Monday, November 8, 2010

Place Memories in Song

In honour of the publication of Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada, I offer two great bands, two great songs, and two very different place memories.  In Rush's Subdivisions, a lament for being stranded and somewhat lost in a non-place, where the dreamer and the misfit are all alone;  in Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait, the lament is about the anomie of the wilderness downtown, where youth was spent just waiting for something to happen.  Both songs and both place memories resonate very deeply for me.  I left my hometown when I turned 19, travelled 600 km, and felt blessed relief.  By my mid 20s, though, I spent a lot of nights in the downtown streets of my adopted home looking, waiting, and wondering what I had been so eager to find.   What about you?

Rush, "Subdivisions" (1982)


Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help disprove the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...


Arcade Fire, "We Used to Wait" (2010)
(note: this video can be customized at:


used to write,
I used to write letters I used to sign my name
I used to sleep at night
Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain

But by the time we met
By the time we met the times had already changed

So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown

Now our lives are changing fast (x2)
Hope that something pure can last (x2)

It seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what's stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

We used to wait
We used to waste hours just walking around
We used to wait
All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

oooo we used to wait (x3)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Still moving through the pain

I'm gonna write a letter to my true love
I'm gonna sign my name
Like a patient on a table
I wanna walk again gonna move through the pain

Now our lives are changing fast (x2)
Hope that something pure can last (x2)

oooo we used to wait (x3)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Sometimes it never came
(oooo we used to wait)
Still moving through the pain

we used to wait (x3)

We used to wait for it (x2)
Now we're screaming sing the chorus again
We used to wait for it
We used to wait for it
Now we're screaming sing the chorus again

I used to wait for it (x2)
Hear my voice screaming sing the chorus again

Wait for it (x3)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not Far From the Truth...

with respect to how some desperate first- and second-year undergraduate history students, confronted with an exam question they do not know, will plunge in and write, with great conviction, an outrageously wrong (but always entertaining) answer.

(See the full-size original here:

Get Fuzzy

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Some Summer Silliness

With the return of Mad Men for another season (a show I have yet to watch -- I know, I know), the Interwebs are abuzz with some wonderful faux Mad Men advertisements.  This is my personal favourite:

"Mad Men Season 11"

This is courtesy of the sublime Adam Lisagor, aka lonelysandwich.

Given the advertisements in the "Home" section of Home, Work, and Play, though, this one also caught my eye:

The original appears on Jezebel and is one of many that appear as a result of their call for submissions for a Mad Men-inspired contest.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Reporting, Selling, and Linking: An Update

What did I do on my sabbatical? Pretty soon I will answer this question for my employer, but in the interim here are some of the highlights:

The second edition of HWP arrived on shelves in early May and it represents a rather thorough makeover from the first edition.  The changes were not from dissatisfaction with the first edition;  instead, they come from our commitment to offer a reader that seeks to reflect the current state of the field.   The most serious changes emerged, not surprisingly, for the "Play" section as the literature on recreation, leisure, and sport has been explosive in the four years since the first edition of our book.  We also re-worked our lengthy introduction to the book, explaining some of the new themes (such as transnationalism) and new points of emphasis (such as sexuality) that define this edition of the book.  The book remains focused on "social space" both in the readings chosen and in the visual primary documents included at the end of each section, as social historians have become even more spatially-oriented (and aware) in the last half decade.  There are lots of reasons for this, and in the introduction to the book we make mention of several.  But one reason, and I offer here it as a personal observation, is the influence of environmental history on social history:  for the last twenty years, the influence has tended to be chiefly the other way around, as environmental historians drew inspiration and guidance from social historians.  We have arrived, it seems, at a point when it is more apt to describe the relationship as more dialectical, defined by cross-fertilization and exchange.  Readers of HWP will hopefully see evidence of this in several of the new readings.

