What Counts as Work: Exploring What It Means to Conduct Graduate Studies in a Social and Sustainable Way

ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

My pets, Joey and Sadie, in my home office.
ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

This is the fourth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Emily Kaliel 

At the beginning of September, I sat down to plan out my fall term schedule and goals. Knowing that my current capacity (as both a history graduate student and as a human) is absolutely diminished by almost two years of a global pandemic, I asked myself: What work can I commit to doing on a weekly basis that is realistic, won’t leave me burnt out, and considers my responsibilities to my family, friends, and the communities I am a part of? I tried to balance knowing that I need to make progress on my PhD work with setting achievable goals.

In my #PMTC presentation this past June, I explored how the isolation of the pandemic exacerbated the isolation I felt as a new graduate student going through comprehensives and as the only incoming PhD that year at an institution across the country from my support networks. I wrote about how that isolation reinforced for me the need for my graduate research to be done in a sustainable and social way to be meaningful (and do-able, to be completely honest).

Even as I tried to keep these realizations in mind as I built the first draft of my fall schedule, I still fell into the trap of prioritizing dissertation research, reading, and my work contracts. These priorities aren’t bad. They are necessary work for completing a PhD. But this prioritization excluded a whole host of other commitments I’d like to engage in this term: organizing a writing group, planning social events, acting as a graduate student mentor, and serving as a graduate student representative on various committees. Why hadn’t I considered these service commitments, which I had originally intended to complete on top of my daily research, reading, and contract work, as work? Especially now that I’ve moved home to Alberta and away from my academic institution in Ontario, shouldn’t a writing group that keeps me connected to other graduate students and keeps us collectively excited and motivated about our research count as work? What about the hours I’ve spent prepping questions for the Graduate Students’ Association monthly virtual trivia night that I host? Or the zoom calls to help familiarize incoming graduate students with the comprehensive process? Continue reading

Driftless Historian

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This is the seventh in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

image of an empty gravel road and rolling hills of the Driftless.

By James Longhurst

The bike I’m riding at any given moment determines what type of historian I am.

As a historian, I’ve been a bit driftless. If I have to identify my research areas, I sometimes call myself an urban environmental historian, or (more self-importantly) a historian of urban environmental policy. It’s a jumble of different historical associations and publications: the Urban History Association, the American Society for Environmental History, or the Journal of Policy History. If that weren’t enough, recently I’ve been attracted to the interdisciplinary inquiry known as mobilities studies, attending the meetings of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobilities (T2M). As I drift between these different literatures, I’ve noticed that the kind of bike I’m riding determines which of these fields is foremost in my mind.  In that observation may lie a deeper insight.

Urban Historian: The Schwinn

If I’m riding my old Schwinn, I’m an urban historian. When I’m riding in the city, I’m on a sixty-year-old Schwinn Racer I bought for $10 at a garage sale. In a flat and compact college town along the Mississippi river, I ride my short-distance rounds to work and shops. In advocacy jargon, I’m what is known as an “everyday cyclist,” or someone who rides in their street clothes as part of their daily routine.

The upright Schwinn lets me see my surroundings with an urban historian’s eyes – the age of neighborhoods and the disjuncture between social groups that is a legacy of settlement, redlining, zoning and street layout. Riding through neighborhoods that are physically side-by-side, but miles away in social class, shows how the physical space embodies the human divisions. Continue reading

Where Have All the Books Gone? Research and Writing During the Pandemic

books on a shelf

Part of my bookshelf. Photo taken by Erin Spinney.

This is the third post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

by Erin Spinney

Books are a part of my life.  When I moved across the country, and then across the country again and again, the books were what got stuffed inside the trunk of the car and filled up the suitcases; while clothing, dishes, and small appliances were donated away.  The academic books I own are a significant investment of both my money and my time (as the notes I scrawl in the margins can attest).  Yet, while I do own a fair few, by no means are all the books that I need for my work in my possession.  I had relied upon access to a physical library for most of my book needs until the pandemic took that access away.

Here I want to recount my experiences as a pandemic researcher without physical library access. My barriers to access were not pandemic related – such as the rightful closure of library spaces to protect the health of library staff – but stemmed from my contract status.  These experiences underscore a wider problem with how historical research is conducted and how many barriers there are to the production of that work. I hope that this piece prompts us all to think about access to institutional libraries and how we can push for greater accessibility in an academy that relies on an increasingly precarious workforce and demands increasing numbers of publications during academic job searches and from newly-hired assistant professors. When, at some point, our time living with Covid-19 comes to an end, we can hopefully rethink how universities and university libraries operate.  I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge those librarians and other library workers who bore, and continue to bear, the risk of contracting Covid-19.  Rethinking how university libraries operate should include not just how to make these institutions better for researchers, but how to make them better for staff, without whom libraries cease to exist. Continue reading

E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Industrial Capitalism, and the Climate Emergency

This is the eleventh post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Jim Clifford

“If you are a historian, your work is about global warming.” Dagomar Degroot.

