Marc-Olivier Jodoin 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!
It finally snowed.
Snow hides a multitude of sins, doesn’t it? Even the ugliest of industrial landscapes can look beautiful, under fresh snow. But maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way. Maybe it’s not that snow hides things; maybe it’s the addition of snow, a fresh layer of possibilities, that makes things beautiful?
My research notes are an ugly thing that I am hoping a fresh layer of ‘snow’ might make beautiful, workable, emergent. I have a folder on my computer, filled with little text files replete with bibliographic snippets, observations, and stray thoughts. Some of the notes reference other notes. Many are orphans. I keep making these little files, in the hopes that some kind of order, some kind of insight, might crystalize out of them, if I stare at them hard enough. You might have a folder on your machine similarly burdened. You might even have a single file - I’ve known students to have a single Word document on their machine, into which everything is dumped.
Ugly files and folders. How should we take notes? It’s an oddly personal question. For each of us, over time, different workflows emerge, evolve, become habits. Sometimes, we have to un-learn these habits. This term, I’m adding fresh snow to my research process; I’m trying out a thing called ‘Obsidian‘ as a way of visualizing and exploring the interconnections within my research notes, to see how my ideas flow and merge and emerge (if you’re interested, I’ve written more about this here).
You never know. It might work!
Here’s to 2021, and a new layer of fresh snow.
Melissa J Nelson is a Carleton University History Alumna. She recently graduated from McGill University with a Master of Information Studies. In an Assistant Archivist capacity, she has worked for George Brown College Archives, The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, the Law Society of Ontario Archives, and Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. Just before Christmas, she had a chat with her former Professor, Dr. Graham about her work. The transcript below has been edited for length.
After I graduated from Carleton University in 2013, I left Ottawa and returned home to Toronto. I went the next few years struggling to find work. After that, I decided that I wanted to return to school and complete a master’s degree in Information Studies. I was interested in the archive profession for the opportunity to work with historic materials. I returned to Ottawa and took your course, Crafting Digital History in 2016. I knew this course would make me a stronger applicant for graduate school. I learned how to start a blog and gained hands-on experience with different tools for conducting digital history. In that course, we used our blogs to publish our learning experiences. Shortly after finishing the course, I contacted Career Services at Carleton for assistance with my graduate school applications. I applied to McGill University and the University of Toronto for their graduate Information Studies programs. In my applications, I spoke about the tools I learned in Crafting Digital History and its application to the Information Studies profession. I also included my blog, which allowed me to show evidence of my technical skills. In my blog, I also wrote about my volunteer experiences in museums and archives. This helped make my applications stronger.
I was accepted into Master of Information Studies at McGill University. This program offers ‘areas of interest’ for different aspects of the field. I was focused on taking courses that could prepare me for a career as an archivist. I did not enjoy my program, I felt that the curriculum was outdated. There was a greater emphasis on traditional theories and practices. Current issues, perspectives, and tools in the archival practice were rarely addressed. Speaking to other students and alumni, I realized that many of them shared my frustration and this issue was common in Information Studies programs across Canada. In my second year, I took a course at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. While I was there, I joined a student association called the Diversity Working Group. At the time, these students were pushing for their professors to diversify their reading materials by incorporating more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) perspectives. It was interesting to be a part of that group and see the changes they were trying to make. I met several students in the Diversity Working Group who were working in archives. Speaking to them made me think more deeply about current issues in the practice.
While I was in Toronto, I went to a presentation at the Toronto Public Library called “What can we do with blackface and other racist materials in Canadian archives?” by Dr. Cheryl Thompson and Emilie Jabouin. I was insterested in learning about racist materials in archives since I came across a record with blackface while working at an archive internship. This presentation addressed how to locate racist materials in digital archives and how archival description can hinder discoverability. This presentation inspired me to do research on best practices and recommendations for the appraisal, description, and accessibility of racist materials. After finishing my research, I published “Archiving Hate: Racist Materials in Archives” on my blog. I shared this post on my social media feeds, including Twitter and LinkedIn. To my surprise, several archivists responded positively to the post and it was shared and cited in a few places! Waterloo University Special Collections & Archives cited my blog post in their “Language in archival description changes.” I contacted their Head Archivist, Nick Richbell, and he told me that my blog post helped their archives determine how to address racism in their archival records and description. I was very excited to hear that! This blog post was also cited in “Anti-racism Educational Resources” by the Archives Association of Ontario and “Resources Archives, Antiracism, and Black Lives Matter” by the Association of Canadian Archivists.
I think archivists found my blog post useful because I addressed an under-explored issue in archives. In 2019, there was more discussion on how to address racism in description after the Anti-Racist Description Resources was published by The Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group. My blog post looked at the broader issue of appraisal, description, and access for racist materials. I also think the awareness the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 brought to archival institutions made my post more relevant and this should be acknowledged. The Black Lives Matter movement made archivists more reflective of their practices and institutional racism.
More professionals were finding my blog post which led to invitations to present at two symposiums. I presented “Archiving Hate: Legacy Descriptions and Offensive Materials in Archives’ at the Institutional Development Committee Members’ Symposium for the Archives Association of Ontario. In this presentation, I looked more specifically at recommendations for the description and redescription of offensive records. I also presented “Critical Archival Thought: Integrating Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy and Training” for Archive/Counter-Archive. In this presentation, I advocated for anti-racist and anti-oppressive frameworks to archival education and training in Canada. These presentations have connected me to more archivists, and a professor, who is interested in working with me in a consultant capacity. I never would have considered consulting, but I think it is exciting that professionals value my perspective and research skills.