Coming this November from UBC Press, Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada is the second collaboration I have enjoyed with Jim Opp.  This project began in the Spring in 2007 when a so-so plenary presentation I gave to the Underhill Colloquium became the basis for a conversation between us about what I was really doing in that paper and what Jim was thinking about with respect to his own work on photography, memory, and history in the Prairies.  Our conversation quickly expanded into what we admired and were inspired by in the literature and what we felt was missing (or perhaps not being emphasized enough) in terms of our scholarly thinking.  Those conversations became the blueprint for the above book, a collection of new, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scholarly writing by us and by ten collaborators from across the country.   Our fellow authors are, in order of appearance:  Cecilia Morgan, Frances Swyripa, Alan Gordon, Russell Johnson, Mike Ripmeester, Patricia Gentile, Steven High, Kirsten McAllister, Matthew Evenden, and Joan Schwartz.
How we wrote this book will, one hopes, become more common for all scholars in the social sciences and humanities just as it is already well-establish in Quebec's scholarly culture.  After consolidating contributors, Jim and I applied for and received a SSHRC Aid to Workshop Grant that, in combination with wonderful support from Carleton, allowed us to pre-circulate first drafts of all the chapters and then meet for two days of intense-but-exhilarating conversations about them.  There were no formal, lengthy presentations as is common at larger conferences.  Instead, it was a group of  16 (our contributors, minus Joan Schwartz, plus four doctoral students and our editor at UBC Press, Melissa Pitts) engaged people sitting around a common table having discussions about what it was we were doing and how we were doing it.  We worked through each chapter in order and then, at the end, had an open session about the book as a whole.  In between we took our meals together and talked about endless other things, sometimes related, sometimes not (thankfully!), to the placing of memory and the remembering of place.  We left the workshop in the summer of 2008, retreated to our homes, and produced the next drafts.  Full of inspiration from our experience at the workshop, Jim and I went to work on an introduction that is, we feel, unusually ambitious for an edited collection.  Following the peer review process, we decided to approach one of the foremost scholars of these scholarly themes, Joan Schwartz, and asked if she would be interested in writing an Afterword for the collection.  Not only did she agree to this, but Joan wrote a remarkable essay that is no mere conclusion, a re-stating what has already been said.  Instead, it is an essay that uses the insights of the book as a point of departure for a intensely personal and scholarly reflection on place memories and places of memory in our everyday lives.  In every way, and exceeding our wildest hopes, it became the 11th chapter of the book.

Along with Jess Dunkin, I am co-organizing this Fall's Shannon Lecture Series in Canadian Social History.  The central theme of the series is certainly related to Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada, especially my own chapter in the book.  It is also central to Jess's own doctoral work and scholarly thinking.  More details can be gleaned at our website, and more are forthcoming, but a few words can be added here.  In addition to being very excited about our lineup of scholars, we are equally excited about the participation of a film-maker John Greyson and singer-songwriter Miss Emily Brown.  Both have thought a great deal about the past and their relationships to it (intellectually, artistically, personally, and politically) and visible traces of this reflection can be seen and heard in their art.  We think their participation in the Shannon's adds not only new scholarly insights into storytelling and the social effect of stories, but it will also inspire our audience in ways they may not expect.

This is Henry John Reyburn Walsh, who on 19 May 2010 transformed this sabbatical experience from 'satisfying' to 'unforgettable'.  As shown above, he has more than a hint of a sense of humour and timing.  And most wonderful for me is that when I hold him I see his incredible mother looking back at me through his eyes just as I do when I hug his sisters, Hope and Emily.

While we had no idea our year away from Ottawa was going to be anything other than an adventure for the four of us, we could not be happier that those plans got radically changed and we are returning to the nation's capital as a quintet.  It is the third time I have become a parent, and it is no less wonderful, exciting, and terrifying as it was / is the first two times.  My one regret is Henry came along too late to make it into the Acknowledgments for either HWP or Placing MemoryLandscapes of Longing is going to be for him.  As it should, since it's his fault I am still not quite done.  (Not really, Henry!  Daddy also likes to make "jokes.")

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Richard Overy on Fire

From across the Atlantic, Richard Overy says a number of very smart things about History. (Margaret MacMillan might disagree.) Rather than paraphrase, here it is in its entirety, as well as a link to its original home.


The historical present

29 April 2010

It is the year 2050. A bright young sixth-former is discussing her choice of university course with her grandmother. She is considering a degree in heritage studies.

"Is it really true that you did a course called history at uni?" she asks.

"Yes," her grandmother replies. "It looked at bits of the past."

"But what for?" asks her grandchild. "What was the point? Heritage studies is really useful. I want a job at a Heritage Trail agency when I've finished uni. History must have been so dead."

Fantasy or the future? History today is at a crossroads; the debate about its "function", its purpose, has sharpened. As an academic discipline it is under assault from two different, although related, directions.

On the one hand there is the "democratisation" of history - history as heritage, a commodity whose primary function is to entertain and inform. On the other there is governmental pressure to make history socially useful, contributing in visible ways to the gross national product while providing the taxpayer with some public display of its utility.

Those who are exerting these twin pressures are united in the view that history has to come down from the ivory tower and enter the marketplace if it is to survive. Where medical research, engineering, social studies, even languages have little difficulty in showing their value-added nature to the taxpaying public and government customers, history has no easy utilitarian rationale. It survives precariously only because tens of thousands of students want to study it. In a university world led by client choice, this is a difficult subject to consign to the academic scrapheap.

