History Slam Episode Ninety-One: Teaching in China

By Sean Graham

What did you for the summer? A common question asked when you see someone for the first time in the fall. Normally, I haven’t had an overly interesting answer to that question, but this year was a little different. For a couple months this summer I had the pleasure of traveling to Beijing to teach in the international summer school program at the University of International Business and Economics. It was my first time not only in China, but in Asia, so the cultural learning curve was steep, but by the end of the summer, I had started to feel more and more comfortable with my surroundings.

In addition to being in a new city, the teaching was rather different from what I expected. The biggest thing that I discovered was how much I rely on assumptions in my teaching. Teaching, whether in Boston or Ottawa, I learned how much I could reference something and be assured that the students were familiar with the reference. On the other side of the world, however, I couldn’t always rely on that luxury and had to do a better job presenting a clear narrative.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dorothy Verkerk from the University of North Carolina about the experience of teaching in the summer program at UIBE. Recording while we waited for our flight to Toronto at the end of the program, we chat about the challenges of teaching a condensed summer session, some of the highlights of the summer, and how much we enjoyed teaching our UIBE students. We also debate the pros and cons of teaching abroad and discuss my ambivalence towards Chinese beer.

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History Slam Episode Ninety: American Journalism

By Sean Graham

Of all the weird, wild, and crazy things that have happened during this year’s American election cycle, one of the strangest is how both parties have accused the media of being biased against their candidate. On the Republican side, the distrust of the ‘lamestream media’ has been a mainstay, particularly after Sarah Palin’s infamous Katie Couric interview in 2008. Given Donald Trump’s fondness for appearing on cable news programs, however, it might have been reasonable to expect that this would change, but he continues to criticize the media for what he claims is unfair coverage of his campaign. On the Democratic side, however, the extent to which Hillary Clinton has avoided the press, particularly her complete avoidance of press conferences, has been somewhat surprising.

One of the reasons why so many people think that the media is biased against their candidate is the media environment in which we currently live. There are so many outlets that a lot of people only consume media that is in agreement with their worldview and anything that challenges their preconceived ideology is viewed as biased. The result is an echo chamber in which the public is not fully informed.

One could argue, however, that some of the major changes we’ve seen in journalism can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. From the Kennedy administration to Vietnam to Watergate, the relationship between the American public and the media drastically changed during those twenty years. In addition, it was during this period that newspapers expanded to include more ‘soft’ news in an effort to increase sales. This commodification of journalism, led to some major changes in the way in which many people consume the news.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Nine: Amiable Scoundrel

By Sean Graham

ScoundrelOne of the things that I often joke about when talking about finding new historical material to study is that you can always revisit an old topic – after all, there’s a new book about the American Civil War published every hour. Of course that isn’t literally true, but there does always seem to be new material written about the Civil War. Given the vaunted place of the Civil War in American mythology, this is not surprising. Another reason for this, as explained by today’s guest, is that the Civil War produced a treasure trove of archival material that historians are still combing through 150 years later.

One such example is Paul Kahan’s new book Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War. The book traces Cameron’s career from mastering Pennsylvania’s political machine to serving in the Senate to representing the United States as a foreign diplomat. Despite this impressive resume, he is best remembered for his short stint as Lincoln’s Secretary of War and the scandals that marked his time in that office. Having lived from 1799 to 1889, Cameron’s career spanned a good deal of the 18th century and he came to be representative of his era’s political culture.

In this episode of the History Slam, I welcome Paul Kahan back to the show to talk about the new book. We chat about researching the Civil War, Cameron’s personal character, and the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Lincoln administration. We also examine 19th century American political culture and the separation between politics and personal relationships.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Eight: Translation and Canadian Theatre

By Sean Graham

Nicole NoletteRemember Bon Cop, Bad Cop? It was that movie set between Ontario and Quebec where the characters spoke French half the time and English half the time. During the French sequences, English subtitles would adorn the bottom of the screen and vice versa. The movie has earned a bit of a cult following and is held up as this beautiful example of the complexity of Canada’s linguistic history. Whenever I have taught courses on the history of popular culture, invariably the movie comes up.

One of the more interesting issues the film raises is the nature of the translation. Anyone who has ever used Google Translate knows how much meaning gets lost when things are translated literally word for word (like this). Because of this, the way in which we translate between languages is very important, particularly when the meaning can be easily misconstrued.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Nicole Nolette, author of Jouer la traduction: Théâtre et hétérolinguisme au Canada francophone, winner of the 2016 Ann Saddlemyer Award for as the best book on Canadian theatre. We talk about translating for theatre, the challenge of overcoming regional dialects, and the nature of bilingualism in Canada.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Seven: Enron

By Sean Graham

enronA couple of years ago, the National Arts Centre produced Enron, a show that documented one of the most infamous corporate bankruptcies in recent memory. While I don’t remember much of the plot, I do remember that it was about 45 minutes too long and that there was some really weird symbolism with actors wearing dinosaur heads. Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of the production, but some in the crowd gave it a standing ovation – a reaction I attributed to the show being a rather scathing indictment of Enron and its leadership.

