Lazy Historians, Disengaged Academics, and Over Paid Professors?

By Thomas Peace

With thousands of Toronto-area teaching and research assistants out on strike as well as a very recent faculty strike at the University of Northern British Columbia, opinion-makers have begun to draw up proposed solutions for the ailments of higher education. Not surprisingly, given the frequent attention it draws, most have targeted tenured and tenure stream faculty members as the blight on the system that is making higher education unaffordable. Over the past few weeks all three of Canada’s major daily newspapers (click here for the Globe, here for the Star, and here for the National Post) explained to their readers through ‘news’ reports or op-ed pieces that the underlying causes of the dramatic rise in itinerant labour is a result of the declining number of full-time over-paid tenured and tenure-track faculty willing to teach.

This type of editorializing – either through the guise of news or through the op-ed pages – is misguided and sets us back from actually achieving workable solutions and robust learning environments in our universities and colleges. Not only does the approach ignore research like CAUT’s, whose annual almanac this year suggests that in six of Canada’s ten provinces, universities spend more money on non-academic staff than academic teaching staff (suggesting that any discussion of costs needs to include the expenses associated with administration, student experience and student life in addition to classroom practices), but more importantly, for the purposes of this post, these attacks on tenured and tenure-track faculty mischaracterize the good work academics (and the students in our classes) are actually up to.[1]

I’ve been thinking about writing this post since last July, when Toronto Star columnist and historian Richard Gwyn used his column to denounce professors as lazy, over-paid and generally poor at their jobs. Centring on history and political science, he claims that most are inaccessible, focusing on self-interested research topics whose resonance is limited to a small like-minded group of academics. Though Gwyn is careful to emphasize that there are many exceptions, his central message is that university professors have lost their robes.

Gwyn tells us his comments will no doubt “hurt – or even anger – many thoroughly well-intentioned professors who are convinced that unless they publish their careers will perish.” Though he certainly captured the sentiment, his analysis of its cause and the discipline as a whole (much like the media currently reporting on the crisis caused by contract and sessional teaching in higher education) is misguided. As someone who has recently embarked upon the career path that Mr. Gwyn feels is so unnecessary, I feel a need to at least ask for clarification, if not a full-scale retraction. To Mr. Gwyn (and the slew of other journalists who seem to share his sentiments), I ask, who are these slothful academics? Where are these failing history departments? Let’s name names and deal in specifics, if this is the real problem underlying the challenges faced in higher education.

As is hopefully apparent, I think that these journalists are wrong. In 2010, the last year for which I could find data, there were over one thousand full-time academic staff employed in a history department in Canada. Although many of them are not Canadian historians, the Canadian Historical Association reports a membership of 411 full-time employed academic historians for 2010.[2] Although not all of these people likely teach Canadian history, what should be clear from these numbers is that anecdotal evidence – the kind upon which many of these observations are made – is relatively useless given such a large sample size.

On the surface, though, it appears that Gwyn has a point. If there are literally hundreds of historians working in universities, why aren’t these people engaged in national conversations?

My answer is two-fold. First, I don’t think every professor needs to be publicly engaged in order to make an active contribution to the field of Canadian history or their institution. In addition to the between four to six courses many of us teach each year (two or three a semester), academic historians are also involved in running their institutions and supervising students. For readers who do not work in a university, imagine giving a one-hour public address daily in addition to attending a couple of (departmental and faculty) meetings a week and having no staff to help you prepare. In addition to this work, you are expected to maintain a research profile and advise students on their projects and course work (that is, historians working in universities need to maintain the expertise and professionalism that makes us effective university-level teachers and separates university-level education from the senior levels of high school). In short, historians working in universities are busy and have little time to make short-notice interventions in public debates. When university professors enter into these discussions, it is usually on top of, rather than within, our regular expected duties. It is also worthwhile pointing towards a point Ruth Sandwell made on this site a couple of years ago: with hundreds of students attending our classes each week, the classroom remains an important – if not the important – site of public engagement.

Second, and more importantly, the premise of the question is wrong. Many university-based historians are active beyond the ivory tower and in many cases heavily engaged in civic discourse. Critics’ inability to identify these people is not a reflection on the quality or influence of their work.

So when pundits like Richard Gwyn criticize Canadian historians for their lack of engagement, I wonder, do they mean the historians working at York University?

This would seem odd. In addition to having a long tradition of publically engaged faculty (Jack Granatstein, Jack Saywell, Ramsey Cook, and Craig Heron immediately come to mind), newer faculty members are similarly oriented. Gwyn himself has shared the stage with one of York’s recent hires, Sean Kheraj. William C. Wicken has done considerable work as an expert witness in numerous treaty and land claims trials.[3] The Tubman Institute, currently led by historian Michele Johnson, has been a leader in African diaspora studies and over their eight years they have mounted a number of projects focused on civic engagement. Indeed, many faculty members at York strive to engage directly with the public. Recently the department as a whole put together an excellent series of six-minute videos contextualizing World War One. This hardly seems like a disengaged faculty.

