Understanding and conceptualizing evil when learning about horrific events like genocide and war is a topic new Secondary Education faculty member Cathryn van Kessel has wrestled with since she discovered the extent of her family’s role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.
“My grandmother's family had resistance fighters, including the man who became my grandfather, in the basement or their barn when occupying Nazi troops would stop at their house while on their rounds,” explained van Kessel.
“I can’t imagine what it is like to make that decision. No matter what you choose to do, you’re putting your family at risk.”
The perception that youth have of the dark chapters of human history is something that van Kessel started exploring academically when she was a high school teacher covering “really disheartening things” such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor. This experience forced her to re-evaluate how she taught these topics.
“I wanted to teach for social justice and about these horrible events in history so we don’t repeat them,” she said.
“I wanted to make them feel, and not just hear cold statistics, so I’d show them things like the original footage from Auschwitz, thinking I was doing a great job. Instead I was destroying any hope they had for the future.”
Rather than repeating the same teaching method for future students, van Kessel started looking into other ways to present the heavy material and learning more about students’ conceptualization of evil.
“I was concerned about how we teach genocide, but at the heart of it, I was more interested in the idea of evil and how that can either shut down or open up thinking.”
As a PhD student, van Kessel kept busy working on this research, even presenting it in the UAlberta Three Minute Thesis competition. As a faculty member she plans to continue researching into youth’s perception of evil in social studies curriculum by collaborating with colleagues who focus on terror management theory, wisdom traditions, world views and bringing it to an educational perspective.
Transitioning from graduate student to faculty member
One of the unique parts of van Kessel’s transition from graduate student to faculty member is that she made the switch at the same institution and in the same department. She considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to remain at UAlberta and continue working with those who supported her as a graduate student.
“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she joked.
“I just want to make sure I’m making everyone proud. It’s such an honour to be counted as their colleague and they mean a lot to me already.”
One change in particular that van Kessel is excited for is the opportunity to pay it forward to the graduate students she will work with in the future.
“It’s fun for me to think of mentoring people through the process that is still so fresh in my mind,” van Kessel said.
“I think back to when I started my doctoral degree and all the skills I built. I hope I can give them all the great experiences I had when I was mentored by other people in the department.”
Mentoring future educators isn’t new to van Kessel, however. When she was a graduate student, she transitioned from teaching high school students into educating their future teachers. Something that always surprised van Kessel’s students is her use of diverse genres of music in the classroom.
“I’ll use metal and punk, but I’ll also use really sweet, gentle and melodic stuff like The Weepies. At the end of the semester I always get asked ‘What do you actually listen to? Is it Public Enemy? Is it Rage Against the Machine? Is it The Weepies?’”
Still, educating the next generation of social studies teachers is a task van Kessel does not take lightly.
“In some ways it is more high stakes since you have a bigger ripple which can either be a really nice thing, or a really horrifying thing depending on how it goes, but I love it,” she said.
“It’s exciting to hear how these future teachers are wrestling with the these tough topics, and telling them that it’s okay for them to be grappling with those things and how they might bring that into the classroom.”