Dr. Steven Bednarski teaches and researches the past, but where his students are concerned, innovative learning is very much a part of the present. Bednarski’s approach to teaching and learning history is cutting-edge and the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education recently recognized his efforts with a D2L Innovation Award in Teaching. This recognition comes after years of dedication to finding creative approaches that help students learn about the social history of late medieval crime, gender, and the natural environment.
Bednarski, who was also the recipient of the University of Waterloo’s distinguished teacher award in 2011, focuses on going out in the world, encountering the past, and sharing it with others. His book, A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner (University of Toronto Press, 2014) proposed and pioneered a new genre of historical writing that he describes as “pedagogical microhistory: gripping historical narrative, grounded in rigorous academic research, written with the learner and reader in mind.”
A Partnership Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) directed by Bednarski, followed his book, resulting in a dynamic research partnership between St. Jerome’s University, the University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, and the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex. This grant has helped Canadian students take approximately 50 trips to Herstmonceux Castle, where they learn about the past by doing. As junior research partners they acquire important skills working on a live archaeological site and training in local archives. Their focus is on understanding how medieval climate change affected the ways in which people lived six centuries ago.
“People learn best by doing,” stated Bednarski, which was one reason why he designed the recently launched Medieval Digital Research in Arts and Graphical Environmental Networks Lab – D.R.A.G.E.N. It is, Bednarski noted, the first of its kind.
With support from St. Jerome’s University, the D.R.A.G.E.N lab ensures that once students return from Hersmonceux they have an opportunity for continued learning, while applying the knowledge and skills gained while there. D.R.A.G.E.N. is a digital research lab of Medieval Studies and Medieval Environmental History. It is home to a team of undergraduate research interns working alongside MA and PhD candidates at the University of Waterloo and St. Jerome’s University. Faculty members from the medieval disciplines supervise the Lab members on a variety of advanced research projects.
“I chose the D.R.A.G.E.N. Lab because it seemed the best way to make connections with other Medievalists and professors across the university,” stated Peter Del Rosso, a second year student majoring in Medieval Studies and minoring in History. Del Rosso added that “not a lot of disciplines have labs…to help people connect, so it is very appealing…networking across universities is a daily occurrence.”
Collaboration is an integral principle in the lab. Undergraduate students work in teams and participate in grant writing and delivering academic papers in public conferences, including the two day Climates of Change Symposium, which also benefitted from SSHRC funding last October; and delivering the keynote address at Laurier University’s recent Forward into the Past conference. Bednarski’s students also contribute to the writing process, working in teams to co-author a print and digital publication.
Professor Steven Bednarski is pushing the boundaries of history. With an award-winning approach to teaching and learning, he is collaborating with students in a project that brings innovation to the study of medieval history and what medieval climate change means for us today.
“The thought of having a one-on-one interaction with so distinguished a professor really caught my attention,” stated Del Rosso, “and I must confess that so far my hopes have been fulfilled.”