Ontario Extend mOOC – Module 1

Assorted Lego on a wood floor.

I’m currently participating in the eCampus Ontario Extend mOOC focused on technology enabled learning.  As part of this medium sized Open Online Course (mOOC) it was suggested that participants keep an ongoing set of notes to document and organize their thoughts about the experience.  As a way to document my experience I’m going to be keeping informal blog notes that reflect on what I’m learning and the activities I’m engaging in via the mOOC.

Module 1 of the mOOC is all about “Teacher for Learning” and is really focused on student learning and the ways in which learning happens.  I’ll be working through this module’s activities this week and will be sharing my work below as I complete it: Continue reading Ontario Extend mOOC – Module 1

Reflections on an Undergraduate Public History Course

Ryan Gosling Sitting at a bar. Words written "Hey Girl, Combining my image with theory is an outstanding exercise in Public History praxis"

This fall I had the opportunity to teach “Select Topics in Community-Based Public History”, a third-year history course at Algoma University.  This was my first time designing and being the sole instructor for a course.  Now that the dust has settled and all my marks are in I thought I would use this post to reflect on how the course went.

As some background, I approached this course with the desire to provide students with a grounding in collaborative practice and community engagement, while introducing them to the range of possibilities within the public history field. This was only the second time this course has been offered at AlgomaU. I also had a really small class of under ten students.  The class was a mixture of history majors and folks who were taking this as an elective.  The class met twice a week for 1.5 hours each session in a standard classroom space on campus.  Some of the activities and approaches I took would likely have to be adjusted for a larger class size.

Planning the Course

When I found out that I was the selected as the instructor for this course I had a whole lot of squee and excitement (I may have actually jumped up and down). Once that initial excitement dulled I immediately dove into research mode. I looked at the syllabus from the 2015 iteration of this course and scoured the internet for undergraduate level public history syllabi. I also reached out to a couple of folks who I knew were teaching public history at the undergraduate level in Canada.  My goal was to see how other folks had structured their classes, while looking for Canadian specific public history content to create a syllabus around. I also wanted to use open access readings and avoid assigning a textbook.

I also started scoping out what topics I needed to know more about in order to effectively teach them in the classroom.  I had strong ideas about what I wanted to include in relation to archives, digital history, museums and oral history.  But, I was much less certain in how I would present material relating to Parks Canada, commemoration, and built heritage. One of the best parts of preparing for this class was that I got to embark on a public history reading binge.

For me public history is all about collaboration and community outreach. In each week I underpinned our discussion in relationship to public outreach, accessibility, and community facilitation. This meant that though we might be talking about archives one week and built heritage the next week there were underlying themes which were woven into the entire the course. For most classes I lectured for approximately 45 minutes and the remainder of the class was spent on either discussion or hands-on learning activities.  One of my goals of this class was to provide skill building opportunities for the students. This meant thinking creatively about how to engage students in activities where they could practice what they were learning.

Building Assignments

I included a couple of assignments that allowed students the opportunity to explore formats that weren’t a traditional essay.  The inclusion of these assignments went back to the idea that I wanted students to come away from the class with some hands-on skills and to have had the opportunity to think about public history critically. The short written assignment for this class focused on interpreting a local heritage plaque.  Students were required to pick a plaque from an approved list of Ontario Heritage Trust and Canadian Heritage Site plaques.  They were then required to analyze the plaque and come up with alternate wording for the plaque text.  The catch – they had to keep the plaque within 5 words of its current number.  This was a 2-4 double spaced assignment and I was impressed with the work the students put into developing new plaque language and researching the historical significance of their chosen marker.

The final assignment for the class allowed students the option of completing either a traditional research paper or creating a digital history exhibit.  The students were evenly split – with half of them deciding to do a paper and half opting to create an exhibit. I warned students that though the exhibit might seem like the easier of the options, the exhibit assignment actually required the use of a number of skillets including historical research, concise writing, digital history tools, and exhibit curation. The exhibit assignment required them to develop a historical narrative/argument, pick 10-15 images to illustrate their exhibit, and develop fulsome captions based on their research to accompany the images.  I was impressed by the creativity, research, and narrative building of the students who picked the exhibit option.  Many of the students picked Tumblr as their exhibit platform.  This worked okay but there are definitely other platforms that would have worked better for this project. If I was using this assignment again I might spend more time in class exposing students to open source CMS and exhibit software such as OMEKA. I might also consider moving the classes on digital history into a computer lab space so there could be more hands-on learning activities while walking through examples.

Collaboration in Practice

Most classes involved group work either in the form of small group discussions or working in pairs to complete a hands-on task.  Since collaboration is such an important part of public history work I wanted to make sure my students had multiple opportunities to build teamwork skills and work in groups, something that isn’t always emphasized in humanities education.  In addition to in-class activities students worked in small groups for a presentation assignment and our participation in the Canada-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon helped foster a communal spirit.

