Marc Sendra Martorell via unsplash.com
Welcome back to the View from the 4th Floor Paterson, a newsletter from the Department of History at Carleton University, where we try to make sense of this Department as a collection of the memories, recollections, and above all, social interactions: that is, a community!
I write this on a cold October morning at the end of the month, a few days before the American election. If ever there was a moment when historians had their work cut out for them, it is now. If ever there was a time for historians, a time that required the careful weighing and evaluating of evidence to work out what’s happened and why, it’s now. Everything’s accelerated: the news cycle spins through five or six major things every day, each one that ought to be damming on its own; events, scandals, or controversies that would’ve played out for weeks only a few short years ago pile through our media ecosystem, overwhelming us and deadening our critical faculties. Folks without our training are struggling; and in their desire to make sense of things, they turn to the fringes. Online platforms are designed to give people what they want; but what they want isn’t always what they need.
Jennifer Evans examines some of this in The Conversation (a piece also picked up by the National Post). In the current issue of The American Historical Review, Daniel Story, Jo Guldi, Tim Hitchcock, and Michelle Moravec discuss ‘History’s Future in the Age of the Internet’. The nature of our sources is changing; the social context that produces these materials is rapidly morphing; and yet, when I look out my window I see snow falling same as it ever does. Striking the balance between continuity and change: that’s the challenge.
The theme then, for this issue of The View from the 4th Floor Paterson, is ‘change’.
An Ambulance on Safari: An Interview with Dr. Melissa Armstrong
Periodically, we intend to reconnect with alumni to find out what they’re up to.
In this issue, Shawn Graham talks with Melissa Armstrong, whose book An Ambulance on Safari: The ANC and the Making of a Health Department in Exile, is the first medical and political history of emergency health care services for MK cadres, South Africans in exile, and local patients in numerous ANC bases in Southern Africa from the 1960s to 1990. What’s more, Armstrong is now pursuing her MD!
- I’m fascinated to know more about your progression from history to medicine, and I wonder, how did writing your book play into your decision to go to med school (if it did)? If not, what did?
Writing An Ambulance on Safari – the work stemming from my PhD thesis at Carleton – was a really important part of my decision to go into medicine. As you might know, I did the bulk of my archival research in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. While conducting this research in 2015, a number of important things happened. First, the history of mental illness became a major focus of my work. This is very understandable; my book is about a group of South Africans who went into exile thinking that they were leaving home for a short period of time, fighting a war and coming home to loved ones. Instead they were trapped in exile for years. These exiles were subject to the atrocities of war, forced to keep their experiences a secret lest their own political party accuse them of being spies, and had no idea of when or if they would ever return home. People suffered demoralization, PTSD and many used drugs and alcohol to cope with the new realities of life in exile. Mental health and illness was such an important theme that nearly a quarter of the book is dedicated to this subject specifically. And then the mental health crisis in Northern Saskatchewan gained national and global coverage. So I found myself in the archive, reading patient reports, conducting interviews with individuals who worked with mentally ill cadres and refugees in Southern Africa in the 1980s while hearing about the healthcare needs back home. After discussion with my family and my supervisor Susanne Klausen, I decided that I would try to get into medical school.
- What kinds of connections do you see between your work and training as a historian, and the work and training of a medical doctor?
There are so many parallels between medicine and history – or of being a medical doctor and the work of an historian. Both can be about social justice; about advocating for people who are vulnerable and without a voice. Both interview subjects. A historian gathers individual stories, archival documents, and secondary sources in order to weave a narrative and that makes some sense of both the past and present. This exactly what a doctor does: a patient comes into the hospital and tells you their story. You gather the history from the perspective of the patient and then you use past documents, collateral histories, and new labs and imaging to make some sense of what happened and what is happening now.
