Professor Jacob Blanc on Receiving AUS Most Outsanding Professor Award

Professor Jacob Blanc from the Institute for the Study of International Development and the Department of History and Classical Studies, was recently awarded the Most Outstanding Professor award by the Arts Undergraduate Society. We asked him to share his thoughts on the importance of teaching and what he's learnt over the last year from his students.

I had to do a lot of learning this year. In June, after six years teaching at the University of Edinburgh, my family and I left Europe and moved to Montreal. To be fair, as a professor my job is to always be learning: from my research, from my colleagues, and from my students. That’s the norm, and it’s why I love my job. But moving to a new university, in a new country—it was a lot.

One of my main worries at the start of this year was that small mountain of things that I had to learn as a new faculty member at McGill would keep me from doing the best job I could for my students’ learning. For this and many other reasons, I am deeply honored to receive the AUS award for Most Outstanding Professor. Despite the whirlwind of this past year, it means so much knowing that my students enjoyed my teaching, and I’m already looking forward to even better years to come.

So what does teaching mean to me? There are a lot of ways that I can answer that. From a personal perspective, it’s something that I grew up with: my mother was a public school teacher for over thirty years and my father is a labor journalist and community organizer, all of which revolves around helping others learn skills to improve themselves, think critically, and work together for common goals. That my brother has also ended up becoming a professor adds to the family nerdiness. And from a professional perspective, teaching is what feels the most important to me and also the most creative. There are always new content modules to include, newly digitized primary sources to analyze, and new types of assignments to experiment with.

And I think that my creativity with written assignments was perhaps a key reason for my AUS teaching award. In HIST210: Introduction to Latin American History, the final assignment asked students to write a piece of historical fiction, along with a reflection essay in which they had to explain their research process and their authorial choices. I am by no means opposed to the more “classic” history paper, though because this was a survey course, and knowing that most of my students were not history majors, I wanted to create an assignment that was fun, but also required deep research and attention to detail. (That the assignment is ChatGPT-proof is an added bonus, though by no means a deciding factor).

To help scaffold the themes of the assignment into the course itself, I also constructed a large portion of my lectures around questions of narrative and storytelling: what role did discourse play in shaping Latin American history, what were the myths and stories that politicians and artists crafted as part of the nation-building process, and what did it mean for grassroots and subaltern groups to articulate alternative stories, and to challenge dominant languages? Storytelling is at the heart of the discipline of history, and when done well, it can feel thrilling.

Asking students to write a work of historical fiction can also be very challenging. Not everyone gets excited about having to make up a story and populate it with small details. Storytelling can be liberating (I can write about anything!) but it can also be overwhelming (I can write about anything?!). Plus, students understandably worried that they would be graded on how “good” their writing was. My job was to offer clear expectations and parameters for the assignment. What mattered most was that students showed a strong process of research, and explained in their reflection essay how they constructed the world of their story.

The results of this assignment blew me away. Students wrote a full range of deeply researched and engaged stories, spanning a full sweep of Latin American history. The stories were moving, and genuinely fun to read, and they showed such creativity, too: some took the form of a diary, some as a screenplay or a poem, and even those that “just” told a story did so with empathy and a keen eye toward imagining how history is experienced by those who live it.

It’s not always the case that a new assignment feels like it actually worked, and there are still several aspects that I will surely keep revising. But as a newly arrived professor here at McGill, and teaching this particular course for the first time, I’m very happy with how it went. So to my students: if I ever seemed distracted this year, it was probably because I was trying to learn how to navigate MyCourses or where to get a good cup of coffee on campus (except for Dispatch, I’m still at a loss on that puzzle). That you nonetheless still enjoyed our classes together means so much to me, and I look forward to learning more with you in the years to come.

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