Reports from New Directions in Active History: Community-based Research and Student Learning

By Megan Hertner, Amy Bell and Nina Reid-Maroney

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

Our presentation at the 2015 Active History Conference was a co-written paper reflecting on our experiences as faculty and student in two community-based learning (CBL) projects in undergraduate History courses at Huron University College. As the student who participated in both projects, Megan presented the paper at the conference. To have a student writing and presenting on her own experiences of class projects, unlike other presentations in which student projects were mediated through presentation by the professor, reinforced the democratic and transformative learning process that characterized CBL projects at Huron.

The Huron History Department has been coordinating CBL class projects for ten years, working with various local community partners including museums, historical associations, and heritage projects. In a typical CBL project, students help to create and frame research questions in collaboration with the professor and community partner. This involves local archival research in service to the partner institution, the mobilising of local knowledge, presenting the research results in a variety of platforms including websites, social media, and static exhibits, and reflection on the processes of their research and outcomes. These projects are innovative in two ways: 1) they make the undergraduate classroom a site of original research, and 2) they ensure that undergraduate students of history are co-producers of our knowledge about the past.

Eldon House, west lawn, c1875. From left: George and Teresa, Amelia (mother) and Sophia (Edward's wife) Western University Archives, Harris Family Fonds, RC#41003

Eldon House, west lawn, c1875. From left: George and Teresa, Amelia (mother) and Sophia (Edward’s wife)
Western University Archives, Harris Family Fonds, RC#41003

For our presentation, we used the examples of two CBL projects that Megan worked on as a student and that Nina and Amy facilitated as faculty. The first addressed the history of anti-slavery movements in nineteenth-century London, Ontario, in collaboration with London’s Fugitive Slave Chapel Preservation Project [FSCPP]. Established in the spring of 2013, the FSCPP set out to save the former African Methodist Episcopal Church (1848- 1869) also known as the “Fugitive Slave Chapel”. The second project transcribed archived letters from Eldon House, a local London museum built by the Harris family in 1834 and donated to the city of London in 1960, along with much of the original furnishings, and the family’s archive of  personal diaries, letters and photographs.  The two projects show the contrast between the overlapping types of privilege, white, Anglo-British, wealthy, and male, that characterize Eldon House and much of Ontario history that has been passed down and preserved, and the history of African Canadians in the nineteenth century whose sources are much more ephemeral.

LonPL002371569The projects also emphasized the importance of nostalgia in the efforts of heritage and historical preservation. The progressive national reputation of Canada as a “promised land” motivated much of the impetus to preserve the “Fugitive Slave Chapel”. Even though the archival research done for the project provided evidence of race-based segregation and racial violence against African Canadian communities, it was the underground railroad and a “fugitive slave chapel” that held the imagination of the public audience attending the project launch.

These examples show how CBL projects give students a chance to connect the academic commitment to social history and post-colonial pedagogies to public history, as well as demonstrating the public resistances to critical or uncomfortable histories.

The pedagogy of CBL allows us to actively resist the assumptions of a “metrics-obsessed” consumer model of higher education. Instead, CBL integrates research and teaching in ways that clarify the interplay between the materials of history and the interpretive questions we ask of it, making it possible for our students to connect the academy and the broader communities in which we are situated. Learning in, and through, CBL involves critical reflection and critical thinking that generates and deepens learning. The intellectual growth achieved by this process can be assessed with the same rigour as traditional learning through course readings and lectures. The creativity and challenges of these projects enable us to connect more deeply with students, community partners and faculty, creating a base for future collaborations.

Our experiences also show that this approach to the teaching of history is only possible in a liberal arts university which allows research collaboration between students and faculty. Our small size allows us to engage with each other during the academic year in the classroom, and to invest the time in nurturing long-term relationships with community partners. CBL offers a process of knowledge creation that extends beyond the classroom, that is profoundly collaborative, and that engages historical imagination, empathy, and an awareness of the contingency of human knowledge.

Megan Hertner is a graduating history student at Huron University College.  Nina Reid-Maroney and Amy Bell are professors in the Department of History at Huron University College.

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