Teaching in an Era of Flux: Students must be able to question the status quo

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.

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April 29, 2019

Since 2016 I’ve taught human rights in an interdisciplinary human rights program. My approach to teaching about Canada in the world is to find ways to unsettle expectations and allow students to look at the country we live in with fresh eyes. It can be easy when studying Canada in Canada to take too much as given, to assume that historical events were inevitable, or that current policy approaches are the only option. I try to find ways to make the familiar strange and, in doing so, enable students to question dominant narratives and the status quo.

One way I do this is by providing opportunities for students to apply academic tools of analysis to unexpected materials. What can we learn about power and representation by analyzing statues in the city, museum exhibits, or even children’s books? Applying analytical tools to materials with which students already have an existing relationship can be particularly powerful. Examining landmarks in the city, for example, can overlay new understandings on a familiar landscape and on places that they will continue to revisit.

Another strategy is to contextualize Canadian examples with international ones. If students are, for example, exposed to constitutional human rights provisions from around the world before analyzing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they are able to critically examine the charter not only for what it contains but also for what it omits (for example: environmental rights, healthcare, housing). I incorporate both expected and unexpected comparisons through experiential learning. What can we learn about Canadian perspectives on human rights by also studying American perspectives alongside American students? What can we learn about Canadian healthcare by studying healthcare in Botswana? Why are some comparisons comfortable, or even flattering, and others uncomfortable? What do those feelings tell us about how we see Canada in the world?

The rise of Trump is reflected in three ways in my classroom: fear, decreased clarity on “facts,” and exposure to a narrow, self-congratulatory narrative of comparison between Canada and the US. In partnership with my students I aim to dispel complacency, encourage critical reflection and enable them to see themselves as agents of change. Continually inspired by my students, my objective is that we leave the room with a sense of possibility and an informed desire to improve the country and world we live in.

Also in the series

How to teach international affairs in an era of flux:

Six Canadian academics reflect on the challenges of teaching in a world of fast-paced news and distrust of sources.