Disciplines and Disciplining: Canadian History and/as Transnational History

Kristine Alexander, University of Lethbridge


This past spring, my book Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s (UBC Press, 2017) received the Wilson Book Prize. This positive experience – being recognized by my peers for my contribution to scholarship on Canadian and transnational history – also prompted me to reflect on the risks and rewards involved in doing research that looks beyond national boundaries, particularly as an early career scholar. I offer those reflections here, along with some thoughts about the disciplining power of nation-based history and a series of future-oriented questions for historians to ponder.

9780774835893fc-72465-510x590Guiding Modern Girls is a multi-sited study of race, gender, class, and the global Girl Guide movement during the years between the two world wars. Based on archival research in Canada, England, India, and the US, it is a revised and expanded version of my doctoral dissertation, the time-consuming research for which was only possible because of SSHRC funding, external scholarships, and a doctoral funding package from from York University that included six years of guaranteed support.

One of my aims in writing this book was to explore the possibilities and limits of the Guide movement’s imperial and internationalist vision, which was promoted to girls and young women through print media, pen pal programs, lantern slides, radio, cinema, and international gatherings. In different and distant settings around the world, Guiding encouraged girls to understand and look beyond national boundaries, though often in ways that supported British imperial power and hierarchical racial thinking. In the early 1930s, the well-known Norwegian Guide leader and member of the movement’s World Committee Margrethe Parm advised Guide leaders to encourage girl citizens to think about the world through an “aeroplane view.” “In the old days,” she wrote, “we talked of a ‘bird’s eye view.’ Now we, ourselves, can go up into the air and look down upon the earth from above. We fly from one country to another and do not see them as we do on a map; one country red and another blue and another yellow or pink, with sharp, black outlines between them. We see woods and lakes and villages and towns and meadows and mountains and rivers. We cannot see where Germany ends and France begins.”[1] For Miss Parm and many of her contemporaries, then, the aeroplane view was a tolerant, pacifist, and even utopian internationalist way of understanding the world, facilitated by modern travel technology.

I see now that the research that became Guiding Modern Girls, inspired by the new imperial history, the so-called transnational turn, girlhood studies, and histories of women’s internationalism, was an attempt to do something similar: to follow ideas, texts, and bodies past the lines on a map, while also keeping sight of the real power of national and colonial borders. National borders, which shaped much of the scholarship I read as a graduate student, determined parts of my academic job search, as well. As Karen Dubinsky, Adele Perry, and Henry Yu point out in the introduction to their 2015 edited 51EFsAZRW6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_collection Within and Without the Nation: Canadian History as Transnational History, “multi-sited research can be difficult and expensive. It might also be, or reasonably seem, professionally risky…[not least because n]ational and continental frames still define the bulk of hirings in history departments in Canada.”[2]

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand while on the academic job market. During one unsuccessful interview for a tenure-track position, a member of the hiring committee, upon learning that I had done archival research in Delhi, asked me to explain how it was that I could also be a “Canadian historian.” After a number of campus visits and two postdoctoral fellowships, I was ultimately extremely fortunate on the employment front, and am now a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge. Yet it is also, I think, worth noting that my appointment was advertised not as a job for a historian but as an interdisciplinary position. The committee who hired me (which included a psychologist, a neuroscientist, and an anthropologist) were looking for a child and youth scholar, and I learned after the fact that they were actually all a bit baffled by the way I kept going on about looking beyond histories of the nation-state during my campus visit.


In “Who Needs the Nation?,” an article that is now over twenty years old, imperial historian Antoinette Burton sharply criticized historical work that, she wrote, “leaves intact…the sanctity of the nation…as the right and proper subject of history.”[3] On the one hand, the two decades since Burton wrote those words have seen a veritable explosion of books and articles that look beyond national and sometimes imperial boundaries. On the other hand, however, national frameworks remain powerful and unquestioned in all kinds of contexts, and scholarship that transgresses them still causes confusion or concern. As Adele Perry has written, “rethinking the nation’s role in historical scholarship…has the potential to produce different narratives about northern North America and Canada, ones rooted in new standards of what is considered a relevant topic, a feasible question, and a reliable archive.”[4] This sentence reminded me of a quotation from Sherrie Inness’s study of American girls’ history, Delinquents and 41PLvhurdKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Debutantes, that essentially summarizes another of the motivations behind my work: “The belief that girls’ culture is no culture at all [has proven to be] remarkably tenacious, as [has] the belief that studying girls’ culture lacks the importance and significance of studying…[so-called] ‘weightier issue[s]’” such as economic policy or formal political systems.[5]

I had these ideas in mind when I re-read “Who Needs the Nation” in preparation for my visit to the Wilson Institute in October 2018, and this time around I was also struck by Burton’s remark that “concern about about the disciplinary regimes imposed by history” (within the academy, in this case) are articulated only rarely.[6] This claim got me thinking about the word “discipline” as it applies to the study of Canadian history, and I hope that the following definitions of the word “discipline,” taken from the OED, will prompt or open up some reflections about my awkward job interview experience and, more importantly, about the place of “the nation” in the broader material and intellectual structures of the Canadian historical profession.


