Instructor: Matt Price
Email: matt [dot] price [at] utoronto [dot] ca
Office Hrs: SS 3077 T 1:30-2:45


matt_on_desk_for_web.jpg In the year of your birth, the World Wide Web was an obscure technical work-in-progress buried in the depths of a vast research institute. Today, it permeates almost every aspect of our lives, including every stage in the production of knowledge. You have been living through a fundamental transformation of knowledge; and yet the modes of communication you’ve learned and explored at University (the essay, the article, the scholarly monograph) belong to the world that came before. There are good reasons for this. The standards of our discipline were formed carefully over hundreds of years, in a determined quest to uncover and communicate truths about the past to our colleagues and the wider world. Even so, historians need to explore the digital media of our present and future. The books and other writings of old will not disappear, but they will be supplemented and to some extent supplanted by the new media of the web and its successors. In this class, we will explore those new media as tools for the transmission of historical knowledge, culminating in an intensive group project in which you will build a historical website in close collaboration with a community partner. The community partnership is a key element of “Hacking History”, and a source of many of its pleasures and challenges.

Along the way, we will learn about the history of digital media, and their place in the development of the public sphere; and we will also study the history and politics of “engaged” and “public” scholarship. We will also spend a substantial amount of time acquiring the technical skills needed for a project like this, e.g., the fundamentals of HTML and Javascript, as well as just enough PHP to work with the WordPress Content Management System. No prior technical knowledge is required for this, but you will need to be willing to challenge yourself to learn a few tricks and principles of web programming. The payoff for that effort is huge: a chance to contribute in a meaningful way to historical discourse beyond the walls of the University, and to explore the frontiers of historical communication in the process.

In 2017-17, we have a very small class size, so we will likely have only one class project; we’ll work together as a class to find something that interests everyone. For the present, I have structured the middle portion of the first semester around a tentative topic – the history of water in Toronto.

Course Structure

First Semester

In the first semester we will meet on a weekly basis to discuss the week’s readings (“Readings” in the outline) and work together on a technical or interpretative task that will be defined in advance (“Lab” in the outline).

Every two weeks, students will (where not otherwise noted) be expected to post blog responses to the readings in advance of the class meeting, and to respond to the postings of at least two other students. If at all possible, you should bring your laptop or (not as good!) tablet to class for the lab portion.

Also about once every two weeks, there are other types of assignments; these are noted in the outline and referred to in the course requirements. In general the aim is to foster an atmosphere of collaborative and self-directed learning in which all work is focused on building the analytic resources, technical skills, and confidence to create really great projects in the second semester. Though the assignment structure is fixed, readings may change based on student interests. The semester culminates with group presentations of your proposed projects.

Second Semester

In the second semester it is expected that students will spend most of their time working directly on their project with the partnering organization. We will meet most weeks to discuss specific technical questions raised by the projects themselves, and will discuss additional readings as needed. Importantly, students will continue to make regular postings about their progress, and comment on each other’s writing. Projects will be submitted to community partners for review in the second to last week of classes, presented to the class in the final course meeting, and handed in to the professor immediately before the beginning of finals period.

Course Requirements

In this project-based class, we have relatively few readings and instead focus on active learning through a variety of assignments, all of which are intended to help you build towards your final, collaborative group project.

The class has 4 kinds of assignments:

  • 16 Blog Postings (6 in semester 1, 12 in semester 2, 20%)
  • 5 “Short Technical Assignments” (STA’s, first semester, 15%)
  • One Written Paper (7-9 pp, Jan 10, 10%)
  • The Final Project (website, ongoing but due April 4, 45%)

with the balance of 10% for on- and off-line participation, which includes comments on other students’ blog posts, contributions to online resources, and discussion.

Blog Postings are thoughtful pieces, 400 words or so in length, posted to the course blog by noon the day before class meets (so, noon each Monday). You will be expected to read your colleagues’ postings and respond to them, both online (using the blog’s comment function) and in class. In the first semester, these postings will primarily be responses to the weekly readings, and are required every two weeks. In the second semester, they will instead generally take the form of weekly (not bi-weekly) progress reports in which you discuss your final projects and your interactions with partnering organizations, or of short written pieces from your project site (see below). See the assignment page for more details.

Short Technical Assignments (STA’s) are designed to give you the technical skills you will need for your website development work in the second semester. Approximately every 2 weeks in the first semester, you will complete a short on or off-line assignment for a pass-fail grade. The lab assignments will cover basic web skills and other technical topics, which will always have been covered in the third ’lab’ hour of class.

The Paper is due shortly after the beginning of the second semester. Approximately 7-9 pages long, its format is that of a standard course paper: a well-researched thesis, supported by evidence garnered from primary and secondary sources. Students are expected to write on topics related to their Final Projects (see below).

The Final Project is a major collaborative effort to build a historical website in service to an organization outside the University. In previous years, students have worked in groups of 3-4, collaboratively building a substantive site which balances scholarly merit with the interests of the sponsoring organization and accessibility to the general public. The plan for this year is in flux and may depend on class size, but I tentatively foresee a single class project in collaboration with a new initiative in the Black Creek region of Toronto (which includes Pioneer Village).

See the Project Guidelines for more detailed discussion & marking breakdown, though that document does not yet reflect this year’s direction..

Late Policy

Blogs: blog postings are due by noon the day before class. Late blog postings will not be marked.

