Students publish the stories of the city 

By Karen Herland

Audre Lorde once wrote that there were many rooms in her father’s house. By the same token, students in Sima Aprahamian’s undergraduate anthropology field research class learn there are many communities in this city. For the fourth time, those stories have been published in a book.

Elisabeth Callahan presented an ethnographic photo essay of tattoos. Magnifying glass

Elisabeth Callahan presented an ethnographic photo essay of tattoos.

Over the two-semester ANTH 315, students are expected to identify a community and conduct field research according to the methodologies discussed during their first term.

“I tell them to start with the thing they know best,” Aprahamian says of the course she is teaching for the second year in a row. “I ask them what is of interest to them and what they want to know more about.”

This becomes one of the first lessons in the required class. “All field work is based on relationships. You can’t do anything if you don’t have a rapport with your subjects.”

With that in mind, students identify a subculture, community or group they legitimately want to know more about. The stakes are high, since a handful of the 65 or so students will find themselves published authors at the end of the line.

On March 13, ten of them presented the results of research they completed in April 2008 in Stories from Montreal 4, at a launch party that kicked off the Sociology and Anthropology’s annual conference Spaces/Espaces.

“I had almost forgotten about it. This was a project that started two Septembers ago,” said Tamara Tashi McCarthy of her chapter on Montreal’s two solitudes that was inspired by her own experience coming here to study from elsewhere in Canada. “But now that I see the book, I remember all the hard work that everyone put into it.”

McCarthy was one of the students who translated the 40-page paper she submitted into a 12-page chapter, in a back and forth dialogue with the class’s editorial board. “I had to pick out what was most important, and the point I wanted to get across.”

The book’s editors, Martha A. Elvir Prieto, Ya-Ling Fan, Sarah Orr, Miriana Vetere and Nirmala Bains, undertook a major task getting McCarthy, and the other contributors from student to published author.

They first got together at the end of the class in April 2008 to coordinate the project. “I was really naïve, I thought we could produce the book in the fall,” recalls Elvir, who like Fan and Vetere were among the selected authors, although they did not know that going into the project.

Bains, one of the course’s TAs (along with Orr) took on editor duties. “As an outsider, she helped put things in perspective,” said Elvir.

“At first, we had to learn how to communicate with each other,” recalled Bains. The group coordinated who would determine content, communicate with authors, fundraise the $7 000 or so needed to publish the work and coordinate layout and design.

The final selections range from Elvir’s study of mothers and their children in her local park to Catherine Kendler’s study on dumpster divers and Fan’s auto-ethnography on community in the library.

Although the pieces were all produced in the same class, the final products represented a range of styles. “Rayah Al-Mashal had literary vignettes in her piece [about Arab Muslim women], and Elisabeth Callahan’s study of tattoo culture was a photo essay,” said Bains.

Most of the work on the volume, including Aprahamian’s, was entirely voluntary. “There were days when my inbox had 15 messages from Stories and five from everyone else. It took over for a while,” said Bains.

Funds were provided through the CSU, the Arts and Science Federation of Associations, the Concordia Council on Student Life, the Sociology and Anthropology Student Union and the Alumni Association.

The committee for Stories from Montreal 5 has already begun meeting to get started on next year’s project.


Concordia University