Photo by Tapio Haaja via Unsplash.com
Reflections from a Reluctant Historian
When I was an undergraduate student in the 1990s at York University, becoming a history professor was not on my list of things to accomplish. I changed majors more than a few times. As I recall, I started off in computer science, then changed to economics, and then to mass communications … My undergraduate transcript reflected my confusion. I took history courses during those years and my grades were respectable, but I only reluctantly decided to major in history. Or as I like to tell students, I did not choose history. History chose me. I only declared history as my major after I tried and failed in other areas. Because I took the scenic tour to history, it took me 6 years to complete my undergraduate degree. That is more time than it took for me to complete my PhD which I completed in 5.5 years.
Why was I so reluctant to major in history even though I enjoyed most of my courses and my grades suggested I had the necessary competence? If you asked me this question in the 1990s, I would have given the same response that many students today would probably give if asked. What do you do with a degree in history except become a teacher or work in a museum?
I’ve had over two decades to reflect on my journey, and so today I would answer the same question a bit differently. When I analyze things, my thinking tends to be problem oriented. In retrospect, I think I wanted to study something that would give me the skills necessary to solve societal problems in the present. At the time, I didn’t think history could do that. I was very envious of peers who were studying international development and wanted to do something along those lines. Today, I’m really grateful that never worked out.
My training in history has taught me why development and humanitarian systems are so flawed and are informed by neocolonial thinking. As a history professor, I get to take that to the classroom when I teach students from other disciplines who hope to “make a difference” in the world by studying public affairs, international development, and related subjects.
History can be taught as narrative, debate, or explanation. In my opinion, too many history departments focus on exposing students to narrative. Let’s try this as a thought experiment: What would a history department that explicitly teaches students how historical thinking can be used to solve problems look like?
Maybe if more students believed history would help them better understand the problems of the world they are inheriting today and would give them strategies to help solve those problems, they would be more inclined to major in history…
If my own undergraduate journey as a reluctant historian is any indication of what is possible, then perhaps what we need is a reframing of history departments to coax undergraduate students who are “historians at heart” but still too reluctant to commit.
Questions for Alumni: Julia Van Drie
Our alumni are all over the world, doing interesting things. We thought it might be nice to reconnect with some of them. In this issue we chat with Julia Van Drie.
- Tell us a bit about yourself professionally. Where do work? What are your responsibilities?
I work in a political role within the federal government, as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister of Labour. On a day-to-day basis, I provide advice and brief the Minister on mandate-related decisions, work with Labour Program officials to help implement and advance policy files through the policy process (such as MCs through Cabinet, regulations through Treasury Board), and meet with stakeholders to hear their concerns and feedback on policy initiatives. My responsibilities include advancing the files assigned to me within the portfolio, ensuring stakeholders and government partners are kept up-to-date on the status of files, and supporting outreach activities to stakeholders when policy developments are made public (i.e. through announcements, and larger initiatives such as Budgets and Fall Economic Statements).
- When did you study at Carleton? Did any particular class/faculty/staff/librarian have an impact on you?
I studied at Carleton from 2014-2018. My experience at Carleton as a history major was exceedingly positive, and I always found that the entire history faculty to be incredibly supportive throughout my studies. Having said that, I was certainly impacted by a variety of Professors throughout my degree, including: Professor Kerry Abel (who taught my first year seminar course, and really set the stage for the rest of my degree); Professor Dominique Marshall (who was my professor for the Historian’s Craft in second year, and also employed my in third year as a research assistant through an I-CUREUS grant); Professor Norman Hilmer (who instructed one of my favourite classes, the fourth year seminar on Canada, North America, and the World); and Professor Audra Diptee (who taught me my second fourth year seminar, which taught me about critically applied history through the course titled, The Use and Abuse of HIstory).
While these professors had a huge impact on the way I write, think, and conceptualize history, I was also significantly impacted by the third year Historical Theory class, which also challenged my writing skills quite significantly. I also participated in a practicum course in my fourth year, when I was given the opportunity to develop my research capabilities by providing support to the World War One photography division at the Canadian War Museum. _Documentary Making in History_was another course that gave me hands-on skills that I’m not sure I would have developed if I had not been graded on my efforts to record and transcribe primary evidence. The history department at Carleton supported my development as a student, and the classes I took offered invaluable skills that I will use for the rest of my life.
- What was the path that got you from life as a student to where you are now?
