Teaching

TEACHING ORAL AND PUBLIC HISTORY ACROSS DISCIPLINES AND WITH COMMUNITIES (PART I)

Published on June 8, 2021

By Steven High, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

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Caption: Concordia public history students debrief at the end of the first walk through of a collectively authored memory-based audio-walk of the deindustrialized Point Saint-Charles neighbourhood of Montreal. Photograph by David Ward.

One of the teaching innovations at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) has been to informally tether courses across departments and even faculties. Tethered courses are offered in the same or overlapping time-slots to allow for unofficial co-teaching and cross-disciplinary learning. A second teaching innovation has been to develop new oral and public history undergraduate courses in partnership with community groups. Working in partnership with marginalized communities, often off campus, teaches undergraduate history students the value of working with the communities we study and the politics of knowledge production.

My teaching journey away from standard history lectures and seminar discussion began back in 2008 when Mireille Landry at my university’s Centre for Community Engagement invited me to teach the pilot course in the experimental “Open University” initiative. It would be focused on oral history. The idea was to bring the university to people who were not necessarily university-bound. Stacey Zembrzycki, then a recent graduate from Carleton, came on as a teaching assistant. [1] For three months, we taught oral history to a small group of people in a church basement in partnership with the neighbourhood food bank and L’Abri en ville, a residence for adults living with mental illness. It was an often beautiful but sometimes frustrating experience as people floated in and out of the weekly classes, convincing me of the value of going beyond the traditional history classroom.

The second opportunity to push the boundaries of my teaching practice came in 2010-11 when Ted Little, a professor in Theatre, and I, came up with the idea of tethering our courses in order to offer a merged Oral History Performance course over two-semesters. Half of the thirty students enrolled were in theatre and the other half were in history. Over the first term, when I was the teaching lead (and so received teaching credit), everyone got in-depth oral history training and had to develop group projects, go through ethics, interview, transcribe and analyse their interviews. In the second term, when Ted took the lead (and received teaching credit), students then translated these interviews into performances.

The course was challenging as we were asking theatre students to be oral historians and history students to be actors and dancers. My history students, and myself, were used to lecture halls and seminars, not a mirrored dance studio with no chairs or desks. My knees often hurt after class. But there was considerable learning that resulted from pushing the boundaries and taking pedagogical risks, some of which appears in publication.[2]

This experiment convinced Ted and I to continue, and even expand, our efforts to bridge disciplinary divides but to recognize disciplinary expertise to a greater extent. We also wanted to work more directly with communities and go public with the work undertaken during the term.

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Caption: The Right to the City teaching team for 2014. From Left to Right: Ted Little, myself, Eric Craven (from the Atwater Library, one of our community partners who was an integral part of the team), and Cynthia Hammond.

From 2014 to 2016, professors in public history (myself), theatre (Ted), art history (Cynthia Hammond) and art education (Kathleen Vaughan), all active members of COHDS, undertook the Right to the City teaching initiative thanks to a university pedagogical grant. Our courses were scheduled in the same time slot and we partnered with Share the Warmth, a community group committed to food security in the poor working-class neighbourhood of Point Saint-Charles, a part of Montreal now undergoing gentrification. It was also the site of my ongoing historical research, providing students with an existing archive of oral history interviews, street files (did you know every street, park and metro station has a vertical file at the city archives?), and other sources.

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Caption: Students from three Right to the City classes (including public history) listen to representatives of Share the Warmth speak to some of the challenges facing the community sector. This former church was our common classroom for three years. Photograph by David Ward.

The physical location of our classes in a former neighbourhood church that is now a food bank, and the ways we worked within and across disciplinary boundaries, raised productive questions about the politics of knowledge production and our positionality as researchers. Where student learning happens matters? It also provided transparency to how different disciplines approached their work. These were often very different sight-lines.

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Caption: During our Right to the City pedagogical initiative, we opened by orienting students to the history and geography of the deindustrialized working-class neighbourhood that was the focus and host of the course over the term.  Photograph by David Ward.

