In Conversation V: Publishing, Precarity, and the Public History of Canada’s First World War

Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Chris Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier

During the first half of 2019, we the editors of ActiveHistory.ca’s long-running series “Canada’s First World War” stepped back and reflected on the editorial work we undertook over of the course of five years of Great War centenary commemorations, 2014-2019. In response to a series of questions circulated over email, two parallel discussions ensued. One, which revolved around how the series came to be, the directions it took (or did not), and what that said about precarious academic employment at this moment in time, is presented here. We have chosen to share this conversation in the belief that there is value in drawing back the curtain on the kinds of unpaid intellectual labour done by graduate students, precariously-employed scholars, and alt-ac/post-ac intellectuals in the field of Canadian History. Paradoxically, the professional precarity of the editorial team members is both the reason for our series’ existence, and the reason it may not have fulfilled its broader promise.

A screenshot of the Call for Blog Posts piece that launched the Canada’s First World War series on Active History, on 4 August 2014.

At the time of writing, the editorial team consisted of:

  • Mary Chaktsiris, PhD (Queen’s, 2015) – Assistant Professor, Wilson Fellow, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University
  • Sarah Glassford, PhD (York, 2007) – Archivist, Leddy Library, University of Windsor
  • Chris Schultz, PhD ABD (Western, withdrew 2016) – Open Government Team Lead, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Nathan Smith, PhD (Toronto, 2012) – Professor, Seneca College; Historical Consultant, Applied History, Applied-History.com
  • Jonathan Weier, PhD ABD (Western) – Instructor, George Brown College; Broadbent Institute Research Fellow

Our Conversation (More or Less)

Part I: This is What Academic Precarity Looks Like

Sarah:
Shall we address the elephant in the room? Our group discussion about the content of the Canada’s First World War series has unintentionally morphed into a conversation about the realities of precarious academic employment. Aside from the fact that all five of us are Canadian historians, precarity is one of the few things we have in common. This conversation will probably make more sense to readers if we start there: what was everyone doing (academically/professionally) and/or where were you living, during the course of the series – that is, roughly between Summer 2014 and Autumn 2019?

Chris:
I was a full-time student working on my PhD at Western for the first two years of the series, while also looking for work. I applied to join the federal civil service and eventually found my way into my current position with Treasury Board. Plus, you know, raising a family.

Mary:
Since I joined the editorial team in 2016 I have held three positions at three different institutions in three different cities in Southern Ontario. I managed to move only twice, and currently have a one-hour commute to work. Two of these positions have been limited-term faculty teaching appointments in History departments at the rank of Assistant Professor, with the other post being a member of a Teaching and Learning Centre. During this period, I taught and designed 10 new courses, sometimes teaching them more than once to bring me to a total of 15 courses taught since 2016. I have also published papers, almost finished a full-length manuscript to enter peer review shortly, travelled to international conferences, and won competitive external funding grant competitions.

Sarah:
When our series began I was a full-time limited-term History professor on Prince Edward Island; as it comes to a close I have just begun a permanent position as an archivist in Ontario. If you count each contract as a separate job (which I do, because there were weeks or months of unemployment between them), over the past 4.5 years I had 10 separate jobs with 5 different employers, in four cities across three provinces, began and completed a graduate degree in a different field, and changed careers entirely. I moved between cities and/or provinces 7 times in that period. I also published a monograph and several articles, and brought an edited collection almost to completion.

Jon:
Through the entirety of this period I’ve been working to finish my PhD on the First World War work of the YMCA. Aside from that I’ve been teaching on contract at George Brown College, I’ve done teaching for colleagues on leave at other institutions, I’ve done a number of academic research contracts, collaborated on numerous books and articles, organized and attended conferences — all of the things that early career academics do in hopes of landing a tenure track or permanent university or college job.

