Sensing (everything) Changes: A Tribute to Joy Parr

By Jessica van Horssen

This tribute was also published with NiCHE

Not many scholars have the desire or ability to challenge Descartes’ first principle “I think, therefore I am,” but Joy Parr was not the average scholar. Her concept of “I am here, therefore I am,” mapped out in her final monograph Sensing Changes (2010), gave insight, energy, and direction to local, place-based, embodied histories, and made me think, “Descartes who?”

I’ve been a Joy Parr mega-fan my whole academic life. In undergrad, I used to go to what I termed “the Parr section” of the library so I could let her work lead me in a new direction for any paper I had due, especially in the history of gender, labour, technology, and environment. Her award-winning monographs, Labouring Children (1980), The Gender of Breadwinners(1990), Domestic Goods(1999), and Sensing Changes have guided innumerable students and scholars into new realms and ideas while challenging the fields of Gender, Labour, and Envirotech History. I never considered the possibility that I would one day work with her during my PhD, and that she would continue to have such a dynamic impact on my scholarship well beyond those intense years.

Sensing Changes by Joy Parr cover

Along with her field-changing publications, Parr was an engaged and inspiring teacher, which can often get forgotten or pushed aside. She took her role as a teacher seriously and it was amazing to be in her classroom as she challenged students to think deeper, supporting us through our journeys. It always felt like we were on the cusp of something so exciting. My comps field with her aligned with the subject of her Canada Research Chair on Technology, Culture, and Risk, and every meeting deepened my understanding and appreciation of the materials we were engaging with, the broader field, and who I wanted to be as a historian. I’m not unique in this experience; but one of many that Parr steered through this formative process.

I like to say that you could learn something from Parr just by being in the same space as her. She was a brilliant scholar, but didn’t rub your face in it. Instead, she provided the space and prompts for you to develop your own thoughts, ideas, and conclusions. If/when you stumbled on a concept, she helped you unpack it, never making you feel silly. There is such skill and power in her approach.

I had the incredible opportunity to work alongside Parr on her Megaprojects website, a companion piece to Sensing Changes. Working on the Val Morton map project with her taught me the importance of infusing academic research with compassion and recognizing the power that academics have in shedding light on past and continued inequities. We presented on this work at the Sharing Authority: Community-University Collaboration in Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Engaged Scholarship conference Steven High organized at Concordia in 2009. The keynote speaker was Michael Frisch, who had coined the term “sharing authority” in the 1990s. After Frisch’s keynote address, they opened the floor to questions. Parr was the first one to stand up and in a bold challenge to the esteemed keynote, she started by politely saying, “I’m sorry, no.”

For Parr, Frisch didn’t go deep enough in talking about the process, challenges, and benefits of participatory research, shared between scholar and subject, and it was important for her to remind those in attendance of this lack of depth. While I felt the air leave the room when she began to speak, I had the unique perspective of sitting next to her to see her shaking, ever so slightly, as she spoke. Parr gained a formidable reputation during her career, and while she was certainly formidable, she was also human, and did difficult things because they were right, not because they were popular. This is only one example of my witnessing her relentless bravery, and every single time I saw her do this, it was in support of marginalized people, communities, and graduate students.

Asbestos Quebec comic book by Jessica van horssen

In this witnessing, came further learning. I learned a lot from Parr about being a woman in academia, both directly, with advice she gave me, and indirectly, by witnessing her incredible perseverance. She experienced horrific sexism and misogyny throughout her career, but it didn’t throw her off course. I experienced a sliver of this during a meeting with a senior male professor who casually described Parr as “the type of woman who…” (I’ll save you the horror by not finishing that sentence). It was casual, institutional, and violent, and it motivated her to do things her way, on her terms. I’ll never be “the type of woman” Parr was, but I will never stop aspiring to be so.

Parr and I found ourselves thumbing through historical graphic novels at a bookshop in Montreal one summer, and she asked me if I wanted to do anything creative with my PhD research on the town of Asbestos, Quebec. It was then that we decided that I would write a graphic novel companion piece to my dissertation/future monograph to be housed on her Megaprojects website. The process of drafting and redrafting the text, with Parr pushing me to more fully embody the Jeffrey Mine at the centre of the community as a tragic hero, was by far the highlight of my PhD. It also made a lasting impact on how I see my role as an active historian in society. Doing publicly engaged research isn’t easy, but it was central to Parr’s scholarship and philosophy. She once told me, “If you’re going to get in the swamp, don’t be surprised to find alligators,” and she wasn’t wrong. But as Parr showed time and time again, the benefits of doing participatory, co-created research and outreach made it not only worthwhile, but necessary.

Joy Parr was one of Canada’s leading historians. She was also one who saw a greater purpose to her work. From challenging gender assumptions to reframing “home” in time and place, Parr brought attention to small and marginalized communities, revealing their local significance and global connections. She pushed the boundaries of several established fields, created new ones, and made an indelible mark on Canadian history. Her important body of work will go on influencing new generations of scholars, her tenacity and care for her students and her research subjects will be sorely missed.

Jessica van Horssen is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at McMaster University.

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