The democratisation of the past is not, of course, an entirely negative process. History is as capable of being appropriated as a commodity and a source of entertainment as any other discipline. The current "history industry" is in itself partly responsible for the huge appetite for the subject at university level. It is sometimes difficult for historians to recognise that history is everyone's property in a way that advanced research in the natural or social sciences is not.

There is much that historians can bring to bear on media representations of the past; no one advocates drawing an iron curtain between popular history and historical scholarship. Indeed, historians in Britain have for more than a century supplied an important bridge between academic history and the public - T.B. Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, Arnold Toynbee, G.M. Trevelyan and A.J.P. Taylor are only the most glittering among them.

The difficulty arises when the public is asked to discriminate between popular (and populist) history and its academic relation. Popular history is held in high esteem currently because it is accessible, lively and, occasionally, genuinely interactive. Public confusion over what history is as an academic subject derives from the misperception that popular history and popular history writers are doing in some sense real history, while the arcane, theoretically driven and undramatic scholarship in university departments is bad history.

Popular history clusters around a standard set of themes - the Tudors, the Holocaust, the First and Second World Wars - or colourful personalities (Churchill above all, Hitler and Stalin not far behind), and little beyond that. Much popular history writing re-enacts the past. The search for engaging personalities, titillating narratives or dramas of operatic intensity engages with the tawdry obsession with celebrity.

The public's capacity to distinguish clearly between fact and fiction in this process is not very sophisticated, but in a sense it doesn't matter if the story is told in a novel or a non-fiction narrative. There is no higher intellectual purpose to be served by popular narration other than to describe and entertain. It is popular history, not academic history, that is really disengaged from the real world.

The second pressure comes from public policy. The current concern with the "impact" made by academic, university-based disciplines means that history (alongside a cluster of other small arts subjects) has to demonstrate in a more formal way the value it adds to the social product.

It is clear that this does not mean intellectual or scholarly impact, for which the government and perhaps a large majority of the electorate are not directly concerned. What public policy requires is the ability to explain to a taxpaying electorate why it is worthwhile paying large sums of money to allow people to study the past. Impact may be one way of showing that.

Heritage has an impact, from heritage trails to local museum exhibitions or the preservation of historic monuments. History may also be used to supply government departments with advice on areas where any relevance can be demonstrated, although in many cases it is unlikely to be advice they would either use or understand.

The most that history may do is to offer what are called "transferable skills". The implication of this idea is that history for history's sake has very little to offer. Its worth is to be measured by indices of employability: degree levels achieved; the use of IT and PowerPoint presentations to class; and the production of neatly footnoted essays.

These generic outcomes replace substance with form. It is not history that matters, but the capacity to produce a generation of wealth-creators.

Running through the concern with demonstrating an effective public function is a utilitarian view of scholarship: is it socially useful, does it contribute to raising national wealth, does it create jobs? Ministers, like the young girl who wants to do heritage studies, may well ask of history: "But what for?"

Academic history must resist trying to appease either or both of these constituencies. If these pressures are not resisted, then a thing called history will slowly mutate over the next generation into cultural and heritage studies, informing popular concerns with the past but not sustaining the intellectual and scholarly capacity to develop, elaborate and articulate complex ways of understanding and interpreting it.

Historians have always generated impact of diverse and rewarding kinds, and will continue to do so without the banal imperative to demonstrate added value. There is no real division between what historians can contribute and what the public may expect, but the second of these should by no means drive the first.

Nor should short-term public policy dictate what is researched, how history is taught or the priorities of its practitioners. If fashion, fad or political priority had dictated what history produced over the past century, British intellectual and cultural life would have been deeply impoverished. Not least, the many ways in which historical approaches have invigorated and informed other disciplines would have been lost.

This is a particular issue for public policy, with the idea that history must find ways of engaging more with those who produce policy to justify itself. History is not a congenial tool for doing this. It is in essence a critical discipline, characteristically ambiguous on many key issues, subversive of popular myth and prejudice, and unlikely to supply any advice that is not hostage to paradox and uncertainty. It is hard to imagine the government asking a panel of historians to explain the pros and cons of military engagement in Afghanistan, useful though that might have been. It is the historian's job to ask awkward questions, not to validate current assumptions.

History needs an environment of free enquiry more than almost any other discipline. Like the natural sciences, it is also engaged in pushing back the frontiers of the knowable. It needs to sustain an independent approach to what is researched and written, and, like all academic activity, requires the freedom to make mistakes, engage in long-term research and pioneer developments that the wider public cannot engage with comfortably.

