A few months ago, I wrote about a teaching experiment involving digital humanities, two classes, and the fortieth anniversary of the Berger Report (formally, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry). Like all great ideas, it sounded …. great. Like most lesson plans, it looked … well-planned.
Well, as we know, none of this actually determines how something will turn out.
To recap: in 1974 Justice Thomas Berger was commissioned to study the environmental, economic, and social effects of a pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. Berger spent three years hearing testimony from communities along the proposed route as well as the gas companies – generating some wonderful material for future historians – and ultimately recommended a ten-year moratorium on any development in order to address land claims and environmental impact. Andrew Stuhl had the great idea to draw attention to the report forty years on, by having both our classes annotate terms for a potential public readership unfamiliar with the story. Emily Sherwood, of Bucknell’s Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship office, transcribed the original report into Hypothes.is, a relatively simple open-source annotation program, so the students could see the original publication but comment on a “clean” copy. Andrew’s Environmental Studies class, “Cold Places,” would annotate Chapter 6, The Mackenzie Delta-Beaufort Sea Region, as well Chapters 12 (The Epilogue), 3 and 4. My class on Canada would annotate Chapter 11, Native Claims.
Pedagogically, the project seemed to check a lot of boxes, in terms of both content and skills. It suited our class material (the ecologies of an arctic delta; northern identity, resource economies, and First Nations in Canada). It gave students a primary text to delve into. It was a beginner-level digital platform that even I could wrap my head around, and it asked students to consider the challenges of tone, relating scholarly research in accessible ways. As one student said, “You realize other people might actually read this!”
Some were very good.
A lot were … okay. Not good enough to be made public, especially given the importance of aboriginal history in and for Canada. To be blunt, it was too much at this level for these students. There’s a lot going on in Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland; you could build a whole course around it. That’s one reason it’s so appealing to us, as teachers – how frequently Berger invokes history to contextualize the pipeline question –
but first-year and sophomore students just getting their first introduction to aboriginal, Canadian, and environmental history had a tough time. The 1970s seem foreign enough (seriously, watch any of the television coverage on CBC Archives); concepts like northern development and aboriginal land claims are pure abstractions to them. [Note: Andrew had a much better experience; his students were not only more advanced, but also more interested in the material to start.]
There weren’t a lot of concepts that fell into an appropriate middle ground. Terms like Dene, Northwest Territories, or Hudson’s Bay Company, which they recognized from class, were pretty big for a 500-word annotation, while court cases and precedents in aboriginal title were often obscure. And as we often see with student papers, the tendency to “trawl” (“I’ll just type in ‘Proclamation of 1763’ into the search box, and take the first three things that come up”) didn’t help.
Will I do it again? Probably, albeit with a bit less enthusiasm and some substantial changes: beginning it earlier in the semester, even though we don’t get to the Berger inquiry until near the end of the course; having students submit at least two drafts, and perhaps have upper-class students peer-review them; requiring multiple sessions in the library practicing proper research protocol; and requiring more engagement with the scholarship they find, with more rigorous citation. Which, frankly, are all things we should do in a first-year history class anyway.
This was something different, as assignments go, and I’d do it again for that reason. This platform does allow for images and links, so there’s some value in exploring alternative forms of presentation. The students did a pretty good job of locating appropriate images (thank you, Library & Archives Canada). And, hypothetically, the idea of a public document is still really appealing.
But did it help my students become better historians or scholars? Did it help their comprehension, analysis, or writing any more than 8 ½ x 11? I’m not sure. I think the report is a great artifact to work on and around, in whatever format (I’d only ever used it as the basis for class discussion and debate). Grading online writing certainly didn’t assuage concerns about internet-y shortcuts and plagiarism; I spent a lot of time cutting and pasting search strings. There’s a lot of institutional enthusiasm for digital humanities, and with the growth of #altac positions, more people working in these areas suggesting new ways to teach – “look what we can do to/with/for/in your classroom!”
But there’s something to be said for the most basic element of the digital turn: simply getting stuff online, and letting scholars – at whatever level – have new access to older materials. What we really needed was to be able to read Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland together, as a text, an artifact of the long and complicated relationship with First Nations, territory, northern space, and resource extraction – a product of the 1970s and yet enormously relevant to Canada today. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre let us do that by supplying photographs, film, and documents in their wonderful online archive.
Still. A teacher’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s the next semester for?
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