Maybe Gwyn means Western University. But then again, how does he address Western’s innovative and deeply rooted Public History program? In addition to a generally engaged history faculty (you can follow the department on twitter @westernuHistory), Western’s Public History program explicitly trains historians to engage wider audiences. The program is not solely based on theory or research but also has an important practical component where students intern at museums, historic sites and other institutions that support this work. Carleton and Concordia have similarly oriented programs and many (most?) history programs offer specialized courses reflecting a more applied approach to the historian’s craft.

Western is also home to NiCHE, an organization that focuses on building relationships among environmental history researchers. Here, perhaps, are Gwyn’s naval gazing academics. But then, Gwyn needs to explain NiCHE’s popular blog The Otter and workshops on popular publishing and their successful podcast (albeit started by York’s Sean Kheraj). This organization too, does not seem to fit Gwyn’s characterization.

Perhaps Gwyn doesn’t mean history departments in Ontario. Maybe he’s been talking to friends elsewhere in Canada. Let’s take a look at two universities in the west: the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia. In Canadian history, the University of Saskatchewan is the home of well known publicly-engaged historians like Keith Carlson, Valarie Korinek, J.R. Miller, and Bill Waiser. Newer faculty, like Jim Clifford, Erika Dyck, and Kathryn Labelle all have research and teaching agendas that involve making their work accessible beyond the Ivory Tower.

If we turn to UBC, pundits like Gwyn would need to explain scholars like Tina Loo, a frequent contributor to Canada’s History, and the professors in the Faculty of Education who are instrumental in running the History and Education Network (THEN/HiER) and the Historical Thinking Project.

These are the large schools. Even at smaller schools, where faculty don’t have teaching assistants to offset our marking, we find historians whose teaching and research extend well beyond the university’s walls. At Nipissing, we could point to John Long‘s important work on Treaty Nine (which is very well represented in Alanis Obomsawin’s recent film Trick or Treaty). At Trent, we could look at John Milloy‘s influence as the head of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the Maritimes, John Reid‘s work – particularly his and Donald Savoie’s Shaping an Agenda for Atlantic Canada – likewise fits the profile of the civically engaged scholar Gwyn finds missing in Canada.

Likewise, if you’re on Twitter there are Canadian historians by the dozen making micro-interventions on national debates. Here’s a small selection worth following: Tina Adcock (@TinaAdcock), Mary-Ellen Kelm (@kelmme), Dominique Marshall (@Dominiq92516944), Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1), Ian Mosby (@Ian_Mosby), Andrew Nurse (@SackvilleNB), Adele Perry (@AdelePerry) and Dan Rueck (@danrueck).

My central point, then, is this: Canadian historians are not disengaged from the central issues facing Canadian society. I literally did no outside research in drafting up these examples. Anyone with a serious interest in the practice of Canadian history could likely draft a much longer and exhaustive list of publicly engaged historians. We should therefore expect this level of research from the media and socio-political pundits.

There are, of course, many other university-based historians who are not as engaged in the public sphere. But here – based on my experiences – these scholars are working in universities with heavy teaching loads, are active and innovative researchers, or have made the decision to serve their universities rather than focus on research and civic engagement. There is no single trajectory for the university history professor. To address this subject without sufficient nuance, then, is harmful both for the historical profession and Canadian society more broadly.

Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian history at Huron University College and an editor at

For more on this topic see our podcast coverage of last year’s CHA session on Canadian Historians and the Media. Better still, consider attending or submitting a paper or poster proposal for our upcoming Conference on New Directions in Active History (the deadline for proposals is April 15).

[1] See the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada, 2014-15,  Table 1.4: University Expenditures, 2011-12. My goal in making this point is not to further the idea that employment in universities is a zero-sum game where positions have to be removed from one area to support another. Most non-academic staff I know are essential to the learning environment. My point here is solely that the situation is far more complex than journalists and pundits usually make out. I’d point anyone interested in developing a more nuanced understanding to the issue to read  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift. On the need for us to understand university spending more broadly see Alex Usher’s post on understanding Administrative Bloat on the Higher Education Strategy Associates blog.

[2] For the total number of historians working in universities and colleges see the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada, 2013-14, Table 2.9: Age Distribution of Full-time University Teachers by Major Discipline and Subject, 2010-11. Numbers for the CHA are derived from personal correspondence with Michel Duquet, the organization’s executive director.

[3] The video link here is really worth watching in terms of the benefits and drawbacks for academics who wish to apply their expertise in the public sphere.

36 thoughts on “Lazy Historians, Disengaged Academics, and Over Paid Professors?

  1. Thanks for the post (and the shout outs). I remember thinking many of the same things when I read Gwyn’s article. It was so funny given that I had literally sat next to him on television to discuss the public value of history just weeks earlier. Talk about forgetting the past!

    Readers might also want to follow the history department at York on Twitter: @YorkHist

  2. Thanks for this Tom! Like Sean, I appreciate the shout-out – but alas I’ve been downsized by Canada’s History. I will not revert to laziness though!

    Just a comment: I agree that “engagement” comes in many forms. But publics do too. We reach some of those publics in classrooms, through Twitter and podcasts, in the courtroom, and even in the pages of Canada’s History. Should we be thinking of the differences among those publics? Who’s hearing us and who’s not? Who we want to reach and how we might do that?