Nathan:
After returning to Toronto in 2013 from a term position as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia I began searching for alternatives to academic employment. I did this while picking up a variety of gigs similar to the ones I took as a grad student, including online teaching, as well as Sessional Lecturer contracts at the University of Toronto, Brock University, and Ryerson University between 2014 and 2018. I have been teaching at Seneca College since 2015 and moved to Cobourg with my family in 2017. My interest in continuing to work as a historian eventually led me to pursue historical consulting (research, writing, consultation) more seriously. I have worked with non-profit organizations and conducted research in the field of Indigenous claims and policy. In 2018 I developed my Applied History brand, and I am currently conducting research on behalf of an Ontario First Nation.

Sarah:
As we all know, full-time professors and postdocs are expected to do scholarly service work like editing, but sessional instructors and grad student teaching assistants are paid solely for their teaching work. And although adding things to our CVs[i]  that show scholarly engagement is necessary to impress academic hiring committees, editing others’ work is still widely seen as a poor substitute for publishing our own research.

In other words, only a small fraction of the editorial hours we spent on this series could be considered “part of the job” for any of us. To be clear, in 2014-2019 that would be Mary’s three years, and my two years, as full-time limited-term professors – only five years of a combined possible total of twenty-five (*five people times five possible years each). And we all knew that editing the series was never going to “wow” a hiring committee. This begs the question of where the idea for the Canada’s First World War series came from and why any of us agreed to do it – or to stick with it for as long as we did.


Part II:  An Entrepreneurial Idea Becomes Unpaid Labour

Jon:
I think this was kind of my idea. The New York Times published a series of articles starting in 2011 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. I thought this might be a cool idea to apply to Canada and the First World War and thought that maybe this could tie in with other work happening with the centenary commemorations of the First World War in Canada. I talked with Chris Schultz about this initially and we thought that this might be something we could sell to a newspaper or magazine and maybe get paid to do it.

Chris:
It was definitely Jon’s original idea, and during one of our weekly sports-related chats over lunch at Western, in the days when he was still coming to campus regularly, we sketched out this idea to get ourselves a little bit of side income.

Sarah:
I did my PhD a bit earlier than the rest of you so perhaps it’s a generational thing, but at no point in my graduate training do I remember there being any hint of a suggestion that a person could, in a freelancing sense, earn money from their research and writing. It was just understood that you did it all for free, with the reward coming in the form of lines on your CV, kudos from your peers, and (eventually) a tenure-track job.

Chris:
There was a project happening at Western (and probably across the Ontario university sector at the time) to try to partner up students with the private sector, in order to promote “entrepreneurialism.” Jon and I hated the idea, politically and morally, if I recall, because it was yet another cynical measure adopted by ministers of education to keep funneling money to STEM[ii] disciplines, while short-changing those of us working in the SSH[iii] disciplines. Anyway, long story short, we made an equally cynical overture to them, that if we could find a private partner for our work, then they’d fund us money to match. So Jon reached out to his contacts at the Star and the Globe and Mail and I approached the National Post, through an accidental contact I had there.

Jon:
We actually got as far as having a couple of meetings with Matt Gurney then at the National Post about getting paid and applying for funding to do a series of articles for them. If I remember correctly we even went so far as to put in a proposal. They ended up turning us down, unfortunately. In a strange coincidence, I ran into Matt Gurney a few months ago at a Canadian history-related event and he confided in me that not finding the money to support the project was one of his big regrets from his time at the National Post, and that he had been following and reading our series.

Chris:
Yeah, we both got kicked around quite a bit before finally landing something that stuck: an editor at the National Post wanted us to write a WWI article, give them our best pitch, and he’d try to use our writing sample to set the tone for the project to come. We published our article, got paid a pittance for it (but better than free!), and then made our money pitch to the National Post, which was VERY modest (maybe $5000 a year, if memory serves). We got stopped cold by the editor: National Post, like all newspapers, was hemorrhaging cash and had nothing to spare.

Sarah:
Was this when you thought of using ActiveHistory.ca as a publishing venue for the series?

