What’s the Point of the Historiographical Dissertation Chapter?

Elizabeth Mancke

Academic press editors are notorious for advising future and recent PhDs to remove the historiographical chapter as a first step in revising their dissertation for publication.  This begs the question: If press editors do not consider historiographical chapters publishable material, why do so many dissertation committees require them? Why are they deemed a necessary part of the doctoral capstone work, considering that the capstone work should reflect best professional practice, not a student’s last act of academic obsequiousness.

When asked, scholars offer cringe-worthy justifications that often reference “professional traditions,” either ignorantly or deliberately forgetting that the professional traditions of historians are also steeped in racism, sexism, cultural chauvinism, and social and economic hierarchies. These historians also fail to acknowledge that these same hierarchies of oppression are often replicated and continued through the historiographical dissertation chapter; in the writing of them, too many emerging scholars become jaded and feel alienated. Continue reading

Fictions of a Fascist France

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By Paul Cohen

One of the most striking things about Donald Trump’s presidency is just how surprised Americans were that it happened at all.  On the very eve of the election in November 2016, despite polls’ margins of error showing him within striking distance of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s victory was unthinkable, a scenario too fantastic to contemplate (reportedly, even by Trump).  And once he became president, a constellation of pundits and media outlets treated Trump as a ‘normal’ president in what was at once a performance of bothesidesism and a denial of the very possibility that Americans might have brought an extremist leader to power.

This surprise, which has given way to a reluctance amongst many to properly acknowledge the transformation of the Republican party into a far-right political formation, can only be understood as an absence of political imagination, a poverty of historical understanding, a blindness to the forces actively corroding America’s democratic institutions.

The same will not be said of the French if ever the far right comes to power in France.

Since 2002, when the leader of the Front National (FN – renamed today the Rassemblement National) party Jean-Marie Le Pen faced off against the center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac in the second round of France’s two-round presidential election system, French voters and politics watchers have had to seriously contemplate the possibility that a far-right leader might someday march into the Élysée palace through the front door.  With the outgoing president Emmanuel Macron set to face off against Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen in what polls suggest will be a closely matched second round of voting, French citizens heading to their polling booths next Sunday will have bathed in two dense decades of discourse on the electoral menace of the far right.

Nowhere has this grim thought experiment been pursued with more imagination than in a series of works of speculative fiction, Continue reading

History Slam 211: Marcel Marceau, Movement, & the Art of Silence

By Sean Graham

*The Art of Silence is debuting as part of Hot Docs in Toronto, showing at 2:45 on Monday May 2 and 8:30 on Sunday May 8. The film can also be streamed in Canada for five days starting May 3.

In 2022, mime is probably not what you think of when discussing popular culture. The image of an individual with their face painted white, probably acting like they are trapped in a box, doesn’t demand attention within the ever-so-crowded cultural landscape. At the same time, however, the idea of movement as medicine remains popular. For many of its practitioners, mime, for all its potential performative artistry, is about the movement and the benefits that come from it. This includes a mime who, following Parkinson’s diagnosis, is using mime techniques to combat symptoms while also teaching other patients.

That level of depth in the meaning and power of mime were on full display throughout Marcel Marceau’s life. Arguably the world’s most famous mime – even after his 2007 death – Marceau’s career spanned the entirety of the second half of the 20th century. Marceau survived the Second World War and occupation of France, helping Jewish children escape Nazi occupation, but his father was killed in the Holocaust. The experiences of those years shaped the rest of his life, during which he was committed to peace and bringing love to communities through his performance.

This is the subject of The Art of Silence, a new documentary that is debuting as part of Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. Profiling the life of Marcel Marceau, director Maurizius Staerkle Drux follows the famed mime’s path to the stage, demonstrating how his early life influenced his approach to his life and career. Seeking to spread happiness around the world through his performances, his remarkable ability to connect with others, both on and off stage, left an incredible mark on those he touched. The films tells this story through the voices of those people, from his family to those who continue to be inspired by his art. Totally different from what I expected, the film shows the power of silence and the importance of appreciating the humanity within us all.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with director Maurizius Staerkle Drux about the film. We discuss why Marcel Marceau made a compelling figure for a documentary (4:18), Marceau’s survival of the Holocaust (8:52), and the family’s inclusion in the project (12:32). We also chat about the state of mime today and its healing benefits (15:12), Marceau’s push to create good through his performances (20:22), and the power of silence (25:16).

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History Slam 210: Inter-Generational Healing & Love in Scratching River

By Sean Graham

I always thought that I was alone in connecting my personal surroundings to those I was researching. From the First World War soldier who wrote about loving and missing going to the theatre to the CBC producer who hated the number of memos they got, relating to people from the past and connecting them to our current world was a fun thought experiment as I waded through seemingly endless archival files. Over time, though, I have learned that a lot of people do this, whether in an effort to contextualize a person’s experiences, gain greater appreciation for those from the past, or just discover interesting anecdotes. Whatever the reason, making connections between past and present is a much more common practice than I once thought.

