History is more than a university-based field of study. A quick glimpse at the current best-sellers in Canadian history on amazon.ca demonstrates that most Canadians are reading history written by non-academic historians; journalists, professional writers and public servants top the list. History produced in universities competes, but also often compliments, that produced for tracing family roots, building community, influencing public policy, or entertaining a reader. The different uses for, and perspectives within, the field of history can create a mine-field of interpretations and understandings of the past. Bringing these diverse perspectives together helps to foster a richer understanding and broaden public engagement with the past.
In her paper at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Margaret Conrad addressed the tensions that often arise over how different groups interpret the past. Using the controversy over the Canadian War Museum’s depiction of the World War II allied bombing of Germany, Conrad suggests that processes need to be created where all of the stakeholders in a historical project can debate controversial historical ideas with the aim of mutual resolution.
Although Conrad’s paper is focused on historical controversies that occur in public spaces, her suggestion of bringing diverse perspectives together in genuine dialogue points one way toward a more rigorous discussion of Canada’s past by helping to create partnerships between historians, the communities that they study, and the general public.
Jeremy Marks and Ryan O’Connor, two PhD candidates in history at the University of Western Ontario, recently published an op-ed piece in the London Free Press in which they argue that positive action by Stephen Harper at Copenhagen would improve the political fortunes of his Conservative party.
The piece is available on Ryan’s blog, The Great Green North, which focuses on the history of the environmental movement in Canada. Ryan’s dissertation, “Toronto the Green: The Emergence of the Canadian Environmental Movement”, examines the rise of green politics in Toronto during the 1960s and 1970s. He is a member of NiCHE’s Popular Publishing Writer’s Guild.
Jeremy’s dissertation looks at the historical relationship between political and philosophical conservatism in Canada.
Jeremy and Ryan attended a graduate student workshop, “Publishing for a Wide Audience”, held at UWO in October. Their op-ed is another example of historians engaging in the public policy dimensions of climate change.
Politicians from around the world are meeting this week in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference, in order to discuss global warming and propose policies to combat this social and environmental concern. Because global warming revolves around the concept of change over time, it is a subject to which historians can make a valuable contribution.
There are at least two mutually-inclusive avenues through which historians study climate change. Whereas some scholars attempt to measure shifts in temperature throughout space and time by critically analyzing historical evidence, others present histories of global warming as a socio-scientific construct and topic of public policy.
A number of historians – within and outside Canada – have made their work accessible to a wide audience through the internet and other forms of accessible media. These scholars understand the need to place climate change within a historical perspective, and the importance of making this work widely available.
At a recent workshop in London, I had a conversation with a fellow graduate student about the relevance of history as an academic discipline. He held that the entire academic world was a farce: professors spent too little time in the classroom, producing books that nobody read, were overpaid, and basically a general waste. Beyond my initial confusion that a fellow history graduate student would have such low esteem of his profession and peers, I think its a trenchant criticism that needs to be dealt with. This echoed the recent discussion begun by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail about lazy professors, and rebutted by Clifford Orwin.
The teaching debate was played out between Wente and Orwin, and I think its an important one. But another important issue is the role of historical monographs.
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Bill Moyer, a PBS journalist and former aid in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, uses LBJ’s recorded phone calls to explore the history of the escalation of American forces in Vietnam. It is really interesting to hear LBJ struggle with a difficult situation and it is very timely as Barack Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan. This is also an amazing use of multimedia sources to explore history and a model for historians to consider as we research a past with a multitude of audio, video and photographic records.
Audio Podcast: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/rss/media/BMJ-1331.mp3
Time-line with audio clips: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/profile.html
The recent release of the primer for the Canadian citizenship test, Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, has been met with mixed reviews. The editors of MacLean’s praise the guide for succeeding to make “Canada’s history seem both relevant and necessary.” The Globe and Mail believes that “in telling Canada’s stories, and the conflict, characters and challenges therein, it will enhance new Canadians’ attachment to their country.” This may be true. But despite the contribution of the usual handful of historians (Jack Granatstein, Margaret MacMillan, etc…), many in Canada’s historical community are not so laudatory. It has caused a flurry of activity in the history blogosphere. Here is a brief summary:
We are happy to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a paper from Gérard-François Dumont of the University of Paris-Sorbonne entitled:
The Berlin Wall: Life, Death and the Spatial Heritage of Berlin (click the title to move to the paper’s page).
How can academic historians branch out to reach broader publics? Publishing in the popular press – whether local newspapers or nationally-circulated magazines – is one way to communicate academic research and analysis to a wider audience. On October 20th, the Canadian Network in History and Environment (NiCHE) sponsored a full-day workshop for graduate students in history and other disciplines. Skills taught included writing attention-catching op-eds, press releases, and magazine queries.
You and anyone you wish to bring along are welcome to attend a historical tour of the 19th century patient built asylum boundary walls located at the present-day Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 1001 Queen Street West, Toronto.
The purpose of this tour is to remember the contributions of the women and men who lived, worked, and died in the Toronto Asylum for the Insane, as is represented by the boundary walls that they built which stand as an enduring testament to their abilities, and to use the past to challenge discrimination experienced today by people who have a psychiatric history.