Monthly Archives: May 2017

Can We Laugh About It?

Sometimes it seems like it is really tough to be anything but an angry historian.

A lot of us read, research, and write about gut-wrenching histories, which may be made even more so when we hold personal connections to the stories that we tell. Sometimes we cannot help but be frustrated by a museum stuck in antiquated practices. Other times, it takes what seems like unheard of patience to engage with hard-headed publics and professionals when our work gets political. It seems that the work that we do as historians often gives us little recourse apart from mobilizing the past in an attempt to satiate our anger at present circumstance.

First thing Monday morning, however, Histoire Engagée’s Mathieu Arsenault warned a CHA panel on “Historians and Advocacy” against Histoire enragée. Alongside David Dean, Sarah Nickel, and chair Gregory Kealey—who read an absent Natalie Zemon Davis’ contribution—here was a room full of historians frustrated by attempts of depoliticization and administrative barriers that remained devoted to figuring out how to use their platforms within the academy for better practices both inside and outside of it. Tenured professors encouraged their peers in the room of a felt responsibility to speak out and speak up for those still developing their careers, putting themselves on the line in an era of contract precariousness for up-and-coming academics. It was a refreshing example of professional solidarity and responsibility that has an important place in the conversations of social media discussed in yesterday’s post.

Later that afternoon in a standing-room only lecture hall set to discuss urban education, indigenous youth, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action at “Remembering Our Past: Rethinking the Next 150 Years and Beyond,” we heard anger, heart-break, and frustration. But it was not that histoire enragée Arsenault cautioned against earlier. Rather, it was resilient, engaged, and at work. Anger at the realities discussed by Kevin Lamoureux’s experience as an educator in Winnipeg’s North End was palpable. But this was also a room full of glee, chuckling at his banter with Frank Deer. And, with Catherine Tammaro creating a welcoming community space, it was safe.

Here I was at one of the most difficult sessions to witness as an audience member at Congress 2017. And I, among the rest of those in the room, found myself laughing.

This led me back to the “Decolonizing 1867” workshop on Sunday night. In reflecting on Helen Knott’s work as artist, student, and mother, she displayed a fierceness in activism and anger as well as one in friendship and love. She pointed to displays of both joy and frustration throughout current and past indigenous processes of colonization and decolonization in this country.

Here was a display of sentiment multiplicity and complication, finding benefits in the operationalization of both.

Yesterday, two panelists on the “Collecting and Exhibiting Childhoods: Museums, Archives, and the History of Children and Youth” roundtable discussed their respective professional experience with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Expressing frustration over past museum practice and current barriers to timely applications of self-critical museology regarding indigenous histories in particular, both agreed that the museum’s forward-thinking in all things accessibility was one space where their advocacy was unnecessary because it was already embedded in that institution’s museological practice.

Here was relief.

The reasons why and the answers to how our given activisms as historians make us go into an archive, into the media, or into a community offer examples through the power of anger at injustice both within and beyond our own personal attachments.

So, of course, stay angry about the things that need to be changed until they are, as encouraged by Guy Laforest during yesterday’s AGM. But let’s not forget the power of the things that we can also achieve by sharing stories of resilience, laughter, and learning that focus on the good of the work that we do and the spectacular that we find in the histories that we disseminate.

It will not negate the hard histories that we tell. But it will give them nuance, humanize historical actors, and make its conversation with the present an active, informed, and hopeful one.


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Do it for the Exposure

I am Facebook Friends with Dave Bidini. In 2015, with Stephen Harper up for re-election, I worked with him and a bunch of other musicians, artists, and supporters who were trending #ImagineOct20th. Together, people were curating and organizing concerts across the country to get Canadians to imagine the day after the election when someone else won the seat of federal power.

I do not say this to brag about my CanCon arts links or my left-leaning politics. To be honest, the social media connection is not a huge feat. Bidini is, in fact, approaching 5000 Facebook Friends and has over 3000 Followers. I say this because it seemed particularly relevant to me during yesterday afternoon’s History and Social Media roundtable. What I have gained from networking with artists like Bidini is an activist arts presence in my life that I desire to see in other historians’ social media presence beyond published journal articles and textbooks.

Featuring Daniel Ross, Jessica DeWitt, Adam Gaudry, Andrea Eidinger, Alexandre Turgeon, and Sarah York-Bertram, the session moderated by Sean Kheraj and supported by did more than suggest preferred platforms and a shared love of Twitter analytics.

