In this post, I’d like to provide a short overview of a recent experience integrating digital history into my teaching. This fall, I taught the course HIS4567, Histoire de l’immigration et des communautés ethnoculturelles au Québec, for the first time at the Université du Québec à Montréal. HIS4567 is a second-year undergraduate history course with a group small enough–30ish students–that we could mix lectures and discussions. It was a great learning experience, for me (and I hope for the students too), and also a chance to experiment.
One of the first things I did was think about grading and term work. As I designed the course, I was particularly interested in finding assignments that would engage students from a range of personal and disciplinary backgrounds–social work, political science, education, history, certificate programs in intercultural relations. Many, I knew, might be unused to historical research & writing, or unfamiliar with the major themes in the field. At the same time, at UQÀM, we were lucky enough to be studying immigration history in the heart of a North American metropolis whose history has been defined by migrations — I thought that was worth exploiting in this class. All the more so considering there is very little in the way of public history around Montréal’s immigrant past, although that is changing with initiatives like the Museum of Jewish Montréal.
I settled on a digital history project with low barriers in terms of technological expertise (which I don’t have anyway), a collaborative ethic, and a product designed for public consumption. Over the course of the semester, the students and I created, with only a few hiccups, a collaborative digital map of Montréal migration history using the fabulous (and free!) HistoryPin platform. We called it “Montréal : ville de migrations”.
Over the last decade, a number of colleagues in the US and Canada have experimented with this kind of assignment in undergraduate classrooms. So by no means was I venturing into uncharted territory. The idea for the project came both from hearing their reflections on how best to go about these kind of digital history projects (thanks Gilberto Fernandes in particular!) and from my own playing around with HistoryPin in the past.
As part of prep for this project, the Museum of Jewish Montréal hosted my students for a walking tour of Jewish Plateau Mont-Royal (c.1900-1950), and an informal Q&A about their project. It was a chance to discuss the profound impacts migrations and migrant communities can have on the urban landscape, both through their day-to-day life patterns and the founding of institutions and businesses. We also saw firsthand how neighbourhood identities depend on presence and use, and how they evolve and change over time: in the twentieth century Plateau Mont-Royal has been shaped successively by rural Québec migration and by immigration from Britain, Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, Portugal, and other parts of the world.
Putting together our project went something like this:
Students picked and visited a site related to the history of migrations for their research. I left the idea of “site” deliberately vague in the assignment, although I provided a list of examples: they could pick a person, a building, a park, a street, a neighbourhood. I was eager to see students get creative in their choices, and they did. Several chose churches and community centres; others chose a nightspot, a mural, a graffiti artist, a library, and a community history project in Montréal-Nord.
I deliberately encouraged students to think of migrations in their most general sense, and not to confine themselves to studying particular ethnic communities. Of course, with their networks of institutions and ethnic-identified neighbourhoods (“Little Italy,” “Chinatown”), those tend to be the first migration stories we latch onto. But cities like Montréal have also been shaped by rural-urban migrations within the province, by departures, and by other movements that do not necessary conform to the classic immigration model, which tends to emphasize ethnic difference and rupture. One student, for example, focused on Montréal’s gay and lesbian archives as an institution created by inter-provincial migration of young gay men from Ontario, in the context of the establishment of a gay village populated by migrants from other parts of the province, country, and world.
Students then researched their site, using secondary and primary sources. Generally, most relied on the former. But several conducted oral interviews, with some guidance from me on research ethics. One profiled her neighbour, recently arrived as a refugee from Latin America, on her personal experience discovering Montréal’s network of Latino shops and cultural institutions. Another interviewed the owner of the first North African café to open up in the Petit Maghreb neighbourhood. The amount of research that went into this part of the project varied. The next time I assign something similar, I will be clearer about my expectations regarding the use of primary sources, and will try to include some training in using sources in the process.
Students handed in a four-page research report that discussed their site and its links to the larger history of migrations to, from, and in Québec and Canada. We then worked as a class to convert those texts into short (250-300 word), clear and accessible texts for a public audience. I called them “virtual historical plaques”, to give a sense of the length and approach desired. One successful activity was a mini-workshop in class, in which students got together to read one another’s short texts and provide comments on their clarity, style, and historical narrative. It was fun, and students quickly mastered giving constructive feedback. An excellent alternative to having the professor comment on each of the short texts.
Finally, students searched the ample archive of digital images for an historical image of their individual or site. When there was none to be found, they took a photo themselves. Here, again, their might be room for improvement in the assignment process: not all students were as comfortable as I expected finding and citing images in online archives.
Using HistoryPin, we assembled our digital map in about 90 minutes. This essentially consisted of “pinning” images and texts to a map, on which 26 sites slowly appeared. Students took ownership for their pin: they each created an account and posted using that account, giving them control over (and responsibility for) what they had produced. This is, I think the best way to do this kind of project; one unforeseen difficulty, however, was that I had to chase students to get minor edits on their posts done. A solution might be to complete the project earlier in the term (we finished it the second-last week of term) and make editing their post/pin part of the assignment. Note that if you are an educator, you can contact HistoryPin and get help with your own collaborative project. I found them responsive and enthusiastic.
The class also presented their research, talking for about 5-10 minutes each and showing the images and geographical information they had found. This was by far the most fun, although it did eat into class time quite a bit (30 presentations * 5-10 minutes = less teaching time for a few weeks). We learned a great deal about an idiosyncratic range of people and places related to Montréal’s migration history, from the 1600s through to 2017. Students asked questions and were generally very interested in learning about the city they study and (mostly) live in. Many UQÀM students are not originally from Montréal, like me, and a few mentioned that this was an excellent way to get to know their adopted city.
This was an assignment that demanded considerable work from the professor, as compared to a more standard short essay. I met individually with all the students to approve their topics, and ensure they would be able to find sources. I provided research suggestions and a resource bank to the class; I laid out a long and probably too-complex process for getting the work done in steps. I also devoted a substantial amount of class time to discussing the project and to presentations. Still, I’ll be doing it again. Particularly with a mixed group of students, around a third of whom were in their first history class, this was an excellent way to introduce them to historical research as something creative and useful. I wanted them to produce something they could show to family and friends, and that could be read by the average Google-searcher interested in a particular site or theme in Montréal’s history. Next time around, I’ll change a few things; but I hope to have a similar group of diverse, curious, and fun students to explore the city with.
Check out the project “Montréal : ville de migrations“.
Gilberto Fernandes’ & his students “Toronto the Bad: A Riots Map and Timeline” helped inspire this project.