Several weeks ago, a new blog started showing up in my social media feeds, A History of the Yukon in 100 Objects. Just FYI, titles like that are catnip for me! After some investigating, I discovered that this project was created by Amanda Graham — a faculty member at Yukon College — for the students enrolled in her course entitled “Northern Studies 200: Research in the North.” The project echoes the BBC and the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” but reconfigured for a classroom setting. Graham was kind enough to agree to talk to me about this project so that I could in turn share it with you! I’ve talked previously about the importance of active learning in Canadian history, as well as the possibilities of digital history. However, such activities can often seem intimidating, so I hope that this blog post, the result of that conversation, will convince you that they are worthwhile additions to any classroom!
But first, allow me to introduce Amanda Graham!
Amanda Graham, BA, Dipl. NOST MA
- Coordinator/Instructor, University of the Arctic
- School of Liberal Arts
Amanda Graham was the first graduate of the college’s Northern Studies program. She joined Yukon College in 1992 as managing editor of The Northern Review, taught northern studies, and served as Chair of Social Sciences and Humanities in the old Arts and Science Division for two terms (1994-1998). In 2004, Graham resigned to coordinate UArctic programs at Yukon College and to teach northern and circumpolar studies and, variously European and Canadian history. She piloted a successful service learning course that linked coursework and reflection to voluteer work with the Arctic Winter Games.
Creating a History
A History of the Yukon in 100 Objects is a course assignment that very much reflects the key principles of Yukon College and its Northern Studies program. Northern Studies 200 is a course designed to teach students how to “speak research,” where students from a variety of backgrounds learn the practical and ethical considerations required for social sciences and humanities research. The goal is to encourage students to develop the skills, for knowledge and research, that they will need for a wide variety of jobs, through hands-on learning.
Expert Tip: A History of the Yukon in 100 Objects emerged out of a similar project Graham did two years ago, in which students looked at newspapers to see how the Yukon experienced WW1. You can see a YouTube video that a friendly professional filmmaker prepared, and see some students talking about how cool archival research can be.
The inspiration behind this assignment came from Graham’s own exploration of the possibilities of material history. She was inspired not only by the BBC and the British Museum project I noted above, but by Ludmilla Jordanova’s work on the historical analysis of material objects. For instance, in her work, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice, Jordanova explores the insights that can be gained from an item like Margaret Thatcher’s handbag. Originally refused by The Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge, the handbag, “which still smells of its owner’s perfume,” provides many opportunities for scholars to examine how the handbag was both a symbol of gender, an object of derision, and a weapon that could be used by both Thatcher and her detractors. Graham was also influenced by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sarah J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter’s Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects, particularly where they describe putting together an exhibition, and drawing together artefacts from multiple Harvard University collections to tell a story. The exhibition was based on research conducted by students over eight years prior to its premiere in 2011.
The actual assignment itself was based around the approach of object – event – theme. Each student was required to find at least one element (object, event, or theme), and once selected, to link it to the missing two. So, for example, let’s say a student had an object they were interested in studying. In order to direct their research, they also had to connect it to an event and a theme. The themes for this project were refined after the objects and events were selected through class discussion, and included settlement, resource extraction, transportation, and everyday life. While all of the students’ work would be collected for the 100 Objects project, and the themes applied to the entire class, each was responsible for their own object and event.
The assignment was worth a total of 35% of the final grade for the course, and is broken down as follows:
- Participation/Engagement: 20%
- Poster: 30%
- Final Paper: 50%
The participation grade was based on student enthusiasm and commitment during all phases of the assignment. The other two components are explained below.
Graham prepared her students for this assignment with a combination of classroom instruction and experiential learning opportunities. Students were introduced to the basics of research, from planning, to ethics, to execution. They also received instruction from their Reference Librarian on how to do advanced online and database searches, along with additional information from Graham about how to interpret material objects.
Next, Graham took her students on a series of visits to local historical institutions, including the Yukon Energy, Mines, and Resources Library, the Yukon Archives, and the MacBride Museum. At each location, they learned directly from librarians, archivists, and curators about how these institutions worked, what kind of artefacts and/or documents they collect, and how to find the information they were looking for. During this time, a visiting historian at Yukon College even used the students as research assistants to help them gain more familiarity with the Archives.
As part of these visits, Graham’s students were required to select a museum piece of their own, research its history, and filled out a handout about how to “read” an object as practice (it was not graded).
Over the next three weeks, students were “let loose” to do their own research. Since this course met only once a week for three hours, there was a lot of time to allow for exploration. Students would begin in the classroom, where they received additional information and guidance, and then went off on their own. While students were in the field conducting research, Graham remained in class for students to consult if needed.