A few weeks ago Dagomar Degroot provided an overview of the excellent work done by historians of science, historical climatologists and historians of climate and society. But he also argued, given the all-encompassing nature of the climate emergency, for us to think about the contributions of a much wider range of historical scholarship: “In a sense, just about every kind of history has relevance to the present crisis, because climate affects every aspect of the human experience.” I am going to take up this point and present a book published just three years after Charles David Keeling confirmed the rising level of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1960. During the early 1960s, leading historians remained unaware of the significance of these scientific breakthroughs and instead were introducing new methods to study “history from below.” This work focused on workers and their fights for democracy and unionization remain surprisingly relevant to the climate crisis today.

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Reflections on Disability and (Dis)Rupture in Pandemic Learning

A white background has “Disability and (Dis)Rupture in Pandemic Learning: Crip Priorities in Research During Global Crisis” written in black. The words before the colon are in bold and a larger font than the other; it is left-aligned on the page. In the bottom right hand corner is “Hannah S. Facknitz (they/she) and Danielle E. Lorenz (she/her)” written in black. There is a green botanic theme on the rest of the background; there are leaves and waves in different shapes and shades.

ID: A white background has “Disability and (Dis)Rupture in Pandemic Learning: Crip Priorities in Research During Global Crisis” written in black. The words before the colon are in bold and a larger font than the other; it is left-aligned on the page. In the bottom right hand corner is “Hannah S. Facknitz (they/she) and Danielle E. Lorenz (she/her)” written in black. There is a green botanic theme on the rest of the background; there are leaves and waves in different shapes and shades.

This is the second post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Hannah S. Facknitz and Danielle E. Lorenz

In June, as part of the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference, we wrote about our precarity as disabled graduate students (especially as educators) in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic. We wanted to talk about how the expanded vulnerability of disabled people during this pandemic and eugenicist responses to the crisis specifically affected people like us–multiply marginalized, disabled graduate students. Our COVID-19 lives have been brutal, deeply ruptured, and drained by institutions, especially those of higher education. Danielle and I attend separate universities–Alberta and British Columbia, respectively–but our experiences intermingle with and echo each others’ and those of other graduate students in Canada. Both of us are chronically ill, physically disabled, and neurodivergent. Danielle is a first in the family student, working class, and a woman. Hannah is Mad, fat, bisexual, and genderqueer.

The pandemic meant many educators became familiar with assistive technologies like auto captioning or easy-to-read fonts that, on the surface, improved certain disabled peoples’ ability to access certain spaces. Several committees Hannah served on for UBC’s return-to-campus planning adopted a new interest in accessibility approaches, methods, and ideas; incremental shifts that they could see percolating through the academy. This access was imperfect and uneven, however, instituted ad hoc, and only when faculty or administrative interest materialized. Much of the access, too, did nothing to address the structural inequities that explicitly and intentionally exclude disabled people from academia. Even when  surface level accessibility was desirable, we discovered that disabled graduate students like us (as well as undergraduates, albeit in different capacities) were/are doing much of the work of educating faculty and staff on access pedagogy, technology, and ethics. It was the most precarious and multiply marginalized graduate students who performed this access labour. The pandemic in higher education was an historic moment that revealed with astonishing clarity the violent, explicit, intentional ableism of academia, and for folks like us–people who couldn’t often muster enough denial or privilege to move through violent institutions–the pandemic was too much. Continue reading

After the Conference: The Pandemic Labour of Graduate Student and Early Career Scholars

Pandemic Methodologies logoby Erin Gallagher-Cohoon and Letitia Johnson 

In April 2021, Erin started to write a piece she would later call “Pandemic Methodologies.” Without much of a plan, she only knew that she wanted to figure out how to verbalize what it felt like to be doing historical research during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was deeply personal, born out of little and big griefs – the loss of what she thought the experience of doing a PhD should be, the isolation and anxiety, her second father’s illness and eventual death. “I message a good friend and fellow PhD candidate over Facebook,” the essay starts. “He shares snippets of his annual review. I share snippets of this personal essay that I fatten and trim daily. Neither one of us talk about the other writing that hangs over us both besides to admit that the dissertations are coming along slowly, if at all.”

While searching for the words to describe experiences that seemed to exist beyond them, Erin reached out to another friend and colleague, Karissa Patton. This is what I’m working on. Do you know of anyone else asking these questions? Having these conversations? And, in an example of the support and creativity and encouragement that networks of grad students can provide to each other, Karissa told Erin to connect with Letitia who was writing a piece for Intersections on the value of side projects.

When we started talking about collaborating on a project about how scholars were navigating the pandemic, both professionally and in relation to their personal lives, Letitia felt like she was in a constant state of frustration. She was angry about not being able to conduct research as planned, worried that she would not be able to write the dissertation she wanted. But she had these crutches she could lean on. Whether it was connections she built through research projects, or the ability to ask past and present advisors for help and advice, she was able to continue her work through these connections. She developed many of those connections, and many of the skills that she would draw on during the pandemic, while working on side projects – projects that at other times were deemed to be distractions from the main plot of grad school, the dissertation. But now, they were a viable and important way forward. Reminding people about the importance of these so-called distractions during our time as graduate students, particularly at a time when we are constantly reminded of the fact that precarity is our future prospect, was important for her and drove her to discussions with fellow graduate students. Continue reading

Inequality: Only for Academics? A Self-Publishing Saga

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Illustration by Hannah Melin.

