Historia Nostra: Myth, Memory, and Misconception at the Plains of Abraham

By Erin Isaac

The Battle on the Plains of Abraham, on 13 September 1759, is heavily commemorated on Québec’s physical landscape. From the streets, buildings, and shops named for the French and British military men who fought that day, to the monuments that dot the city’s historic neighbourhoods, and commemorative panels or plaques at the Plains of Abraham, it’s hard to wander around Old Québec without being reminded of this moment in the city’s history.

But this battle is a bit of a sore spot when it comes trying to commemorate Canadian history. Do we celebrate the British victory there in 1759 or lament the French loss? We celebrate the martyred (if I may be so bold!) French commander Montcalm, sure, but the British commander, Wolfe also has his share of monuments and mentions. Public works seem to believe we can have it both ways, treating history like it is politically benign or neutral territory.

Wolfe–Montcalm Monument, Québec City, Wikipedia

It might not be surprising, then, that most misconceptions about the Battle on the Plains of Abraham seem to diminish its importance, or place blame for the French loss away from the imperial regimes that sought to shore up claims on Indigenous lands during the Seven Years’ War. We treat this battle as a one-off, singular, or definitive moment. The mythology around that day is parsed out from what came before or after it. Continue reading

Bartleby By Bike

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By Michael Egan

This is the ninth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

Hang the anachronism: I liked the alliteration. The sentiment remains, however. I would prefer not to superimpose Herman Melville’s scrivener’s rejection of the world he inhabits while inhabiting that world as metaphor for the bicycle’s place in twenty-first-century petrocultured environments.

I would prefer not to consider the relationship between bicycles and history. I would prefer not to mention that the first roads were paved for bicycles and not automobiles. I would prefer not to posit the transformative qualities the bicycle imposed on the late-nineteenth-century cityscape. I would prefer not to talk about bloomers or the oft-quoted position, held by both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that women were riding to suffrage on a bicycle.

I would prefer not to shift toward environmental history tropes and evoke the ways in which topography and weather and seasons and the experience of physical work mediate my relationship with my surroundings. I would prefer not to describe the burning of lungs as I lean into steeper inclines, or how this attunes rider to landscape.

I would prefer not to touch on the materials of the bicycle’s construction—tubing made of steel, aluminum, carbon fibre, bamboo—or its manufacture. I would prefer not to assert the simplicity of its original design, its efficiency for capturing human power, or its ability to propel its rider at the optimal maximum speed across shared and populous spaces.

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista) – Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Public Domain.

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Postscript: Cuts from “Pandemic Methodologies”

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By Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

PMTC Co-Organizer’s note: Unlike me, Erin has not yet had the opportunity to publish the initial piece of writing that inspired and was inspired by the Pandemic Methodologies Twitter Conference. We felt that this series was the right place to begin that process and ensure that her thoughts, writing, and emotions had a place. The unconventional, beautiful piece of writing that follows represents the state of mind and body that we, as co-organizers, colleagues, and friends, grappled with during the pandemic as we searched for ways to continue our work – while we continue to explore what that means.

 Author’s note: I wrote this in the kind of brain fog or fever dream that makes time blend together. Chronology seems unimportant when every day under lockdown under grief feels the same. The disregard I show for the most basic of historical tools, the timeline, is done with all due respect to the role of narrative and smooth editing in historical writing. Traditional historical narrative, however, does not capture my current experience of time. The mess and confusion I have decided not to edit out, as you will see below, are a closer approximation.

 I message a good friend and fellow PhD candidate over Facebook. He shares snippets of his annual review. I share snippets of this personal essay that I fatten and trim daily. Neither one of us talk about the other writing that hangs over us both besides to admit that the dissertations are coming along slowly, if at all. After writing myself into an existential crisis, my friend sends me an article about how historians can be vicariously traumatized by their research. Partway through reading it, Robert sees that I am online and FaceChats me from the hospital. He is bald and bloated and his conversation does not always make sense. He tells me that he met my Dad in 1920. At other times, he seems as rational as he ever was. He hangs up after saying “I love you.” I think about crying but don’t really feel like it.

Man with glasses and black shirt raising hand

Selfie Robert took in hospital and texted to author on February 21, 2020. He is raising a hand in hello or goodbye.