During this research phase, students were required to collect information about the object they had selected, particularly its history and provenance. They were then required to research their event, and subsequent historical interpretations, as well as how their specific theme played out in the larger context of Yukon history. As Graham noted, “I didn’t give them a lot of direction; it was important that they developed their own insights.”
Posters and Open-House Poster Display
Once students had completed the research phase of this assignment, they then used what they had collected to produce a poster. While guided by a Powerpoint Template provided by Graham, students were responsible for writing the text and arranging images in the posters themselves. Students were asked to tell the story of their object, explain its provenance, and describe how it opened the door to understanding something about a facet of Yukon history, and how itwas related to the event and theme of their choice.
These posters were then displayed at an open-house event, where faculty members, other students, and members of the public were invited to visit. Graham’s students were on-hand to answer questions and do informal presentations. Their performance was counted towards the participation grade of this assignment, while the posters were marked separately. Graham accounts the open-house a great success, and her favourite part of the project, noting that “students enjoyed the casual atmosphere and the people who came were impressed by the students’ knowledge of their projects.”
The Final Paper
Following the open-house, students were tasked with transforming their posters into formal 1,500-word essays. These essays were intended to be written as academic website texts, devoid of jargon, and accessible to the public. These texts were the final project of the course assignment, and, along with accompanying images, will be posted to the 100 Objects website. Anticipating potential copyright problems down the road, Graham also negotiated a Creative Commons license with her students, for both the posters and the essays, allowing her to post the material for public consumption and make small changes (for grammar, spelling, etc…) if needed, while also protecting the rights of her students. She also required that her students secure official documentation of permission for any of the images used in the final project, so that in the event that the project is passed on to another instructors, the permissions will be as well.
Some of the Projects
This year, some of the items that students selected include a plastic Christmas angel ornament, seventeenth century Chinese coins, a photograph by Anton Vogee of miners climbing the Chilkoot Trail, Jujiro Wada’s marathon run, and the door of a pickup truck. While seemingly ordinary objects, each tells an important story about the history of the Yukon.
The Christmas angel ornament, for instance, was discovered with its price tag still attached. Investigation of the price tag revealed that the object was sold in the early 1970s through Taylor and Drury Ltd. Taylor and Drury began as a general store, first established during in 1899 by Isaac Taylor and William S. Drury. The two men met on the trail to the Yukon and ultimately gave up the search for gold in order to establish a store catering to local trappers and prospectors. Over the years, the two men were united as one family, when Taylor married Drury’s sister Sarah. Under the management of Taylor’s children, the single store grew into one of the largest retail chains in the Yukon that lasted until 1974.
Another of the items selected — the door of a pickup truck from the MacBrige Museum — speaks to the history of infrastructure in the North, specifically the construction of the Canol pipeline and the Alaska Highway. The painted markings that remain on this door indicates that the truck was first used in the construction of the pipeline, before being sold to Alaska Highway Command. The Canol pipeline was built between 1942 and 1944, and was designed to carry crude oil from the Northwest Territories to Delta Junction, Alaska. While the US Army oversaw its construction, civilians from southern Canada built the actual pipeline. The final pipeline was so poorly constructed that it was only in operation for thirteen months, despite costing more than $100 million to build. In contrast, the Alaska Highway, which connected Dawson Creek, BC, to Alaska, was initially built in only eight months between 1942 and 1943, largely in response to a possible Japanese invasion. The highway only opened to the public in 1947, and large sections were still being paved well into the 1980s. The highway is still very much in operation, and is considered one of the most difficult drives in the entire country according to some.
Graham is currently in the midst of completing her grading for this semester (my deepest sympathies!), but as soon as she is finished, she will be posting the final essays to 100 Objects. So be sure to keep an eye on the website!
In the future, Graham hopes to have her students develop the project through social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram. While there is an accompanying Twitter (@100ytobjects) account, it wasn’t as active as Graham had hoped. There is also some discussion of a possible podcast or series of short videos in future years. But her favourite part of this year’s assignment was undoubtedly the poster open house.
— J. Firth-Hagen (@JaceyFirthHagen) April 6, 2017
While projects like this one may seem intimidating or involve a great deal of extra work, Graham noted that it doesn’t require that much more actual work than any other type of course preparation. The only difference is that the instructors need to be able to post the final project online. Overall, she considers this a great success, and so did her students: “I’m gratified they enjoyed it and I’m delighted with the quality of the work they did.”
A big thank you to Amanda Graham for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post! I had such a lovely time chatting with her, and now I have a ton more books to read, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 😉
I hope that you enjoyed this blog post. If you did, please considering sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back in on Sunday for our regular Canadian History Roundup! (How is it already almost May?) See you then!
- Arthur Asa Berger, What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture, second edition, (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).
- Karen Harvey, ed. History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, (London and New York: Routledge, 2013).
*With the exception of the screen shot at the beginning of this post, all images are provided by Amanda Graham and should not be reused without permission.