But let me tell you about some of the differences: the first year of medical school was nothing like being a historian. Trust me, knowing that PTSD was a diagnosis developed in the wake of the Vietnam war or that abortion in South Africa was enmeshed in racial politics during apartheid was not able to prepare me for first year exams. It was a grind to catch up on the anatomy, immunology, microbiology, physiology, pharmacology etc etc. I should have seen this challenge coming; in my interview to get into medical school, I was asked to teach the interviewee about some sort of very science-y thing. I went into the room and said “I have to level with you, I have NO idea what ___ is. So we can spend the next 8 minutes talking about what you know about it, or I can teach you something entirely unrelated to this topic.” I have doubts about whether I passed that particular interview question…
What can I say, we are a product of our history and experiences. Our institutions are slow to recover from the trauma and racial injustices that have underpinned so much of Canadian history. First, as has been demonstrated in so many historical accounts, the most vulnerable people carry a disproportionate burden of chronic illnesses. History tells this story over and over again. South African historians often talk about the way that apartheid entrenched a two-tiered healthcare system in South Africa. An Ambulance on Safari tells the story of how the state of being exiled informed the poor health of many South Africans in exile. James Daschuk’s brilliant book Clearing the Plains better illuminates the overwhelming burden of disease brought to North America by Europeans and better characterizes the tenuous relationship between many Indigenous people and the health care system. The stories of Joyce Echaquan and Brian Sinclair are part of a larger story in Canadian history that needs to be articulated and addressed.
But in my very limited personal experience, there is some positive movement forward. I think about leaders like Dr. Veronica McKinney in Saskatoon; she identifies as an Indigenous physician, is hugely involved in mentoring Indigenous students in health sciences, and teaches and does advocacy work in the College of Medicine. The Saskatchewan college now has ten seats specifically allocated to Indigenous students. I had the privilege of meeting and being taught by Dr. Jacqueline Maurice, author of “Out of the Shadows: Stories by Sixties Scoop Warriors”. She was able to talk eloquently about the disconnect between physicians and their patients and speak to some of the ways that medical personnel need to be aware of the past in their present practice. As part of my training in medical school, I will have spent 5 weeks in La Ronge learning from both doctors and patients about the barriers to healthcare faced by primarily Indigenous people living in Northern regions of Saskatchewan. More can be done but hopefully elements like these, incorporated into our education system will start to make a difference to the way that we practice medicine.
- Finally, speaking as someone who had to completely reinvent himself in order to find work and who dimly can appreciate the challenges you face, let’s talk about the upside: what has been the most rewarding part of your journey?
I don’t think that I can narrow it down to one or two things. At the risk of sounding cliché, I feel honoured to have the privilege of hearing the stories of people at their most vulnerable moments. Sometimes patients are suspicious of the hospital system and the people who staff medical institutions, but often, we are a safe space to talk about things that have never been shared. It is rewarding to be able to listen to someone tell their story and then be able to say that you hear them.
- Anything else you would like to share?
The most powerful thing about the history of medicine is that it teaches medical practitioners to be humble. We are constantly learning and discovering new things. Someday, our thoughts about 2020’s understanding of the body might be akin to the way that we now think about our previous beliefs about the body’s necessary balance between the four humours (being blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm). The certainty of scientific knowledge has been shown to be so fragile and the practice of medicine will always be interpreted, critiqued and held up against the values of the present by future historians.
People Make the Past
We want to profile the students, faculty, and fellow-travellers who make this department the vital place it is. In this issue, we’re profiling Arden Hody.
I did my undergrad at Carleton and loved being able to go to museums and galleries to supplement my in-class learning. When I decided that I wanted to work in museology, Carleton made perfect sense. Combining the Curatorial Studies diploma with the Master’s in Public History degree has allowed me to continue doing research while gaining the practical skills necessary to make me a competitive job candidate after graduation.
Funnily enough, I always shied away from history. But when I started researching graduate programs, I found the faculty and courses in the Public History program were exactly what I was interested in. I still shy away from history in a lot of ways, but I love thinking about how people interact with spaces, how meaning is created, and how memory and history work together to build communities.
- What’s the coolest project/paper/assignment you’ve worked on, and why?
I was really inspired by Àbadakone | Continuous Fire at the National Gallery last year. All in, I think I wrote three different papers about it. I really appreciated my professors encouraging me to think through the issues in the field that I was interested in. Àbadakone was at the forefront of curatorial practice, publically funded programming, and community engagement and researching it was an amazing opportunity to really practically engage with public history.
- What kinds of opportunities have emerged for you as a result of your engagement with CU History?
Right now I am working as the mentor for History Teaching Assistants. It has been such a rewarding experience meeting with TAs from across the department and seeing the amount of care and dedication that my colleagues put into their TA duties. I am also learning administrative and communications skills that will definitely help me as a move into a professional environment.