I go back to the article. I read: “every day, sometimes for decades, historians open themselves, if not willingly then by a sense of obligation, to the pain of the past. Often, the present intrudes, exacerbating the trauma.” My present intrudes. This present where I cannot hug my immunocompromised, end-of-life Robert because of a global pandemic, but where I can connect with him, however dissatisfyingly, via text message and Facebook. If my present is intruding, exacerbating the compassion fatigue if not outright trauma of my research, how does that shape the research itself? What types of histories are we writing shut away behind our computer screens, doom scrolling and desperately trying to keep ourselves, our families, and our communities from shattering? How do we write history during a pandemic? Continue reading

Socially Distant: Writing History in “Unprecedented Times”

“We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

Image Credit: Art by Molly Costello (www.mollycostello.com).
Image Description: “We Grieve Together.” Dark background with bright illustrations of a number of grieving people holding candles, scattered across windows and computer screens.

This is the sixth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Johanna Lewis and Daniel Murchison 

We are part of academia’s COVID generation – ours is a cohort of scholars whose graduate studies coincided with the global pandemic. COVID has produced many challenges, at micro and macro levels, and textured how we practice history and what meaning we make from it. As historians studying the forces of capitalism and colonialism, and as graduate students witnessing and navigating how the pandemic has worsened precarity and inequality, we are collaborating here to reflect on the wider context of the COVID crisis, and to trace its consequences for our work – both the conditions of our labour and the content that we produce – in “unprecedented times.”

The COVID Context
We understand the COVID moment as more than a year and a half long health crisis; the global pandemic emerged from a wider context and its impacts will continue to play out across both individual trajectories and collective histories. The volatility of advanced capitalism and the uneven austerity of neoliberal governance had, in several ways, set the stage for the COVID crisis. These developments have not only facilitated declines of intergenerational social mobility and the continued concentration of wealth, but also turned our homes and schools into sites of financialization and struggle, institutionalized precarious work, and marketized healthcare. In the context of an inadequate social safety net, the state responses to the global pandemic prioritized accumulation for some at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of the many, spawning crises of evictions, impoverishment, and mental health alongside waves of deadly and inequitably borne public health emergencies. Industrialists and financiers are reaping record profits while the working-class, particularly low waged and racialized workers, earn less than a living wage and face a deadly virus on the job. Private for-profit care facilities are paying huge dividends to shareholders even as elderly and/or disabled residents died in their beds. Growing class divides are being both exposed and exacerbated. Continue reading

The Stubborn Commuter

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This is the eighth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

By Josh MacFadyen

I’m not sure I belong in this series on cycling and its connections to academic thinking. I am nothing more than a stubborn bike commuter. I’m not a racer, club member, gearhead, or aficionado of any kind. I don’t care if anyone sees my bikes (they’re beaters) or sees me on my bike (my outfits never match). I’ve never worn Lycra. OK, let me rephrase that. Everyone over the age of 30 wears some Lycra; I just don’t wear any visibly. I don’t talk much about biking either. The topic is often dull to the cycle-hesitant and pharisaic to the cycle-adverse. To be clear, I love cycling. It’s the best part of my day. I love how it clears my mind, how it changes the way I see the environments I study, and how it gets me to work. But I try to follow a different approach when spreading the gospel of gearshifting: I just ride. I ride a lot, I enjoy the benefits it brings, and I occasionally bring someone new along. This post shares my brief experience as a cyclist and the surprising lesson cycling taught me about the history of land use and energy transitions on Prince Edward Island.

I’m a relatively recent convert to cycling. I knew very little about it until about 10 years ago. That was when a friend who had moved to PEI brought me and a second bike along to the Island’s new “Alpine” trails. He was from British Columbia, of course, and found our rolling hills very cute. Between his lessons and a taste of riding a good bike, I was getting hooked. But at that time I was mainly looking for something else from bikes. I had recently completed a PhD on rural and environmental history, so naturally I was looking for a cheap and low-emission way to get around as I searched for work. I was aware of the tensions between cyclists and motorists, and I understood the incompatibility of car-based infrastructure and the desire for cheap, low-emission transportation. However, the best argument for cycling came from Mr. Money Mustache, a humorous financial blogger who called bikes automatic life-balancing machines. Using a bike for as much of your commuting and shopping as possible keeps your communities local, your transportation bills down, your emissions low, and your heart rate up. That was reason enough, but like everyone else writing in this series, I also discovered new ways of understanding rural and urban landscapes, and new ways of teaching the environmental history of my neighbourhoods.