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan, in her 2008 book, The Uses And Abuses Of History, called on her peers to reduce their commitment to theory and to write shorter sentences. To do so would be to dumb down what history as a human science is doing.

The writing of history is intentionally complex and linguistically sophisticated. At the cutting edge of modern research, it has no less reason to be inaccessible than physics or biochemistry. The reference points for the historian must remain the intellectual framework within which research is generated and the body of academic opinion at which it is directed. The result will not be an invisible discipline but one that is constantly refreshing intellectual life in imaginative, intuitive but rigorous ways.

For academic history, these are not problems that are to be simply wished away or accepted without contest. It is important to be able to think of more positive ways in which history can make its case for survival and meet some of the demand for engagement with the wider world of policy and popular history.

One major difference between the British experience and that of other European states has been the absence in the UK of specialised, sometimes privately funded, institutes where historical scholarship is patronised and protected. It is not easy to imagine local councils funding historical institutes alongside local museums and heritage sites, but it would be one way of ensuring that academic history meets local public constituencies.

It may be possible to find external funding from businesses or institutions for historical centres or institutes, with research fellowships and bursaries that could generate high-quality research and provide close links with the locality. Better still, universities may accept that historical "innovation centres" are a possibility and supply the funding and support to ensure that experimental research can be undertaken without the close supervision of the current review apparatus.

By making the work of academic historians more visible in a wider cultural and intellectual milieu, some of the alleged dichotomy between the ivory tower and the marketplace may be overcome.

Historians have to accept collectively that the pressure of public fashion and political utility may well undermine the foundation of the discipline unless they are willing to stand up and defend the nature of what they do. Finding their own ways to construct a more effective interface between their discipline and the public would help.

This is not a plea for historians to turn their backs on the wider world: there is nothing to be gained by doing so. Historians should be public figures, too, capable of communicating what they do to a variety of constituencies. Historians, as French medievalist Marc Bloch once remarked, live in the present. Accepting that reality does not mean that they have to accept that present, any more than Bloch accepted the German occupation of his country in the Second World War.

Popular history has a life of its own and generates its own impact; professional historians may play a part in that if they choose, but popular history is not the same as academic history. The former does not generally set out to ask and answer large questions or explore aspects of methodological innovation, but to paint a vivid picture of the past. The demarcation between the two is not sharp, but it needs to be clear.

Public policy may find a role for history, but that, too, is not what it as a discipline is for. Nor in the end does historical writing sit easily with public priorities. History reflects very critically on public policy and political behaviour; it is as likely to endorse subversion as authority; it is concerned with past abuses and discrimination, and by understanding how they operated it opens up current discrimination to critical review; it is concerned with understanding the past by challenging the patterns of myth-making that distinguish popular perception from the view historians may take.

The net result of these many approaches is to make history the most humane of subjects. Its value in broader cultural and intellectual terms is indisputable, although not as tangible as the impact agenda would like. Historical writing at its best is critical, exciting, thought-provoking, frustratingly ambiguous and uncertain. It is the reflective element of the collective mind. If history becomes just heritage studies, the collective intelligence will be all the poorer.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter. He has written more than 20 books on the Second World War and the European dictatorships, including most recently The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars (2009) and 1939: Countdown to War (2009). He was a winner of the Wolfson History Prize in 2004.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

History and the Textbook 2.0?

"Journalism schools across the country are now focused on "convergence" -- the need to impart skills to students in multiple media techniques (video, photography, writing, sound, new media) -- in order to meet the needs of a multiplatform industry. But they miss the essential point: stories will not be told in the same way. The power relationships among author, subject, and reader will evolve, as will the filters, and the linear narrative based on the authority of a single voice, is up for grabs in an increasingly nonlinear, decentralized media environment."
-- Fred Ritchin, After Photography (W.W. Norton, 2009), p.109

While there used to be much excitement about "CD-ROMs" and then "websites" for scholarly publishing, the iPad (and within a couple of years, its imitators), offers academic authors a fundamentally new way to think about our role as "authors" and how we educate the next generation of historians. Since the iPad is still a couple of months from market, this is pure conjecture at this point based on the tantalizing scraps that the unveiling provided and the explosion of commentary among tech geeks and wizards about what they think they know about it. (For two good examples, see the epic coverage provided by Macbreak Weekly or the more concise remarks by John Gruber on CBC's Spark, for example.)