My trajectory from studying at Carleton to working on the political side of government was largely fuelled by my participation in partisan politics, however that was also supported by my on-campus involvement during my undergrad. As a political staffer, I owe much of my success to my involvement on Liberal campaigns, my advocacy and organization as a Young Liberal, and my experience as an Intern on Parliament Hill. This political experience was enabled by virtue of studying at Carleton, given that it allowed me to campaign in Ottawa Centre in 2015, and run for President of the Carleton Liberals in 2016. This involvement eventually led to me being hired as an intern in a Minister’s office in 2017, which is where I developed connections that helped me advance to where I am today.
- In what ways did studying history shape how you think about the work that you do?
Studying history easily gave me the critical analysis and thinking skills I use in my work every single day. While writing a paper on Jewish agency during the holocuast might seem pretty different than advancing pay equity regulations through the policy process, both of these tasks similarly required the ability to look at a set of facts, think about it critically, and draw conclusions about the situation. While writing papers in history can involve drawing out themes and new perspectives from the past, working in politics requires analyzing legal and political frameworks to similarly recommend and advance the “best path forward.”
- If you could send a message to your younger self, when you were an undergraduate studying history, what would it say?
I always think about this question and realize that the advice I would give evolves each year that I grow in my career. Having graduated almost three years ago, I can confidently say that the one piece of advice I think undergrads need to hear is: don’t feel like you need to have it all figured out by the time you graduate.
In 2018, unsure of how long the Liberals would retain government, I was nervous that I didn’t know what my next step would be after this professional opportunity ceased to exist. I stressed a lot over my next steps, and whether I wanted to keep working (and for how long!?), do a masters in international relations or public history, or write the LSAT in an attempt to go to law school. I knew I needed to be flexible and open to new opportunities, but I realized at some point after graduating that it’s okay to not know where you’re going, as long as you’re making an effort to do something you care about now.
Some students learn by first year exactly what they want to do, and that’s wonderful. However, others (like me), often realize they have a ton of interests, and have no idea how to trim down the list. If you fall in the latter category, it’s okay! Take the time to understand yourself, and take your growth and career development step by step. While academia gives you the skills you will use in the real world, experience outside of school often helps one understand what opportunities are out there. Don’t worry if you’re not sure what you want to study next, or if you don’t know what jobs existe - keep on experiencing and learning until you have a better idea of who you are and what your real passions are.
Parliament, by Naveen Kumar, via Unsplash.com
Photo by Gene Jeter, via Unsplash.com
Interview with Tanya Schwartz
Tanya Schwartz, the Department’s Undergraduate Administrator, won a 2020 Service Excellence Award in February. Congratulations Tanya! We asked Tanya about her work.
- How did you come to be the Undergraduate Administrator in the department?
I started out advising students years ago when I worked at McGill in the Faculty of Education and I loved it. To learn more about the workings of the university, I also spent several years in research administration. It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa and started working with students in the Ethics Office at Carleton that I realized how much I really missed working with students. So, when a position as the Undergraduate Administrator opened up in the History Department, I jumped at the opportunity.
- What’s a day in the life (under pandemic) like for you?
This is the part where I get to sound like a slacker. I get to sleep in a bit as I no longer have a long commute to and from the office. Instead, it gives me time to walk my three dogs around the neighbourhood before starting my day with the History Department. (I refer to my dogs as my “furry colleagues” as they always want to be a part of whatever I’m doing, especially if it involves talking with anyone over zoom.)
I then check in with my administrative colleagues, Ann Anderson, Joan White, and Xiaohan Xu (who supports the Latin and Caribbean Studies unit). We share memes and anecdotes, giving us a way to stay connected to each other during these strange times.
The rest of my workday is usually spent answering questions from students and liaising with our Undergraduate Supervisor, Susan Whitney. Helping students is one of the best parts about my job and I look forward to hearing from them each day. Thankfully, Susan shares my enthusiasm, so I know I can always turn to her when our students need extra support.
Finally, after my workday is over, I try to fit in at least a couple of hours of studying as I work towards my own undergraduate degree in Political Science. Thankfully, my family is very supportive of this and they don’t roll their eyes too much when I start droning on about politics.
- Is there something you wish everyone knew about the way the department works?