  3. Good piece! We could also add that the present government, with its cuts to Parks Canada and elsewhere, not to mention the policies of institutions such as the Museum for Human Rights, has been downsizing the opportunities for historians to have a public role. The pervasive official suspicion of history feeds attacks on academic historians.

  4. I think Tina’s point is salient. Many of us write for this website, disseminate research on Twitter, and teach history in our classrooms. We know those audiences. How do we reach mass public audiences? For instance, if Chapters, Costco, and Walmart are the biggest retailers of books in Canada, how can we reach those publics? Television and radio still attract large audiences. How do historians access those publics?

    Then again, Jim Daschuk’s book proved that a scholarly monograph published with a small university press can breakthrough to a mass audience and become a best seller. Perhaps there’s something to be learned there?

  5. I know this post is about historians working in history departments, but I’d like to add where some sitting outside of formal history departments, particularly in geography, are part of the up-swell of public voices in the historical research community. A recent series of short papers in the Journal of Historical Geography (vol 46 p.92-107 on “participatory historical geographies” shows a number of recent approaches to this kind of work.

    “Participatory” here argues that historical research can be more than just researching /about/ a topic or community, but it can become researching /with/ and /for/ those communities, which of course brings with it its own set of challenges. Researching with and for a community can create archives for future historians, including by donating oral history interviews to archives.

    The collection includes a piece from Canadian Laura Cameron (disclaimer: Laura is my supervisor). Laura’s paper outlines the work of many of my fellow graduate students in Queen’s geography department who have made and are making active contributions to the public (and participatory) historical geography, something Laura always fosters in her undergraduate and graduate teaching.

    Hayden Lorimer’s (from the University of Glasgow who’s currently visiting us in Kingston) work on ruination at Kilmahew/St Peter’s through the cooperative Invisible College Project, while not Canadian, might provide inspiration for a different approach to participatory histories of historic sites and buildings, especially in the wake of demolitions in Saskatoon and St. John’s. (

  6. The main argument of this piece is certainly laudable, but it actually provides very little proof of academic historians’ professional engagement outside of the realm of academia or “professional” history itself. What do you mean by “engaged” historians? What are they doing that makes them engaged? Sure, lecturing/teaching within your home institution is an acceptable answer, although it certainly is a curious one because most teaching is not done by tenured faculty anymore anyways.

    Secondly, not everyone in Canada attends university, and many that do will not even take a single history class. Fostering historical literacy in a society means that the work of historians has to go beyond the university classroom walls. Engaged history means bringing history to life for the public, writing op-eds in major dailies, giving speeches at museums, amateur historical societies, political events, schools…consulting with school curriculum creators…appearing on television, etc. Of course, to do so, you would have to actually be working on a topic that is relevant to public discourse and public affairs. Being publicly engaged — and this is what Gwyn was getting at in his article — means actually taking your research beyond the walls of academic itself. This piece simply shrugs that assertion off by saying professors are too busy with their work in academia to pay attention to what’s going on outside of it.

    Gywn’s article was certainly inflammatory and uncharitable to the work that academic historians do. But to insinuate that it should be retracted is astounding. We should be thankful that someone outside of academia wants to criticize our work and tell us how we can improve and reach out to the public. Or do you not want the public to have a say in how Canadian history is written? That seems contradictory to engaged history and the aims of Active History.

    Finally, Gwyn’s article is problematic to be sure, but it’s difficult to argue with his assertion that nobody reads the work of academic historians. That’s the nature of our work now, as our fields become increasingly specialized and we speak to a smaller and smaller audience. Continuing to proclaim that we are engaged does not make it so.

  7. Dustin, I think Tom is saying that some historians choose to focus their limited time on teaching, research and their home institution. His list of scholars, however, focuses on the many historians in Canada who work hard to bring their research beyond the university. Bill Waiser, for example, gives hundreds of talks in communities around Saskatchewan and is a regular contributor to the media. Gwyn argued there are only two historians, Granatstein and Bliss, engaging with the wider national debate. This is simply not true. It would take more research than this blog post to come up with a clear idea of the actual breakdown, but singling out two retired historians from Toronto suggests he is not really paying attention to the work done by many academic historians.

  8. Dustin:

    “Engaged history means bringing history to life for the public, writing op-eds in major dailies, giving speeches at museums, amateur historical societies, political events, schools…consulting with school curriculum creators…appearing on television, etc.”

    Just to clarify some of Tom’s points above, the historians he references all engage in these activities. For example, if you click through on the link of my name, you will find proof of my appearance on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin where I sat alongside Gwyn. I really was there!

    And, believe it or not, academic historians (many of those listed above) do publish op-eds and other articles in newspapers. Here’s one I wrote:

    Click through on the link for William Wicken and you will see a video of him explaining his work outside the academy as an expert witness in First Nations rights and land claims cases.

    Think, for instance, of the History Matters speaker series sponsored by This series brings academic historical researchers into the public through a partnership with Toronto Public Libraries:

    Academic Canadian historians, as Tom points out, have been publicly engaged for a long time. Consider the late Jack Saywell. Does anyone remember that Saywell co-hosted a political affairs show on CBC with Barbara Frum?