Despite being somewhat heretical for a historian, I want to at least start thinking about what this future might look like. As Ritchin points out, within the university, but not only there, our audiences possess a different cultural and media literacy; while many will choose to wring their hands about a generational pandemic of short-attention spans, there is something else to (re)consider -- the possibilities of multilinear narratives that are both intensive in theme and analytical focus but also extensive as a reading experience. In this admittedly vague future (I am thinking out loud here), this is something that is a hybrid of the traditional book and the movement and flow of web-based hypertext. This is not a future where historians are Jonathan Coulton's code monkeys, but one in which we do what we are trained to do best: produce meaningful cultural engagements with the past.

As the second edition of Home, Work, and Play: Situating Canadian Social History moves closer to print (shameless plug), and as other opportunities present themselves to me, I am thinking a great deal about a future that seems to be more imminent than it was even a month ago. And it is exciting. For while the author may be dead, her authority as the guardian and gatekeeper of historical knowledge remains unchallenged within scholarly publishing. And nowhere is this more true than in the "textbook", that dreaded (and always big and expensive) book upon which students and professors rely so heavily. Yet textbooks represent the best opportunity for scholarly publishing to begin a new phase of experimentation where the context of classroom (ideally with some component of small group learning) can create a social space to extend the kind of dialogic, intensive-and-expansive reading experience that a new kind of textbook might provide.

Allowing our students, and all of our reading audiences, to take a more active role in their learning is not merely the right thing to do if we are to remain relevant. It is also the best way to make our audiences engaged and present, something that enriches both our own time and place and those of the past.

UPDATE: While I appreciate the irony of posting a video that appears in Flash (like the iPhone, the iPad does not support Flash) and deals with an example of a partnership with Adobe, Wired Magazine is getting ahead of the curve. The important part of the video is the kind of reading experience they are going to be providing. This, it seems to me, is where textbook publishing ought to be headed.

UPDATE #2: Penguin Books, UK, is one of the publishers trying to get ahead of the iPad curve, and this video (apologies for the quality) gives their overview.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Persistence of Place

Faro is a small town in the southwestern nook of Yukon. I have never been there, and until recently I did not know it existed. I suspect in both cases, I am firmly within the majority. Faro's story, however, is only too well known. I implore you to clear 10 minutes of your time to hear it:

As we learn in the film, history has not been kind to Faro. The mine and those who worked for it are like ghosts whose absence and loss are made only too apparent by the empty homes that Murray Hampton shows prospective buyers. Despite Mr. Hampton's poignant comments about the pain and suffering the mine closure engendered, the film does not linger very long on it nor on the fate of the mine's workers and families. What happened to those people? Where did they go? How did they cope? What culpability and responsibility does the Cyprus Anvil Mining Corporation hold beyond the generic explanation of "globalization"?

Instead, the film is more interested in the new story that Faro boosters are telling about themselves and which we see vividly at the 2004 Yukon Home Show. This new story is about the "persistence of place" and it is a narrative focused exclusively on those who stayed and those that have arrived since the closure. It is a rather hopeful narrative, which, in the context of the present, is certainly comforting. And the film captures the hopes and dreams of people like Murray Hampton by showing us happy children, houses being filled, folks giving storefronts a makeover, and even a municipal golf course (of a sort).

Storytelling is no mere epiphenomenon for Faro's boosters, a cultural byproduct of other forms of structural change. As we see in the film, and indeed through the film itself, storytelling and narrative are at the forefront of efforts to make such changes possible. When the mines closed and so many went away, Faro's landscape of abandonment must have been a cruel mocking of the words that used to be blazoned on the town's signage:

In their efforts to save Faro's place on the map, boosters have undertaken great efforts to change how the landscape of abandonment is to be seen and known. In this new form, the empty houses and the surrounding wilderness are constitutive of a landscape of opportunity ("only $60,000") and a landscape of renewal (young children and a fresh coat of paint). Faro is, Murray Hampton tells us, "a modern suburb type of installation but right in the wilderness". It is certainly not what it was, as another booster explains: "We're not a mining community anymore. We are just a really nice place to live." Both of these remarks are underlined at the town's website, in the photograph and map of Faro provided there:

Words, photographs, films, websites, and maps are all being put into the service of a new narrative, one that, for the moment, seems to be allowing Faro to maintain itself as a place. Yet I wonder what role(s) public history might play in all this. For while the persistence of place would seem to frame the past as little more than a "problem" to be solved or "challenge" to overcome, it is, like Murray Hampton, too stubborn to go away. As we see in the film, history is inscribed in the landscape and local civic culture, and it has taken residence in both private and public memory. What is not clear, though, is if history might also be part of Faro's salvation and not merely a record of its destruction. A lot, I would suggest, will depend on what kinds of stories and narratives the people of Faro choose to tell about themselves and which others, from away, tell about Faro.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010
Photograph by Robin Holland