I also took a collaborative approach to teaching the class.  I reached out to a number of local heritage professionals and invited them to collaborate on the course.  In some instances that involved us visiting their heritage space and working on a reflective activity there. See my Active History post for details on how we used Anarchist Museum tags to encourage students to critically think about heritage spaces. In other cases, professionals came into my class to speak with students or spoke to students by Skype. I had a couple of goals with this approach: I wanted students to meet local public history practitioners and expose them to some of the great work that is happening locally, I wanted to showcase the range of possibilities within the public history field, and I wanted to continue to build partnerships between AlgomaU and community organizations.

One of the best examples of how this collaboration worked out to enhance the course was when Miranda Bouchard of Thinking Rock Community Arts visited our class.  Prior to Miranda’s visit we had spent a couple of classes talking about community engagement and oral history.  During Miranda’s visit she talked about her role in the Rivers Speak Community Play, an initiative that based around gathering community memories of water and crafting them into a community created play.  Miranda’s work was an excellent example of public history skills used in practice and her work illustrated the potential of community engaged oral history practice.  We also used this opportunity to talk about some of the real struggles of community work – learning how to facilitate community dialogue, grant writing, ethics, and all the admin work.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

As with any course there were some weeks that went better than others.  There are definitely readings I would switch and a couple of lectures that missed the mark that I would approach from different angles. I talk to groups a lot as part of my day job, but getting up in front of a class on a regular basis has a different feel.  It took me a while to work my way through my feelings around the performative nature of teaching and I learned a lot about myself during this class.

If teaching this course again I would also build in a more structured participation model for the seminar portion of the course, as in many cases students desired a more concrete guidelines around how they were expected to participate in the classroom discussions. I might also consider running a workshop on how to cite sources for a public history assignment.  Many of the students in my class hasn’t cited archival photographs before. Providing in-class support or a written guide on how to do this would have been helpful when it came time to do their final assignment.

Photo Credit: Image from the Public History Ryan Gosling Project created by Rachel Boyle and Anne E. Culle.  Go check out their project. So many fantastic memes.

Teaching: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History

This fall I’ll be teaching HIST 3296: Select Topics in Community-Based Public History at AlgomaU. I’m thrilled to have this opportunity and excited to be able to share my love of public history with students.

From the course calendar: The course will introduce students to the theory and practice of community-based public history, with reference to local and regional examples. Students will explore the history and relevance of community-based efforts to make the past visible and comprehensible to the public. The social functions of museums, libraries, archives, and monuments, as well as web-based sites of historical commemoration, will be critically assessed. Contrasts between history, heritage, social memory, and tools such as oral history will be examined.

I’m still working on the planning of the course but in the meantime I’m using this as a reason to enjoy some public history focused books that I have been on my to-read list for ages.  So far my reading has looked at Parks Canada, commemoration in Canada, participatory heritage, museum writing, and exhibit design.  If nothing else this reading has filled my head with a lot of great ideas and also reminded me about the diversity of public history.  So much of my work is archives focused theses days. I do engage in a lot of educational programming, community outreach, and the occasional exhibit design – however it is all through an archival lens.  It’s been nice to take a step back from that really focused form of public history and to look at broader social trends, work that is going on in my local community, and interesting projects occurring across Canada. Onwards!

Introduction to Archives

As my last post indicated I’ve been thinking a lot about archival instruction and introducing students and other new users to archives.  As part of this process I’ve been gathering resources that explain how archives are organized, introduce the basic of archival processing, and explain different aspects of archival theory.

Some of the best resources I’ve come across so far include:

  • How do Archivists Organize Collections?” by Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA). A clearly written introduction to how archives are organized.  This post touches on physical processing, the concept of fonds, and how archives are different from libraries.  PAMA has also written excellent posts on what archivists do and on what it’s like to visit the archives.
  • Archives Association of British Columbia Archivist’s Toolkit. The toolkit provides resources for archivists on a range of archival topics including basic archival principals, uses of archives, and a range of outreach topics.
  • Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology created by the Society of American Archivists. The glossary contains more than 2,000 entries on a wide range of archival terms.  I’ve used this resource when creating presentations to help explain terminology specific to archives.
  • About records, archives and the profession” by the International Council on Archives.  A primer on archives and archivists.  My favourite line of this piece is “archives are for life and for living.”
  • Animating the Archives video series by Tate Gallery.  The series explores the different facets and uses of archives. A number of the videos explore art based archives and the relevancy of archives to artistic and research practices.
  • Archives Association of Ontario Introduction to Archives Youtube series. Includes presentations on using archives, describing archives, arranging archives, and wikipedia for archivists.

What resources do you turn to when teaching about archives?

Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom

My latest post, “Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom” can be seen over on Active History.  The post focuses on resources that can help teachers integrate residential schools into their lessons. I look a handful of education tools which can be accessed digitally and are good starting points for teaching the history of residential schools.

Active Learning and History Education

In September I talked about the online records management course I’m currently taking.  As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement.  One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session.  The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants. 

The idea of fostering active discussion is great.  But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat.  Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics.  Thus far I’ve attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more.  Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions.  Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn’t unique to online delivery — poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online.  It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.

Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all ‘the facts.’ Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.  

So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I’m not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions.   Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches.  Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom.  I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof’s office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub. 

Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants.  Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process.  With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key.   Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.

What have been some of your best education experiences?  Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently? 

Photo credit: My Silent Side