Jon:
Even though we had no uptake from other newspapers we approached we figured it was too good an idea to let drop. I had done one or two articles for Active History at this point and so was familiar with the willingness of the editors to support historical work that not only sought to highlight important subaltern stories within Canadian history, but that also sought to encourage debate and discussion of some of the major problems within our profession.

Chris:
After the National Post bailed we walked… straight over to Active History, where at least if we were going to work for free, we’d do it without any editors telling us what our series was going to be in terms of tone and content. We knew it would fit with their style, and it ended up giving us a lot of freedom. Nathan was pretty instrumental in making that connection stick for us, since neither Jon nor I had worked with them before (Jon might have, but I don’t think so).

Nathan:
I think it was the Spring of 2014 that I met Jon for lunch with the idea of discussing a series for Active History on the First World War centenary. I didn’t have anything worked out and was mainly curious about whether something like this interested him. And so he told me about his and Chris Schultz’s efforts to launch something similar with the National Post, and that a project with Active History was on their radar. We approached Active History and they liked the concept.

Sarah:
Sounds like it was an idea whose time had come. Were the three of you envisioning a multi-year series at this point, or something more modest?

Nathan:
I felt unsure about how much material we could produce, but I was confident that Active History was a good home for the project and that we could write and curate some good material. In a couple of following café meetings that spring or summer I met Chris when he was travelling through Toronto and we sketched out some ideas, including bringing in another editor or two.

Jon:
I think we brought in Nathan and then Sarah mostly because we knew that we couldn’t do this all ourselves and kind of wanted to work with the both of you.

Nathan:
I was very happy to more or less jump aboard Jon and Chris’s bandwagon, and can’t recall if Jon had talked with Sarah by this point or not. I was pleased to meet her at the 2015 CHA conference in Ottawa, months after the project launched.

Chris:
Sarah was quickly brought on board, I believe at my suggestion, since I had recently reviewed a book of hers and was a fan of her writing.

Sarah:
(Thanks, Chris!) I was contacted by Jon, whom I had met a year or two earlier at a CHA conference, and invited to join. The idea was well developed at that point, but the series not yet up and running. I didn’t know (until now) the backstory of it initially being an attempt to get paid – it just seemed like a cool idea. Since I didn’t know Chris or Nathan at that point I was ever-so-slightly concerned that I might be signing up for a testosterone-fuelled project that fetishized the warfare side of the First World War, but Jon didn’t seem the type for that so I took a chance.

Chris:
At the risk of sounding like it was inspired by a sense of “tokenism,” both Jon and I agreed at the outset that there was NO WAY IN HELL we were going to assemble yet another editorial “manel” (man-panel) of warfare experts, so Sarah was also a no-brainer in that regard. Though I was confident Jon, Nathan and I would be open and inclusive, I think we ended up so much better-rounded with Sarah’s input.

Sarah:
I did suspect it might be a diversity invitation –  that I was to be the token woman editor, soliciting and editing stuff about women – but that’s my research area so I didn’t mind playing that role if needed. I also saw it as a good sign (which proved very true) that the male editors wanted to include women in the series.

Chris:
So we now had our team, and that’s how it was for roughly two years. Circumstances later conspired to steal some of us away, however. I ended up getting a full-time government gig, and that required me to step well into the background as an editor, due to my need to remain impartial and uncritical of the government of the day – and quite a lot of our work could get very critical! For awhile Sarah had a full-time teaching job, then she was back in school; Nathan was going through some professional transition… in other words, we all had changes on the horizon, including Jon who was feeling the crunch of PhD pressures. We needed help.

Sarah:
Academic precarity strikes again. It’s hard to sustain a major long-term project when everybody is scrambling to keep a roof over their (and/or their family’s) heads all the time. So many hours spent on job applications, learning the ins and outs of a new (contract) job, doing pay-the-bills non-academic work, networking and trying to drum up freelance work, plotting out (and agonizing over) alternate career options… But I digress. We needed help, and we got Mary.

