It might come as a surprise that this year’s winner of the Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the Assistant Professor category – who holds a William Dawson Chair in History – is considered nobility in his native Ghana. And flunked his graduating year at a Mississauga high school.
But that, too, was clearly a teaching moment, and Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, who teaches and writes about American history as well as various aspects of the African diaspora, has made his mark as a thoughtful, engaging teacher and a respected scholar. At age 38.
This is not his first rodeo. In May 2022, Adjetey received the Faculty of Arts H. Noel Fieldhouse Award for Distinguished Teaching.
Teaching rooted in empathy
A quick glance at ratemyprofessor.com unearths a trove of rave reviews, many of which focus not only on what a nice guy he is, but on how he challenges students to think for themselves.
So, first question: What makes you a good teacher?
“I’m still trying to convince myself … that I am, quote unquote, ‘a good teacher,’ ” he says with the flash of a smile.
“One thing that I learned from good and great teachers is that those who you aspire to educate, or enlighten, or motivate need to discern that you are sincere, that you are authentic, that you genuinely care about their welfare, their success – and that the little victories matter to you as much as they might matter to them … that their success is your success.”
This, he says, is rooted in empathy, to make sure students know that you think they’re worth it.
Adjetey revels in the moments of transformation, of breakthrough, when he can see the light of understanding switch on.
Moments “when I’ve actually put myself in my students’ shoes, and I’ve told them candidly, ‘my job, if I do it well, is not merely to impart information, it is not merely – and God forbid – to indoctrinate you and make you see the world as I do. My job is to teach you how to think critically, how to make sense of the world.’ ”
He encourages students to challenge anything he says, so long as they are respectful, “because if I’m saying it, I’d better be able to back it up with substantive evidence.”
Honest conversations about history
So how does a member of the African diaspora, who has deep respect for and attachment to his Ghanaian roots, and who knows of ancestors ripped from their homeland in the slave trade, feel about the fact a statue of James McGill was removed from the lower campus over the founder’s owning of slaves in the 18th Century?
He pauses to sort his thoughts and then delivers a perfectly thoughtful answer.
“Institutions want to laud those who are their great benefactors, or founding benefactors.
“There’s a type of sanitizing that comes from the institution, or the state, that seeks to lessen the fact that said individuals had feet of clay, they were human, they made some bad decisions.
“On the other hand, there’s a type of sanitizing I see now, among students and within the general population, where they want to remove things that make them uncomfortable.
“As a historian, I think both are very dangerous and equally dangerous. We shouldn’t be afforded the privilege or luxury of pretending we are not direct or indirect beneficiaries of people who did some bad things.
“I think there’s a critical middle ground reasonable people of good faith and voices of reason can reach. I think we can have honest conversations about these things without it becoming so polarized.”
From failure, success
Adjetey’s parents moved to Montreal from Ghana in the 1980s and Wendell and his sister were cared for by relatives until they joined their parents to Canada in 1992. “We actually lived two kilometres east of campus.”
The family left in Montreal for Toronto and Wendell was a star student in school in Mississauga. Until his graduating year.
“I failed my senior year, spectacularly,” he says. “My friends were involved with gangs. Toronto was just on fire at the time. It was really bad. Now, I know in hindsight I was dealing with depression, like a lot of my friends. Luckily, I never got into self-medicating.
“I had to repeat Grade 12.” Adjetey realized he had been given an incredible opportunity “because of my parents’ sacrifices, to grow up, go to decent schools for free,” so when he had to repeat that grade 20 years ago, he was blessed to be taken under the wing of a retired, white guidance counsellor with a military background. “He was easily one of the most empathetic people I’ve ever met in my entire life. It actually broke his heart that I was not applying myself.”
Adjetey applied himself, getting top marks the second time around, then going on to an honours BA and Master’s at the University of Toronto, and further graduate work at Yale and Harvard.
When he told his former guidance counsellor years later about all that, the old man wept with joy.
The power of history
“It was actually my dad who inspired me to appreciate the power of history, chronicling the past, especially for people who have experienced forms of dispossession, and disinheritance and dealing with the effects of imperialism and colonialism,” Adjetey says.
“My roots in what is present-day Ghana date back to the late 1400s when my ancestors arrived on the Accra Plains.
“My lineal forebears earned a reputation for defending allies against powerful states that sought to raid and enslave them. I’ve found archival evidence that there was, effectively, a bounty on the heads of my forefathers. Whenever one of our foes had the rare occasion of ambushing one of our warriors, they would likely be summarily beheaded and not sold to the European enslavers.
“In a warrior society as proud and fierce as ours, this fate is considered a badge of honour. One of my current book projects on African warfare along the Gulf of Guinea examines part of this history during the early 19th Century.
“My elders, my kinsmen decided to make me a formal leader, hence my being adorned in sort of ancestral beads,” he says, explaining a colourful bracelet and his silver-hued necklace. “Part of my time goes to nation-building work.
“My official state name and title are Nii Laryea Osabu I, Oblantai Mantse of Atrekor We. In sum, I’m head of state, ambassador, patron to all the non-senior citizens of my clan state, Atrekor We (pronounced wé) which is the foremost ancestral clan along the Gulf of Guinea.”
He got a call in 2019 to come to McGill.
“I was very excited, because it’s McGill, it’s Montreal. This is an institution that has a remarkable reputation, especially because it’s known for having really strong students, really smart students.
“And that’s what brought me here.”