That helped me better understand Michelle Porter’s Scratching River, a personal memoir that connects her family’s search for a safe home for her brother with the oral history of her Metis ancestors. Like the river, her family traversed the terrain to find a home for her brother, who had been diagnosed both autistic and schizophrenic. Years later, as Michelle discovered the oral history of family members, the connection between them and their respective journeys across the plains became clear, as did the power of the river. The result is a beautiful memoir, where the catharsis of healing and love are front and centre.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Michelle Porter about the book. We discuss the process of writing the book and the unanticipated inclusion of her brother’s story (4:32), the story of Louie Goulet, and her personal connection to him (6:06). We also chat about the challenge of turning oral history into text (13:06) and the river as metaphor (26:40).

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History Slam 209: The Impact of R. Buckminster Fuller’s Visit to London in From Remote Stars

By Sean Graham

In 1968, American architect R. Buckminster Fuller visited London, Ontario. Known for his geodesic domes, Fuller spent his time in the city meeting with students, artists, and industrial planners at Western. For years, Fuller’s visit has been part of the city’s lore, a moment in time where the city attracted praise from a one of the world’s most influential designers. Part of that lore, however, came from the fact that there wasn’t a lot left by Fuller himself. The stories emerging from the visit were first hand accounts of those who were there, although there were constant whispers that a speech had been recorded.

A few years ago, that speech was found in the archives by Kirsty Robertson. As she was conducting research on artist Greg Curnoe, she noticed that there was a note in the file about a recording he had made of R. Buckminster Fuller. Once located, the recording had to be transferred to a modern technology and what was there was a difficult to hear, but remarkable moment in London’s history.

The impact of that moment is the subject of the new exhibition From Remote Stars. Curated by Kirsty Robertson and Sarah E.K. Smith, it features works by 22 London, Ontario artists who explore Fuller’s futuristic theories. The pieces included in the exhibit, which range from the 1960s to the present, suggest different pathways to the future and address some of the biggest issues confronting modern societies, from climate change to globalism. In addition to the exhibition, there is also the From Remote Stars podcast, which further examines Fuller’s time in London and is a wonderful complement to the exhibition’s themes. If you’re in London, From Remote Stars is open at Museum London until May 15.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with curators Kirsty Robertson and Sarah E.K. Smith about the exhibition and podcast. We discuss finding the recording and what’s on it (7:52), the influence of the 1960s on Fuller’s speech and how that is reflected in the exhibition (17:30), and Fuller’s impact on London (20:11). We also chat about centering a narrative in an exhibition designed for non-specialists (24:40), the podcast and its connection to the physical exhibition (31:38), and the benefits of different types of historical products (35:14).

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Catastrophic Rhetoric: False Enchantments and ‘Unprecedented’ Disasters in British Columbia’s Punishing 2021

Pine and grass ecology Nlaka'pamux land

Pine and grass ecology, Nlaka’pamux land. Photo by author, 2019.

This article is reposted, in slightly edited form and with permission, from the first issue of Syndemic Magazine“Neo-liberalism and Covid-19.” Syndemic Magazine is a project of the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Its second issue, “Labour in a Treacherous Time,” is also now available.

By Mica Jorgensen

It came suddenly, violently tearing up lives and landscapes, subjecting countless British Columbians to an unprecedented state of emergency. And in its wake the province reels – survivors mourn the loss of millions of lives, human and non-human; communities struggle to rebuild infrastructure; the insurance companies calculate billion-dollar losses. Here was a “natural disaster.”

But — which one? Covid-19 might be a first guess. As of early 2022, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control, the province had suffered a total of 314,787 cases and 2,554 deaths (including the first registered in Canada), with 144 patients in critical care.

Alternatively, many British Columbians might focus on the November 2021 floods, whose immediate cause was an “atmospheric river” that dropped a month’s worth of rain in two and a half days, breaking down the sides of mountains, unloading avalanches of debris on highways, killing at least six people and about 1.3 million farm animals, and causing billions of dollars of damage.

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History Slam 208: The Story of Yonge St, a City’s Transformation, & The Heart of Toronto

By Sean Graham

If you’ve visited Toronto for any length of time, you’ve probably found yourself on Yonge St. Starting on the shores of Lake Ontario, the street includes theatres, the Eaton Centre, the Air Canada Centre, and one of the city’s subway lines. Every day, thousands of people head to the street to work, shop, and socialize. As with any major street, however, Yonge Street has undergone significant changes over the past 70 years. From questions over accessibility and transportation to debates on the morality of certain commercial establishments and their clientele to reflecting Toronto’s emergence as the most prominent centre within Canada’s business community, Yonge Street has been a place where broad questions of power, community, and economics have played out from block to block.

That a such a prominent street would tell a city’s story is not necessarily unique to Toronto. In communities around the world, certain streets take on great meeting for their communities. Wherever you live, there is, very likely, a destination street where people have long gathered. So while the story of Yonge Street is specific to the circumstances of Toronto, the themes that emerge from its history can be found in cities and town across Canada. At the same time, however, the specifics of Yonge St, including its fame (or infamy depending on your perspective), and how its development influenced decision-making in other urban centres adds several layers to its history.