Rather, I have not been able to forget DeWitt’s responses since it wrapped up. Being adamant that a social media presence ought not to be separate from the person behind the medium is, I think, a powerful and impressive stance for her to take. A degree of professionalism is, of course, important to the way historians engage with their online publics. But that has to be balanced with engaging content from an interesting expert that can reach those both within the field and outside of it. If we only appear as historians facing the public—in effect, hiding the multiplicity of our individual identity—does this not dehumanize and detach us from the world that we live in?

We also exist in an era of evermore precarious employment. As discussed yesterday, graduate students in history departments fear a poorly worded, irrelevant, or too political Tweet could spell their ruin in the academy. And it is a fair concern.

This, in turn, brings me to my second reflection from the session: the ever-present argument of exposure. Last year, Bidini wrote a Facebook post seeking information about the fallout of 2016’s Greenbelt Harvest Picnic where artists were not getting paid for their performances due to a contract loophole. I recall someone responding in the comments with something to the extent of, “In Canada, you could die of exposure.”

In the national arts community, this remains a common sentiment. And it seems to be ever applicable to the young historian seeking to carve their way in an academy that has increasingly limited opportunities within it. So some of us are creating our own path by using the accessible tools that social media offers.

Looking to those in the arts, we can learn from the ways that musicians, photographers, and other creatives balance the benefits of exposure and fair pay for their labour. Graduate students tweeting, blogging, and generating online content for “exposure” ought to look to these examples for solace, alliance, and development that exceeds the expectations and limits of the academy.

I further will venture to say that no historian worth their salt is *only* a historian. Those within and beyond the Canadian Historical Association are, of course, people with a passion and a talent for history. But they are also more than that. The things that make us different from our colleagues ought to therefore find applicable value to combining variety with our field’s shared methods to reach a more diverse output.

I am a historian who has worked in media, museums, and behind musician merch tables. These experiences do not make me any less of a historian. Rather, I am confident in saying that they actually probably make me a better historian. And I, for one, do not think that any of us should be hiding who we are under the guise of a perhaps outdated genre of expected professional development trajectories that the academy no longer provides.


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On “Decolonizing 1867;” Or, Why I’m Hopeful for the #CHASHC2017

For weeks, I have been anticipating the opening of the Canadian Historical Association’s (CHA) annual conference because it meant that “Decolonizing 1867: Stories from the People” would be here. Organized by Stacy Nation-Knapper and Kathryn Magee Labelle and supported by the LR Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University, this event brought together artist Catherine Tammaro, Dr. Brittany Luby, graduate student Naomi Recollet, poet Helen Knott, doctoral student Jesse Thistle, and Dr. Carolyn Podruchny in a Ryerson University classroom to discuss how to approach the discussions we are and need to be having surrounding Canada 150 beyond some sort of celebratory remembrance of Confederation.

I am sure that my first few hours of the CHA were similar to others experiencing, like me, their first Congress. Colleagues from other institutions kindly introduce themselves simply because you happen to sit beside them. You see former co-workers, panel mates, or current classmates, seeking a quick catch-up over the days, months, or years that have passed since you last saw each other. And you jump in to the learning that can be gained from an impromptu car ride, coffee run, or shared train ride home, prepping yourself to do it all again the next day. And the next day. And the day after that.

But when organizer instructions ask you to form a circle in the lecture hall, eat catered food, and listen to the presenters before being invited yourself to join into the conversation as audience member, something feels different. This is not what I have been told to expect from a conference session.

And it only got better.

What happened last night was a session of learning, multidisciplinarity, and indigeneity. In displays of emotion and creativity, the discussion went from activist stance to treaty study through painting and poetry as well as linguistics and history, all meeting in a space of resistance and resilience. This was all taken in and informed, I think, by Labelle’s invitation to “be brave and contribute to the conversation” given at the session’s outset.

Among many takeaways, it was an echo of Labelle’s direction that remained with me as Knott introduced herself as an “accidental activist” needing to “resist or be run over” before blowing the crowd away with her words. It stuck with me while I listened to the implications of Luby’s captivating grammatical reading of Treaty 3. And I hope that it continues to stay forefront in my mind through the next three days of panel, lecture, and workshop attendance that I have in front of me.

Focused as I intend to be on seeking out sessions discussing the ways art and culture intersect with public history practice and the conversations we need to be having regarding Canada 150 both within and beyond the academy, perhaps this start ought to be heeded as a call to do the CHA differently.

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