Eric W. Sager

I have always believed in the mission of public history. I have given public talks, written op-eds, and published books and articles intended for non-academic readers. I have even won awards for “public dissemination.” Although I have had some successes, I have also met with failures. Recently, failure is winning.

How could this be? Have I lost touch with the public that I seek to reach? I hope not. Even before I finished my big book on inequality – Inequality in Canada: The History and Politics of an Idea (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2020) – I knew that I wanted to write a sequel for general readers, and especially for political activists. The ideas were simply too urgent to be left within a dauntingly complex scholarly book that might sell only a few hundred copies. Furthermore, I had come to realize that the many writings on distributive justice by philosophers and others had seldom, if ever, been summarized in a language that non-academics would find accessible. Even students would find it difficult to read the valuable essays in the 735-page Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice (2018), or the lucid works of the Canadian philosopher Gerald Cohen.

And so I set out to write a short book about two related subjects: income and wealth inequality, and principles of distributive justice. But how to make these subjects accessible to non-academics? Continue reading

A Precautionary History?

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Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1842.

This is the tenth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Thomas Wien

The next Ice Age is behind schedule. Now for the bad news: the infernal and, for many in the northern hemisphere, eye-opening summer of 2021 has shown that global warming’s effects are reaching critical levels sooner than expected. Worsening drought and extreme weather events afflict the hotter parts of the globe, already sorely tried. The rapidly warming Arctic, devastating fires and floods in places like British Columbia, Siberia, or the Rhine Valley, and a stray hurricane over Newfoundland suggest that the “cool blue north” isn’t quite what it used to be (you may remember that Jesse Winchester first sang those words in 1977…).

Using uncharacteristically blunt language, experts confirm this impression of acceleration. And over the past decade or two, they have added an order of magnitude to the uncertainty: no longer does the worsening seem linear (“one additional degree will cause more such-and-such”), conjuring up situations that while alarming, at least present a threat that is directly proportionate to the amount of carbon (etc.) in the atmosphere – and to human action or inaction. Rather, the warning now is “such-and-such may happen regardless,” or even “all hell may break loose,” as sudden, irreversible shifts and catastrophic chain reactions within the Earth System become more likely.

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2021 Bike. Race. America.

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Watching them fly by. Harlem, 2021. Photograph by Rosemary Lennox.

By Jeffers Lennox

This is the sixth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

We do it every year, if we can. It’s only an 80 minute train ride on the Metro North from New Haven to Harlem, and Father’s Day seems like a perfect excuse to explore the city and spend the afternoon watching a bike race: the Harlem Skyscraper Cycling Classic. This year, the kids (now 5 and 7) had more questions about where we’re going and why things are like they are. These aren’t the impossibly insightful queries from children that parents post on Twitter, but rather the simple curiosity of young people put into words. We could let them go without engaging (which, let’s be honest, we do all the time), but now and then we take the opportunity to respond as thoughtfully as we can. It turns out something as innocuous as cycling and watching a bike race be a portal to discussions about American history.

As ex-pats living in the US since 2012 (“it’ll be just a few years,” we told ourselves when we first moved) (Sigh ~ ed.), we’ve had to adjust. A decade later, now with two kids in tow, things have become more complicated as we navigate the wonders and pitfalls of American living. When COVID hit, we fled back to Canada for three months, returning to the US just as the George Floyd uprisings were cresting. Our kids had questions – lots of them – and we had to find answers. Continue reading

Teaching the Climate Emergency in World History

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This is the ninth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Philip Gooding

I recently taught a remote, intensive Summer course entitled ‘Themes in World History’ at McGill University. This course was aimed mostly at second- and third- year undergraduate students. I chose as my theme ‘Climatic and environmental change.’ This provided me with many opportunities, one of which was to teach students a historical perspective on the current climate emergency. What follows is a description of the thought processes behind my course design and its objectives, as well as a reflection on its successes and shortcomings.

World history and the climate emergency are highly compatible subjects for two core reasons. First, the climate emergency has no respect for human borders, and so, like world history, it transcends traditional spatial paradigms in the humanities and the social sciences, such as nation states and area studies. Second, world history courses tend to attract students with vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, not just history majors and minors. A historical perspective on the climate emergency, which students are generally conscious of and interested in, therefore, can act somewhat as an entry point into the study of history more broadly. Additionally, understanding the role of climate in history necessitates a high degree of interdisciplinarity, incorporating climatological and other perspectives from the natural sciences. Students can engage with climate history from a variety of disciplinary standpoints.

John Crome, A Windmill near Norwich, 1816, Wikimedia Commons. The style of this painting is characteristic of the Romantic movement, whose dates (c.1790-1850) roughly correspond to those of the late Little Ice Age (c.1780-1840). Crome painted this image in the ‘Year Without Summer,’ a year of severe cold in Europe and other global regions following the eruption of the Tambora volcano, in present-day Indonesia, in 1815.[1]

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