    Even scholarly monographs published by academic presses can reach wide audiences beyond the academy. As I mention in my comment above, James Daschuk’s book last year was one of the most widely read Canadian non-fiction books. It was published by University of Regina Press.

    Tom’s point is pretty simple, Gwyn got it wrong. Most of Gwyn’s arguments were based on false assumptions and cliché stereotypes that do not accurately reflect the degree to which academic Canadian historians are publicly engaged in precisely the ways you describe above.

    I would invite other historians to post some proof of their public engagement here, just in case this isn’t adequate.

    Here is a list of some recent media interviews I’ve done about Canadian environmental history:

    Media Appearances and Interviews:

    Fumano, Dan. “Secrets of Stanley Park: A Look at What – and Who – Call it Home” The Province, 28 August 2014,

    Interview about oil pipeline spill history in Canada on CHRY 105.5FM, 2 June 2014.

    Invited panellist on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, “Does History Matter” 8 January 2014, TVO

    Goff, Teresa. “Review: Inventing Stanley Park” Trek Magazine: A Publication of Alumni UBC, December 2013,

    Smith, Emma. “Park lovers debate as silt fills Stanley Park’s Beaver Lake” Globe and Mail, 25 November 2013,

    Donaldson, Jesse. “An Unnatural History of Stanley Park” The Tyee, 27 September 2013,

    Obee, Dave. “Review: A Valuable Record of the History of Vancouver’s Crown Jewel” Victoria Times-Colonist, 23 September 2013,

    Kheraj, Sean. “On its 125th Anniversary, Reflections on the Lasting Power of Stanley Park” Globe and Mail, 24 August 2013,

    Interview about history of Stanley Park and its 125th anniversary on CBC Radio One, BC Almanac, 23 August 2013,

    Kheraj, Sean. “The Man-Made History of Stanley Park” Vancouver Magazine, 20 August 2013,

    Sherlock, Tracy. “Stanley Park: Looking Back at Our Favourite Park” Vancouver Sun, 19 August 2013,

    Mackie, John. “Stanley Park, The Natural Wonder of Vancouver, Was Shaped By Humans” Vancouver Sun, 17 August 2013,

    Krugel, Laura. “Pipelines as Nation-Builders? Historians Dubious of Railway Comparisons” Ottawa Citizen, 17 August 2013,

    Interviews about oil transportation safety and Lac Mégantic disaster on CBC Radio One syndication, 8 July 2013:

    “Points North” Sudbury 99.9 FM (CBCS-FM)
    “Mainstreet” Cape Breton 1140 AM (CBI)
    “Radio West” Kelowna 88.9 FM (CBTK-FM)
    “Mainstreet” Halifax 90.5 FM (CBHA-FM)
    “Here and Now” Toronto 99.1 FM (CBLA-FM)
    “Mainstreet PEI” Charlottetown 96.1 FM (CBCT-FM)
    “On the Coast” Vancouver 690 AM, 88.1 FM (CBU)
    “Up to Speed” Winnipeg 89.3 FM (CBW)
    “Voyage North” Thunder Bay 88.3 FM (CBQT-FM)
    O’Neil, Peter. “Oil Spills Are Rare and Getting Rarer” Vancouver Sun, 28 May 2013,

    Casselman, Anne. “Will Canada’s Proposed Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Muck Up Its Pacific Coast?” Scienfitic American Online, 5 March 2013,

    Interviews about oil pipeline safety and regulation history on CBC Radio One syndication, 18 October 2012,

    “Ontario Morning” London 93.5 FM (CBCL-FM)
    “Quebec AM” Quebec City 104.7 FM (CBVE-FM)
    “Morning North” Sudbury 99.9 FM (CBCS-FM)
    “Superior Morning” Thunder Bay 88.3FM (CBQT-FM)
    “Quilliq” Iqaluit 1230AM (CFFB)
    “West Coast Morning Show” Corner Brook 990 AM (CBY)
    “On the Island” Victoria 90.5 FM (CBCV-FM)
    “Daybreak South” Kelowna 88.9 FM (CBTK-FM)
    “The Morning Edition (Saskatchewan)” Regina 102.5FM (CBKR-FM); 540AM (CBK)
    “Daybreak Kamloops” Kamloops 94.1 FM (CBYK-FM)
    “The Early Edition” Vancouver 88.1FM (CBU); 690AM
    Interview about Canadian oil pipeline spill history on “The World Today” CKNW 980AM Vancouver, 7 August 2012,

    Tieleman, Bill. “Piping Crude? ‘There is no leak proof system’” The Tyee, 7 August 2012,

    Tieleman, Bill. “Alberta Oil Spill Record a Lesson for B.C.” 24 Hours: Vancouver, 7 August 2012,

    Nikiforuk, Andrew. “It Just Gets Worse: The NTSB’s Final Flaying of Enbridge” The Tyee, 1 August 2012,

    Interview about Alberta oil pipeline spill history on “Radio Active” CBC Radio One Edmonton 93.9FM (CBX2-FM), 27 July 2012

