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Wilfrid Laurier University Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
October 28, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Dr. Cynthia Comacchio
Dr. Cynthia Comacchio

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Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing

2002 Award for Teaching Excellence announced

History professor Cynthia Comacchio praised for "contagious enthusiasm"

Mar 28/02

Dr. Cynthia Comacchio, a professor of history at Laurier for 13 years, has been honoured with the 2002 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Comacchio is a social historian who specializes in childhood and family history. In addition to being the author of numerous reviews, articles in refereed journals, and book chapters, she has written two books, Nations are Built of Babies: Saving Ontario’s Mothers and Children, 1900–1940 (1993, paperback 1998) and The Infinite Bonds of Family: Domesticity in Canada, 1850–1940 (1999), and is currently working on a sociocultural history of adolescence in Canada from 1900 to 1950.

Nations are Built of Babies was shortlisted for the H.A. Innis Award (best monograph in social sciences and humanities category) and by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (best book on women’s issues category).

In January, Comacchio was awarded the first Faculty of Arts Teaching Scholar Award.

Comacchio was nominated for the 2002 Award for Teaching Excellence by a group of her students, who praised her for her teaching, her approachability and her “contagious enthusiasm” for the teaching of history.

“My approach to teaching is premised on a few simple notions to which I am committed,” said Comacchio: “that history is an intrinsically fascinating subject, and that the engaged, enthusiastic instructor will convey that to all students, awakening even the initially indifferent to the value of studying the past. “I recognize the idealism inherent in these principles,” she added, “but I refuse to give them up.”

Comacchio comes by her interest in family history quite honestly. “When I started my PhD in 1984, I had a two-year-old. I had been working on Quebec intellectual history, but then I started thinking … where did mothers turn for help before Dr. Spock?,” the American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book, Baby and Child Care, became the bible on child rearing for the new Baby Boom.

“I found there was a whole generation of (Canadian) doctors who became mothers’ advisors. It had to do with the First World War, which focused a lot of attention on the health of Canadians because so many recruits were rejected for health reasons.”

After the war a great effort was made to improve infant and maternal health in an attempt to correct the horrible (especially by our standards) child mortality rate. “One out of 10 Canadian children died before their first birthday,” Comacchio said.

So the medical establishment of the day became actively involved in “scientific child rearing” through clinics, instruction manuals and visits by nurses. The federal and provincial governments became involved through the distribution of health related material.

“It saved a lot of mothers,” Comacchio noted, because “death in childbirth was the second highest cause of women’s deaths, after tuberculosis.”

What was really needed, however, was the opportunity for mothers and mothers-to-be to visit doctors without having to pay. In those pre-medicare days, however, that was not to be.

The health of babies and mothers is just one area of social history that fascinates Comacchio, and her enthusiasm carries over to the classroom. That’s what makes for good teaching.

“If you’re enthusiastic about what you study, and you can present the information in a clear fashion, it’s not that hard to draw students in,” she said. “History matters to all of us, and we’re all part of a bigger story. I guess on some level I’m reaching them that way.”

Comacchio takes a very broad view of her job in the classroom.

“Although I spend much of my time teaching our students about their own nation—a critical starting point for the formation of thoughtful citizenship—I am also teaching them to understand themselves as citizens of the world, rather than merely of one nation-state, region, community or social group.

“Students today also need to learn a great deal more than students in previous generations generally did about the marginalized people of our society, about the history and culture of ethnic and racial minorities, about the experience of women and about the institutional developments fostered over time by these varied experiences.

“I try to teach about people who have been rendered invisible because they were deemed to be powerless. And I encourage what has been called the ‘narrative imagination,’ the ability to try to understand what it might be like to experience life from a position other than one’s own.”

It all sounds practiced and smooth, but Comacchio said it’s not that easy.

“I still have stage fright. It takes me a good 10 minutes to relax in class. There are always these thoughts going through your head, ‘I’m going to freeze, I don’t know anything’—it’s not rational. It’s a fear.”

Which brings up Comacchio’s pet peeve: Would-be professors do not receive training in how to teach, which to her mind is “absurd and illogical.”

And she’s helping to do something about it at Laurier. She is part of a group that is trying to develop a teaching certificate for PhD students here. “No one,” she said, “should have to have a sense of horror” when confronting her first classroom full of students.

Barry Ries
Public Affairs
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5
(519) 884-0710, Ext. 3067


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