Expanding Historical Communication Through Guided Experimentation

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Research creation assignments, in which students are encouraged to create such assignments as podcasts, poster exhibits, videos, and graphic novels, for example, help to expand historical practice beyond the written word. Image credit: multimedia by Maxim Basinski from the Noun Project.

This post is Part 3 of Donica Belisle’s three-part series, “Taking the ‘discipline’ out of History: moving beyond the limits of scholarly writing through a research creation assignment.” See part one and part two. 

Issues of Evaluation

One of the most commonly received questions from faculty concerning the Research Creation assignment that I assigned to a second-year History course at the University of Regina in 2019, and discussed in my previous blog post, was: how did I fairly assess all students’ work, given that over twelve types of media were submitted? This is a very good question. In the context of this assignment, the main evaluation question was: how well does the output convey the research on the topic? Grades were assigned based on (a) evidence of research within the output; (b) the complexity contained within the output; and (c) the clarity of the output.

In their course evaluations, students expressed appreciation for the opportunity to do a “research-creation” option. However, some also said that “non-essays” were harder than essays, in that they had to be more creative. Non-essays do not follow a standard formula and therefore are harder to research and devise. Some said that although initially they liked the open-ended nature of the assignment, in the end they did prefer more direction because they were worried about how they were going to be evaluated.

The issue of evaluation is key. Even as historians work to take the ‘discipline’ of out History, the fact remains that students will be evaluated. Establishing clear grading criteria is imperative for this reason.

Going Forward: More Specificity, More Creativity

This research creation assignment enabled me to gauge the interest of second-year students in non-traditional assignments. It also enabled me to see that even as students appreciate the opportunity to create non-traditional outputs, many still want a lot of guidance in terms of what they are actually going to create and submit.

This finding indicates that it is perhaps better not to give open-ended assignments, but to rather give students only one or two options. And, in giving those options, to provide enough direction so that students are not overwhelmed. That being said, it is also important not to provide so much direction that new disciplinary techniques are created.

This finding further reveals that academic publishers should consider publishing more how-to guides to creating multimedia assignments for undergraduate course evaluation. Of especial value would be guides to creating podcasts, websites, graphic novels, and posters.

Going forward, my own approach has been to continue to experiment. Since Winter 2019, I have assigned such outputs as (a) research poster presentations and exhibits; (b) podcasts; and (c) the choice between either a research paper or a research podcast.

I have also been replacing some of my course readings with podcasts, audio clips, and documentaries. By broadening both the content and form of my own assigned outputs, I am providing students with examples of knowledge and research dissemination that extend beyond scholarly writing. I am also showing them how one might create and structure research-based alternative outputs.

Concluding Thoughts

Given the historical embeddedness of masculinity and whiteness within the deep structures of scholarly writing, I remain committed to broadening the way that the historical profession presents its work.

Yet, I also continue to teach scholarly writing. In my view, scholarly writing – for all its faults – does enable the communication of complex thoughts and findings. Moreover, most academic institutions and granting agencies still consider scholarly writing the most effective way to disseminate knowledge.

The very fact that I am communicating this information right now, in written form, is testimony to the power of the written word.

At the same time, there is room within scholarly output to include creativity. There is room to include audio and visual elements, as well as to introduce narrative, drama, lessons, and other dynamics. There is further room to communicate beyond the written word.

Our own students are telling us that this is so. It is time to listen, and to expand the bounds of what is considered to be rigorous scholarship.


For helping me formulate my thoughts on the above, I am grateful to my colleagues at the University of Regina. Thanks as well to all of the students in HIST 201 in Winter 2019. I am further grateful to Doreen Thompson, Eric Schiffmann, Brandi Adams, Katlyn Richardson, and Emily Thompson-Golding, who helped arrange the Research Creation Exhibit in 2019, and to the University of Regina’s social media team, which covered the event.

Dr. Donica Belisle is currently an Associate Professor of History at the University of Regina, located in Treaty 4 Territory with a presence in Treaty 6. These are the territories of the nêhiyawak, Anihsinapek, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis/Michif Nation. Her current book project is on the global history of Canadian sugar. She is the author of Purchasing Power: Women and the Rise of Canadian Consumer Culture (University of Toronto Press 2020) and the award winning Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada (UBC Press 2011). She also writes about food, whiteness, gender and history. Find links to her works and more at www.donicabelisle.com.

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

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