  • A branch of learning or knowledge; a field of study or expertise; a subject.
  • A particular school or method of instruction; an educational philosophy.
  • A system or method for the maintenance of order; a body of rules for conduct or action; a way of doing things.
  • [In military contexts], to teach to respond promptly and efficiently in obedience to command.
  • To train oneself to behave in an orderly or controlled manner; to restrain or control one’s behaviour in order to do a particular thing, or to act in a certain way; to exercise self-control.
  • An instrument of chastisement; a whip, a scourge; esp. one used for religious penance.
  • Punishment…imposed with the intention of controlling or correcting future behaviour; castigation for a misdemeanour or transgression, usually with the implication of being salutary to the recipient; chastisement.[7]


History (including Canadian history), then, is a discipline – a field of study and expertise. It is also, in ways that are both obvious and very rarely articulated, a way of doing things. Things (scholarship) not done in this way run the risk of being subjected to criticism, corrected, misunderstood, or ignored. In Canada as elsewhere, the disciplinary regimes of history in general and its relationship to the nation-state in particular continue to influence the choices that scholars make. They are part of the structural conditions that shape the production of historical knowledge – conditions that are also shaped and intensified by the conditions of scarcity and precarity in which many academics work.

Academic prizes, like job advertisements and interviews, reflect often unexamined disciplinary conventions and priorities and are part of the structures that influence the creation of new historical knowledge in Canada and beyond. In addition to observing the gendered “prize ghetto” identified by Elise Chenier, Lori Chambers, and Ann Frances Toews, who demonstrated several years ago that most CHA prizes in areas outside the fields of women’s history, history of sexuality, and the history of childhood and youth continue to be awarded primarily to male scholars, I have been struck by the dominance of region in the landscape of CHA book prizes, as well as by the fact that the terms of reference for the two most prestigious book awards offered by our discipline here in Canada, the award formerly known as the Sir John A. MacDonald prize (for the best book in Canadian history) and the Wallace K. Ferguson prize (for the best book in any field other than Canadian history), actually work together to present nation-based history as a sort of zero-sum game.[8]

A book can be nominated for only one of these two awards (it either IS “Canadian history” or it is NOT – it is “something else”), and books put forward for the CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize should demonstrably contain “more than 50% Canadian content.”[9] Books that both included and looked beyond the Canadian nation state, until establishment of the Wilson Prize, I would say, ran the risk of ending up in a different type of “prize ghetto.”

I recently shared some of these thoughts about disciplines, prizes, risks, and rewards with Tolly Bradford, a historian whose first book is a multi-sited study of Indigenous missionaries in western Canada and South Africa.[10] When I mentioned Miss Parm’s 1932 “aeroplane view” – the idea that looking down at the earth from 30,000 feet provides a different and valuable perspective in which national borders matter very little – Tolly pointed out that parts (and only parts) of her thinking connected with an essay by prairie historian Gerald Friesen about the historiography of western Canada, 51q34HuREkLpublished in a 2010 edited collection entitled The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region. Here, Friesen describes five successive generations of western Canadian histories and historians, from the field’s early twentieth-century founders – white men who, in Friesen’s words, “moved west to take jobs and develop a discipline,” through to the development of social history from the late 1960s onward.[11] It was the fifth wave of western Canadian historians, however, a group Friesen characterizes as the “post-1989 generation,” that particularly concerned him.

On one level, this an expression of a discomfort that was felt by many late twentieth-century historians, in Canada and elsewhere, about poststructuralism and the cultural turn. I think it also relates to the feeling that Ann Curthoys, writing about the historiography of another ‘colony to nation’ settler society, Australia, has described as “We’ve just started making national histories, and you want us to stop already?”[12]

Most pertinent to my purposes today, though, is the metaphor Friesen used to describe what exactly was troubling him about the so-called post-1989 generation of Canadian historians: he characterized these scholars, whose intellectual projects included using imperial frameworks to look for similarities of experience in different parts of the world, as attempting to understand the past from the vantage point of a “satellite looking down on the earth that [would] enable…them to see all human activity and environmental change as one.” Yet unlike Miss Parm, who saw the “aeroplane view” as a good thing, Friesen worried that these historians’ satellite view, like their “emphasis on race and gender and borderlands, seemed to threaten the very “regions” that,” Friesen wrote, “had been developed in the four previous generations of critical history.”[13]

Reading those words as a historian of race and gender whose own intellectual trajectory has, until recently, included an unexamined indifference to regional approaches (though I should say that that is changing and I am finally learning, from Friesen’s work and other scholarship, about the richness of placed-based and regional research) reminded me quite forcefully of another side of the issue of disciplines and disciplining: the insistence that there is ‘a way of doing things’ in Canadian history is also rooted in fear – fear, perhaps, of a potential loss of status, or of decades’ worth of scholarship based on detailed archival research being forgotten or disregarded.