- What’s next for you as a historian?
I think I’ll go to ROM tomorrow.
Course Profile: 5 Questions with Dr. Audra Diptée on her course, ‘Colonialism, Imperialism, and Pan-Africanism’
- Why do you teach ‘Colonialism, Imperialism, and Pan-Africanism’?
I sometimes get the impression that students in my classes have not properly grasped the complexity of the social issues we face today. I decided to teach this course, so that I could show them that so many of the social and economic issues that we discuss today were also discussed with much sophistication by Pan-Africanists in the twentieth century.
- How have you challenged yourself in designing this course?
One of the goals I had for the course was for my students to walk away understanding the complexity of the individual historical characters. I wanted students to read their speeches, see their growth over time, and understand their contradictions. Because this course focuses on the twentieth century, it was even possible to have students look at short video clips so that they could see some of the key players of the Pan-Africanist movement give speeches. I think this helped to make what we were studying less abstract …
- Why do students like your course?
I have not surveyed my students to know what they might like about the course, but the students that take a course like this are generally those who are trying to better understand the complex social issues that we face today. Hopefully, it does not disappoint!
- What has surprised you about your students?
What surprises me this year is what has surprised me every year since I started teaching. I take my own historical memory for granted and tend to forget that most of my students were born in the late 1990s or maybe even in year 2000!! We have a completely different frame of reference for understanding the world.
- What student work in the course sticks with you now?
It’s a bit too early in the semester to tell. However, I am planning an interesting final assignment that I think will challenge my students in a way they will appreciate. It will require them to engage with some of the current twenty-first century debates around race and imperialism while drawing on what we have learnt from the Pan-Africanist intellectuals of the twentieth-century. I’m hoping to get some promising and creative work from the students …
- And a bonus question: what would you do differently about the course next time?
I think I was a bit too ambitious with this course. Everything seemed important! The next time around I would definitely set more modest ambitions about what could realistically be covered. I would put the focus on depth of knowledge instead of breadth of knowledge.
Black Lives Matter caravan protest, San Diego. Katie Rodriguez via unsplash.com
History in the Streets
Erica Fraser writes…
I find myself in the enviable position of preparing a Winter semester course on a particularly newsy topic right now. No, it’s not the history of pandemics or disease - worthwhile classes offered by my colleagues. It’s
Sports in the Cold War,” and while the Cold War might now be a relic of that faraway 20th century, we have certainly seen the resurgence - or persistence - this year of a Cold War-era truth that sports and politics will always mix.
The spotlight has shined anew on many issues with a longer history: unpaid student athletes in the U.S. risking their lives to play in a pandemic, for example, or professional athletes, starting with the women of the WNBA before moving to include NBA athlete-activists, expressing public support for Black Lives Matter. That stance soon grew to include several different leagues, even, incredibly, the NFL, which had branded itself in recent years on excommunicating quarterback Colin Kaepernick for peacefully protesting racial inequality and police brutality. (Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous 1968 protest on the Olympic podium has gained new attention from historically curious sports fans looking to place this 2020 moment in a larger context).
Globally, echoes of Cold War-era sports politics also continue to resonate: Black South African runner Caster Semenya lost an appeal against regulations requiring women with certain testosterone levels to medically lower them in order to compete as women, a rule with deep roots in colonial gender hierarchies as well as a direct result of Cold War-era fears in the West that better trained women athletes from communist states were “really” men in disguise. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a normal year in global sport if the Russians weren’t demonized in some way: this time, a fresh effort to conspire to hide the use of performance enhancing drugs by Russian athletes. (Don’t get me wrong: the Russian Federation is most certainly guilty of this, but Western media frameworks for such stories, which have shaped global sports discourse for decades, rely on cultivating readers’ instinctive agreement that obviously Russians are liars and cheats, whose once celebrated sporting infrastructure lies in ruins - along with their limp efforts to build post-Soviet democracy).
But my course will only have 13 weeks to grapple with all of this, and more. Where to start? Given that a fresh NHL season could begin in January, only two months after the last one ended, I might start with hockey.