    “Pipeline Controversy Spikes” Interview about oil pipeline spill controversies and history on Radio Canada International, 16 July 2012,

    Interviews about oil pipeline spill history on CBC Radio One syndication, 11 July 2012,

    “The Early Shift” Windsor 97.5FM (CBE)
    “Ottawa Morning” Ottawa 91.5FM (CBO-FM)
    “Superior Morning” Thunder Bay 88.3FM (CBQT-FM)
    “Radio Noon Manitoba” Winnipeg 89.3FM (CBW)
    “Quilliq” Iqaluit 1230AM (CFFB)
    “The Morning Edition (Saskatchewan)” Regina 102.5FM (CBKR-FM); 540AM (CBK)
    “Daybreak North” Prince George/Prince Rupert 91.5FM (CBYG-FM); 860AM (CFPR)
    “The Early Edition” Vancouver 88.1FM (CBU); 690AM
    Audette, Trish. “How safe are pipelines?” Edmonton Journal, 6 July 2012,

    Fernandez-Blance, Katherine. “Canadian flag born of identity crisis” Toronto Star, 1 July 2012,–canadian-flag-born-of-identity-crisis

    Wood, James and Chris Varcoe. “Pipeline leak near Sundre takes toll on Gateway project” Calgary Herald, 17 June 2012,

    Hume, Stephen. “Pipeline spills are not the exception in Alberta, they are an oily reality” Vancouver Sun, 14 June 2012,

    Weber, Bob. “Alberta pressured to include leaks in environmental monitoring plan” Financial Post, 14 June 2012,

    Interview with 660AM News Calgary about Red Deer River oil pipeline spill, 8 June 2012,

    “Stanley Park Opened in Vancouver” Today in Canadian History, 27 September 2010. CJSW 90.9FM

    “Disasters of the Century” episode 44, on History Television (First aired October 2006)

  9. In response to Pete, the discipline of geography is rather interesting. It largely assumes that geographers as well as historical geographers are naturally active in their research agenda, because they have to travel and presumably talk with individuals in the field. More importantly, organizations such as the National Geographic Society and targeted television channels such as Discovery allow for academic geographers and others motivated by the study of geography to actively engage mass audiences.

    The armchair historian or geographer has recently been explored by David Lambert in Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery (2013). Lambert offers a fascinating glimpse into MacQueen’s or McQueen’s or M’Queen’s methodology in documenting the Niger River. He actually does not confirm the actual spelling of James’ surname. If Dr. Lambert reads this, I would be interested in a follow-up article on just exactly who McQueen was and why his surname was spelled in so many ways. Did the multiple surnames have an impact on the character of his research?

    The crux of the issue is whether someone can write on a topic without visiting or engaging with audiences that is being studied. Lambert makes an excellent argument that arm-chair history is possible, but hints that it only works when someone, in this case it is McQueen, has not tapped into the source of knowledge before another writer. If someone has tapped into the source of knowledge, the second writer may make a mistake without being aware of it. Copyright was a contentious issue in the 19th century, as it is now with digital resources.

  10. As per Sean’s suggestion, here’s a list of just a few (dozen) interviews I’ve done in the past few years:

    Another thing worth noting (and that, I think, Tom captured quite well): this work is done in addition to our other work and is not typically recognized when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Historians who put their neck out there to communicate with a broader public are not typically rewarded for doing so but do it because they genuinely believe it’s important to reach a wider audience

  11. Great piece – but for want of stirring the pot more on two fronts – why is it that public engagement is the means of assessing historians, but not chemists or biologists? Yes our subjects are human beings, but surely the fundamental issue here is the blurring of lines between expert and non-expert knowledge. Is history not worthy of having individuals who spend their professional lives delving as deep into the human condition as engineers do on the nature of the built and mechanical worlds? Second, Canada punches way over its weight in other areas of historical scholarship – the idea that we *need* to be “public” in a certain way can cloud that. Who is the audience?

    Taken together, perhaps sadly we find that the real issue here is the problem of value. The strikes illustrate that our research isn’t the matter putting food on the tables of the un/non-tenured adjuncts sessionals part-timers, it’s teaching. And while it is resoundingly evident that teaching isn’t being well supported financially, the debate over value has yet to make the connections between research and teaching – what sets a university apart from a school – abundantly clear to a wider Canadian audience.

  12. Matt:

    I’m inclined to agree with you. While public engagement is important and valuable to historical scholarship, there must still be room for curiosity-driven research, just as you suggest. There are several academic books in Canadian history that do not necessarily appeal to a broad popular audience yet they are still important and valuable.

    In fact, it is because of the protections of academic freedom that such development of knowledge about the Canadian past is possible. If all Canadian history research had to meet a standard of popular appeal, our knowledge of the past would be impoverished and much diminished.

  13. I’ve noticed the same trend in media reporting, Tom, and appreciate your informative corrective to the underlying stereotype of tenured laziness and ivory tower isolation.

    This assumption is not going away, but even so, media coverage of higher ed issues seems a lot better than it used to be even a few years ago. The coverage of the strikes has been better informed than the last ones, and (thanks to union activism) there is a broader appreciation of job casualization in this sector in news columns and reporting. I’ve also noticed that an important point you make – that there is not a lot of good overall data for this sector – has appeared in the news too. But perhaps this will be changing: I’ve noticed a report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario referred to a fair bit and maybe its work, along with CAUT data and so on will make a difference.