This is what keeps me stubbornly commuting to work. Between my PhD in early 2010 and today, I’ve been fortunate to find work at UPEI, Western, Saskatchewan, Arizona State, and now UPEI, again. I have bought exactly zero semesters of parking passes from any of those universities. My wife and I have fought the urge to get a second vehicle, or to “put another one on the road” as they say in PEI. It’s a challenge with a busy and relatively large family. It means we run a house with exactly 0.16 cars per person. Our bike fleet fluctuates, but it is usually closer to 1.5 bikes per family member.

This lifestyle allows the stubborn commuter to spend a little more on bike gear than, say, the occasional rider’s budget, but even still the costs are minimal compared to owning more cars. Bike components and quality matter, but for commuting my list of essential “gear” is quite short: a helmet, rechargeable lights, and a waterproof pannier bag with a rack and a laptop sleeve. The list changed over time — I needed more bike locks when I was a junior postdoc without an office; I need more padding now that I’m older. The list also changed dramatically depending on my geography. In Arizona you don’t bike anywhere without water, especially in the summer. In the Saskatoon winter, you don’t bike anywhere without face coverings and thick gloves. Continue reading

Pros, Cons, and Confusion: Return to Campus

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The author’s three cats napping on a bed.

This is the fifth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Victoria Seta Cosby

Being back on campus is like being in an alternate universe where everything is the same and yet somehow different. Everything feels familiar while also being simultaneously much more sinister and dangerous. Teaching on campus has always carried some pressures, but now I am responsible for the physical health of my students in the classroom. I must ensure that my students wear their masks (properly), which is a significant additional anxiety on top of my teaching responsibilities. Despite this, I am not being compensated for the additional burden of maintaining COVID-19 safety procedures. I am also not getting any hazard pay to make up for the risks I am exposed to being in contact with 50 undergraduate students on a weekly basis. Communication from the university about safety planning and backup plans has been slow and generally unhelpful.

All these additional problems have worn me down physically and mentally. I am finding it very hard to work on my thesis when I am also trying to maintain my own safety in the unpredictability of this new reality. The university refuses to acknowledge that graduate students are facing any real hardships and need extensions on funding and completion times. Continue reading

The Forgotten History of Cyclone Science: Lessons for the Climate Crisis

Damage in Kolkata from Cyclone Amphan, May 2020. Source: Reuters via Al Jazeera.

This is the twelfth and final post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Vinita Damodaran

In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan battered the east coast of Bangladesh and India, especially Kolkata and the Sundarbans, leaving hundreds of people dead and causing damage of over $13 million USD. This was not the first time such a storm had battered the coast but was only one in the long history of such events. In 1999, a super cyclone in Orissa killed 10,00 people and destroyed 210,000 houses. In flood-prone cities the dangers are even greater. For example, in cities in the region such as Ho Chi Minh City, Kolkata, Dhaka, and Manila, potential sea level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events pose significant adaptation challenges. The urban poor—often living in riskier urban environments such as floodplains or unstable slopes, working in the informal economy, and with fewer assets—are most at risk from exposure to hazards. Regions with active river deltas, such as Kutch in Western India and the Sundarbans, are historically more prone to frequent droughts, famines, pestilence, earthquakes and floods, which can be mapped through the archive.

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What Counts as Work: Exploring What It Means to Conduct Graduate Studies in a Social and Sustainable Way

ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

My pets, Joey and Sadie, in my home office.
ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

This is the fourth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Emily Kaliel 

At the beginning of September, I sat down to plan out my fall term schedule and goals. Knowing that my current capacity (as both a history graduate student and as a human) is absolutely diminished by almost two years of a global pandemic, I asked myself: What work can I commit to doing on a weekly basis that is realistic, won’t leave me burnt out, and considers my responsibilities to my family, friends, and the communities I am a part of? I tried to balance knowing that I need to make progress on my PhD work with setting achievable goals.