A lot of archivists are concerned with causing harm to racialized communities. The field is predominantly white, so many archivists feel uncomfortable determining online access for racist records. Some archivists have asked me how they can determine if it is safe to make a racist record accessible online or how they can safely do so. There is no clear best practice for selecting racist materials for digitization or how to present them online. Many archives lack the resources to consult with communities and compensate them for their labour. I would like to do more research on access and see if there is a way to make a guideline or list of recommendations to help archivists. I am also interested in doing training. I recently applied to lead a workshop on anti-racist description and access for the Association of Canadian Archivists. There is a need for more archival training that guides archivists on how to adopt anti-oppressive practices.
So, I am developing a name for myself, which is very exciting! I never would have thought that my work would be helpful and insightful so early in my career. I was thinking about it recently —if I never decided to go back to Carleton and take Crafting Digital History, I never would have started blogging. Without my blog, I never would have published my research online and I never would have had these new professional opportunities. You never know how far an opportunity will take you! I think this is just the beginning, I am excited to see where I go from here.
Melissa J Nelson will be presenting at the Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference in 2021. It will be a panel of recent graduates from different LIS programs in Canada who identify as BIPOC. It will include faculty from a few LIS programs in Canada. They will discuss issues in LIS programs in Canada in light of diversity, equity, inclusion. Watch out for “Reflecting and Imagining Visions for Archival Education”!
Archive boxes, Wikimedia
This newsletter was complete and tucked away, awaiting Monday morning when it was scheduled to go out into the world.
And then a whole lot of history happened all at once.
Dr. Andrew Johnston was talking with the CBC as things happened; see the full transcript here. For more historical contextualization of what we are witnessing, see this list of articles maintained by Megan Kate Nelson.
Part of me just wants to throw out all of my course materials, and create a new ad-hoc course where each week would simply be the participants trying to contexualize everything that happened that week.
In lieu of that, watch out for an upcoming workshop by PhD student Brandon Rigato for January 29, 11.30, on social media research methods for historians.
Some people reduce the history of the body down to being “just” about medical history but that’s really only one corner of it. I study empires and it’s fascinating to me to think through how every kind of battleground is and was about the body somehow – which bodies matter to whom, which will be compelled to do what work, eat what food, dress a certain way, be paid well for their work, be considered beautiful, so on and so on. So it’s really a fundamental way to think through any issue, whether about today or in the past – the pandemic and all of the movements that have been brought to the forefront during it have made this pretty obvious. I love when students really begin to understand the analytical potential of the history of the body as a methodology and that it pertains to every being in the world, somehow.
To make it suitable for online delivery, I divided up the course into weekly Units based on body parts: bones, eyes, stomachs, blood, etc. I thought this would make it fun and it does but it’s challenging to decide on which stories to tell when you’re not necessarily teaching about the rise of a nation-state, for example, which many history classes do.
A comment I’ve received a number of times on student evaluation forms is that they’ve never approached history this way before and so they find it refreshing and provocative. I like that a lot.
How so many of them aren’t history majors! They come from all kinds of programs and disciplinary or interdisciplinary training and bring that and their own unique backgrounds into each weekly discussion group. I really love how the discussions can go in any number of directions and many, many angles get discussed.
There’s been so much! There’s an assignment where each student picks their own historical context to study something about the body and I’ve read really fascinating stuff about so many different things: medieval body armour, cod pieces, American Sign Language, synchronized swimming and body hair aesthetics, ideas about Black bodies in the Harlem Renaissance, embodied experiences of trench warfare in WW1, Maori tattooing practices and resistance to colonialism, anti-fur fashion, advertisements for skin-whitening products, horses in 19c Montreal, the polio vaccine, contested meanings of scalping, controversies over male circumcision in the Ottoman empire…you name it. I’ve learned so much and it makes for interesting grading.
I think about this question all the time. The next formulation of the class might get rid of the body part schtick and foreground more explicit social theory and zero in on the (still too enormous) context of Britain and empire 17c-20c. This might get us away from thinking about the body so explicitly as a Western bio-medical topic and more into the methodology part. But would I be throwing out the big tent approach that people like? The challenge will be to keep both the body parts and the tighter context and make it work…
Da Vinci, Studies of the Arm Showing the Movements Made by the Biceps, Wikimedia
The 58th Annual CAGS Conference (Canadian Association for Graduate Studies) happens February 1st to 5th, online. Dr. Ian Wereley, Carleton History grad and now Executive Director of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies, is organizing a session on the subject of graduate education (past, present, and future); see the conference information here.
And while we mentioned it in the last newsletter, it bears repeating - the Underhill Graduate Colloquium is coming! Led by Sarah Hart and Max Cronkite, this year’s colloquium will be an excellent opportunity for graduate students from Carleton and further afield to present their work remotely. For more information, including the keynote speaker and Call for Papers, follow @CU_Underhill on Twitter! If you know of graduate students at other institutions who might be interested in participating, tell them to keep an eye on The Underhill Graduate Colloquium website.
Congratulations to Prof. Lipsett-Rivera, whose book, ‘The Origins of Macho; Men and Masculinity in Colonial Mexico’ has won the María Elena Martínez Prize for the best book in Mexican History. It is given by the Conference of Latin American Historians, a branch of the American Historical Association.
Guy Poirier, via Unsplash
This newsletter is produced by the Communications Committee of the Department of History. Questions, concerns, complaints, or kudos: firstname.lastname@example.org, c/o comms committee