Blogs > Cliopatria > Teaching in Canada I

Dec 4, 2004 3:38 am

Teaching in Canada I

One question I am frequently asked is, “How different is it teaching in Montreal?” I answer that is both similar and different to the experience I had teaching in the US. It is not easy for me to figure out what is particular to the experience I have had at my university and what I must assume are characteristic throughout Quebec or even the whole of Canada. I will try to unpack some of these differences by talking first about Canada in general, although I must be wary of excessive generalization—I have visited only a few institutions outside Montreal.

There are several unique features to teaching in Canada (as opposed to “South of the Border,” as I have heard people here refer to the US). First, university professors, even at what are called private institutions (I say this because, as I will make clear later, the public/private divide is not quite the same as in the US) can join unions. I do not know whether all universities are unionized, but certainly many of the professors I have met are union members. In my university, salaries are fixed by seniority according to union agreements, although there are a few “categories.” I understand that some institutions have more significant provisions for bonuses and incentives than others. Adjuncts, whom I have also heard called here “sessionals”, “part-timers”, and “chargé(e)s du cours” also have their own unions. (Unfortunately, the great salary and status gap dividing full-timers and adjuncts exists here too).

Perhaps the most significant difference as far as teaching is concerned is that Canadian History, or what in my university we call Quebec/Canada History, is the national history here, and US History is much more marginal. US History is not taught regularly or universally in Canadian schools. History departments of Canadian universities generally have their one Americanist or few Americanists, in the same way that they have a small number of historians of Early Modern Europe, say, or Asia. In my department, for example, there are 2 US specialists out of 32 professors. As a result, I-- and I suspect Americanists in Canada by and large-- tend to be more general in our teaching and advising than colleagues in the United States. When students come to my classes they generally know much less about American History than students in America do (whatever American youth’s often-derided ignorance of the nation’s past). It can be frustrating to try and jump-start their knowledge of American culture, life, and government--whereas the US History survey courses I taught in the United States were stretched out over two terms, our US History survey is a one-term course. On the other hand, it is interesting because my students have not been exposed to the version of American history so many US children are taught in elementary school, and they react differently to my teaching. I find many of my students sceptical of aspects of American government policy, particularly in the international arena. This all leads me to a curious role reversal. In the US I find I am trying to deepen and nuance my students’ knowledge by explaining some of the less sunny sides of the national experience. In Montreal and I find myself called upon to deepen and nuance my students’ vision of the United States by explaining some of its generous and positive aspects! Of course, it is not my job to act as apologist for the United States, and I am pleased that students are able to think critically about the United States. I do sometimes worry that this admirable detachment is shaped by Canadian stereotypes about the US and complacency about their own society. Never has a student in my class challenged me or been visibly shocked or offended when I have spoken, for example, of racism or economic inequality in American society. Some of my students, however, are surprised and absorbed when I speak of the history of slavery in New France or the incarceration of Japanese Canadians during World War II, topics which they did not learn in school.

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