In this assignment, students analyze a Canadian Heritage Minute (explained below) as a situated claim about Canadian identity. They are responsible for determining what the Minute is trying to say about Canada, and identifying what aspects of the event/topic were left out to make this claim. The goal is for students to understand that choices are made in presenting history, and that those choices are related to attempts to portray the country in a framework seen as desirable by the presenter. Intellectually, students must engage with diverse perspectives, and connect their analysis of what the Minute is trying to say with what has been left out to allow the development of that narrative of Canada. Overall, this assignment aims at the analysis of patriotic messaging, and the relationship of this messaging to historical fact.
Background and Context
This assignment was developed to fit in a second-year sociology course covering Canadian History and Sociology from settlement to the present day. Students are a mix of majors and non-majors, and the course has no formal history pre-requisite, nor any sequential follow-up courses. This makes it very difficult to cover “everything” that occurred in Canada over that time period, so I made the choice to structure the course around history as a tool for developing Canadian identity. I am open with students from the beginning of the semester that we will be looking at a selection of events and discussing their relationship to the theme of Canadian identity, rather than attempting a comprehensive survey of events. The central idea that I want students to get out of the course is that our collective understanding of history is based on emphasizing certain elements and silencing others in order to allow people to think a particular way about Canada.
The Historica Canada foundation has, as of this writing, produced more than 80 Heritage Minute videos. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many of these were aired regularly on Canadian television, and, as such, they form an important element of how many Canadians think about the history of their country. Each of these is 60 seconds long, focused on an individual or event in Canadian history. Aimed at a non-expert audience, these films are intended to stand alone, without the requirement for significant background knowledge of their subjects. This, along with the wide variety of subjects (sports, military history, legal challenges, Indigenous history, immigration, etc.), and the fact that these films are all available on YouTube, make them an ideal entry point for students into the discussion of how Canadian identity is constructed.
The 60-second time constraint means that Heritage Minutes tell simplified versions of the history of events and people – it is impossible to convey the complexity of someone’s life and accomplishments, or the unfolding and resolution of a historical event in 60 seconds. The intention of this assignment is that students engage with identifying a perspective that drives how the choice of what to include or exclude is made in the context of a single Minute. Having students view other students’ presentations over the course of the semester aims to expose students to broader themes in how Canadian identity is built – whose perspectives tend to be excluded, what kinds of facts are left out, what kinds of events are simply never made into Heritage Minutes, etc.
At a basic level, this assignment requires a group of 2-3 students to choose a Heritage Minute, briefly describe the subject of the minute (e.g. the event or person who is the subject of the film), identify what this film is trying to say about Canada and/or Canadian identity, and explain what aspects of the individual or event’s history were left out in order to say those things about Canada. They present their work in a short (3-3.5 page) paper, and a 10-minute class presentation. In their presentations, they are generally free to present in the ways they see fit (I’ve seen everything from PowerPoint presentations to staged short dramas and travel commercials), but they must show the Heritage Minute they’re discussing and conclude with a question for discussion.
The evaluation of this assignment emphasizes the analytic work students are expected to do – their identification of what message the film is trying to send about Canada, and what elements of the topic need to be left out in order to do so. The goal is not that students reproduce some already known analysis, but that they carefully consider their own. When we talk about this assignment, I make it clear to students that it’s possible to come up with several very different analyses of the same Heritage Minute, and that I care more about coherence (e.g. that the things they say are left out are related to the story they say the Minute is trying to tell) than which they choose to present.
Alignment and Scaffolding
This assignment is one of the major assignments of the course, and the only group assignment. It is the first major assignment we discuss in the classroom – there is a workshop (discussed below) focused on this assignment within the first two weeks of the semester. For many students, it is the first major assignment they complete in the course.
In order to prepare students for this assignment, we devote an entire course session to students grasping the crux of the necessary analysis of this assignment. In this session, the entire class watches the same Heritage Minute about Wilder Penfield (a Canadian neurosurgeon), and, in their project groups, work through a scaffolded analysis of what this Minute is trying to say about Canada. This session involves working through a worksheet on which I have listed some details about Wilder Penfield, as well as some possible statements about what this video is trying to say about Canada, and what has been left out of the Heritage Minute. Their assignment in this session is to look at what I have listed under “What it’s trying to say about Canadian identity” and choose two of them and add one of their own, and repeat the process for “What’s missing from this.” The last portion of this worksheet asks students to organize these statements (the ones they have chosen and the ones they have created) into a coherent argument – deciding, for example, to focus on equity questions in medicine, or linguistic tensions, or the idea of appropriating achievements as “Canadian” on relatively scant evidence. As groups of students work on this, I circulate through the class in order to ensure that students are appropriately focused on the analysis of the video, and are engaging with the challenging aspects of the task rather than minutiae which might have been left out (e.g. the difference between leaving out gendered differences in health outcomes and the names of the nurses in the operating room). The last part of this workshop is dedicated to groups of students sharing the analysis they’ve come up with, as a way of highlighting the possibility of different ways of seeing the same film.
