Active History in 2018: Taking Stock

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Daniel Ross

Since we founded Active History in 2009, it has grown into a big, exciting, and often eclectic project. The theme of our 2015 conference in London, Ontario was “New Directions in Active History”; that title captured something essential to what were were doing, in that the website and the networks of people it brings together continue to evolve in new directions today. However, much of that change and growth gets lost in the day to day activities that keep the site running. It’s rare that those of us in the editorial collective take the time to think about the bigger picture, and ask questions like: what are we building at What are we doing day-to-day? What does the future look like?

In this post, I’d like to begin to tackle these questions by providing a look back over the past (academic) year of Active History. This post will be at most a sketch, and perhaps a starting-off point for a renewed discussion about the work we are doing, a discussion that can continue online, and for those who are attending, in person at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association in Regina (May 28-30).

The blog continues to grow is the site where people working on and interested in the Active History project meet and communicate. It may not be the most aesthetically innovative place in the history blogosphere, but one thing that sets it apart is its incredible productivity. Over the last 9 years, our blog has built up a wide network of readers and contributors across Canada, the United States, Europe, and beyond. Since this time last year, we’ve published approximately 220 posts on the site, which translates to between 4 and 5 posts per week throughout the year. We’re deeply appreciative of the hundreds of people who have chosen (or given in to pressure) to write for the site: you are what makes truly active and relevant.

Building damaged during Vancouver riot of 1907 – 130 Powell Street. UBC Archives, JCPC_ 36_017.

Looking back over those 220-odd posts, I’m struck by their diversity, but also by the presence of certain common themes. That number includes podcasts (15 episodes of Sean Graham’s History Slam, 9 of our new History Chats talks); historians speaking to national news (see for example Laura Ishiguro and Laura Madokoro on the history of white supremacy and political violence in Vancouver, or R. Blake Brown discussing the history of jury selection during the Gerald Stanley trial); reports on ongoing research (a great example is our longest-running series, Canada’s First World War, which last year published 15 posts presenting critical historical perspectives on the 1914-1918 conflict, covering everything from soldier suicide to revolutionary art to Indigenous veterans); and a growing number of posts discussing different kinds of historical work and workplace challenges (for example, our fall 2017 week on Archives and Archival Labour, edited by Krista McCracken, or Andrea Eidinger’s post on the emotional labour of job applications).

That last post clearly touched a nerve with our readers, speaking to the importance of discussing and pushing back against the precarity of academic employment, including much of the unseen labour that keeps the university (and other history institutions) thriving. A previous post by Andrea on gender bias in student teaching evaluations, published in spring 2017 and republished in the summer, quickly became our most-read article of all time, with over 50,000 unique visits. It was also one of our most-commented articles, and as editors we learned, a few years later than other blog platforms, that open comment sections can sometimes harm, rather than facilitate, intellectual exchange. Since that post and a few others which were shared on social media and targeted with misogynist or racist comments, we’ve decided to have all comments on the site approved by an editor before publication.

There is so much more happening on the blog that we can highlight in this short post. But these projects capture some of the most exciting developments over the last year.

Public history projects

2017 also saw Active History continue to partner on public history projects that speak to our mandate of bringing history out of the academy, and employing it to challenge exclusion and oppression. Three stand out, since they are different from anything we’ve done before. The first is Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky’s #150Acts project, which seeks to think about practical, everyday ways Canadians can make Indigenous-settler reconciliation a reality at home, at work, and in their communities. #150Acts began as a list, but quickly became a teaching resource, a discussion-starter, and a gorgeous poster series. The work was all Crystal and Sara’s, but Active History was pleased to help promote the project, and to provide a small amount of funding through our new Active History seed grants, funded from our donations account (more on that later). #150Acts is unique as an activist history project, but its presence on the site speaks to another change that has been happening over the last few years: is working to  feature more Indigenous history and the work of more Indigenous scholars and authors.

This past year also gave Active History the opportunity to help the Graphic History Collective promote its Remember I Resist I Redraw series, now beginning its second year of pairing artists and historians to provide a radical re-framing of Canadian history. The RRR posters, covering everything from Indigenous activism to anarchism to workers’ rights, will continue to highlight moments when people in Canada “reasoned otherwise” (to use Ian McKay’s turn of phrase) each month throughout 2018. Finally, a third project that took Active History in new directions was the Beyond 150: Telling our Stories Twitter conference, organized as a collaboration between our project, Unwritten Histories, Canada’s History Society, and the Wilson Institute. As far as we know, it was the first Canadian history conference to take place entirely on Twitter, where presenters tweeted their research in threads of text and images, communicating creatively at distances of thousands of kilometres. Check out a selection of the presentations here.

Beyond 150 Logo

Looking forward & money matters

There have a been a few changes in the way is run, and some potential new developments coming in the future. First of all, in summer 2017 we bid goodbye to Beth Robertson, who left the editorial collective to focus on her teaching at Carleton University. A few months later we were joined by Christo Aivalis and Colin Coates, from University of Toronto and York University, respectively. We were sad to see Beth go, the latest in a line of a half-dozen editors who have made a big impact on the project before moving on. But new blood means new interests and promises exciting future collaborations.

As we mentioned this fall, another potentially larger change is happening behind the scenes. For the past eight years, has functioned as an entirely volunteer-run website without robust financial supports. This has meant that when technical problems that exceed our abilities have arisen, we have needed to go cap-in-hand to drum up emergency funding to maintain the website or – occasionally – pay these costs out of pocket. As our website and audience have grown, now hosting over 1,500 essays, podcasts, and other posts, and an audience of 40,000 unique visitors per month, the editorial collective has become increasingly uncomfortable with the uncertainties caused by this informal structure. Last spring, we began to put in place safeguards to ensure that is able to continue on a more stable foundation. First, the History Department at the University of Saskatchewan agreed to support our ongoing costs related to web hosting. Second, Huron University College agreed to support a bank account for the site and a process through which donations can be made to the Active History project. In both cases, this support reflects the role that scholars at both institutions have played in shaping, and continuing to shape, the Active History project. It also provides us with financial oversight and guidelines that ensure sound fiscal stewardship.

In other words, since fall 2017 we’ve been open for donations. The result, to date, has been modest but encouraging: approximately $1400. What are we doing with the money? At the moment, not much. As mentioned above, we made our first modest seed grant ($250) to the #150Acts project. We hope in the future to expand that program, to help get small but important Canadian active history projects of the ground and to support scholars invested in those projects who may not have government or institutional funds to rely on. In the same spirit, we would like in the longer term to recognize the contributions of editors, guest/series editors, and other people deeply involved in the project who are not tenure-track academics. There are also the costs of the site and its regular growing pains.

We want to be clear that will continue to exist as a volunteer-run, not-for-profit, and advertising-free digital space. This website is not possible without the countless volunteer hours that our committed group of editors, contributing editors, and authors put into ensuring that continues to produce well-researched and well-argued history-focused material each week. In providing the option to support this project financially, it is our hope that these financial resources will provide a foundation to ensure that this work remains available for the years to come.

Daniel Ross is a member of the Active History editorial collective and an assistant professor at UQÀM.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

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