I got into sports history - and hockey history - a few years ago while finishing a book on the particularly heavy topic of the Soviet Union’s recovery from World War II, with an extra fun emphasis on how boys and young men reconstructed their masculinity and saw themselves (or didn’t) as soldiers in the wake of a catastrophic war that had killed probably every other man they knew. It was time for something a bit lighter. My first choice of sport to study would have been baseball, but it turns out that as far as I can tell, nobody in the Soviet Union ever touched anything remotely related to a baseball in the country’s existence (although I haven’t stopped looking). Football had been done, and so I turned to hockey - which has also been done, certainly, but not in the cultural and gendered ways I wanted to look at it. I found out that Soviet women were able to play in outdoor leagues that used a ball instead of a puck as long as they didn’t call it “hockey” - a sport reserved after 1945 for men and built up as a cultural “bad cop” to football’s golden boys. And the ways in which hockey masculinity developed through the pushback of some of the more famous players of the Cold War, alongside covert directives from the centre, continue to fascinate me. That is, to a.) smile, wave, and shut up in order to represent the country in respectable ways when abroad, and b.) skate hard and score as much as possible to represent able-bodiedness and physical fortitude, to distract people from their postwar trauma at home.
I was wrong: this stuff isn’t “lighter fare” at all. But that’s a good thing.
The sports/politics junction during a pandemic has quite a bit in common, I think, with sports and politics during the Cold War. Leagues must restart and the game must go on, literally and metaphorically, in order to distract people - from postwar bread lines then, or stay-at-home mandates now. Able-bodied athletes must be visually available to ensure that hunger or war wounds then, or a still-mysterious disease now, will not overwhelm our sightlines with sickness or disability. And athletes themselves are continuing a much longer tradition of speaking out against the ways in which their bodies are used by government and league officials for political purposes.
Actually, I think I’ll let the students decide where we should take the conversation next semester. Talking about the Cold War era, after all, is just another way of talking about politics, culture, and sports today.
John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, Mexico City 1968 Wikimedia
Into the Future
How are epidemics, disease, and climate interrelated? What role does the Anthropocene play in human history: or rather, what does human history have to do with the climate? If you’re interested in the intersection of human history and climate, keep an eye out for issue #3 of our newsletter, where we’ll talk about a new interdisciplinary program in the ‘climate humanities’ and the History Department’s contribution!
Reading List & Correspondence
After our first issue included a photograph of the LeBreton Flats prior to its destruction in the 1960s, Michael Ostroff sent us some contemporary photographs of the same location.
“This would have been Queen street - looking east towards the escarpment and downtown. The rail line in the archive image would have been just before the water and the little stone bridge”
“Below is the water pumping station, (not visible but on the right in the archive image) the escarpment and the apartment building. The road over the stone bridge used to connect to Wellington.”
Thank you Michael!
Some other interesting links:
- Whether you like it or not, we’re all digital these days. If you’re like me, it means your computer files and folders are a bit of a mess. Spare a thought for the Librarians of Congress who have to now deal with over 4800 unique file types in the materials they look after.
- Librarians Moacir P de Sá Pereira and Alex Gil at Columbia University are building a project looking at Rose Hall Plantation in Montego Bay, Jamaica, to recenter the lived experience of enslaved people at the site - and they’re doing it live, over Twitch as they go.
- Monica Patterson, who is cross-Appointed with the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies and the History Department, has a piece for the American Alliance of Museums on ‘ Children’s Museology and the COVID-19 Crisis’. Critical children’s museology is ‘grounded in a child-centered approach [and] stands to offer a more critical component to contemporary museological practice, in at least two senses of the word: critical as in grounded in critique of the adult-dominated status quo, but also critical as in crucial to engaging with children as valued social actors and knowledge-bearers.’
- And a late addition to this newsletter, ‘How to Keep the Lights On In Democracies: An Open Letter of Concern by Scholars of Authoritarianism’ including Jennifer Evans who was one of the lead authors; see also The Guardian.
Refugees beside an ambulance of the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit during the Spanish Civil War. Hazen Sise is sitting in the passenger seat of the ambulance. LAC, ID 3194605
This newsletter is produced by the Communications Committee of the Department of History. Questions, concerns, complaints, or kudos: firstname.lastname@example.org, c/o Shawn Graham. Opinions expressed are those of the participants. Thanks to Melissa Armstrong, Arden Hody, Audra Diptée, Michael Ostroff, and Erica Fraser.