Mary:
I was happy to be approached to join the editorial team in 2016. I can’t remember who first invited me, it might have been Jon, but I knew all of the editors and their work. And, I was thrilled to be on board!

Chris:
Jon and I had both met Mary some years earlier, at a conference at Western, and I think were just looking for excuses to work with her. She jumped right in, freshening things up with new ideas, and here we are as a team of 4.1 editors (I’m the 0.1, for the record—occasionally lobbing ideas from the shadows, but generally doing my best Haig[iv] impression and pretending I matter. Boom!).

Seriously though, I believe the feeling of respect was mutual, as Mary had written for the series as a contributor and had said on several occasions how much she enjoyed it.

Mary:
True, although the part of the series that was often the most interesting for me was the part that readers didn’t get to see: when we as editors discussed pieces, requested changes, reinforced themes, or cheered each other on. I felt we didn’t always have to agree on a piece, but we usually agreed on including work that contributed to conversations about the Great War, both in past and present tense.

Nathan:
I’ve also felt, all the way through, including when Mary joined a couple of years in, that we all shared a common editorial interest in social history themes and critical perspectives on the past and on commemoration.


Part III: Seeking Something Other Than Vimy Ridge and “In Flanders Fields”[v]

Sarah:
So Jon, as the originator of the idea for the series, what were your goals, intellectually-speaking? What did you hope it would look like, and (now that it’s all but finished) do you think that vision came to fruition?

Jon:
Honestly, one of my first goals was to figure out a way to get paid to do some good work on the First World War. After that I really wanted to create a forum that would publish histories that would complicate the Vimy narrative. [*Read Jon’s critique of nationalist narratives about Vimy Ridge here.] I already hated it then.

Chris:
Like Jon, I wanted to get paid for my work. I have been deeply and consistently critical of the academic publishing racket – and let’s be clear, it is a racket. But I’ve also been deeply critical of the intellectual class(es) in Canada, who have all but retreated from public view in the past 30 years. When I was young, professors regularly published on their fields of expertise, writing for laypeople in popular journals and newspapers. Few do this anymore, having ceded that territory to a handful of blatant partisans with ambitions for the Senate.

Sarah:
This may be a loaded question, but are you thinking of any specific scholars or incidents?

Chris:
Let’s just say I was infuriated by the sneering “real” academics who lambasted best-selling authors like Tim Cook (whose conclusions may be fairly critiqued, and have been, but never his scholarship or his rigour). I was also amazed that those same people kept encouraging scholars to give a “30-second pitch” on the subject of their PhD, as though Twitter was the best mechanism for the delivery of complex, intellectual thought. So why not kill two birds with one stone? We wanted to publish for a popular audience, using academically rigorous methods and topics, written without jargon, but also without dumbing it down to the point of meaninglessness.

Mary:
One of my goals was for the series to help get research out into the public that might otherwise sit buried in a dissertation, course paper, local public history project, or other sort of unfinished research-related work. It’s a lot of work to complete a journal article or monograph.

Sarah:
I hoped we would publish topics that were off the beaten track – little snippets of history that might not merit a full article or monograph, but that illuminated some lesser-known aspect of the wartime experience. In terms of both Mary’s and my goals, I think the short-form blog post format was important to the success of the series. We were open to a wide variety of formats and approaches – photo essays, infographics, research full of citations, opinion pieces, and so on, but our contributors generally gravitated toward a short-form narrative approach.

Chris:
Along these lines, from the start we hoped to solicit pointed, focused critiques, using specific topics to try to repaint the big picture. The original vision was to publish 800-word exposés, covering just about anything authors found interesting. Some of the editors tried to nudge them toward contemporary critique whenever it wasn’t evident, though honestly, we rarely had to do that, as most grasped the objective almost immediately. Some authors backed out early on, out of dissent for our plan, which is fine, but it was the exception.

