Lessons from A Colony in Crisis: Collaborative Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities

By Abby Broughton, Kelsey Corlett-Rivera, and Nathan H. Dize

When we originally came up with the idea for A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789 in the summer of 2014, we envisioned a pedagogical tool that would help facilitate the use of digital archives in the classroom. We hoped, by modeling our site after document readers like Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents, that teachers would be able to easily implement our site in their courses. What drew us to the document reader model was the ability to contextualize archival sources, explaining the importance of the document, its author, and the situation from which it emerged.

Home page of website "A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789"

By using a digital platform, we were able to explore the connections between numerous documents and, once the site expanded, from one cache of documents to the next. Another advantage of going digital was speed. We were able to evolve from an idea to a website in about three months. The process of creating the site, forming an advisory board to peer-review our work, and the promotion of the finished product forced us to consult dozens of people before the site went live. While these are steps in any scholarly endeavor, we were able to incorporate the feedback from academics, librarians, and digital technologists almost immediately. The flexibility of the digital platform also allowed us to include the complete French text, as opposed to only a short translated excerpt, reaching a larger audience and allowing for further study.

As we quickly learned, our intervention was not going to be as simple as giving our site to teachers and having them “run with it.” Rather, it would take much more cooperation and collaboration to achieve our goal. Currently, we are reflecting on the lessons we have learned  on the heels of our first classroom project – historical background notes.

A Colony in Crisis came out of the Revealing La Révolution initiative sponsored by the University of Maryland Special Collections and the Department of French and Italian, which originally sought to digitize a sizeable collection of over 12,000 French language pamphlets held by the university. The idea was that this new digital archive would make the documents more accessible for scholars both at the university and elsewhere.

After digitizing about 1,000 pamphlets, we realized that simple accessibility did not mean that the archives could be used efficiently. We had to make them useful. From there, we came up with the idea of a historical document reader in translation to help teachers introduce primary sources into their courses. The reader brings together a series of curated and translated French language pamphlets focusing on the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1789. The site’s content centers on the issue of a purported grain famine that struck the colony, which made it necessary for colonists to circumvent French trade monopolies in order to survive. Ultimately, we felt that the site would be a welcome addition to courses on the French and Haitian Revolutions, eighteenth-century Francophone history and economics, as well as French language courses.

Luckily, one of our  advisory board members, Sarah Benharrech, approached us last summer about integrating the site into her undergraduate course on riots, rebellions, and revolutions in eighteenth-century France. Moreover, Dr. Benharrech expressed an interest in making a contribution by having her students complete a final project that related to the site. Since her course was taught in French, we all worked together in order to come up with a project that would suit her needs as a modern language teacher and ours as a bilingual, accessible digital resource. Ultimately, we came up with a plan for students to write 250-300 word historical background notes on individuals, places, and demographic groups in eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue drawn from the pamphlets featured on A Colony in Crisis.

First, Nathan and Kelsey visited Dr. Benharrech’s class and gave a workshop on how to read, interpret, and curate digital sources, following the model on the site. Then we met with Dr. Benharrech and came up with a list of possible people, places, and social groups that students could use in order to research for their contributions. Because the course was in French, we decided that students would first write their contributions in French and then in English, before turning them in to Dr. Benharrech for a final grade.

After the fall semester, we met with Dr. Benharrech to come up with a plan to upload the notes to our site. Dr. Benharrech made her edits to the documents, cleaning up the French and providing students with grammatical feedback on their projects. Lastly, Abby and Nathan edited the final versions of the notes for content before uploading them to the site.

During the editing phase, we learned an important lesson about teaching the history of colonial Haiti. In an earlier draft of the note for the “gens de couleur libres,” students had characterized this group in terms of “les relations entre les maîtres et leurs esclaves (relations between the masters and their slaves).” Discussing the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings during an interview with Dan Livesay, Marlene Daut reminds us to carefully select the language we use to characterize sexual relations between masters and slaves. It is crucial to not portray instances of rape and sexual coercion as amorous for enslaved women. Daut encourages us to refer to sexual relations within a plantation space with a language of sexual assault. While we realize that the students were unintentional in their mistranslation, likely encumbered by their French language abilities, it was nonetheless a teachable moment and something that we as site editors will address in further uses of the site in classroom settings. With this in mind, we suggested the student modify “relations” to “relations coercitives sexuelles”(sexually coercive relationships).

In the end, our collaboration with Dr. Benharrech helped us achieve our original goal of incorporating our site content into undergraduate coursework. Students produced high-quality work in a French language setting that is now, with their permission, prominently displayed on A Colony in Crisis. Even though the students’ contributions were rather low-tech, they helped us create a collaborative digital research space in which further course projects can continue to enhance the overall experience of our site.

Finally, we invite those interested in integrating A Colony in Crisis into their courses or contributing a project to the site to contact us directly at contact@colonyincrisis.lib.umd.edu

Abby R. Broughton is a Ph.D. student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University, where she specializes in 20th century queer literature, body and identity politics, and the intersection of illustration and text. Abby is a co-author, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. She can be reached at abby.broughton@vanderbilt.edu or on Twitter @abbybroughton.

Kelsey Corlett-Rivera is the Head of the Research Commons and Librarian for the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Maryland. Kelsey leverages emerging technologies to provide services for researchers on campus, and is the site designer and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. She can be reached via email at kcr1@umd.edu.

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nathan is the content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. He can be reached on Twitter @formerlyfatdize.

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