Online course explores North America before colonialism

Carolyn Podruchny
Carolyn Podruchny

For at least 15,000 years before the first Europeans arrived in North America, the continent was inhabited by a variety of creative, sophisticated and technologically skilled cultures. Yet, most history courses about North America begin with First Contact, as it is called – a decidedly Eurocentric approach that Carolyn Podruchny, a York University historian, is helping to erase with her online course, Ancient North America.

Podruchny, a professor of history in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), created the first-year course five years ago as a blended course and took it fully online the following year. The year-long course had only 12 students the first year, but has become increasingly popular and is now capped at 150 students.

“I was frustrated by the timelines of most North American history courses – they were so unbalanced,” Podruchny said. “The period before European settlement wasn’t included, and it was especially galling since many of my students were Indigenous.

“Even archaeologists call it pre-history.”

Medicine Wheels in Big Horn. Image courtesy of Carolyn Podruchny

Podruchny said she “decentred my own thinking about early Canada” and dove into research about the development of the continent since the last Ice Age. She found a text written by an esteemed American archaeologist, but it didn’t include anything about Canada or Mexico, so Podruchny sought to fill in the in the gaps.

“The farther back you go, the more fragmented the story is,” she said. “Indigenous people wrote things down in different ways than European records: they developed, preserved and disseminated knowledge through oral technologies (stories and songs) and they inscribed meaning on material objects, such as rocks, or created medicine wheels in stone. They expressed meaning through the tools they made, through wampum (shell beads woven into belts), and architecture, such as large earthworks.

“In Mesoamerica [Mexico and Guatemala], thousands of books were produced, printed on animal skins and paper, but most of them burned during the Spanish conquest; fewer than 25 survived.”

Podruchny takes her students from the Arctic to Mesoamerica, from the eastern edges of the continent back to the west and back during the course, exploring the various cultures and their achievements: land cultivation, ocean whaling, city building, transportation, art, trade networks and much more.

Pueblo Bonita. Image courtesy Carolyn Podruchny

“I want students to understand how these cultures overcame or used their environment to become very sophisticated,” she said. “I emphasize the mystery of it all: the rise and fall of all of these incredible civilizations. Take Cahokia, for example, located at the meeting of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (present-day St. Louis), which peaked at about 1100 AD. It was certainly larger than any European city of its time, but it dissipated about 1350, although descendants have been found in contemporary Indigenous cultures.”

Podruchny records and edits the video lectures for the course herself, incorporating artists’ renderings and archaeological remains into the visuals.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning video editing and the lectures have gotten better as my skill has improved,” Podruchny said. “A huge amount of intellectual content goes into video editing, so I wanted to do it myself.”

Mississippian Village with a two-mound plaza. Image courtesy of Carolyn Podruchny

She also makes sure her face is on the screen throughout the lecture to personalize the course for the students, even though it may only be a tiny presence in the corner, because it “often feels like I’m teaching into the void.” She looks for opportunities to form connections with students, although, as the course has grown, she realized it was even more important for her teaching assistants to get to know the participants in their online tutorials. This year, as an experiment, students get bonus marks for meeting their course teaching assistant by phone, on Skype, in person, or with Google hangouts.

Overall, Podruchny is very happy with the delivery method, because it makes the lectures accessible to students according to their schedules and it also allows students located anywhere in the world to participate. She has even had a couple of students from China.

Nonetheless, eventually, Podruchny would like to see an Indigenous professor take over the course, and her department has just hired its first Indigenous faculty member. In teaching the course, she emphasizes the ethics involved in studying Indigenous cultures and includes both the oral tradition and archaeological sources, highlighting “the ways they influence the stories we can tell.”

“It’s time for us to take our blinders off,” Podruchny said.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus