Practical Learning: Historical Research Methods

Dr. Renisa Mawani, Professor, Department of Sociology

In SOC 383, Historical Research Methods, students have the opportunity to consider the methodological challenges that come along with state archiving and large-scale recordkeeping.

While a large part of the course is theoretical, asking questions about the practice and purpose of archiving, whose voices have been represented, misrepresented, and systematically excluded in archival documents, Dr. Mawani finds it important to ground these questions through hands-on archival work. Students in her class have the option to choose from 3 options for their final projects:

  • Find and review a primary source, such as a document or photo from a public or family archive
  • Write about social media and their own lives as a form of archival production
  • Participate in a community engaged learning project with organizations such as the BC Historical Federation, the Pacific Canada Heritage Centre-Museum of Migration, or the BC Heritage Labour Centre. This Practical Learning article will highlight the work done by students in collaboration with the BC Historical Federation on a project to identify Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) who have contributed to the development of British Columbia but have not been credited for these contributions.


“We have to remember why history matters and what is at stake if we lose our connections to the past.”
Professor, Department of Sociology

Through their work with community organizations, students increase their fluency in historical research, including the nuanced aspects of archival research. By practicing this type of engagement, students gain an understanding of, and appreciation for, the scale and scope of archival materials that exist, and the silences and exclusions inherent within archival production.

  • Generate meaningful contributions to organizations in our community
  • Practice the rituals of doing archival research including reaching out to an archivist, reviewing a database, checking the availability of sources, and developing critical reading skills to analyze archival documents
  • Understand the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion through practices of historical documentation

Learning Activities


Virtual Organizational Collaboration


In small groups, students who opted for the community engagement option were connected to 1 of 4 local community organizations. Along with an undergraduate fellow hired through the Centre for Community Engaged Learning at UBC and staff from the organization, students determined the scope of their project and worked collaboratively to meet the project goals. Students who worked with the BC Historical Federation identified, researched, and interviewed community members to generate a biographical sketch of IBPOC figures who have contributed to the development of British Columbia. These sketches were published in the British Columbia History Magazine.


Students worked with the undergraduate fellow and connected with Dr. Mawani throughout the term to develop an abstract and a proposal of project plans. In the last few classes, they gave a group presentation on their respective projects and submitted a final paper. This project – with all its different components - was worth 70% of their course grade.

What have you heard from students about the experience?

Students who engaged with this practical learning method reflected positively on the experience of moving from theory to practice in a community-minded and collaborative way.

What are some changes or improvements you want to make in the future?

Organizing collaborations with community organizations was very labour intensive and challenging, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was grateful to have a wonderful undergraduate fellow who liaised between the community organizations and the students. When I teach this course again, I would scale back from four organizations to two, to make space and time to establish and maintain relationships with community organizations and to ensure that students are well supported.

Do you have any suggestions for other instructors who are considering practical learning for their course?

If you are considering incorporating an experience like this in your course, consider initiating discussions with potential community partners as early as possible. The undergraduate fellow that I worked with was key to the success of the project.

Level of Difficulty: Medium

Delivery: Small lectures and virtual organizational collaboration

Course: SOC 383 (“Historical Research Methods”)

Number of Students: 40

Time: Full term

Keywords: archival research, community engagement, historical documentation