Instructor: Matt Price
Email: matt.price@utoronto.ca
Office Hrs: SS 3077 T 1:30-2:45
Class Meetings: OISE10204, T 10:00-1:00


In the year of your birth, the Web was a novelty, just beginning to make itself known outside of universities and research institutes. 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 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.

From year to year, we also investigate specific historical trends and events relevant to the class project. In past years, our projects have mostly focused on local history in the Toronto region. This year marks a radical break with that tradition!

2017-18 Partner

Kangchendzonga Conservation Committee

I’m very pleased to be able to announce in advance our partner for 2017-18. The Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee is a small NGO based in Yuksom, a village which is a main access point to a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Indian Himalaya on the Nepal border. Over the last 21 years, the KCC has accomplished a series of incredible feats, despite its small size. Its history gives a remarkable window into important dynamics that affect the whole region:

  • the absorption of small Himalayan kingdoms into the regional superpowers (India and China);
  • the rise of global tourism as a major economic driver in Asia and especially the Himalaya;
  • the acceleration of climate change and environmental degradation in the region;
  • the deployment of environmentalism by local groups as a lever for both regional autonomy and global integration;
  • the migration of peoples which has created tremendous ethnic diversity in many Himalayan regions;
  • the relationships between Western mountaineering culture and local conceptions of sacred space;
  • many other phenomena which we will attempt to explore over the course of the year.

Working with the KCC will also accentuate some of the most interesting dynamics of public history: the relationships between experts and lay knowledge; power dynamics between historian and oral history subjects; and the potential for conflicts between the duties of a historian and those of a “contractor” working on behalf of an organization. Each of these problem areas is an opportunity for learning, and we will treat them as such.

All of this means that the readings and topic areas for 2017-18 will differ quite a bit from previous years, and will give students the chance to explore corners of history most U of T students rarely encounter. We will also be working closely with primary sources; a research assistant has scanned the KCC’s archive for our use.

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). You will need a laptop for this portion of the class; if you don’t have one, you will need to figure out an alternative solution.

Twice in the first semester, each student will take the role of discussion leader. In these weeks, you will take on additional responsibility for ensuring that issues from the readings are raised in seminar and discussed at a high level.

About once every three weeks, a short assignment is required; these are noted in the outline and referred to in the course requirements section. 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 a group presentations of your proposed project.

Second Semester

In the second semester it is expected that students will spend most of their time working directly on the 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. Each student will maintain a “Development Log” in which you track your weekly progress on the project. The project will be submitted to the KCC for review in the second to last week of classes, presented formally in the final class session, and finishing touches completed 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:

  • 4 “Short Technical Assignments” (STA’s, first semester, 15% nc/c/plus)
  • One Written Paper (7-9 pp, Jan 9, 10% graded)
  • 12 entries in the “Development Log” (Weekly in Semester 2, 10% graded)
  • The Final Project (website, ongoing but due April 4, 45% graded)

with the balance of 20% for on- and off-line participation, which includes leading and participating in seminar discussion, active participation in the Slack team, and taking a role in choosing topics and finding activities during the second semester.

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 collaboration with the KCC (see above).

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

*Your Devlog is a collection of thoughtful pieces, about 400 words in length, detailing your progress on the class project. Details will be posted in late October; it’s expected that you maintain your devlog on Github (preferred) or in a Wordpress blog (if you want the practice with Wordpress). Posts are due Mondays at noon, and you’re expected to read your classmates’ devlogs and comment either in GH isuses, via Wordpress comments, or in class. See the assignment page (when it goes up!) for more details.

Late Policy

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

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

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

  • 10/03: Detailed assignment handed out
  • 12/05: Project Proposal due and presented
  • 01/09: Paper Due
  • 02/20: Intermediate Status Report
  • 03/27: Submission to Community Partner
  • 04/03: 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

09/12 (Week 1) Hacking History in the Himalaya

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. And a few words about the world’s third-tallest mountain, and our partners, the KCC.

Background Reading:

Lab 1: Getting Started

  • HTML and Markdown
  • Some Tools: Github, Dropbox, Atom Text Editor

STA 01 handed out

09/19 (Week 2) Language of the Web

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 2: Understanding HTML

Resources: JSBin online HTML/Javascript editor; codeacademy courses; on Wikipedia; w3 guide; also cf. Zotero Bibliography

09/26 (Week 3) The Crowd and the Public

The new kinds of collaboration that the web makes possible, and the intellectual challenges they create.


Further Reading:

Lab 3: CSS and Web Styles

10/03 (Week 4) Oral History, and Working with Communities

One remarkable possibility opened up by the web is abundant oral history; another is collaboration with the communities whose histories we study


Lab 4: Understanding Interviews

STA 01 due, STA 02 handed out

10/10 (Week 5) State, Empire, and Nature in India

To place the KCC in historical context, we need to begin to understand the place of conservation and environmentalism in India’s colonial past.


  • J. Sharma, Empire’s Garden, Introduction
  • Richard Grove, “The Beginnings of global environmentalism” in Green Imperialism p.309-379.
  • a more recent review TBA

Lab 5: Javascript Basics

10/17 (Week 6) Khangchendzonga in Sikkim

The KCC draws heavily on the status of Mt. Khangchendzonga in Sikkim.


  • Pema Wangchuk and Mita Zulca. Khangchendzonga Sacred Summit. Gangtok, Kathmandu: Pema Wangchuk, 2007. ch 1,3 + one other at least.

Further Reading

Lab 6: Getting Started with Wordpress

10/24 (Week 7) Sikkim, India, and Tourism

Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975; the annexation or “merger” of Sikkim into India ushered in a a new era in which tourism became one of the most important components of the local economy


Further Readings:

  • Datta-Ray, Sunanda K. Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim. Vikas New Delhi, 1984.

Lab 7: Wordpress Themes and Templates

STA 03 Handed out

10/31 (Week 8) Spatial History

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


Lab 8: Spatial History with Google Maps

STA 02 due, STA 04 Handed Out

11/07 (Week 9) NO CLASSES (break)

11/14 (Week 10) Mountains in History and Imagination

The KCC’s activities are organized around Mt. Khangchendzonga. This week’s readings place that peak in a broader context.


  • Robert Macfarlane, “Altitude” and “Everest” in Mountains of the Mind
  • Stewart Weaver, “Surveying the Himalaya” in Philip Parker, Himalaya

Lab 9: Design exercise (Personas & Wireframes)

STA 03 Due

11/21 (Week 11) UNESCO, Nature, and Culture

The region around Khangchendzonga, including Yuksam, has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.What does this mean and what dynamics does it entail?

Readings TBA

Lab 10: From CSS To SASS!

STA 04 due

11/28 (Week 12) Mountains and the Indian National Project

The slopes of Mt. Khangchendzonga house the training grounds for the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a division of the Indian Department of Defense founded directly after the first ascento f Everest. We’ll explore the relationship between Himalayan mountains and nation-building in India.

Readings TBA

Lab11: Project work Session

12/05 (Week 13) Proposal Presentation

The final class session will be a detailed presentation and constructive critique of your project proposal. See assignment for details

‘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:

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