Each week, we usually spent half of the 3-hour class working in our disciplinary pods. My students would be seated in one corner of the hall around a table, where there was a large map of the neighbourhood, and we would discuss the readings and map our research. Then, in the second half of class, we would join with others in various ways. Over two weeks, for example, they merged with the theatre students and produced a series of short performances based on the interviews. They also received workshops grounded in the other disciplines, as each professor rotated between classes. We also did a lot of walking. One week cross-disciplinary groups of students were given the panel for the immediate area from an old fire insurance plan and asked to walk the area and determine how it has changed. Another week, students in my class had to become an ‘expert’ on one street vertical file. We then walked the neighbourhood giving every student the opportunity to introduce their street.  Students were also encouraged to volunteer with Share the Warmth and other community groups as part of the course.

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Caption: Theatre and history students in the Right to the City Initiative rehearse their short performance pieces for the final public event in 2015. The one pictured here was particularly brilliant. Photograph by David Ward.

In many ways, oral history training was foundational to all four classes as every student had to listen to one archived interview, picking the name out of a hat. They then had to consider how best to represent that person’s story in the first person as part of the “speed dates with history” exercise. You can imagine a large room with two concentric circles, one smaller than the other, with paired chairs facing each other. Students had 90 seconds to introduce themselves as their interviewees, then the person across from them did the same. Everyone then moved to the right, and repeated the telling again and again. Sometimes they would encounter ‘themself’ across from them, as there were more students than archived interviews.

The “speed dates with history” exercise raises all kinds of ethical issues as people represent interviewees who are unlike themselves in one way or another. We represent people all the time in our writing without a second’s thought, but performing someone else feels different. It generated considerable anxiety about appropriation, as it was designed to do. 

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Caption: Ted Little stands at the centre of the centre of the Speed Dates with History circle just before it gets underway. All the students in the foreground were in my public history seminar. Photograph by David Ward.

In the first year of Right to the City, with the help of a sound artist and a graphic designer, my public history students and I developed La Pointe: On the Other Side of the Tracks, an hour-long memory-based audio walk and booklet of the neighbourhood. SSHRC postdoctoral fellow Karoline Truchon, now a professor in the Communications Department at l’Université du Québec en Outaouais, provided ethnographic training to ensure that our research-creation process was highly reflexive and well-documented.[3]  Difficult choices had to be made along the way. Where would the audio walk begin and end? If it began at the neighbourhood’s only metro station, it would communicate to residents that the audio walk wasn’t really for them. We therefore started the walk at the local library and end it at the popular neighbourhood mural. The street grid determined the duration of the story segments as the narrator needed to provide direction and a word of warning when crossing streets. Another big question was narrative voice. Should it be a local person, a “neutral” third party, or a student? “Suffice it to say, the ensuing debate uncovered a treasure trove of methodological questions and concerns,” recalled history graduate student Mitchell Edwards in a public blog.  The class opted for student narrators, one in French, the other in English.  In part two, I will speak to other ways I have sought to rethink the history classroom since Right to the City.

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Caption: A neighbourhood resident with the student-produced Point Saint-Charles audio walk booklet at the public launch organized by the Arrondisement du Sud-Ouest.  Photograph courtesy of the Arrondisement.

[1] The next year the course was taught by Stacey Zembryzcki and Erin Jessee in partnership with L’Abri en ville, and they published on their experience.  Stacey Zembrzycki, Erin Jessee, Eleanor Beattie, Audrey Bean, Mireille Landry & Sandra Baines, “Oral History and Adult Community Education: Notes from the Field” Oral History Review 38, 1 (2011), 120-135.
[2] Steven High, “Embodying the Story: Oral History and Performance in the Classroom,” alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage 9, 2 (December 2011), 50-54; and, Edward Little and Steven High. “Partners in Conversation: Ethics and the Emergent Practice of Oral History Performance,” in David Dean, Yana Meerzon and Kathryn Prince, eds.  History, Memory, Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
[3] “La Pointe: The Other Side of the Tracks.” Self-guided Audio-Walk and Booklet. May 2015. It can be found at storytelling.concordia.ca. For more on the pedagogy of audio walking developed in the class, see: Elizabeth Miller, Edward Little and Steven High. Going Public: The Art of Participatory Practice (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017), chapter 6.

 

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