add your own recommendations, whether topics or readings! You can also email me your suggestions at unwrittenhistories (at) gmail dot com or tweet me your suggestions directly @andreaeidinger or by using the hashtag #cdnhistsyllabus.


So there you have it, a basic introduction to the process of creating syllabuses for Canadian History survey classes. Now you can just stress out about the million other things you need to do before the semester starts. 😉 Is this your first time teaching a Canadian history survey? Do you have any questions? Or if you are an experienced survey professor, is there any advice you wish you had known when you started? Let me know in the comments below! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian History Roundup!


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