Published on June 15, 2021

By Steven High, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling

In the first half of my teaching blog, I reflected back on my journey as an oral and public historian in the classroom up to 2016. I left you with the Right to the City initiative. Up to then, my community-engaged history classes were hybrid 400-level/graduate seminars with a maximum of eighteen students. At this point, I wondered if I could extend this model to the larger intermediate (300-level) university classroom with its 45 students? And, if so: how?

Working closely with archivist Alexandra Mills from Concordia Library’s Special Collections, and Desirée Rochat, a PhD student specializing in Black community archives, we developed a new 300-level course anchored in the archival records of the Negro Community Centre (NCC).  Nearly 150 boxes of material had been salvaged from the abandoned building in the mid-1990s and placed into deep storage, where it sat until it was finally deposited and accessioned in time for our class.  Our classroom for the first month was a large study room next to the archives which was our reading room. Arriving in class the first day, students had to choose a seat and an archival box. They would spend the next four weeks becoming an expert on that box and then sharing their knowledge with classmates as they developed individual research projects. At term’s end, the students showcased their research, alongside a panel of community members from the NCC, to an overflow crowd of 200 at the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) hall in Little Burgundy.[1]

Picture 1 Steven II
Caption: The 2018 showcase of student research on the Negro Community Centre at the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Photograph by Peter Gossage.

The event generated considerable media interest, offering students the opportunity to develop their media skills and share their research to wider audiences. Later, more than a half-dozen students published articles in a special issue of Quebec Heritage magazine, thanks to our partnership with the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network.  As for ourselves, Alexandra, Desirée and I then co-authored an article in Archivaria about the archives in the community-engaged classroom.[2] 

The success of the NCC course convinced me to make this a regular thing.  One term, working with the Atwater Library, Montreal’s former mechanics institute, students got the opportunity to explore the documents in its basement vault that went back to its founding in the 1830s. During class time, students were introduced to different kinds of records: minutes of meetings, ledgers, correspondence, photos; opening up a conversation about what each type of source reveals about the history of this historic institution. At term’s end, students showcased their work at an exhibition in the library and several articles were published in Quebec Heritage Magazine.

Picture 2 Steven II 
Caption: Student research was showcased in a series of special issues of Quebec Heritage magazine, including this one on Point Saint-Charles. Photograph courtesy of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

Another term, students engaged with the history of Saint-Columba House, an urban mission of the United Church in Point Saint-Charles which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. Students conducted 34 oral history interviews and published another special issue of Quebec Heritage. Some projects were quite inspired, such as Josh Tosh’s song “Wants and Needs” derived from his interview with Eddy Nolan. Another student produced a children’s pop-up book and donated it to Saint-Columba’s pre-school programme.

Then Union United Church, said to be the oldest Black congregation in Canada, approached me and we designed a course together that explored Black history from a different angle. More original research was undertaken, culminating in a public Black history fair in the church basement as well as a small exhibition at Concordia. Students found an old hand drawn recipe book in the archives of a Black community group, which provided the basis for the home-made snacks on offer. It was a gesture that was very much appreciated by the community. The memory booth was also a hit where photocopied pictures from the archive were spread across the table and people could go through them and identify people’s names for the archives.

Picture 3 Steven II
Caption: As part of a wider programme commemorating 50 years since the 1969 Sir George Williams “Riot” or “Occupation,” a key moment in Canadian Black history, my class was taught in a public space open to public participation. Here we see my students and others listening to Nancy Oliver Mackenzie of Union United Church, Kelann Currie-Williams, an MA student who I co-supervised who focuses on Little Burgundy, and Alexandra Mills from the Concordia Library, Special Collections.

Picture 4 Steven II
Caption: Alexandra Mills and Nancy Oliver Mackenzie speak at the culminating student event of the public history course in the basement of Union United Church in Winter 2019.