Student ability to complete this assignment is also supported by discussions we have early on in the semester where, as a class, we discuss how the War of 1812 is understood by the Canadian population, with reference to the pride many Canadians feel at having “burned down the White House,” and what aspects of that historical event need to be emphasized in order to tell this story. As we discuss the historical events surrounding this moment of burning the White House, we explore elements of the context that are missing from that point of pride (e.g. that the soldiers are British, not Canadian, that there is no change in borders afterwards, and that it is preceded by American soldiers burning down the entire city of York), and how it is challenging to feel the same sense of pride at having scored a coup against one of the world’s superpowers when those elements are included. It becomes a broader discussion of how history itself is complicated, but it winds up being used for particular ends (such as building a sense of national pride). When we discuss this process, I explicitly tell students that we’re working through another example of the kind of analysis they need in their Heritage Minute assignments, and encourage them to ask questions if there is anything they don’t understand.
This kind of analysis, in the form of using historical events to construct a particular image of the country, returns in students’ final exam. One of their written questions asks students to choose a person or event that should be made into a Canadian Heritage Minute, and explain why. As part of this question, students are expected to identify what you would need to know about this person or event, as well as discuss what making this into a Heritage Minute would allow you to say about Canada. They are not required to choose something that makes Canada look good (indeed, many students have proposed Heritage Minutes about, for example, missing and murdered Indigenous women, or forcing Chinese immigrants to pay exorbitant Head Taxes), and their answers are evaluated based on their demonstration of knowledge about this person or event, and their analysis thereof, not the choice of person or event itself. It is worth noting that the final exam in this class is open book, and that, generally, I inform students that this will be one of the questions on their exam on the last day of class. In that discussion, I describe this question as, in some ways, the inverse of their Heritage Minute assignment: In the assignment, they’re asked to analyse a claim about Canada and Canadian identity; in their exam question, they are asked to make such a claim, and justify why that would be an important thing to say about Canada. Student answers on this question range from the serious (e.g. the discovery of insulin) to the silly (e.g. an audience of Canadian hockey fans singing the US national anthem when the sound system failed), as well as from subjects which paint Canada in a positive light (such as those above) to those which make Canada look very bad (e.g. RCMP officers forcibly removing Indigenous children from their homes to attend residential schools).
The aim of using Heritage Minutes in this course overall is that they become a tool to allow students to consider how “Canadian identity” is not an object which exists, regardless of human intervention, but a construction that is built and rebuilt by Canadians to suit their evolving image of themselves. I aim to have students develop underlying skills to see messages about Canada, whether presented by media, government, or other Canadians, critically, and to see “Canadian history” as a tool that has been used by many different people for many different reasons historically, as well as in the present.
In general, students seem to find this assignment significantly more challenging than they initially think it will be, which is consistent with my intention for it. I want students to engage with the rather messy ways history is used to talk about Canada and Canadians. The response to that challenge has been variable. Some students respond by engaging deeply with the task of analysis, and others elide the analysis to produce assignments that lack that critical engagement.
I see, essentially, three main issues with student work on this assignment. The first is students who simply ignore the necessary analysis of this assignment. The assignment guidelines indicate that students should write about half a page, double spaced, conveying something about the person or event that is the subject of their Minute. A significant portion of students who do poorly on this assignment will write two and a half to three pages about the subject of their Minute, and condense what this Minute is trying to say about Canada, and what is missing from the Minute, into a single paragraph at the end. In a similar category are students who try to answer the question of “what this Minute is trying to say about Canada” exclusively through direct quotations from the video, without comment. My sense is that these errors occur because students have more experience writing papers where they communicate facts, rather than engage in analysis, and simply presenting facts is less cognitively demanding than conducting analysis.
The second error I see in student work on these assignments is a lack of support for statements about what their Minute is trying to say about Canada. When we work through examples in class, I ask students to identify how they know that a particular argument is being presented, pushing them to look at the accents of the actors, or how much time is spent on each part of the story, or even the tone of the music being used. In their projects though, there are a lot of cases where students will say “This Minute is trying to say [x] about Canada” with no supporting evidence where they link back to the Heritage Minute itself. A related failure to anchor this project in the analysis of the Heritage Minute itself is the significant number of students who offer their own answers about why Canadians should care about this person or event, rather than explaining what they see as Historica Canada’s answers conveyed in the video.