    In my opinion, a major problem is the complexity of the higher education sector, which includes college and university, meaning almost every kind of education you can think of, plus a very big range of research activities, from individual researcher with little grants to big collaborative projects of teams of people at multiple institutions lasting many years. It’s hard to make meaningful generalizations about pedagogy, research, and public engagement for all this diversity as a whole (plus administrative/service roles).

    As for Gwynn, his complaint sounds a lot like the dismay about the “fracturing” of Canadian history, the search for who “killed Canadian history”, and the whining about too much social history.

  14. What surprised me about Gwyn’s piece, when I read it, was that he didn’t draw on his own experience as Chancellor of a university (St. Jerome’s in Waterloo) from 2002 to 2007. The head of History there is Whitney Lackenbauer, whose writings on Northern histories are perhaps the definition of engaged in that field. Also on faculty is Ryan Touhey, whose work on Canada-India relations includes a stint with the Asia Pacific Foundation – devoted to engagement. That’s a small school and a small department with some serious public engagement by a couple of smart scholars. If you look beyond Canada into people working on other countries’ histories, you’ll find engagement with broader publics outside this country’s borders fairly easily.

    But perhaps Gwyn meant he didn’t see many op-eds by professional historians in the daily papers. Quite possibly true, and if so, quite possibly the result of structural changes in the business. Once, newspapers paid for opinion pieces from outside commentators. That’s rare these days. Once, there was a vibrant discussion on the opinion pages of daily papers. Today, those outside comments are fewer, those pages more dominated by professional columnists. It’s harder to break into these outlets than it once was, and much easier to publish in such outlets as activehistory. There is a lot being done by groups such as the Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies (created out of Concordia University’s History department)- but that work, while at times influential in various communities, is not making it to the pages of daily newspapers and the top of TV broadcasts.

    My own view would be that if Gwyn wants more historians in those media outlets, that’s terrific. Create the space, and plenty of people will come forward to fill it. Why not a weekly space in the Toronto Star where Canadian historians can answer Gwyn’s challenge?

  15. i would be very surprised if any of the law firms and first nations communities i have worked with think of contacting richard gwynn when their issues enter the court system. canadian journalism is in a sorrowful state. its as if someone shouts squirrel!! and off they run after the story of the hour – my border collies have a greater attention span. there is rarely any historical context beyond the myths of Canada and very little real analysis beyond ballot box predictions. i wonder where their contact with and responsibility to the reading public is.

  16. As per Sean’s suggestion, I’ll also enter the fray. My engagement with the public, outside of academia, has largely been the result of timely events coinciding with my historical research. In particular, the Ontario government’s decision to bring back the spring bear hunt has given me the opportunity, which I’m grateful for, to offer commentary and context on the situation. This has in turn allowed me to communicate my research and engage with the public in ways I had not envisioned just two years ago. I’ve been a guest on my local CBC (Sudbury) 4-5 times and on Thunder Bay CBC as well. Prior to the Agenda’s episode on the spring bear hunt last spring, I did an online segment with producer Mark Brosens for Agenda Plus. Currently, I’ll be a part of Science North’s Science Cafe series in Thunder Bay and Sudbury to talk about the science and politics behind wildlife management policy decisions. I’ve found that these engagements have often been the most rewarding and engaging and in themselves, have also been a real boon to my larger research project.

  17. This has been a very interesting discussion. At the suggestion of Sean Kheraj on Twitter, I’ll say the way I’ve been engaged as a historical demographer/historian is to develop a website which offers free access to the 1852 and 1881 censuses of Canada. Our site currently has over 8,600 registered users. Our project, the Programme de recherche en démographie historique, also works with academic, volunteer-sector and private sector collaborators to develop new sources of historical population data which we make available to other researchers.

  18. I’d also like to add the efforts of the website ‘Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit’ which I have hosted at UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice since 2013. Together w/ a group of talented graduate students and contributors from all across Canada, as well as elsewhere in the world, we have tried to link feminist scholarship with today’s key political concerns. The experience of running this website has also encouraged me to begin work as a general editor with UBC Press to create their new popular series on Women Suffrage and Social Justice in Canada, which, among much else, will recognize the suffrage anniversaries.

  19. Sean – and all – not to be the curmudgeon here, I agree compiling lists of websites for people who are interested in history is a good endeavour. That said, I don’t think lists for academic blog readers speaks to the heart of the issues that are driving the problem. We can make lists for engaged readers who are already on side, as it were, with the arguments as they’ve been laid out above. The crux is actually the wider remit of individuals and the public discourse itself. Examples are great, but I often feel the larger intellectual, rhetorical, and big P political argument gets lost. It’s like burying a potential buyer in a flea market with trinkets – if they’re not in a buying mood, it doesn’t matter how much stock you have, or how shiny it is. What is needed is to convince and persuade that what’s on offer has a fundamental value. That’s where the debate is lacking (and if anyone is wondering, I know the value of historical scholarship and believe in it wholeheartedly, I’m just asking the grumpy SO WHAT question to be Socratic). Teaching has value because it’s political suicide to say it doesn’t (i.e. some would make the case it doesn’t really deserve the pay it has already), but research? When evidence based argumentation configured as ideological stances or belief systems, the value of any form of expert knowledge – professional or not – becomes rather difficult to maintain. It’s simply not clear to me whether protesting our work product is the only or even the best method for addressing the issues Tom raises in his article.

