Professional Historians, Personal Histories: A Roundtable on Objectivity, Subjectivity and Family History

Laura Madokoro

This week, Active History features a roundtable on history called “Professional Historians, Personal Histories: A Roundtable on Objectivity, Subjectivity and Family History.” As the title suggests, the four contributions from Benjamin Bryce, Leslie Choquette, Bonnie Huskins and Michael Boudreau and Brittany Luby focus, from different perspectives, on the question of the relationship between professional historians, family histories and the issues that arise from pursuing research related to people with whom one has a personal connection.

Polish Immigrant Family. Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA-148294. Author’s note: I debated about inserted a picture of either my Rothfels, Manning, Kimoto or Madokoro family here but my own desire for professional distance made it more attractive to select an archival image of a family with whom I had no connections to complement this post.

Any tension in professional historians pursuing research related to family arises from the longstanding expectation in the discipline that historians should be objective and distant from the subjects they study. This distance has often been described in temporal terms, with sideways glances if one proposes to undertake historical research deemed too recent. The craft of history thrives on distance, cherishing the decades and centuries between historian and subject. The idea is that distance enables scholars to better comprehend the historical record, the contingencies that led to particular events and phenomenon, and to assess their full implications.

The celebration of distance means that there is considerable concern when historians propose to undertake more intimate research, research that is literally closer to home. As Benjamin Bryce acknowledges in his essay, “Our discipline clings to a belief in a certain degree of objectivity, and historians shy away from flagging our subjectivity more than other scholars.”

Rather than shying away from subjectivity, or from the topic of family histories, the four essays in this week’s Active History roundtable centre their experiences and approaches as professional historians engaged with family histories. Benjamin Bryce, Assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia, offers reflections on working with the photographic records of his great-great grandfather, Cooper Robinson, an Anglican missionary in Japan. From her position as Professor of History, Côté Professor of French Studies, and Director of the French Institute at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Leslie Choquette details how her professional work facilitated the writing she did about Under Canadian Skies, a novel by her grandfather’s “cousin”. In turn, Bonnie Huskins, Adjunct Professor and Loyalist Studies Coordinator at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and Michael Boudreau, Professor of Criminology & Criminal justice at St. Thomas University in Fredericton discuss their partnership in working with the diaries of Ida Martin, Huskins’ grandmother who kept a diary her whole life with the help of intergenerational assistance from her daughter and granddaughter. Finally, Brittany Luby, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Guelph University, offers a critical reminder that research by Indigenous scholars is often tied to community needs, rather than personal interests. Disrupting the notion of what motivates academic research projects, Luby provides important, tangible advice on how to support student “word warriors who are fighting for their people rather than their project.”

Together, these four contributions move beyond the conventional debate over the place of subjectivity in historical research and begin from the premise that there is a place for family history in academic research. Indeed, they recognize that it is precisely because of their work as academic / professional / trained historians (these categorizations alone are so problematic, they would require another Active History roundtable to unpack!) that they are drawn to particular kinds of research involving their families or communities. Where the pieces differ, and what I suspect will continue to distinguish work in this area, is how individual historians negotiate their individual positionality with the subjects of research they pursue. For instance, historians may have varying degrees of comfort / discomfort in acknowledging how a family or community history has shaped their research, whether it is specifically focused on the familial or informs a broader study. This part of the work remains joyously unscripted.

So too do the feelings with which historians approach family histories. Such differences are evident within the Active History roundtable itself. Leslie Choquette, for instance, maintains in her piece that “research on one’s own family is no different from other kinds of historical research.” For her, the challenge is in “the struggle to write honestly.” Relatedly, Benjamin Bryce talks about “fearing” what he might find in the family archive and his relief when the colonial gaze that he worried about does not materialize. Similarly, Bonnie Huskins and Michael Boudreau note that “being a relative may blind (one) to what social distance may reveal about the diaries.” Brittany Luby, for her part, underscores “that uncovering histories of dispossession and cultural loss can be difficult” and that supervisors need to be attentive to the emotional challenges that come with this work and particularly signs of secondary trauma.

In Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World (Cambridge University Press 2017), historian Adele Perry wrote ““I want a history that is fleshy and frail and no less complex than the people who write about them.” Fleshy, and frail and complex. The contributors in this roundtable speak to the professional, personal and disciplinary implications of pursuing the historical craft in this vein.

Laura Madokoro is Associate Professor of History at Carleton University and a member of the Active History editorial collective. 

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