The third error I see groups of students make in this assignment is a failure to build a coherent argument about their Heritage Minute throughout the assignment. I read some papers where the statements about what this Minute is trying to say about Canada are almost totally disconnected from statements about what has been left out from this Heritage Minute. This is a problem because the cognitive task of this assignment is to identify what has been left out of a Heritage Minute in order to allow it to tell a particular story. Based on the evaluations of group members I read, I think this is because many groups decide to divide work so that one student takes care of “what this Minute is trying to say” and another takes care of “what is missing” without developing a clear plan for connecting those two sections.
In order to address these issues, I have made a series of revisions to the assignment guidelines themselves, as well as how this assignment is presented in my course. The Heritage Minute Workshop (discussed above, see also the worksheet) was added in order to offer students an earlier attempt at building an argument around a Heritage Minute, and the ability to do so with some assistance from me as they work. I’ve also added and emphasized some text in the guidelines themselves – the underlined text in the guidelines was added to prevent students from making common errors. So far, I would say that these changes have been helpful, especially for strong students. The “good” projects I receive on this assignment have gotten steadily better over the four years I’ve been using this assignment. The less competent assignments have remained more or less the same, which I think is generally because those students aren’t reading the assignment guidelines overall (for example, such assignments also frequently include one or more students simply failing to complete the evaluations which contribute 10% of their grade on the assignment, for example).
As a result of student experiences with this assignment, I have also become more judicious about how much content I try to cover. When I first taught this course, I covered more events and people, expecting students to be able to draw links and identify why these events were important, and how they connected with others. Now, I cover fewer events, and spend more time identifying connections to other events and how the events we do discuss are assigned meaning by Canadians. These explicit conversations about developing meaning and how events are constructed get at the central idea I want students to get at throughout the course, and help keep the course focused on engagement with ideas, rather than students memorizing names and dates.
I have toyed with the idea of being even more prescriptive in these guidelines (identify this, then this, then this), but have so far not done so because I am interested in preserving more flexibility for students to approach the question. It may be that students see their Heritage Minute as trying to say only one thing about Canada, but they may also see it as trying to say three or four things about Canada. Likewise, it may be that they see this Heritage Minute as having left out several things with different relationships to the claims it makes about Canada, or they may see only one thing being left out, but that one thing being important enough to cast doubt on all of the claims. To my mind, none of those is necessarily superior. I also think, on some level, that it is important for students to learn how to structure writing and presentations around broad, open-ended tasks.
I have had students ask to complete this assignment on their own, and I generally refuse. This is partially to keep the grading load more manageable in a class with another individual written assignment in it. More importantly though, this is because I feel fairly strongly that analyzing the perspective of a piece, as well as what’s missing from that, gains something when it is discussed with another person. What I’m struggling with is trying to find ways of encouraging students to actually discuss those aspects of the assignment, and learn from each other, rather than trying to divide “what this Heritage Minute is trying to say” and “what’s missing from it” into two discrete tasks that can be completed in isolation.
Poor presentations, especially at the beginning of the term, present another challenge. The presentations are the only part of these assignments that other students will see, and, in a way, the structure of the course relies on students learning from each other’s presentations. When those presentations are poor, or when they fail to address the goals of the assignment (say, by giving a 10-minute presentation about a historical event, rather than an analysis of the video), other students do not learn what they should from them. It is tempting to step in and explain what went wrong with a presentation when it happens, because that would allow other students to have a clearer idea going forward of what they really ought to be doing. Doing so, however, presents problems of equity as well as privacy. Student groups who present early in the semester are at something of a disadvantage, because they haven’t seen these projects completed. If, following their presentations, I debrief the class about how to do a better one, then other students have a better idea of expectations, going into their presentations, than those who presented early in the semester. As well, if I follow up a presentation with a discussion of how to do a better one, especially if that discussion identifies substantial necessary changes, then I am also communicating to my entire class that this group didn’t do very well in their presentation, which violates institutional policies about not posting student grades publicly. For these reasons, I have thus far stuck to changes to the assignment guidelines, rather than more immediate presentation feedback.
This assignment has worked relatively well for me overall – it places students in the conversation about the construction of Canadian history and how it is used, and they have generally shown themselves capable of engaging with that. Using a selection of these Heritage Minutes throughout the class also allows the course to offer at least an introduction to some ideas and themes that we aren’t covering in the lectures, and many students have commented on that aspect as allowing them to see aspects of Canadian history they didn’t know about before. Near the end of term, we are also able to have a conversation about the relative absence of Indigenous and visible minority perspectives and stories in Heritage Minutes, which is part of a broader consideration of inclusion in historical narratives.
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