  20. We should all be grateful that as historians our work is having such a large public impact. That it having that impact is indisputably true. What I think we ought to be cautious about — and I say this with the utmost respect for my colleagues (who are also my friends) who have helped to break national headlines — is not leaving the impression that what makes historians influential is the number of times we come up in the media. What makes us influential, and this is true of Ian Mosby, Sean Kheraj, Nikki Strong-Boag, JS Milloy, Bill Wicken, and others here, is that we do research that matters.
    I have noticed something of a shift in the last 5-6 years towards “knowledge mobilization,” that while a good thing generally speaking makes me worry a little bit that there is less money and less value placed on doing deep research that is time-consuming and not the least bit glamorous. Of course the people I’ve just mentioned have done that hard archival work and they know what I’m talking about. I just hope the new generation — if I’m old enough to say so now (ie . I’m 34) — won’t get the impression that the interview supersedes the archives.
    A very good, wise historian once told me that he does very few interviews. They aren’t his style really. But he does talk to policymakers. As often as he can and as much as he can. And not in sound bites.

  21. Wonderful piece as always, Tom, and a great discussion!

    What frustrates me about Gwyn’s criticisms – and Tom, you allude to this – is the underlying suggestion that historical research within the “ivory tower” does not in itself contribute to our society. By their actions and, less frequently, their words, politicians, journalists, and even university administrators repeat this suggestion all the time. Most also explicitly value directly applicable research on pressing issues over the kind of abstract knowledge that often enables such research. Many professional historians (myself included) have begun to internalize these narratives. We are publicly active, our work sheds new light on today’s issues; we matter!

    Don’t get me wrong: I love public engagement, and I seek out projects that I find relevant. For example, I’ve written more than 70 articles for a website I created,, that applies historical approaches to debates about climate change, and now receives more than 100,000 hits/year. I find this work deeply fulfilling, but I’m not sure how much my contribution to society would have suffered had I not created the website and used the time to write a few academic articles instead. Maybe those articles would have received no more than a few hundred reads, about as many as my website attracts in a day. Nevertheless, its ideas might have enriched academic discussions in ways that are hard to quantify but could still have influenced our country and our world.

    I often find myself working with scientists. While many scientists frame their scholarship in ways that highlight its relevance, most do not feel like their work matters only when it is shared in newspapers, radio broadcasts, or television shows. Not all science applies easily to technological innovation or political decisions, yet, for the most part, even abstract science that never leaves the academy is valued far more in public discourse than historical research. Frankly, I’m not one who thinks that all historical work is equal to all scientific study. But I do think that the shared exploration of our past at the highest level, even if it never leaves the walls of the ivory tower, is essential to a healthy university system, and informed citizenry, and an effective democracy. History has, in fact, shown us that dictatorships crave scientific knowledge, but quickly repress genuine historical scholarship.

    Again, this is not to take away from public engagement, but only to highlight that historical scholarship cannot help but contribute to our society. I’ll end with a more specific criticism of Gwyn’s silliness: newspapers and radio are fading mediums; the web is rising. Before criticizing the reach, worth, and social significance of historians, he might have tried a Google search.

  22. Jason:

    Matt Milner raised a similar point above. I completely agree with you. Public engagement with mass media can be a good thing, but it cannot be the only way we measure the importance of historical scholarship. As you correctly point out, good historical scholarship is time consuming and it isn’t always glamourous. But it can be some of the most important and influential research.

  23. Dagomar:

    Indeed, one of the purposes of the university is to allow for curiosity-driven research unencumbered by practical or applied rationales.

    This came up in some of the earlier comments in the thread, but why do historians seem to fall under a different set of expectations for public engagement than other disciplines?

  24. Thanks for the shout-out, Tom! In response to Sean’s request for information, I’d say I conduct most of my public engagement and outreach on Twitter. The few (CBC and Irish) radio interviews I’ve done have resulted from my activities there, after engaging with popular accounts like @TrapperBud, for example.

    I agree with Mike that we can be thrust into public conversations when our research coincides with timely events. But we also shouldn’t hesitate to thrust ourselves out there at opportune moments. When the news about the Erebus discovery broke last September, I hemmed and hawed at first about writing a response piece. In the end I did write something for ActiveHistory ( It had a good uptake, and it’s even travelled “full circle”; it’s been used in a couple of university classrooms since.

    Public engagement can consist not only of sharing our own expertise and research, but that of our colleagues too. Arguably my most influential intervention into public discourse occurred when I tweeted about Ian Mosby’s research into nutritional experimentation in Aboriginal communities. A Canadian Press reporter who’d just started following me on Twitter saw that tweet, contacted Ian, and broke the story nationally. (Ian tells the story here:

    The moral of the story? We need to talk about the amazing work that our colleagues are doing too. Raising academic history’s public profile should be a communal, and communally supportive endeavour.

