Putting Edmonton on the
University of Alberta, Canada
University of Alberta, Canada
In this poster/demo, we will describe and
analyze the experience of teaching English
486, “Producing the City.” An experimental
course co-taught between Dr Heather Zwicker,
Associate Professor of English, and Dr Maureen
Engel, E-Learning Manager for the Faculty of
Arts at the University of Alberta, English 486
is a hands-on, theoretically grounded capstone
course in multimedia installations that takes
the city of Edmonton, Canada as inspiration
and object. Based on principles of collaboration
and student-centered learning, the course takes
the city as its primary text. Grounded in
short Edmonton narratives and a range of
urban theory, the course listened to the city,
looked at the city, moved through the city, and
explored the meanings of home. The sensory
experiences of sound, sight, and movement were
translated through student projects using digital
photography, simple mapping, soundscapes,
and video. Each of these assignments served as
a scaffolding exercise to prepare students for
the final collaborative project: a KML-authored
installation designed for Google Earth.
This course did not take GIS as its object of
study; rather, it took the city as its object
and asked students to use various multimedia
tools to express their critical and creative
engagement with that city and its narratives.
Various assignments asked the students to
demonstrate and explore their learning through
digital tools, not to engage with and analyse
the potential of the tools themselves. We
asked them to learn new ways of expressing
their ideas, and to discover the affordances of
digital technologies to their critical apparatus.
The course raised multiple questions about
discipline, pedagogy, theory, and technology.
Our presentation offers a critical commentary
on our successes and shortcomings, and
demonstrates the importance - and surprising
payoffs - of doing this sort of work with
undergraduate students in the traditionally low-
tech field of English literature.
Our poster presentation / demo will have three
components. The first is an overview of the
course, describing its intellectual aims and
technical models. We explore some concepts
that are often taken for granted: what is a map,
how does it organize information, how does the
concept of "space" translate into "place"? We
overview digitally mapped urban literature in
sites like Imagining Toronto, City of Memory
(New York), Hitotoki (Tokyo, Shanghai, Paris,
Sofia), Concrete Dialogues (Perth Australia),
and Artangel (London), as well as acoustic
ecology sites like the London Sound Survey,
the Montreal and New York Sound Maps, as
well as the Open Street Map project. Sites like
these open up both the concept of mapping and
the conventions of narrative in interesting ways,
playing with the synchronicity of the traditional
map and the linearity of conventional narrative.
And yet for reasons to do with Edmonton's
scarce representations and relative youth, such
models could not be translated wholesale into
The second section of our poster presentation
turns to the pedagogical implications of team-
teaching digital media under the aegis of
the English Department. Working with digital
media requires both instructors and students to
shift their expectations. Whereas the pedagogy
we're familiar with frequently measures student
learning by verbal articulation, whether oral
or written, we instructors had to learn to put
"discovery learning" to work in classrooms by
letting students explore on their own, to a
certain extent. The biggest challenge for the
students in English 486 was not the technology
per se, but rather the nature of the assignments.
Instead of sole-authored papers, for instance,
students had to learn to work collaboratively
on sustained projects over the course of the
semester. The course also demanded unfamiliar
ways of reading and writing, in addition to
mastering the specific digital tools. Students
had to figure out which rhetorical techniques
are transferable and adaptable to the digital
realm, and which are not. They had to exercise
critical skills on the visual culture ubiquitous to
their personal, if not their academic, experience.
Our presentation pays particular attention to
the ways in which the students surprised and
surpassed our expectations, and the key lessons
both they and we learned from the shift in genre
from the research essay to the digital story/
argument. Key to this aspect of our presentation
will be demos of actual student projects.
Part three will offer a critical analysis of
the digital tools we used for representing
Edmonton. In particular, we evaluate Google
Maps and Google Earth as a technical platform
for this kind of pedagogical work. Publicly
available and free of charge, Google Maps
and Google Earth have much to recommend
them; they present a low barrier to entry,
both financially and technologically. At the level
of politics, relying on Google for fundamental
courseware is problematic – asking our students
to expose their work to a massive commercial
enterprise based in a foreign country was a
difficult decision to make. At the level of
pedagogy, any digital application will present
students with specific narrative constraints –
Google Earth can only
what Google Earth
can do, and would that be sufficient for
the task we set for our students? We will
assess the extent to which these tools are
enabling or limiting, particularly to students
crossing genres from traditional academic
prose. The hypercities tool (
) was evolving in beta as the course
progressed, and though it ultimately would have
served our pedagogical goals more satisfyingly,
reliability and practicality carried the day. That
Google’s ubiquity and stability were significant
determinants in our pedagogical practice is
instructive, if disheartening.
Looking back, the course demanded much of
both its instructors and its students. The quality
of the work the students produced, however, and
the extent of their learning proved that using
digital tools pushed students to go farther than
conventional tools could have.
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Hosted at King's College London
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July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010
142 works by 295 authors indexed
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Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/
Series: ADHO (5)