Is Pre-Confederation History actually Declining? A Response to Thomas Peace and Robert Englebert

By David Zylberberg

In June, Activehistory.ca ran a series of posts focused on the topics discussed at the then upcoming Canadian Historical Association Annual Conference. As usual, Thomas Peace posted an informative analysis of the topics, regions, time periods and languages covered while Robert Englebert discussed possible reasons for the limited number of papers on pre-Confederation topics. Drs. Peace and Englebert are both skilled historians of pre-Confederation Canada who rightly perceive dangers for Canadian History as a field if it becomes overly focused on the second-half of the twentieth century. They use quantitative analysis of the CHA annual conference programs since 2004 to argue for a decline in pre-Confederation history. However, the CHA program is not the only metric to understand the interest of Canadian historians. Below, I will propose and briefly explore a few others, which suggest that the field of Canadian History generally places greater emphasis on early time periods than is evident at the annual conference.

If we are looking to measure the periods of study amongst Canadian Historians, we could look at numerous stages. These include courses offered at the undergraduate level, the research topics of graduate students, journal and book publications, faculty hires or the most prominent books in the field. Each of these will give a different indication of the relative importance of pre and post-Confederation Canadian History. Drs. Peace and Englebert use the CHA program as a proxy for the study of pre-Confederation history but it is worth asking to which of the previous stages it best corresponds. The Canadian Historical Association’s annual conference does not list the positions of presenters. However, experience suggests that most of the presenters are graduate students and the CHA program is probably indicative of the research interests of current graduate students in Canadian history. As a whole, the CHA annual conference includes nine post-Confederation papers for every pre-Confederation one.

In order to measure a decline in pre-Confederation history, we should compare the present group of graduate students to previous ones. This could be done through older CHA programs, and an interesting research project could be derived from analysing the pre-2000 ones which are not online. Another indicator of graduate student research is dissertation topics. The CHA’s online database is incomplete and not-user friendly, making it a difficult indicator. However, York University posts a list of all completed dissertations in history and I decided to see how many of these are pre or post-Confederation. These have been reproduced below in 15 year intervals. York’s data are complete and easily available. If anyone wants to send the equivalent for other universities, I will modify the post.

Table 1: York University Doctorates in Canadian History 1971-2014

Defence Years Pre-1867 Post-1867 Total Ratio Post:Pre
1970-1985 4 28 32 7:1
1986-2000 9 41 50 4.55:1
2001-2014 9 60 69 6.67:1

The above data from York are a crude indicator of the subjects that interest graduate students. They also indicate that pre-Confederation history has always been of less interest to this group than later periods. The proportion of dissertations on pre-Confederation topics is also quite similar between 1970-1985 and 2000-2015 at between 6.67:1 and 7:1. To the extent that York is representative of all Canadian Universities, Table 1 suggests that pre-Confederation history is a slightly larger proportion of doctorates than of CHA presentations but has never been dominant. York has a strong reputation in pre-Confederation history with its graduates having disproportionately gone on to become leading Canadian historians so it is possible that these numbers overstate the importance of pre-Confederation history amongst Canadian graduate students more generally.

Another indicator of the state of Canadian history is the topics of book and journal publications. Thomas Peace has previously analyzed the time periods of Canadian History journals, finding that they included a higher proportion of pre-Confederation topics than the CHA program. Books and articles go through peer-review and fewer of them are accepted every year than CHA papers. They indicate the quality research being produced in Canadian History.

A further indicator of research interests in the field of Canadian history is by looking at faculty. Universities seek to teach a variety of courses and use hiring to strike a balance in their departments. Faculty hires also involve a large commitment to individuals and are more rare than journal or book publications. In order to look at the research interests of Canadian historians, I did a quick analysis of the websites of the following universities: York, Toronto, Saskatchewan, Calgary, UQAM, Nipissing, Dalhousie and Moncton. This was a quick search and assumed that these universities are broadly representative of Canadian institutions. At these institutions, the ratio of post-Confederation to pre-Confederation Canadian historians varied from 1:1 at Saskatchewan to 4:1 at Toronto and Calgary. Generally the smaller departments were closer to parity. I don’t have long-term data on the breakdown in Canadian historians at hand but anecdotal evidence of recent hires suggests that pre-Confederation historians will continue to constitute at least a quarter of faculty going forward. This cursory summary also suggests that the job market has long been better for pre-Confederation Canadian historians than those who study the twentieth century.

So far, the indicators of Canadian History have looked at graduate students, publications and faculty. A further important question on the temporal interest of Canadian historians is to look at what scholarship is most valued. This is a difficult question to judge, but I have chosen to use the finalists for the John A. Macdonald prize for the best book in Canadian history. Since 2001, there have been 44 books nominated for this award, of which 15 dealt with pre-Confederation topics and 29 with post-Confederation, leaving a ratio of 2:1. Although pre-Confederation history only constitutes one-tenth of the CHA program, it is one-third of the most valued scholarship.

Drs. Peace and Englebert base their analysis of why pre-Confederation history declined on the CHA program. However, if we look at other indicators we find a consistently rising proportion of pre-Confederation history with the more prestigious measures. From between 7:1 and 9:1 amongst graduate students to 3:1 amongst faculty and 2:1 amongst book awards, a higher proportion of scholarship in pre-Confederation Canada gets valued at every stage. The idea of decline also implies that pre-Confederation history was formerly more important. While this might be true, it is not the case with York dissertations and we should be wary of comparisons that do not use consistent indicators.

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