Nathan:
My goals were, firstly, to engage with the centenary of the First World War by helping to produce accessible, critical history about the war and the centenary commemorations. I think the series achieved that goal, and that’s personally satisfying, in part because in my precariously employed position I had little to no other opportunity to contribute in other ways to the war’s centenary history. I had to make peace with the fact that the work was going to be for free, and there were times when it was a great deal of work – or, more often, when time pressures made editorial work burdensome.

Sarah:
Like Nathan, this was my main venue for contributing to the centenary commemorations, and I found I really liked the informal-but-well-informed blog format. So not only did I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work soliciting contributions and working with authors to get them ready for posting, but I also ended up contributing a lot of content. With the exception of a small geographical error[vi] I’m proud of all my pieces, and especially enjoyed the conversations I was able to have with people engaged in First World War preservation, commemoration, scholarship, and education. I hope they, and the whole series, will continue to be easily discoverable online (and therefore read) well into the future.

Part IV: Was it Worth the (Unpaid) Effort?

Chris:
I’d say that overall we succeeded spectacularly in editing an immense series that I, too, hope will be read for many years to come. It’s early to assess impact questions, but I can promise you that several younger scholars have really taken to the series and the criticism that came from it. I just hope they continue to be vocal and public, rather than sliding into silos that are, frankly, anathema to good scholarship, and good public policy.

Mary:
My hope was that we could bring some voices to the table that might otherwise not have been there. I think we did that.

Chris:
The series also, to me, reinforced my belief that the “thesis” and “dissertation” models of scholarship may no longer be the best models. If our series, and Active History in general, has proven anything, it’s that you can do sound intellectual work, which is publicly relevant and accessible, and that can be cohesive as a whole, even if the individual parts don’t speak directly to one another (though they sometimes did).

Jon:
I think it’s a mixed bag when it comes to how successful we were. We did some great work, we got some good recognition, we published some awesome stories, but it was tough work, and we did it for free when none of us could really afford to do that, and I’m disappointed in the lack of impact we had on the broader commemoration of the First World War. I don’t know if I would do it again.

Mary:
I want to acknowledge Jon’s experience with the series. This was a lot of work, done off the side of all of our desks (or home working spaces, coffee shops, train rides). Perhaps this work can be better conceived as being done off the side of the side of our desks.

Jon:
While I was happy that we were able to publish a real diversity of voices speaking on many different topics, I was also disappointed by the continuing difficulty of overcoming the two solitudes of French and English Canadian history. I would have loved to have been able to do a truly bilingual and broadly multicultural series with articles in French and other languages, and also with the majority of the articles translated into French. But again, this would have required resources, time and abilities that we didn’t have.

Mary:
As a later arrival to the editorial team, I am appreciative of the hard work you all put in simply to get the series off the ground and keep it going. Sometimes it was a reminder e-mail (usually from Nathan!) that kept a lot of this work going and on track. Without this commitment, the work wouldn’t have happened.

Nathan:
There are two time-sensitive posts I worked on that I am disappointed I did not finish. But in both cases I had to give up on them in favour of paying work. Given that it was a voluntary project worked on in our scarce spare time, I don’t feel disappointed about what we accomplished.

Sarah:
Although it’s true that even tenured/tenure-track academics struggle to find time to research and write, it’s hard to argue against the fact that precarious employment is a major barrier between a lot of excellent scholars and the rich contributions they could be making to Canadian history (as both a research field and as a profession).

Andrea Eidinger announced earlier this year that she will be shuttering her popular and widely-used Canadian History blog “Unwritten Histories,” because she can’t earn a decent living from it and (ironically) it generates ever-growing demands for free content and unpaid labour. I can easily imagine the anger, regret, disappointment, frustration (etc., etc.) that lies behind her decision.

[*Thank you, Andrea, for your November 2016 shout-out to our series in your guide to online resources for teaching and learning about Canada and the First World War. It meant a lot to have someone recognize our hard work – we recognize yours, too.]

