Screenshot of my syllabus

Summer: time for sunny days, blue skies, lazy days at the beach….

LOL Yeah right….

Let’s face it: no one likes teaching or taking summer courses. Not only does the weather make you want to spend all of your time outside, but the sheer pace of summer courses is just exhausting. With that in mind, and considering that I just finished teaching one, I thought that I would use this blog post as an opportunity to reflect back on my experiences and talk about what worked and what didn’t, in the hopes that we might all learn a thing or two.


To give you a little bit of background into my particular situation, I just finished teaching a six-week 300-level course on Canada since 1945. The course met three times a week for two hours at a time. I had roughly 40 students enrolled in the course, and I did not have a TA. I did however have a course website, on the university’s learning management system, Connect.


Adjusting My Expectations

All summer courses come with their challenges. The demands of a six-week course are really heavy on professors and students, since there isn’t any breathing room. My solution was a combination of divide-and-conquer, with some hands-on learning.

The first thing that I did was cut my lectures in half. In each class, I lectured for roughly 50 minutes, took a 10-minute break, and then had my students do a group discussion for the remaining 50 minutes. This is an approach that I employ in all of my courses, and it always works well. I’ve already talked at length about the benefits of group discussions as opposed to lectures, so I won’t repeat that information here.

Given the restricted amount of lecture time, I made sure to pick readings that complemented my lecture subjects, rather than reflecting them. My goal was to provide students with as much additional information as possible in a form other than traditional lecturing. So, for instance, in my lecture on consumer culture, I talked about wringer washers (a la Joy Parr), but gave my students a chapter from Steven Penfold’s  The Donut: A Canadian History (which is always a hit).


Work (shop) It Out

Several people I spoke to before teaching this course recommended that I make things easier on myself by dedicating one class per week to fieldtrips, movies, or workshops. This turned out to be excellent advice. I devoted each Friday to what I called “guided practice,” where students learned about a particular historical skill, and then completed a 2-page, double-spaced reflection on their experience.

The first workshop involved a class trip to UBC library’s Rare Books and Special Collections. My students were treated to a fantastic tutorial on how to find primary sources by archivist Krisztina Laszlo, followed by the chance to actually handle some archival documents. These documents were selected by me with help from the UBC RBSC team to be appropriate for a course on postwar history, including documents from activist organizations, local politicians, and unions. For their reflection, students were asked to tell me about the documents they specifically handled and what they learned from the workshop.

In the following workshop, I showed students how to use the UBC Open Collections system and I also talked about finding online primary sources in general (through online exhibits and museums), and through LAC’s collection. I also included a short introduction to the interpretation of photographs, where I talked about the importance of understanding the message that the photographer was trying to project, and how this impacted the framing of the shot, the subject of the image, and even down to things like clothing selections. For this reflection, I asked students to select a photograph from the LAC collection, and interpret it based on what they learned.

And, in the final workshop, I covered how to do footnotes/endnotes and bibliographies using Chicago Manual Style. I also discussed research methods for primary and secondary sources using the UBC library’s collection, with a special emphasis on the meaning of peer-review and how to use the America History and Life Database (anyone else think Summon is the bane of their existence?). In this last workshop, I asked students to find a primary source (that was not a photograph) relating to their research paper, interpret it as we did with photographs the previous week, and include a properly formatted citation.*

This was without a doubt the most popular part of the course, and I was really gratified to see a substantial improvement in subsequent assignments, particularly in relation to their use of Chicago Manual Style.


* I know the math doesn’t add up here: 3 workshops for a 6-week course. The first Friday, since it was only the second class, was conducted as a regular lecture, and the last Friday was devoted to exam review. I was planning on another workshop, but I got food poisoning, so that didn’t happen. 🙁


Student Guinea Pigs

Compressed and/or summer classes can be a great opportunity to try something new in the classroom. Many instructors are scared to implement new techniques during the regular semester because of the huge time investment it involves, the uncertainty of outcomes, and the possibility of epic disaster. I took full advantage of this, and I was quite pleased with the results!

The first change I instituted was the introduction of short online quizzes after each lecture. I was inspired by my experience with Indigenous Canada, and how these short quizzes helped to solidify the lecture in my mind. I have also been trying to find a good way to do short assessments to see what students retained from each lecture while also giving students incentives to closely follow the lectures and do the readings.

For each class, I created a short quiz that I posted to my course website, consisting of no more than five multiple-choice questions. At least one of the questions always related specifically to the class reading. I made sure that this was a low-stakes component of the final grade by making them worth 5%. This is small enough that missing one or two isn’t the end of the world, but doing well can bump a student’s final grade by one grade level (for example, B+ rather than a B). The fact they were conducted through the school’s learning management system meant that there wasn’t any additional grading for me to do; all I needed to do was enter the results into my grading form.

I was rather pleased with the results, and would definitely recommend this approach. The quizzes were available immediately after class, and were accessible only for 24 hours after each lecture. This ensured that students were not tempted to skip them all and do them at the end of the course, and I thought that worked well.