  25. This is a wonderful post and comment thread! Far more inspiring and reassuring than probably 99% of comment threads.

    Thanks to Pete for the link to the JHG special edition on participatory historical geography.

    Speaking only from personal experience, I’ve found “the public” to have a mixed reception to participatory history. I’ve had great success with some forms of participation–public lectures in Inuvik, NT; sharing research at board meetings of various local groups in town; collaborating with elders and Parks Canada staff on field trips. Others were not as successful. For example, a high school teacher and I worked for months to organize a field trip to Reindeer Station, but the partnerships we formed with local and territorial folks kept falling apart.

    I’ve found it helpful to see both successes and non-successes in engaged history as generating useful forms of information. That’s why I don’t want to use the label failure. Anthropologists do this kind of thing all the time. I’ve reflected for a while on why the Reindeer Station trip was harder to organize than others, and even talked with locals about it. Those conversations have really helped me understand Arctic history in the 30s, Inuvialuit relationships with “government” and the environment (then and now), and my own place as a researcher in a northern communities.

    What I’m trying to say that even the “drawbacks” of doing participatory history can be helpful in understanding history and the historian’s craft.

  26. Wow! This conversation has really enhanced and extended my original post. In many ways this conversation represents the dynamic community of historians I tried to illustrate in my post. Thank you.

    I want to pick up on a few threads in this discussion that I think are really important.

    First and foremost, I want to apologize for not including Women Suffrage and Beyond in the piece. As the editor who saw Veronica Strong-Boag and Tiffany Johnstone’s paper “Taking it to the Streets: Women Suffrage and Beyond” ( through the review process, there really isn’t much of an excuse for not including it in the UBC section. It should have been there and I am sorry to have left it out. Relatedly, though, one of the things I realized as I wrote the post was that many of the names that first came to mind were men. This may reflect more on me than the discipline as a whole, but my hunch is that public engagement continues to be a useful index for demonstrating the problematic gender dynamics that continue within the discipline and the university-sector more broadly.

    Second, this thread of comments does an excellent job at opening up what we mean when we use the terms public (or publics) and engagement. Tina Loo’s challenge for us to expand our concept of “the public” to a more plural and reflexive understanding of publics, points to a subject that we don’t explore frequently enough. In raising questions about “who’s hearing us and who’s not,” I think that she addresses an issue of central importance for those of us who believe that our work has value, and needs to be accessible, to people without ready access to university resources. I touched on this a bit a couple of years ago in a blog post about the limitations of the digital sphere in terms of reaching rural and low-income households (, but these issues need to be probed at a much deeper level (and would be a happy forum for this conversation).

    Third, though I generally agree with Jason Ellis’s comments that the value of historical research should not be assessed by its uptake in the media, I fear that the tenor of the conversation in these comments places too much emphasis on our role as researchers (furthering the current debate that points towards a more rigid separation of teaching from research). I included a link in the post to an essay Ruth Sandwell wrote a couple of years ago about the importance of teaching in terms of historians’ public engagement. For those of us teaching Canadian history broadly (i.e. the over four hundred years of northern North American history that we call the Canadian History survey), we are often leading students through subjects that are not represented at all by our more narrow research interests. We are doing a disservice to our students and institutions (and to ourselves!) if we feel comfortable discussing these subjects in the classroom but not in other public forums. There are, of course, limits to the subjects we should discuss (I once witnessed a historian interviewed on the CBC about the legacy of Edward Cornwallis – the controversial founder of Halifax – who proceeded to refer to him as Thomas throughout the entire interview. He probably should have passed on the opportunity). But it is in our training as teachers of the past where our broad expertise should (and does) inform public debate. Defining the university-based historian primarily through research risks diminishing the expertise university professors bring to the classroom. University-based historians are more than one-trick ponies and our training and preparation for the classroom (both in terms of content, context and historical thinking) also has important public value.

  27. You’re quite right about teaching, Tom. Although it was only a minor note in your original post.

    In any case, I too think Ruth’s active history article is on the mark. She has extended that argument elsewhere to talk a great deal about how we should teach undergraduate history, i.e. teaching historical thinking vs. teaching historical “facts.”

  28. I’ve read these comments with great interest and this morning I’m wondering what our colleagues at Histoire Engagée would make of them. Would the concern about a lack of engagement resonate en français? In some ways, the longer trajectory of Canadian history/historiography would suggest that francophone historians of Quebec have been the _most_ publicly engaged of Canadianists, given the larger nationalist project many are engaged with – and some have contested. Is our discussion above a sign of the continuing existence of two solitudes, and yet another example of how we who work in English overlook our colleagues who work in French?

  29. We definitely need to distinguish the “myth of the lazy academic” from the reality of the lazy academic. I embody the latter. (But lazy people have to pay the bills, too).

  30. There are few things more hearty to behold than a bunch of tenured academics thumping each other on the back for their good deeds. I give Gwyn credit for sounding the alarm about the dreadful segmented labor system.

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