The final example I will offer here is from just before the pandemic when I taught a course focused on the Living Archives of Rwandan Exiles and Survivors, an online repository developed by COHDS and Page-Rwanda, representing survivors of the 1994 genocide now living in the city, of 29 oral history interviews that we were just about to launch. Each week students listened to interviews, building our knowledge from the bottom up and the inside out. Class time was spent talking things through. Several Rwandan interviewees were invited into the class, to share their stories, but also to also listen to students interpret their stories and those of their families and friends. This was challenging to students, but another important lesson in interpretative power. Their end of term projects were amongst the very best that I have seen at the undergraduate level and a group of students shared their findings with Page-Rwanda at a public round-table event and eight papers are available on the web-platform. When asked by one genocide survivors in the audience how they coped with engaging with such difficult material, they responded that they were surprised how much joy and laughter there were in the interviews. These were after all “life stories” and not just about those 100 horrific days. Three undergraduate students and I presented at the US Oral History Association and we have a jointly authored peer reviewed article on “the pedagogy and practice of listening to Rwandan exiles and genocide survivors” forthcoming in the UK-journal Oral History.[3]

 Picture5 Steven II

Caption: The Living Archives webplatform enables students to work directly with interviews and across languages.

If my journey as a university history teacher has taught me anything, it is that undergraduate students are capable of undertaking original primary research.  Sustained primary source research should be an integral part of our undergraduate training in history – and, by this, I mean more than a source analysis or a momentary visit to the archives.

Of course, applied teaching has its challenges. The biggest is time, both for the instructor and for the students enrolled. Teaching outside the box can be very time consuming for the instructor and sometimes university administrators are unsympathetic when faced with the unknown. We were once told by someone in our university’s upper administration responsible for teaching that we were somehow gaming the system as we were not teaching our courses alone – missing the point that our contact time actually teaching our students was either the same or substantially more than usual. The fact that we were doing all this without a supporting programme or explicit approvals, though we did receive a pedagogical grant from another corner of the university, seemed to rile her.

Teaching outside the box also represents a giant step into the unknown for already stretched undergraduate students juggling work and full-course loads. As a result, I found that my applied public history courses drew highly motivated students who either yearned to do original research or who had a direct connection to the histories being explored. Off-campus classes are also challenging to students who have tight schedules, as they need to build-in extra travel time. Therefore, I always circulated the syllabus and class information two months before the first day of class, allowing students to opt-out.

As for myself, one way that I have dealt with the labour intensiveness of teaching these kinds of courses was to embed them in my active research projects: the benefits of which flowed both ways. Students accessed the publicly archived interviews and contributed their own in return. In turn, I encouraged students to publish their findings, and otherwise go public, and in a few instances, I co-authored with them directly.[4]

I’ve always believed that the feedback loop between research and teaching is what the university is all about. When we add community-engagement to the mix, it enriches the research practice further while unsettling more extractive approaches to research.

Special thanks to Concordia’s David Ward for visually documenting so much of this pedagogical work.

[1] One class member went on to do her master’s thesis on the NCC, publishing a recent article: Kelann Currie-Williams, “Life After Demolition: The Absented Presence of Montreal’s Negro Community Centre” Urban History Review 48, 2 (2021), 56-75.
[2] Alexandra Mills, Désirée Rochat, and Steven High, “Telling Stories from Montreal’s Negro Community Centre Fonds: The Archives as Community-Engaged Classroom.” Archivaria 89 (Spring 2020), 34-67.
[3] Steven High, Elizabeth Tasong, Felipe Lalinde Lopera, and Hussain Almahr, “The Pedagogy and Practice of Listening to Rwandan Exiles and Genocide Survivors” Oral History, forthcoming.
[4] One example of this is Piyusha Chatterjee and Steven High, “The Deindustrialization of our Senses: Residual and Dominant Soundscapes in Montreal’s Point Saint-Charles District,” in Katie Holmes and Heather Goodall, eds. Telling Environmental Histories (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2017).  


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