Canadian Historians in the Newspaper

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Newspaper and TeaWhat if my supervisor disagrees with what I write? What if someone in the community sends me a nasty email? What if the editor ignores my article?

There are plenty of excuses young historians turn to when they convince themselves not to write opinion pieces for the newspaper. But, there are even more good reasons why they should: what if it makes government reconsider policy related to my research? What if I can convince Canadians to think differently about a topic for which I am passionate? What if my research makes a tangible difference because I put it where people would read it?

An opinion piece – sometimes called an “Op-Ed,” is a great way for a young Canadian historian to engage the general public. I’m not talking about a letter to the editor; instead, an op-ed is generally a 500-1000 word essay that addresses a timely and newsworthy issue, which appears in the editorial section – frequently “Op”posite the “Ed”itorial. Any Joe Schmoe can write a letter to the editor; when selecting an op-ed, editors generally seek someone with expert knowledge. And that’s just what academics are.

Historians certainly do contribute to our nation’s editorial pages; perhaps Jack Granatstein is most famous for his contentious essays about Canadian history. But it’s good to see that there are plenty of young historians finding their way into the papers as well. Recent UWO history PhD student Mark Humphries had an op-ed in the Globe and Mail last summer about the lessons Canada could learn from the 1918 pandemic when dealing with the Swine Flu outbreak. When Mark chose his dissertation topic – the response to the Spanish flu of 1918 – he surely could not have predicted the oubreak of H1N1, but he did recognize the opportunity to apply his research to a contemporary problem and for that was rewarded with a large national audience.

More recently, another UWO PhD student, Ryan O’Connor, has been tearing up the editorial pages. Ryan researches the birth of the environmental movement in Toronto and has published three articles since November, twice the Charlottetown Guardian – his home province, and once in the London Free Press in a joint editorial with fellow student, Jeremy Marks. The three essays address issues relevant to his research and Canadian history and are a good example of how others can turn what they do into something the Canadian public can benefit from.

If there are other good examples of history graduate students writing op-eds, let me know. And if you’re interested in learning more, check out the Network in Canadian History & Environment’s Popular Writing for young historians workshops, with which I and other members of the Active History team have been involved. There, you’ll find some good readings to get you started in writing for a popular audience.

Photo credit: “Newspaper and Tea” by Matt Callow.

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