My scholarship and pedagogy centre on two main themes: Visual Literacy and Teaching Historical Controversy.
We are living in a visual age, in which images have become the central medium for representing and interrogating all aspects of human experience. Digital technologies have fundamentally shifted the traditional ratio between textual and visual communication. As the beating heart of digital culture, visual communication has come to permeate almost every aspect of our personal, professional, and political lives. From a historical perspective, this explosion in our use of, and access to, images represents as radical a turning point as did the first information revolution brought about by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
Like medieval monks, however, who continued to persist in manuscript culture long after Gutenberg’s new technology radically transformed how knowledge was produced, shared, and consumed, there is an acute risk that academic disciplines such as History will remain on the margins of this cognitive revolution. Across the Humanities, images are routinely employed as illustrations—in the classroom, publications, digital media, and public discourse publications. Yet, only a small fraction of scholars have the training and academic agenda to subject images to the same critical analysis that we routinely apply to text. While we expend great effort to equip students with skills of critical textual analysis, we only rarely include competencies for using visual sources as the basis for argument or interpretation.
Defining, promoting, and implementing an agenda for visual literacy is a central part of my scholarly agenda at UBC. I have done so for example by organizing a synposium on teaching through material culture (Past Matters), by driving the development of a new digital tool for Interactive Image Annotation in and beyond the classroom (funded by TLEF), or by providing new, hands-on research opportunities for udnergraduate students in local museum collections (Objects of Encounter).
New capacities to create, reproduce, manipulate, circulate, and store images have brought with them the imperative to cultivate a new visual literacy within the Humanities. Whether as scholars, students, or citizens, in our visual age the skills to critically parse visual language are becoming as important as the exegesis of texts has been for centuries
Together with my colleague Kari Grain (Department of Educational Studies), I am currently engaged in a project to examine student responses to historical controversies. The literature about engaging with controversial issues in the classroom is inconclusive. The question of how to best address controversy is especially acute for History instructors, since so much of the human past is conflictual and because students often feel personally invested in particular historical narratives about their nations, origins, religions, entitlements, or plights.
Our project explores these issues and to evaluate different approaches through a pilot study on teaching the Partition of India. Supported by a seed grant from the Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISoTL), and with approval from UBC’s Behavioural Research Ethics Board, we have led an expansive pilot study of student perceptions and responses in 2017/18. The findings and implications of this study will be presented during 2018/19.
The title of HIST 390A in summer 2019S is Object of Encounter: Local and Global Histories of South Asia at the Museum of Vancouver. This special course offers the opportunity for undergraduate students to undertake hands-on material culture research in the archives of the Museum of Vancouver (MOV). The museum holds a unique collection of objects from South Asia that were brought to Vancouver in the 1930s and '40s by local travelers. These objects have never before been catalogued, researched, or exhibited. This research seminar seeks to interrogate these objects for their implications for local and global histories. Led jointly by UBC faculty and a MOV curators and conservationists, the course consists of both classroom elements (examining the theory of material culture research and establishing a historical context for these objects) at UBC and time in the collections at MOV. Students taking this course will develop historical research skills, learn about museum curating, and work towards developing an virtual exhibition of these materials.
Undergraduate Chair, Department of History, University of British Columbia, 2016-2018
Instructor (tenure-track), Department of History, University of British Columbia, since 2013
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History, University of British Columbia, 2012/13
Research Associate, Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, ÉHÉSS Paris, 2011/12
Ph.D. History, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2010