In my #PMTC presentation this past June, I explored how the isolation of the pandemic exacerbated the isolation I felt as a new graduate student going through comprehensives and as the only incoming PhD that year at an institution across the country from my support networks. I wrote about how that isolation reinforced for me the need for my graduate research to be done in a sustainable and social way to be meaningful (and do-able, to be completely honest).

Even as I tried to keep these realizations in mind as I built the first draft of my fall schedule, I still fell into the trap of prioritizing dissertation research, reading, and my work contracts. These priorities aren’t bad. They are necessary work for completing a PhD. But this prioritization excluded a whole host of other commitments I’d like to engage in this term: organizing a writing group, planning social events, acting as a graduate student mentor, and serving as a graduate student representative on various committees. Why hadn’t I considered these service commitments, which I had originally intended to complete on top of my daily research, reading, and contract work, as work? Especially now that I’ve moved home to Alberta and away from my academic institution in Ontario, shouldn’t a writing group that keeps me connected to other graduate students and keeps us collectively excited and motivated about our research count as work? What about the hours I’ve spent prepping questions for the Graduate Students’ Association monthly virtual trivia night that I host? Or the zoom calls to help familiarize incoming graduate students with the comprehensive process? Continue reading

Driftless Historian

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This is the seventh in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

image of an empty gravel road and rolling hills of the Driftless.

By James Longhurst

The bike I’m riding at any given moment determines what type of historian I am.

As a historian, I’ve been a bit driftless. If I have to identify my research areas, I sometimes call myself an urban environmental historian, or (more self-importantly) a historian of urban environmental policy. It’s a jumble of different historical associations and publications: the Urban History Association, the American Society for Environmental History, or the Journal of Policy History. If that weren’t enough, recently I’ve been attracted to the interdisciplinary inquiry known as mobilities studies, attending the meetings of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobilities (T2M). As I drift between these different literatures, I’ve noticed that the kind of bike I’m riding determines which of these fields is foremost in my mind.  In that observation may lie a deeper insight.

Urban Historian: The Schwinn

If I’m riding my old Schwinn, I’m an urban historian. When I’m riding in the city, I’m on a sixty-year-old Schwinn Racer I bought for $10 at a garage sale. In a flat and compact college town along the Mississippi river, I ride my short-distance rounds to work and shops. In advocacy jargon, I’m what is known as an “everyday cyclist,” or someone who rides in their street clothes as part of their daily routine.

The upright Schwinn lets me see my surroundings with an urban historian’s eyes – the age of neighborhoods and the disjuncture between social groups that is a legacy of settlement, redlining, zoning and street layout. Riding through neighborhoods that are physically side-by-side, but miles away in social class, shows how the physical space embodies the human divisions. Continue reading

Where Have All the Books Gone? Research and Writing During the Pandemic

books on a shelf

Part of my bookshelf. Photo taken by Erin Spinney.

This is the third post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

by Erin Spinney

Books are a part of my life.  When I moved across the country, and then across the country again and again, the books were what got stuffed inside the trunk of the car and filled up the suitcases; while clothing, dishes, and small appliances were donated away.  The academic books I own are a significant investment of both my money and my time (as the notes I scrawl in the margins can attest).  Yet, while I do own a fair few, by no means are all the books that I need for my work in my possession.  I had relied upon access to a physical library for most of my book needs until the pandemic took that access away.

Here I want to recount my experiences as a pandemic researcher without physical library access. My barriers to access were not pandemic related – such as the rightful closure of library spaces to protect the health of library staff – but stemmed from my contract status.  These experiences underscore a wider problem with how historical research is conducted and how many barriers there are to the production of that work. I hope that this piece prompts us all to think about access to institutional libraries and how we can push for greater accessibility in an academy that relies on an increasingly precarious workforce and demands increasing numbers of publications during academic job searches and from newly-hired assistant professors. When, at some point, our time living with Covid-19 comes to an end, we can hopefully rethink how universities and university libraries operate.  I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge those librarians and other library workers who bore, and continue to bear, the risk of contracting Covid-19.  Rethinking how university libraries operate should include not just how to make these institutions better for researchers, but how to make them better for staff, without whom libraries cease to exist. Continue reading