A few weeks ago, in case you suddenly forgot, the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association took place at Ryerson University. Titled “From Far and Wide: The Next 150,” this year’s iteration used the context of Canada150 to discuss, question, critique, and reflect on Canada’s past, present, and future. In the past month, we previewed, reviewed, and talked about Wilson and Wilson-related events at this year’s congress: our award ceremony, prize winners, and Decolonizing 1867 event. This week, two of our intrepid graduate students, Mica Jorgenson and Carly Ciufo, talk about their general experiences at the CHA.
“It is my strong conviction that nobody who is serious about their academic career prospects, beyond the MA level, should ever give a poster at their national conference.”
This blog post by Karen Kelsky was probably the second and last one that I read before heading into my first national conference appearance in May. A first year PhD student, I was preparing to present a poster on the work that I had been doing on Buffy Sainte-Marie and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. And I did not want to review any more online articles that could throw me off of my game.
A couple of weeks before the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) met at Congress, I had the opportunity to present the paper I had written for the University of Toronto’s Annual History Graduate Symposium, Canada 150: Defining the Nation in a Transnational World. Opening up the conference, I was able to discuss Sainte-Marie with attention to her transnational community affect, museological ethics, and subversive use of state-offered platforms to what seemed like a pretty captive audience of students, professors, and the public. Afterwards, I was asked questions that let me delve deeper into the conclusions that I was not able to fit into a 12-minute presentation. I was also offered feedback that has since strengthened the project as a whole. The paper presenting experience was an enlightening one that I was happy to do in a graduate student setting discussing how Canadian historians are navigating, negotiating, and resisting Canada150.
The University of Toronto paper proposal for the project was near-identical to the one that I submitted to the CHA. The CHA, however, did not accept the proposal as a paper presentation. Instead, they offered me the opportunity to discuss its findings in a poster format. As someone who, frankly, misses working in museums, I was more than happy to take the time to fabricate a way of presenting a twenty-page paper into a four-by-five foot print-out as my first foray into the CHA.
Collaborating with two photographers who I worked with in both Winnipeg and Toronto outside of my historian role, I was able to offer historical evidence through a visual medium and forced to limit my argument to an abstract-sized word count. Discussing the political intersections of arts, culture, and heritage through museum practice in this way permitted those who attended the poster session to view a multimedia argument not limited by common historical practice within the academy. It also let me shed a lot of paper presentation nerves to engage one-on-one with people interested in my background, project, and dissertation work.
Having read that, in essence, no self-respecting PhD student presents a poster, I get where Kelsky is coming from. I do not, however, regret taking the opportunity to attend my first national conference as a member of the CHA with a presentable project in hand. Not only did it give me the chance to interact with former, present, and future colleagues while showing off a bit of the work that I have been doing outside of the all-consuming coursework of a first-year PhD student; it also gave me a taste of how to get the most out of a conference experience.
For someone who had been working outside of academia for four years prior to last fall, it has not been easy to shed my professional lifestyle to renegotiate that of a mature student. Regardless of the presentation method, the kind of professional experience offered at conferences like the CHA reminds me that I am approaching my PhD program as a job. I am tackling my dissertation work as a lifelong-learner seeking better research employment prospects than I had prior to returning to McMaster University. If displaying a poster is the first step on a national level to do so, I look forward to further professional development that will hopefully see me presenting papers, chairing committees, and attending workshops at the CHA in Regina, Vancouver, and London while navigating my PhD work until 2020.
How can environmental historians get a seat at the table next to political, economic, social, and cultural history? Or is the real struggle getting Canadianist colleagues to recognise that political, economic, social, and cultural history is also environmental history? These were important questions addressed at the “Past and Future of Environmental History” roundtable Tuesday morning.
The integration of environmental and Canadian history is particularly important considering the rise of transnational research at the CHA this year. The conference theme, “From Far and Wide: The Next 150,” saw Canadian historians looking farther and wider than they ever have before. I am not the only one to observe transnational history’s prominence on the program – among others, so did Thomas Peace over at Active History.
Transnationalism does not come as “naturally” to Canadian history as it does to environmental history. Internationally-looking history poses certain problems for a group of scholars literally defined by its membership to the state. What happens to a discipline when its practitioners begin disassembling defining boundaries? Transnational history cannot replace nationally confined narratives, but how does it change the way we view ourselves and our past – even at the local or micro-history level? These are the kinds of questions faced by new transnational Canadian scholars
(and already faced to some extent by others. See this discussion from the AHA in 2012).
On the other hand, nature’s historic disregard for political boundaries (especially things like water, geology, and climate) forced environmental historians across borders almost from the discipline’s inception in the 1980s. The result has been a rich and well-developed body of transnational scholarship, some of which was on display at the CHA this year (for example, Petra Dolata’s paper “The Transnational and International Stories of Canada’s Energy History”).
Considering the centrality of material goods (furs, timber, minerals, and water) to Canada’s international relations, the globally recognised strength of Canada’s environmental history research, and environmental history’s penchant for looking across borders, one might expect the flavour of Canadian transnational history to be distinctly environmental.
And yet, transnational studies at the CHA largely focused on diplomatic, ideological, and political networks rather than (explicitly) environmental ones. Of course, for an environmental historian, even in papers and panels where “nature” did not make it into the abstract questions of borders, space, and geography lay extremely close to the surface. This was certainly the case in the “Confederation and Political Modernity: Provincialism, Federalization, and Power” panel with Claude Couture, Ted Binnema, and Elsbeth Heaman. Environment also lurked under the surface in “Missions, Regulation, Marriage, and Health in Transnational Perspective: A Panel to honour Myra Rutherdale” with Rhonda Semple, Elizabeth Elbourne, and Lisa Chilton.
Unless the CHA becomes a massive exception to a trend which seems to be gripping every major historical conference, we will only see more transnational topics in Regina in 2018. The groundwork exists for mutually beneficial collaboration. I hope that as Canadianists increasingly look across political boundaries for answers to Canadian questions, they begin to draw on environmental literature already profitably engaged in this endeavour. Similarly, as environmental historians seek to explain Canadian relationships with the environment, I hope they will engage “big questions” of politics, economics, culture, and society. The transnational turn apparent at the CHA represents an opportunity for environmental historians to centre nature in the national past.
Carly Ciufo is a doctoral student at McMaster University’s Department of History. Her dissertation will be a comparative study of human rights museums and the cities that build them, under the supervision of Ruth Frager and Ian McKay. After defending her MA thesis at Queen’s University, she held multiple research, exhibit, and librarian positions at the University of Manitoba, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
Mica Jorgenson is a phd candidate in environmental history at McMaster University. Her dissertation examines landscape change, community, and transnationalism in early 20th century gold mining camps.
Cover Image: Toronto Skyline, 1973. Photo by Robert Taylor. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.