I’m not convinced that applying an aeroplane or satellite view to historical research actually means that region, nuance, context, and/or place-based detail will be lost, but I take Friesen’s words and the other examples I have provided as evidence that we are currently (and in fact have been for some time) in an interesting moment as far as reckoning with the stakes involved in doing certain kinds of historical research. George Marcus, the anthropologist whose concept of multi-sited ethnography has shaped my own work, once described a similar moment in his field as characterized by “an anxiety structure,” or “an interesting mix of doubt and hope.”[14] With that in mind, and with the aim of provoking further reflection and conversation, I want to leave you with the following questions about Canadian history, transnational history, disciplines, and disciplining:

  • Is researching and writing collaboratively (still a relative rarity for historians) something we should do more of?
  • What is the place of Indigenous peoples, nations, and sovereignty in transnational histories of the settler colonial territory that is now Canada?
  • What might transnational approaches to the history of Canada offer to scholars who want to do work that lays bare and challenges violence and inequality in the past and the present?
  • What are the subjects that particularly lend themselves to aeroplane/satellite/cross-border approaches? And what are some areas of study that might be poorly served by them?
  • Beyond aeroplanes and satellites (and networks, circuits, and webs), what kinds of metaphors and interpretive devices should we turn to next?
  • What kinds of sources and scales are we, and should we be, working with?
  • Regional history and transnational history don’t have to be mutually exclusive.[15] How might thinking in transnational or connective terms help us to write regional histories in new ways?
  • What theoretical and methodological interventions – from any and all fields – would enrich our work?
  • And finally, how do our disciplinary institutions (funding bodies, peer reviewers, prize committees, universities as training grounds and employers) define, support, and attempt to control scholarship in the field of “Canadian history”? What can we learn, and what might we change, by talking more about this?


Kristine Alexander is Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies and an Assistant Professor of History University of Lethbridge. She is the author of Guiding Modern Girls: Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s (UBC Press, 2017). Her current projects include two collections of essays (a global history of modern youth, co-edited with Dr. Simon Sleight of King’s College London, and Children, Youth, and War, co-edited with Dr. Andrew Burtch of the Canadian War Museum and Dr. Barbara Lorenzkowski of Concordia University), and a book about Canadian families and letter-writing during the First World War.


[1]World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts Archives (London, UK). “A Message from Miss Margrethe Parm (Member of the World Committee),” The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts Second Biennial Report: July 1st1930 to June 30th1932, 20.

[2]Karen Dubinsky, Adele Perry, & Henry Yu, “Introduction: Canadian History, Transnational History,” in Within and Without the Nation: Canadian History as Transnational History,edited by Karen Dubinsky, Adele Perry, & Henry Yu (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 11.

[3] Antoinette Burton, “Who Needs the Nation? Interrogating ‘British’ History,” Historical Sociology10, 3 (September 1997):  231.

[4] Adele Perry, “Nation, Empire and the Writing of History of Canada in English,” in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, edited by Chris Dummitt & Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009), 123.

[5] Sherrie Inness, Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls’ Cultures(New York: NYU Press, 1998), 1.

[6]Burton, “Who Needs the Nation?,” 233.

[7]”discipline, n.”. OED Online. July 2018. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/53744?rskey=q8nfNC&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 20, 2018).

[8] Elise Chenier, Lori Chambers, & Anne Frances Toews, “Still Working in the Shadow of Men? An Analysis of Sex Distribution in Publications and Prizes in Canadian History,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 26, 1 (2015): 291-318.

[9] Canadian Historical Association, “The CHA Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History Prize,” accessed 20 November 2018, https://cha-shc.ca/english/what-we-do/cha-prizes/the-sir-john-a-macdonald-prize.html; Canadian Historical Association, “The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize,” accessed 20 November 2018, https://cha-shc.ca/english/what-we-do/cha-prizes/the-wallace-k-ferguson-prize.html.

[10] Tolly Bradford, Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850-75 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).

[11] Gerald Friesen, “Critical History in Western Canada, 1900-2000,” in The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined Region, edited by Sarah Carter, Alvin Finkel, & Peter Fortna (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2010), 6.

[12] Ann Curthoys, “We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already?” in After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, edited by Antoinette Burton (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003), 70-89.

[13] Friesen, “Critical History,” 7.

[14] George E. Marcus, “Multi-Sited Ethnography: Five or Six Things I know About it Now,” in Multi-Sited Ethnography: Problems and Possibilities in the Translocation of Research Methods, edited by Simon Coleman & Pauline von Hellermann (New York & London: Routledge, 2011), 16.

[15] As Lara Putnam writes,with reference to historians’ growing dependence on digital research methods, “building deep place-based knowledge, then, is no longer the path of least resistance within our discipline – yet it may remain the path to greatest insight, even or especially for those pursuing the transnational angle.”Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review(April 2016): 397.

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