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Diary entry by Marjorie Pickthall Fonds. Courtesy of Special collections, Victoria University Library (Toronto).

Dr. Anne Urbancic—Senior Lecturer, Italian Studies at the University of Toronto, Victoria College.
Nominated by Roma Kail, Reference, Research and Instruction Librarian, Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

In the syllabus notes for her Individuals and the Public Sphere: History, Historiography, and Making Cultural Memory undergraduate seminar, Professor Urbancic offers the following context:

History is written by the victors. They appropriate the discourse of power. But we know they often omit far more than they include. What criteria determine what to put in, what to leave out? How important are the social, philosophical, cultural, and scientific contexts of what is reported? What happens to what is discarded? How are words and phrases used to manipulate history?

To empower students to explore and engage the historiographical questions posed in this synopsis, Urbancic’s course enabled undergraduate students to approach research like historians. The course was designed to provide the needed skills for such an undertaking through traditional classroom pedagogy, experiential exercises, and the creative use of primary source materials.

 

In the classroom, students examined the theoretical basis of historiography—how history is written—with a focus on contemporary theorists, such as Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, and Edward Said. Students also considered and discussed the impact of a rapidly changing media environment on historiography, concepts such as counter memory, and other contemporary issues.

Students then moved on to research in the special collections in the University’s E.J. Pratt Library and other archives in the Toronto area. Each student consulted with a special collections librarian or archivist early in the term. Students applied and honed their newly acquired historiographic skills in the course by conducting what Professor Urbancic characterizes as two “science experiments,” both involving primary source materials:

  • First, students prepared a brief history of a forgotten person or event, using diaries, correspondence, and other primary source materials.
  • Students then selected a person or event from their contemporary environment, studied that person or event, and developed a case for their inclusion in yet-to-bewritten history.

Both of these guided exercises offered ample opportunity for consultation with Urbancic and special collection professionals. Students could also add their reports to a permanent record to be used by other researchers.

Students credit Professor Urbancic’s class, enthusiasm, and guidance and the early exposure to rare documents and special collections with instilling in them a strong sense of confidence about doing research and the self-assurance to seek information in places where undergraduate students usually do not tread.