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

History Slam Episode Eighty-One: The Bank War

Yesterday, Jonathan McQuarrie wrote about the smash Broadway show Hamilton. Even before the show, when most people thought about the establishment of the financial system in the United States, Hamilton was likely the first person to come to mind. President Andrew Jackson, probably wasn’t top of mind, while Nicolas Biddle remains a largely unknown figure. That’s why Paul Kahan’s new book The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicolas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance is so interesting.

The book traces the battle between Jackson and Biddle through the 1830s as the President tried to dismantle the national bank while Biddle fought to preserve the institution. Ultimately, Jackson prevailed, a result that had major implications for the American economy through the 19th century.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Paul Kahan about the book. We talk about the challenges of writing popular history, the history of America’s financial structure, and the role of personalities in early American history.

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History Slam Episode Eighty: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter

By Sean Graham

Yamin“Before I had my two children, I had a miscarriage.” This is how Alicia Yamin starts her new book Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter. By introducing the book in such a personal manner, Yamin, the Policy Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, prepares the reader for what is to follow. In interweaving personal stories, Yamin demonstrates how health should be situated as a human right and, in doing so, represents a major turning point in the struggle for dignity.

The great challenge in studying broad concepts in matters with very real world ramifications is that the writing can feel distant and cold. To alleviate this concern, Yamin incorporates case studies from her vast experience working in the field. By humanizing these seemingly abstract issues, Yamin is not only able to hook the reader but also establishes a narrative voice that guides the reader through the book.

At its best, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity attacks the preconceptions and assumptions that have inhibited the implementation of a human rights framework for health. For instance, in the introduction Yamin cites the too-often-used phrase “there but the grace of God go I” in discussing a general apathy towards the issues on the part of those in privileged positions. By casting the inequalities in health and healthcare to divine providence, the real-world human decisions that have fostered and expanded inequality are easily dismissed or ignored. As a result, too many people unnecessarily suffer from indignity without intervention.

These inequalities are often the result of discrimination based on race, gender, and poverty – issues that are beyond the control of those that don’t  have access to health. Many of Yamin’s examples are related to maternal health and mortality. From the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse perpetrated by the men in her life to losing multiple children to AIDS and malnourishment, Yamin outlines how one particular woman had been denied agency throughout her life for no other reason than she lived in an impoverished region. The decisions that led to that poverty were well beyond her control – often made on the other side of the world – and yet we too often believe the myth that we all reap what we sow.

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History Slam Episode Seventy-Nine: Open Access

By Sean Graham

Open AccessThere are certain universal experiences that go along with being involved in academics, one of which is explaining the publishing model of academic journals. This is particularly difficult for grad students, who, upon their first publication, are confronted by family members wondering how much they got paid. It’s a well meaning question, but it’s a bit of a downer to have to explain how academic publishing works and that, as today’s guest aptly puts it, it’s a gift culture. The work is done in the pursuit of knowledge with the primary goal not being monetary gain, but rather having the information available for public consumption.

Recently, that final point has increasingly been scrutinized by the Open Access movement, which is explored by Peter Suber in this openly accessible book. More and more scholars are moving away from journals with paid subscriptions in favour of open access publications. Sometimes that’s not possible, however, which is why some institutions are requiring their faculty to put copies of their publications in open access repositories in their libraries.

At Harvard University the push towards open access has been led by the Office for Scholarly Communication, which has been able to get each school to agree to participate in its open access repository. Through Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (DASH), publications by Harvard faculty are freely available to anyone. The site has been quite successful since its launch, recently surpassing 7 million downloads. They also maintain an Open Access Directory, which includes listings of open access materials and different funding models for open access journals.
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History Slam Episode Seventy-Five: Paper Cadavers

By Sean Graham

Paper CadaversBetween 1960 and 1996, the Guatemalan Civil War pitted the government against leftist rebel groups. Both during and after the war, there were accusations that government forces committed human rights violations against civilians. The government denied these allegations and claimed that there was no documentation to substantiate any of the claims. That was until a cache of documents from the National Police was found in an abandoned headquarters in 2005. That launched a massive effort to preserve and archive the documents. Despite official efforts to destroy the material and threats of physical violence, a group of volunteers worked tirelessly to ensure that it was possible to figure out what happened during the war.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Kirsten Weld of Harvard University about her book Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatamala. We chat about the uncovering of the archives, the process of reclaiming the material, and the contested nature of building memory.
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