STA’s: no late papers! STA’s are pass/fail, hand them in on time please.

Paper: 3%/day.

Final Project: It is essential that you complete your final project on time in order to get feedback from the sponsoring organization and organize the handoff of the project. The various deadlines for the project (see Project Guidelines) are firm. DO NOT MISS THEM.

Project Timetable

  • 10/04: Detailed assignment handed out
  • 12/06: Project Proposal due and presented
  • 01/10: Paper Due
  • 02/21: Intermediate Status Report
  • 03/28: Submission to Community Partner
  • 04/04: Project Open House/FINAL DUE DATE


All texts for this course are online, either in the public web or as pdfs. Most of them are publicly available. You may want physical copies of some books; these are available at Amazon or by special order from any sizable bookstore.

A sizable collection of links is also stored in a Zotero database, having been merged with the course bibliography.


We’ll be using a number of important software tools, some of them very easy to use, some of them harder. All of them are free (as in beer, and usually as in speech) and most run on all three major platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) or on the web. See the Tools page for more details. #

Outline for Semester 1

In 2016, the outline will change drastically in approximately the third week of class, as we confirm the direction class will take.

09/13 Hacking History

wpid-future-history-small.jpg Why we should write history, why everyone should do it, and why that means we need the Web. Hacker cultures, collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, non-expert culture.

Lab 01: Getting Started

  • WordPress & the course site.
  • Blogging & social media review.
  • HTML

09/20 Language of the Web

wpid-Bush-Memex-lg1.jpg The Web is written in a language called HTML, with some help from other lanugages called CSS and Javascript. The nonlinear and interactive properties of these languages afford new possibilities for storytelling. We explore how the Internet works, and what that means for historical narrative.


Lab 02: Understanding HTML

09/27 The Crowd and the Public

220px-Wikipedia_Logo_1.0.png The new kinds of collaboration that the web makes possible, and the intellectual challenges they create.


Further Reading:

Lab 03: CSS and Web Styles

10/04 Fresh Water in Canadian History

In flux: possible field trip to Great Lakes Public Forum opening session on State of the Lakes. To discuss in class!

More than many other places, Canada has been shaped by its relationship to freshwater lakes and rivers.


  • Stéphane Castonguay, “The Production of Flood as Natural Catastrophe: Extreme Events and the Construction of Vulnerability in the Drainage Basin of the St. Francis River (Quebec), Mid-Nineteenth to Mid-Twentieth Century,” Environmental History (2007) 12(4): 820-844
  • Dagenais, “The Urbanization of Nature: Water Networks and Green spaces in Montreal

Lab 04: Javascript Basics

10/11 Before Toronto

Before there was a “Toronto”, there was already a place by the shore, and people who inhabited it.


Lab 05: Introducing Github

10/18 Toronto and the Great Lakes

  • Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region (Hamilton, ON: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013), selections TBA.
  • Bonnell, Jennifer Leigh. 2010. “Imagined Futures and Unintended Consequences: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley.” Thesis. Ch. 1, 7 plus ano other one.
  • Bonnell, Reclaiming the Don, selections.
    • Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “Blighted Communities and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton,Ontario, 1890-1960”

10/25 Spatial History

Thinking about the visual presentation of information, especially in map form


Lab 06: Spatial History with Google Maps

10/25 Canals and Hydropower

Two periods of major engineering projects transformed the traditional waterways of Eastern Canada: the canal projects of the early Nineteenth Century, and the hydroelectric dams of the mid-twentieth.


  • Caroline Desbiens, “Producing North and South: A Political Geography of Hydro Development in Quebec,” Canadian Geographer 48, no. 2 (2004): 101-18.
  • TBA

Lab 07: Getting Started with WordPress

NO CLASS 11/8 (break)

11/15 Oral History, and Working with Communities

mike.jpeg One remarkable possibility opened up by the web is abundant oral history.


Lab 09: Art of the Interview

11/22 Search and Filter (Information Abundance)

info_overload.png In the past, access to information was one of the historian’s most fundamental challenges. today, it is more often a problem of filtering information.


Lab 10: From CSS to SASS!

11/29 Piracy, Plagiarism, Citation

tpb.jpg Ethical, Legal, and Technical Questions around Copyright


Lab 11: SASS and the Foundation Framework

12/06 Proposal Presentations

This is your chance to wow the class with your final proposals. Good luck!

No Readings!

Lab 12: WordPress Templates (if we feel like it)

’Outline’ for Semester 2

In the second semester, we will meet mostly to discuss your progress on the project and to address specific issues you are encountering as you work. You will be working pretty intensively on research, design, and writing/creating, so we will usually not have class readings, except in cases where a background reading will obvously be of assistance to most of the class in addressing some issue. The particular topics we take on will be defined by your needs, but some potential ones include:

  • Designing digital Projects
  • Immersive History (games & Simulations)
  • Refining your project goals
  • Social Media in a community website (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc)
  • Data Capture and Metadata
  • How Databases Work
  • The Digital Divide: Design Implications
  • Copyright Issues
  • Accessibility
  • WordPress Content Types
  • New HTML5 tags (canvas, audio/video, microformats)
  • Video on the Web: HTML5 & dynamic events
  • Semantic Web Technologies
  • Audio Post-Processing
  • Website look and Feel