Professor Wendell Adjetey Awarded H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching

An historian of the United States and of the African diaspora, and recently appointed as a William Dawson Scholar, Professor Adjetey was awarded the 2022 H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching. We asked Professor Adjetey to share his thoughts and reflections on this great honour.
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour.

As a scholar who researches and publishes on the history of racial injustice and the ways that enslaved and nominally free Black people resisted such indignities, I have an unwavering commitment to teach and disseminate this knowledge. Central to my research, teaching, and public engagement is the premise that the humanities—and history in particular—are fundamental to ensuring a free and equitable society. To help my students or audience appreciate their place in the world and in relation to historical actors, I encourage them to exercise humility, introspection, circumspection, and always maintain an open and critical mind.

After I deliver a lecture on a given theme—transatlantic slavery, the emergence of race and racial caste, resistance to enslavement, human rights freedom struggles, transnational movements—my students often appear shocked and incredulous. “I didn’t know that before” or “Why didn’t we learn this history in high school?” I assure my students that, notwithstanding the significant progress that scholars have made to uncover the history of African peoples in the Atlantic World, there remains much for us to excavate, analyze, and disseminate. This reminder serves two purposes. First, it is one way for me to express humility and show that learning and discovery are constant. Second, it helps students not internalize that they are somehow ill-prepared or not smart. To lighten the mood and humanize the gravity of the topics that we are discussing, I quote the great Jamaican revolutionary prophet and philosopher Robert Nesta Marley who, in response to the seemingly endless violence and hardships that African peoples endure, lamented, “half that story has never been told.”

My students tell me that I have a unique way of teaching U.S. and Canadian history and explaining how race intersects or impacts other historical themes in the Atlantic World. Moreover, they tell me that I have helped them gain a much better understanding and appreciation of this history. This sentiment is one of the most heartening endorsements that an instructor can receive. It is a powerful reminder that my students are listening attentively, are engaged, and are committed to informing me that the way in which I share critical information with them matters.

One factor that helps me teach U.S., African Diaspora, and Atlantic World history authentically, unapologetically, and respectfully is my intimate connection to this geography and history. I was born in Teshie, a coastal town on the Gulf of Guinea in Metropolitan Accra, Ghana. My lineal forbears founded Teshie in the late seventeenth century as a garrison, which helped them to resist the genocidal and seismically disruptive transatlantic slavery. As a curious and inquisitive child, my father, an excellent story teller, helped me understand my direct connections to the most protracted crime against humanity and African peoples’ resistance. Growing up with Black elders in Canadian society who were of Caribbean, Canadian, and U.S. descent gave me an even greater appreciation of this history. It helped enormously, too, that my elders loved history and had felt a sense of duty to educate—that is, inspire—me.

As much as I teach my students, they teach me, too. I have worked with children and youth in many contexts and some factors that remain constant—and this is as true here at McGill as it in north Toronto or Yale or Harvard—is that sincerity, authenticity, humility, empathy, and kindness go a long way. My students encourage me always to show these infectious traits and sentiments. They treat one another accordingly. My students give me hope. A subtle thank-you or smile after class or an e-mail to let me know how a lecture inspired them is like oxygen. I am thrilled to teach such smart and delightful students at McGill.

During the pandemic lockdown, I gained an even greater admiration for my students. They displayed patience and resilience that compelled me to do likewise. I was reminded that teaching during difficult times requires utmost good faith and kindness. Equally important is humour, which can be medicinal and therapeutic, especially during difficult times.

I am so thrilled and grateful that my students nominated me for the H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching. I am also thankful to my former chair, Jason Opal, and my current chair, Kate Desbarats, for their ongoing support. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Perez, remains one of my heroines. My high school guidance counsellor, the late Mr. Hinchcliffe, showed me empathy and understanding when I most needed it.

 

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