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Mount Royal’s twitterverse of history

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  History students Andrew Bardsley and Sarah Hart tweet information about MRU's stain glass windows, which are from the original college building, and commemorate the original Board of Governors.  ~ Photo by Theresa Tayler

History in 140 characters or lessAs Mount Royal University gets ready to build a innovative, technologically-advanced Library in 2017, embraces the new Bella Concert Hall, and happily greets more than 12,000 credit students to classrooms each semester, it might be hard to believe that in the early 1900s the then cozy campus got its start catering to but a mere 179 students at its downtown location, affectionately known as “the Barn”.

For the average MRU undergrad, about four years of campus history is plenty. They arrive to learn and expand their minds, make new friends and colleagues, then set forth to the world to pursue what comes next. But for students that take Professor Jarett Henderson’s Introduction to History (HIST-1100) course, the past is as important as the present tense and it must be captured in 140 characters or less.

The class is tasked with researching MRU’s times-gone-by and recording their findings for posterity, not only through traditional academic means, such as papers, but through the twitterverse.

“Twitter is helping disseminate research, information and knowledge that historians are creating. It can influence policy and contemporary debate in ways the publishing a book that sits in a library, or scholarly article that lives in a journal — that, let’s face it, the majority of people don’t see — just can’t,” explains Henderson regarding why he decided to introduce social media into his classroom.

"I started to see how Twitter has scholarly value and merit after the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in June 2013. From that point on, I took the leap and decided it was time to integrate it into my teaching."

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According to Henderson, many historians are now using social media as a means to disseminate research and weigh in on public policy. He adds, however, that learning to how to leverage the medium doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

“It makes you focus on the subject matter and forces you to articulate why the information is important to the public. Short, concise statements about what it is that you’re doing as an academic and why it’s important … Short and concise isn’t always comfortable for academics,” says Henderson, with a smile.

A former Post Doctoral Fellow at L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University, Henderson studied in Manitoba (University of Manitoba BA and MA in History) as well as Toronto (PhD, York University) before moving to Calgary to teach history at MRU five years ago. Henderson could have had students research Calgary as a whole, or pick any area or historical era in Canada’s history to apply to the course. But, he says MRU’s history provided a novel opportunity for students to understand why historians do what they do.

Researching our own community can lead to undiscovered and unexpected results that show students why capturing local history is important.

“I ended up teaching the HIST 1100 course because I was new to Mount Royal. The students were new too, and the one thing I found we had in common was MRU,” he says. “I said, ‘we need to understand this institution that I work at and you go to school at.’ It's a course that is designed to introduce students to how historians conduct research, read, write and communicate.”

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Third year History major Sarah Hart says the integration of Twitter into the classroom opened up collaboration opportunities for her with fellow history buffs and students alike.

“It’s a tool most university students have in today’s society. The platform allowed me to not only interact with other students taking HIST 1100, but with other history students and university affiliated historical societies,” she says.

“Twitter also allows the general public to see and contribute to histories that aren’t often discussed outside of a university setting.”

Students are encouraged to research information from across campus and seek out artefacts wherever they can be found. Henderson says the University archives are a huge asset for the first-time historians.

“By the time they get into the archives and start doing some of their work, they've become so enamoured with having to wear cotton gloves, write with a pencil and read old documents that they forget that they're not pleased that they're not writing about say the Vikings or something because I’m having them to look into their ‘own back yard’,” Henderson says.

“They've forgotten that frustration that they may have originally encountered as a student trying to dive into a new project.”

Henderson adds that students are often surprised by their own interest in the cultural history of what was happening to students socially on the campus in past.

“This past semester, I had a group who wanted to write about Mount Royal during the Second World War. They discovered that there wasn't a heck of a lot in the archives about what students from MRU did during the war. Therefor the ended up writing their paper by thinking about student activities on campus — what student life was like, how students talked about being students during the war, issues and emotions that they were feeling,” he says.

“Student’s who were initially interested in military history have started to rethink how military history can be studied in different ways — which is neat to see.”

For third-year History major Andrew Bardsley, studying the University’s past didn’t just cement his interest in his major, it convinced him that Mount Royal was indeed the school he was meant to finish his undergraduate degree at.

“When I first enrolled in this course, it was my first term in the History program; unsure of the school that I was attending, this course allowed me to explore not only the history of Mount Royal, it also allowed me to learn about the evolution our school has undergone in its century plus life,” Bardsley says.

“Insight into the religious history of Mount Royal, its evolution during the 20th Century into a school with a large activist student population and finally into the University we know today. I was able to learn about Mount Royal and more importantly about myself as a community member here.”

Hart adds that one of the most moving pieces of information she found was on how Mount Royal’s population (a century ago) impacted the women’s movement in Calgary.

“Women who attended Mount Royal College had a large impact on Calgary’s culture. Mrs. Kerby (the wife of the first Mount Royal College President) founded the YWCA chapter in the city and girls at the college were encouraged to volunteer with the organization and contributed to its expansion,” says Hart, who has plans to graduate next year and go on to a Masters’ program in History and Museum Education.

To follow students on their journey, and find out more about MRU’s history, check out the MRU Historical society’s twitter account @MRUHistSoc and follow the hashtags #MRUHist and ‪#1100Hist‬‬‬‬.

Henderson has plans to continue the format of the course.

“I always tell people that history is not boring. People have just been asking the wrong questions if they think it’s a drag. If you ask more interesting questions, you will get more interesting answers,” Henderson says.

“Make it matter to the people around you.”

Feb. 19, 2016 — Theresa Tayler