That history is the subject of Daniel Ross’ new book The Heart of Toronto: Corporate Power, Civic Activism, and the Remaking of Downtown Yonge Street. Tracing the street’s history in the post-Second World War years, Ross examines how it represents modern urbanism. As the city changed, Yonge Street changed with it. As power dynamics across the city changed, those who had a voice along Yonge Street changed. And as economic trends changed, the street’s landscape changed to capitalize on new markets. Within these changes, tensions emerged and debates played out against the backdrop of significant social and economic transformations. In telling these stories, Ross weaves together the local with wider societal shifts to tell a Toronto-story, the results of which reverberated in communities throughout North America.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Daniel about Yonge Street, its transformation, and the book. We discuss the romantic image of Yonge Street and its place within Toronto (5:50), the debate over transportation and the addition of pedestrian spaces (17:20), and the controversy surrounding what was known as ‘Sin Strip.’ (20:51). We also chat about who had sway with city officials when making decisions for the street (32:05), the importance of the Eaton Centre (41:00), and the benefits and challenges of using the street to study the wider history of Toronto (44:01).

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History Slam 207: Navigating Online (Mis)Information

By Sean Graham

Over the past two years, the onslaught of misinformation has increasingly attracted public and government attention. From the Covid pandemic, to election results, to protest movements, we are bombarded by a daily avalanche of information and it can be, at times, challenging to distinguish reputable sources from those peddling nonsense. Many creators of misinformation are part of sophisticated operations that understand how to create confusion and sow doubt. As we collectively try to navigate this environment, it is important maintain a healthy critical eye when consuming digital content. This challenge also extends to classrooms, where teachers and university faculty bear some responsibility for teaching students about finding and using high quality sources.

Some strategies for doing so can be found in Bethany Kilcrease’s new book Falsehood and Fallacy: How to Think, Read, and Write in the Twenty-First Century. A great resource for students, the book explores strategies to use in the digital age to ensure what you read is of good quality. With the traditional gatekeepers losing power and influence – which is simultaneously good and bad for the dissemination of knowledge – evaluating the legitimacy of sources needs to be central to our daily consumption of information and to academic curricula. With logical fallacies, causation confusion, and falsehoods commonplace, the book offers useful strategies for avoiding these materials while also offering tips to improve our own writing.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Dr. Kilcrease about the book. We discuss the assumption that young people are well prepared for online misinformation (10:55), increased accessibility of quality sources (18:40), and the pros and cons of gatekeepers’ reduced power (22:40). We also chat about the CRAAP test (27:05), the benefits of short-form online writing (34:10), and proving causation (43:05).

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Making Private Property in Rural Britain and Canada

Photo by Thomas Hawk CC BY-NC 2.0

Robin Ganev

Recently the government of Saskatchewan strengthened existing trespassing law to the benefit of farmers and to the detriment of Indigenous people. The new laws took effect on Jan. 1, 2022. Under previous legislation, land owners had an obligation to put up posting if they wanted to limit access to their land. Now it is the responsibility of “trespassers” to ensure they are not on the wrong land, by obtaining permission from landowners to use their land for activities such as hunting, fishing, or hiking. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations has objected to the new laws, on the grounds that they violate treaty rights, which allow Indigenous people to live off the land. The fact that these laws were passed in the wake of the 2016 Colten Boushie shooting makes them all the more egregious and sends the message that the Saskatchewan government condones Gerald Stanley’s right to protect his private property.

Indigenous advocates have pointed out the irony of charging Indigenous hunters with trespassing upon land that was taken away from them. Converting previously accessible “public” land to strictly controlled private property has a parallel in the history of enclosure and resistance to it in England. Revisiting this history can help us rethink notions of “private property” and who the land belongs to. It also allows us to reflect on how private property rights became much stronger in Canada than in the United Kingdom, where rights of way (England) and right to roam (Scotland) customs and laws prevent rural landholders from restricting access for recreation.

The English Village Before Enclosure

The pre-enclosure English village comprised the lord of the manor, tenant farmers with different leases, cottagers or commoners – defined as small owners or occupiers with enough land and common rights to feed themselves – and squatters, who lived upon the land but had no ownership.[i] Continue reading

Two Dead White Men – A Review

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By Robin Benger

So many worlds to explore. So little time to do it.

James Cullingham may have bitten off more than its possible to chew with Two Dead White Men, the eye-catching but somewhat misleading title of his ambitious and fascinating book. Nevertheless, it is a great read, an adventurous journey and a brave exploration of two of the most interesting, and contradictory characters of  20th century colonial politics.

World class geniuses in their own fields.

Duncan Campbell Scott as a poet in Canada, Soustelle as an intellectual and ethnologist in France. They were both given unachievable tasks of central importance in the development of settler-indigenous relationships in two of the most interesting countries in the world. Continue reading