My second experiment was equally successful. I decided to leave the final lecture topic up to my students! Near the end of the course, I solicited some suggestions for potential lectures, and then combined them with some of my own to create a poll. The poll was also available through the learning management system, which again made my life easier. I got a lot of positive feedback on this, largely I think because it made the students feel like they were active participants in their own learning rather than just passive recipients of my wisdom. 😉

Finally, I remembered seeing a discussion on Twitter a while ago about having students use Google Docs for collaborative assignments. I usually devote my final lecture to exam prep, where I ask students to work together to prepare study notes. Usually I compile these myself and then send them out, but this time I had students enter their notes into a Google doc. Worked like a charm!


Redesigning the Research Paper

Back when I was initially designing the course, I was trying to figure out a cool assignment to do instead of the traditional research paper for third-year classes. I asked some of my awesome friends for some suggestions, and we had a great chat about it on Facebook on my personal account. Turns out my friends are as brilliant as they are generous (though I shouldn’t be surprised), and I wound up having to choose between some fantastic options!

Before I go any further, I should preface this by saying that I like to organize my courses around general themes. So, for instance, my survey classes tend to be focused on historical thinking and how to succeed in university. Given the short nature of the course, as well as the fact that it started literally days after Canada150, I decided to focus the course around ideas of commemoration, memory, public history and identity. The idea was that students would explore how we have represented Canadian history in the postwar period, while also exploring how we represent postwar Canada today.

With this in mind, I ultimately chose to go with the suggestion given to me by the wonderful Rhonda Hinther, who has also generously allowed me to share it with you! In short: rather than the traditional research essay, students would put together nomination packages for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

And yes, it was as much fun as it sounds!

Here’s how it worked: for the first part of the assignment, students submitted a paper proposal and annotated bibliography. They were required to select a person, place, or event that should be designated by the HSMBC as being of “national historic significance.” Students were required to ensure that their subject had not already received the designation by searching the directory beforehand. The proposal required a short description of the essay topic and a working thesis statement. In the annotated bibliography, students had to describe the primary and secondary sources that they planned to use.

Once they had been approved to move on to the next stage, students then moved on to the research essay. This was the major component of the assignment, and was roughly 8 to 10 pages in length. Students were asked to make their case about why their person, place, or event deserved the HSMBC nomination (using the HSMBC’s own requirements for the components of a nomination as well as the official guide to criteria and guidelines.

The final component of this assignment was a nomination letter. Acting as a kind of cover letter for the essay, the nomination letter was supposed to summarize the contents of their essay in the style of a formal business letter. Students were also required to submit a 100-word suggested text for a commemorative plaque, again following the HSMBC’s own guidelines (some of them even mocked them up, which was fabulous!).

In the event that, by the end of the course, students no longer believed that their subject should receive the HSMBC nomination, they could instead submit a short essay explaining why they came to this conclusion as well as a 100-word encyclopedia entry.

I really liked this assignment, not only because it was a departure from the usual research papers I assign, but because I felt like it spoke to the kinds of hands-on skills that students would need going forward into the workplace, like how to comply with official policy guidelines, how to prepare research reports for a general audience, and how to write formal business letters.

In terms of student feedback on this type of assignment, the consensus appears to be that while students were initially worried about their ability to handle this kind of assignment, most of them enjoyed doing it in the end. I think they were thrown by the fact that this course didn’t require the same kind of research paper that they had been churning out since their first year in university, and by having to follow such specific guidelines. However, they later reported feeling like they were actually involved in “doing history” through the HSMBC nominations.


Have Fun (or at least try to)

While summer courses are often difficult, they can also be much more laid back. I could totally get into a discussion about scholarly liminal spaces, but I think that’s more meta than my brain can handle right now. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend embracing a summertime attitude. Early on in the course, I instituted “Therapeutic Ice Cream Fridays,” where anyone from the course was welcome to join me for ice cream after class at Rain or Shine (because this is UBC, so of course we have hipster ice cream on campus). This was a great opportunity for me to get to know the students a little bit better, and I was so pleased to see the close relationships that formed between many of my students. And if you do get to have Rain or Shine ice cream, I highly recommend the chocolate. 🙂


Overall, I had a fantastic experience with this course. Admittedly, the six-weeks was exhausting, and the marking just about killed me, but this particular group of students was just a dream to work with. And I am definitely planning to institute the changes suggested above in future courses! I hope that you found this blog post useful, and please let me know if you’ve tried anything similar or are planning to try one of these techniques out yourself soon! As always, if you enjoyed this blog post, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice!

Unwritten Histories will be going on break for the next two weeks! I’m still going to be around on social media, and will be tweeting like mad during the Beyond150 conference, but I’m going to step back from the blog for a tiny bit. We’ll be back on September 5th with a brand new blog post, and some really exciting announcements! In the meantime, here are some previous blog posts on course design and planning to give you some extra inspiration as you prepare for fall!

I’ll see you in two weeks!

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