Mary:
In hindsight, I wish we had applied for more funding opportunities. Maybe from the very beginning, trying to get established with some external funding might have helped provide us with stipends and honorariums for our contributors, and maybe funds for a conference.

Sarah:
But who has time to research and apply for funding? And who would fund a handful of emerging scholars with no permanent institutional homes to edit a blog series of other people’s work? Maybe someone would, I don’t know. But off the top of my head it certainly doesn’t seem like a great fit with any of the main categories of SSHRC grants, for instance

Jon:
I know that on my and Chris’ part, we were definitely reluctant to go through the whole process of applying for grants and resources. I remember that in late 2013 and early 2014 when we were approaching newspapers and other venues about our idea we put in hours of work; proposals, schedules, structures and so on, that all ended up being for naught. I think that that really impacted how we felt about the whole grant application process. Andrea and others have discussed the impact that this labour, and the emotional labour of being turned down, has on precariously employed academics, and I think that we were really reluctant to put ourselves in that position again.

Mary:
There are issues, sure. Our institutional affiliations changed, sometimes numerous times, throughout the project. Many – all? – of us were working on other projects and grant applications that deserved more attention. But perhaps the reach of our series could have been extended with more advocacy from established scholars – support to fund and publish our results outside of Active History, for example, or offers to lead grant applications, perhaps?

Jon:
I do think the series has had a really important reach, probably especially for younger academics and graduate students — but I also feel like we were seen as being a kind of side project to the real academic work of monographs, journal articles etc. I find it really unfortunate that our profession is still focused on the traditional, and exceedingly problematic, trappings of success. And I think that a huge amount of work that has been done, and continues to be done, by those involved with Active History, is forcing our way into a very conservative profession.

Mary:
I wish the series would have gotten some more traction outside of Active History. We had some success with this. However, I hope that in the future more established scholars will publish with Active History and cite Active History contributions in their published work.

Sarah:
In terms of precarity and publishing we could probably have a whole other discussion about Active History itself. But for now, thanks for this frank conversation about our experiences with the Canada’s First World War series. Next time we’ll turn our attention to the content of the series – stepping back to consider the highs, lows, and in-betweens.


Notes

[i] CV = curriculum vitae – a scholar’s lengthy resume of every degree earned, award received, research grant won, course taught, position held, conference paper presented, paper or monograph or book review published, committee sat on, journal edited, etc.

[ii] STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

[iii] SSH = Social Sciences and Humanities

[iv] Haig = Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (later Earl Haig), commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, 1915-1918.

[v] Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” Punch, 8 December 1915.

[vi] In a November 2016 post about First World War commemoration on PEI  I put the community of Malpeque on the wrong side of the Prince/Queens county line and was quickly corrected in the comments section. I’m sorry, Malpeque! I really do know where you are.

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3 thoughts on “In Conversation V: Publishing, Precarity, and the Public History of Canada’s First World War

  1. Alan MacEachern

    Congratulations to the 5 of you for the long, great series & now this great post.

    A passage that went straight to my heart: “at no point in my graduate training do I remember there being any hint of a suggestion that a person could, in a freelancing sense, earn money from their research and writing. It was just understood that you did it all for free….” I’m sorry that was your experience.

    I would tell every History grad student in Canada:
    None of you should imagine making anything approaching a living by freelancing in Canada. We’re a nation with 1 national history magazine, for example, & newspapers are paying less than they did 20 years ago, when they pay at all.

    But on the other hand, none of you should research & write *anything* for free unless
    1. it’s a requirement of your program (duh), or
    2. it’s for a peer-reviewed publication, because you’re still gunning for a tenure-trick gig, you need peer-reviewed pubs, & not a single one of those pays, or
    3. it’s something you simply want to do regardless, & you believe you will be able to look back & tolerate that you weren’t paid for it. That’s tough to know, as tough as calculating in year 1 of your PhD how you’ll feel in year 5.

  2. Pingback: In Conversation VI: Making Sense of the Centenary of Canada’s First World War – Active History

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