I think everyone should know just how supportive this department is. When our students graduate, win an award, or just do well on an assignment, the staff and faculty within the department all talk about it with pride. It’s also why I keep encouraging our students to visit faculty and instructors during their office hours. Not only do I know that the students will get the help they need, but they will also have a chance to speak with someone who shares their love of history.
And speaking of a love of history, I would be remiss if I did not mention the amazing support that our students receive from each other. The History Department is fortunate to have an active undergraduate student organization (HUgS) that is here to support the academic and social needs of our students. Through their movie nights and essay writing services, the executive team of HUgS is a vital part of student success. I really hope all our students will consider attending a HUgS event, even if only virtually for now.
- I know that you are taking classes yourself – does that affect your perspective on the work that you do?
It really does. I’ve been taking courses off and on for many years so I’ve gone through a lot of the same things our students have. Thankfully, having switched majors three times and taken courses at several different institutions, I have learned a lot about how a university functions and what services there are for students. There are so many people and services here that want to help students but often times they are underutilized because students are just not aware of them. So I do my best to listen to each student and then put them in touch with the right supports for them and their unique needs.
- What is the most rewarding part of the job?
There are two really rewarding parts. The first one is helping students who are having a difficult time. When I can help them solve their problem, or at least make things a little more manageable for them, I feel so lucky. I know how frustrating and stressful it can be to navigate all the rules and regulations of a university. Being able to support them and see the relief on their faces afterwards is an amazing feeling.
The other most rewarding part of my job is also the most bittersweet. Every time convocation rolls around, I’m so proud of our students for succeeding and completing their degrees. The look of pride on their faces and on the faces of their families is such an amazing thing to witness. Convocation also means that I’ll be saying goodbye to a lot of familiar faces but maybe, if I wish hard enough, at least a few of them will stick around and pursue graduate studies with the History Department.
Things to Read
Our colleagues Monica Patterson and recent MA in PH Rebecca Friend have just published
Beyond Window Rainbows: Collecting Children’s Culture in the COVID Crisis in Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals:
As COVID-19 dramatically alters the museum sector, museums and archives are implementing collection initiatives that will have tremendous influence over how the pandemic is understood and remembered. As collections experts, museums are leading the charge to document, collect, and interpret our current circumstances as they unfold in real time, relying more than ever on public participation and crowd-sourcing. A key development in such rapid-response collecting has been the interest in and solicitation of contributions that document the current crisis. Yet, initiatives that target young people remain few and far between, and often reproduce romanticized and reified understandings of children and childhood that reflect a longer history of excluding children’s voices from museum collections and society at large. This paper will explore museums’ collection of children’s culture in various forms with attention to the epistemological and ethical challenges that such initiatives entail. We argue that children are crucial citizens whose knowledge, perspectives, and experiences must be collected and preserved during this historic moment and beyond, in ways that attend to the particular circumstances they face as multiply marginalized museum constituents and members of society.
Get it at https://doi.org/10.1177/1550190620980836.
Things to Do
Why, the Underhill Graduate Colloquium of course! The Colloquium takes place this Friday and Saturday, via zoom.
The Colloquium organizers are excited to present award-winning animated short film, Rotinonhsión:ni Ironworkers as the keynote for the 27th Annual Underhill Graduate Colloquium. The keynote address includes a screening of the film, followed by a question and answer period with directors Carlee Kawinehta Loft and Dr. Allan Downey. More information about the film can be found here.
The keynote will be hosted on March 13 at 7PM EST via Zoom and can be joined via this link. We hope you can join us!
More Things to Celebrate
The annual DHAwards are a community-driven event meant to celebrate the diversity of work that happens every year under the banner of ‘digital humanities’. There is a wide variety of work falling under several different categories. This year, we had four MA students and 1 BA student nominated, our best showing ever. Well done everyone! Being nominated for an award is a recognition of the innovative work that we do around here.
Yesterday evening, the winners of the community driven DH Awards 2020 were announced. We are extremely pleased and proud to say that Chantal Brousseau’s course blog from Introduction to HIST3000 Introduction to Digital Archaeology was nominated in the category of ‘Best Exploration of DH Failure/Limitations’ and… it won!
Critically examining what works (or not) and why, along with the implications for what we can know, is a key aspect of what makes digital work in history and the humanities more broadly what it is; extremely strong pieces from faculty in the US and from various journals were also up for consideration in this category this year. Chantal’s thoughtful examination of her own work in the context of the broader historiography was powerful and persuasive. Congratulations Chantal!