Like all dramatizations, though, Enron certainly took some creative liberties (I’m fairly confident there weren’t any dinosaurs at the actual company) and the real story is much more nuanced. What started as an energy company slowly expanded to include derivatives and other complex financial products. Of course, there was some actual fraud going on, but there were also some ideas that, at the time, seemed innovative and unique. Through the 1990s, Enron’s model was taught in a lot of business schools as a pinnacle of modern business practices. That was until the fall of 2001, when everything came crashing down.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with Gavin Benke of Boston University about his research on Enron. We chat about the company’s origins, how an energy company got involved in complex financial management, and Enron’s relationship with 1990s culture. We also talk about how 9/11 influenced public perception of the company and George W. Bush’s place in the story.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Six: Remaking the Rust Belt

By Sean Graham

Remaking the Rust BeltWhen I first arrived at Harvard University in August, I was introduced to the person with whom I would be sharing an office. An assistant professor at Wayne State University, Tracy Neumann has served as the other William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow in the Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University for the 2015-2016 academic year.

An urban historian, Tracy’s new book Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America, which just came out, explores urban development (or redevelopment) in the steel towns of Pittsburgh and Hamilton. Through a transnational examination, she is able to explore how concepts and strategies of urban renewal varied between these cities and how, in both cases, these processes operated within a transatlantic framework.

In this episode of the History Slam I talk with friend-of-the-show-Tracy-Neumann. We talk about the Canada Program at Harvard, industrial redevelopment in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, and some of the major differences between Canada and the United States.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Five: Slow Scholarship

By Sean Graham

To paraphrase John Mulaney, kids are upset when there is nothing do, but adults are ecstatic at the thought of doing nothing. (He presents this theory in a much more entertaining way) Ultimately, the joke gets to the point that everyone seems overworked. This is an issue in both the public and private sectors, despite the jokes I make at the expense of my friends in the public sector in Ottawa. It just seems as though there is always work to be done – even when working hours are over.

In academia, one of the ways in which people have started to deal with this issue is slow scholarship. I have to admit that when I first heard the term slow scholarship, I had an immediate reaction to what that would mean, but as I read more, I discovered that it could be an effective way towards a better work-life balance. In a recent article in University Affairs, the case for slow scholarship way made by a group of 11 faculty members from across the country.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with one of the article’s authors, Alison Mountz of Laurier and Harvard. We talk about the Canada Program at Harvard, the Canada Research Chair program, and the origins of the group’s efforts at slow scholarship. Around the 20 minute mark we get into slow scholarship in greater detail and discuss what it means, how it can be practiced, and the gendered and racialized environments in which we all work.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Four: Art History & General Idea

By Sean Graham

General IdeaThe art group General Idea emerged in Toronto’s counterculture scene in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, the group’s membership was solidified, encompassing Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson. Best known for their provocative conceptual works, General Idea took on popular culture formats from beauty pageants to television and engaged in a range of media not limited to painting, photography, mail art, performance, video, and installation. They are perhaps best remembered, though, for their work addressing the AIDS crisis. The AIDS pandemic shaped their practice from 1987 to 1994, a period that ended with the deaths of Partz and Zontal from AIDS related causes.

Given the broad scope and influential legacy of General Idea, the Art Canada Institute has commissioned a new book exploring the group’s history. Part of the ACI’s series examining major Canadian artists, the book looks at the group’s founding, its major exhibitions, and its influence on later artists.

What is really unique about the book, and ACI’s series generally, is that it is an entirely digital publication. This format is particularly useful in art history, where the visual is so important. The book includes photos and videos of General Idea’s artwork, which allows the reader to fully engage with the material. Rather than have the book describe the art, the digital format allows the art to speak for itself.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Three: Disaster Citizenship

By Sean Graham

Disaster CitizenshipIn June 1914, the town of Salem, Massachusetts was the site of a massive fire that destroyed over 1,300 buildings. Three and a half years later in Halifax, a fire aboard the SS Mont-Blanc caused an explosion that killed approximately 2,000 people and injured 9,000 others. These two events may seem completely separate in both time and location, but comparing the responses to the disasters sheds an interesting light on the nature of relief efforts and the connections between people living in the United States and Canada.

In the case of Salem, which was home to a sizable francophone community, there wasn’t much coverage of the fire in Quebec. The Halifax explosion, on the other hand, received plenty of attention in Boston, where residents had significant ties to Nova Scotia. The way in which each disaster was met, both locally and abroad, presents not only a unique opportunity for transnational history, but also serves as a fascinating comparison of how citizens respond to disasters.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Jacob Remes about his new book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. We talk about doing trans-national research, North America diaspora, and responses to disasters.

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History Slam Episode Eighty-Two: Historically Inspired Baby Names

By Sean Graham

hello-my-name-isI am not a parent. Nor am I close to becoming a parent. That being said, one of the things that strikes me as a major challenge of early parenthood – perhaps the first challenge after a child is born – is picking a name. The challenges of finding the right name has long been a sitcom staple. And while it may seem easy to pick a name that doesn’t rhyme with a female body part, I would be overwhelmed by the options available. I can stand in the cereal aisle for 20 minutes trying to decide what to get, so the prospect of picking a name seems really intimidating.

Yet, every day people are able to name their kids. Over the past five years, I’ve had a bunch of friends who have gone through the process of naming their newborn children. The consensus seems to be that naming is easier than it seems from the outside – that while there can be and often is lots of discussion beforehand, the right name tends to be clear when the time comes.

The reasons for picking a name can vary greatly, from liking the one a name sounds to honouring a departed family member to concluding that a newborn ‘looks’ like a certain name. Less common, however, is naming your kids after prominent historical figures. While it does happen on occasion, it can be challenging to find a name that is both inspired by someone from history and also fits in the 21st century. Continue reading