Digital Books and the Future of Historical Studies in HE

10 05 2011

Like many historians, I found online books to be a great innovation. Google Books is the most famous digitizer of books, but for historians perhaps the most useful provider is the Internet Archive.The internet archive contains some wonderful gems, including several editions of Pehr Kalm’s journal of his travels in North America in the late 1740s. Kalm was a Finnish naturalist whose account of life in New France has been drawn upon by many of historians of early North America. One of the assignments in the pre-Confederation history class I taught in Canada involved reading the description of Montreal contained in the edition of the journal printed in London in 1770-1. This assigment gave students to read an actual primary source and is always quite popular.

Back in November, Digital Campus, the podcast of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, broadcast an interesting discussion of digital books. I just discovered this podcast now and find it fascinating. It gets me thinking about what sort of assignments I might be giving in a decade. You can hear the podcast by clicking here.

If you haven’t already explored the rich holdings of the Internet Archive, I recommend that you do so right away!

Appearance of the Internet Archive Main Page

My Teaching This Week

26 11 2009

On Monday, I spoke to the students in my pre-Confederation Canadian history survey course about the impact of the Civil War on British North America. I spoke about the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, anti-Americanism, Canadians who fought on both sides in the Civil War, the Trent Crisis, Confederate raiders who operated from Canada, Reciprocity, Jefferson Davis, and the Fenian Raids. I tried to explain why so many decent people in British North America were sympathetic to the southern cause in the Civil War. I made it clear that they did not approve of slavery, but merely felt that British North America’s interests would be advanced by the division of the United States into two or more sovereign entities. Canadians in the 1860s were anti-Yankee rather than pro-Southern. I stressed to the students that the paramount goal of President Lincoln and most Republicans was the preservation of the union, not the extinction of slavery. I also noted that anti-Black racism was very common in the northern states and that some Northerners wanted to free the slaves and then deport all Blacks! These are important facts for the students to know if they are to evaluate the actions of Canadians during and after the Civil War. The lecture also discussed Anglo-American relations from 1860 to the Treaty of Washington. The Civil War lecture allowed me to show some real cool photographs to my students. Thank god for PowerPoint!

Confederate Dead, Chancellorsville, Virginia 1863

On Wednesday, I spoke about Canadian Confederation, providing students with a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the conferences, elections, and personalities of the period between 1864 and 1867. I spoke about the Charlottetown Conference, the Quebec Conference, and the London Conference, as well as Macdonald, Brown, Cartier, Tilley, Tupper and, of course, Joseph Howe.

In the lecture, I adopted an anti-Confederation posture as a way of being the devil’s advocate. In arguing against Confederation and expressing support for the position of Joseph Howe, I was trying to get the students to think critically the celebratory narratives of Confederation developed by historians based in Ontario universities. I showed that many people in French Canada, the West, and the Maritimes were opposed to Macdonald’s centralizing vision for British North America. I also hammered home the point that Confederation in 1867 did not make Canada independent of Great Britain. I went on a little digression about the 1931 statute of Westminster. I think that I made it clear that any student who wrote that “Canada became an independent country in 1867” on the final exam would be summarily executed!

At the end of the class, I returned marked essays to the students. These essays were on the journals of Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish scientist who visited Montreal as part of an extensive tour of North America. Kalm kept a diary or journal during this tour. This diary was published in Stockholm in the 1750s and read by Swedes curious about conditions in North America. An English translation of Kalm’s journals was published in London in 1770. In 2002, the 1770 edition of Kalm’s journal was digitized by the staff of the Wisconsin Historical Society. My students read the sections of the journal related to his visit to Montreal. I asked the students to assess whether Kalm’s journal is an unbiased source of information on life in 18th century North America. Most of the students were able to detect that Kalm had an anti-English bias and that his comments on New France thus have to be taken with a pinch big scoop of salt. My students appear to have enjoyed the challenge of reading an 18th century primary source.

In my fourth-year seminar on Confederation, the focus was on aboriginal history. Our readings were on Duncan Campbell Scott, “Indian Affairs, 1840-1867” in vol. 5 of Canada and Its Provinces; Barry M. Gough, Gunboat Frontier : British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-90 (Vancouver : University of British Columbia Press, 1984), 1-24; Sidney L. Haring, “The Common Law is Not Part Savage and Part Civilized: Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson and Native Rights” in White Man’s Law : native people in nineteenth-century Canadian jurisprudence (Toronto : Published for the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp.62-90. The students liked the reading by Gough, but I think that the one by Haring was a bit too complex, even for students in an honours seminar. We also listened to student presentation on the lives of Joseph Brant Clench, a 19th century Indian Agent, and Jean-Baptiste Assiginack, a First Nations leader.

On Thursday, I met my graduate student to discuss her research on the fur trading post at La Cloche. She has found excellent material in the microfilmed records of the post.