Archive for the ‘Media Relations’ Category

I find myself caught quite often in a war of words between my academic colleagues and all my friends/neighbors/family who live and work in the ‘real world’ far outside the university walls. What university colleagues consider ‘well-written and accessible for a broad audience’ my Mom will put down in frustration as academic gobbledegook, not worth her time.

Sometimes, in the silences of the night when I’m trying to bridge this gap with my own work, I have a vision of the ‘ivory tower’ of the university campus complete with moat, drawbridge, and scary crocodiles in the water, waiting to rip my flesh from my bones, should I decide to take a swim on a hot summer’s day. The walls are high, and I cannot climb over the top. I must pass over the drawbridge and through the door to enter.

There are passwords to get into this ivory tower. And they are complicated, scary, and change every few hours, depending on who might be the gatekeeper.

The other day, it was a doctor, and the password was ‘myocardial infarction.’

You don’t want to know what I said. But I’ll bet you can guess. It didn’t work, so I tried again. ‘HEART ATTACK’ I cried, my eyes on the eyes in the water, slipping closer to the edge.

Well, it worked, but the welcome was grudging, at best. He saw my desperation, but clearly my translation left much to be desired.

Another day, there was an English professor at the door. She was reading a book in one hand, and working on her laptop on the other. Aha, I thought. I am in luck. In the dusty bottom of a drawer, I have a certified English degree. This will be easy! I tried: ‘Jane Austen!’ No luck. Well, I’m Canadian. So I’ll try: ‘Lucy Maud Montgomery!’ Nothing. She looked up and said, “It is ‘Constructive post-postmodern psychocritical phenomenological narratology,'” you dunce!

First, my apologies to anyone who studies what I just wrote. I honestly thought I was making it up. I took out an old copy of Modern Criticism and Theory from my said university English days, and looked up random words.

Second, I’m sure there are readers who will say, ‘Merle, are you the pot, or the kettle? Because the last time I checked, you are an academic. Black, I tell you. Black!’

True enough. I am. I hold a nice, fresh PhD that my History supervisor assured me did not get handed to me wrapped with bubble gum. I worked for it. That’s true. But I am unwilling to shake years of writing for public audiences — newspaper articles, newsletters, corporate books,  magazine stories. It is a different dynamic, and a powerful one.

I’m married to a smart, successful, well-educated scientific farmer. But if it starts with the word ‘post’, and I can’t pound it into the ground, it just isn’t useful.

So, I was grateful and happy to see the Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan recently declare that he would ideally like to see U of S faculty “consider communicating their research to the public.” Superb! I agree! (For his post, see http://artsandscience.usask.ca/blog/archives/148).

With those thoughts in mind, I was pleased to attend a recent workshop on Communications with Meagan Hinther, word scribe of the School of Environment and Sustainability. My own workshop, Hooked: Writing for a Public Audience stands firm within a movement, almost an insistence, that as prestigious as peer-reviewed academic publications are, there is another audience out there who deserves attention. I was delighted with the uptake for the workshop. We discussed audience, active voice, opening lines, planning with vision, and working with media relations. I have a number of ideas of things we can do better and differently when I offer the workshops again — practical, hands-on writing work. A messy, ugly, trial-by-fire approach. I’ll be the first to get burned, I’m sure. I need several drafts of each email and I still end up with typos and wordy paragraphs. Like this one.

The thrust to work toward greater public communication is, I believe, soaking the ground underneath the battlements of the ‘ivory tower.’ The walls shouldn’t crumble, and I really don’t want them to. But I would like to see the doors at least open to the courtyard. Smiles of welcome and recognizable passwords (heart attack, thank you) will be a part of the process. Invite people in, by being inviting. As I said to those who attended the writing workshop, what is more important: sounding smart, or having people understand what you say?

Am I knocking academic scholarship? No. There are amazing people and intricate, excellent, technical, and immensely important research problems being studied at every university. Some of that research is complicated, difficult, and best discussed among an intimate group of people who communicate using acutely sensitive and particular words that carry specific and crafted meaning. If it’s necessary to solve world peace or find a cure for cancer or develop policies around safe drinking water, then we need it. And I support it.

But I think that it is time for the university community at large to recognize its place as a public institution, serving the public. I’m not asking anyone to ride two horses with one ass, as the old Southern saying goes. I would just like to see more space and support, and recognition, for writers and academics who would like to write for a public audience. Recognition during tenure review or hiring processes, for example. I find it incredibly disheartening when I hear about graduate students and young faculty, excited to write for a public audience, being sternly warned: ‘you’re wasting your time. It won’t help your tenure review. It’s not peer-reviewed.’

True. But then again, it is peer-reviewed. If it gets read — and that is easily tracked — it is reviewed by your public peers. Comments, questions, concerns, re-tweets, links… connectivity and sharing are the new way to pass notes down the aisle.

That public audience carries enormous power, both in what it can do and what it can say. Endowments, trusts, chairs. Research funding. Partnerships. Community engagement. These are actions, not words, and they are words that every university sits up and pays attention to. I think that in our new era of blogs, Twitter, and ever-increasing connection (Open Source!), it is critical that academics are encouraged, supported, and promoted in their public writing.

Because otherwise, like I saw in a post on Twitter this morning, it is a ‘nerd loop’ where we academics only speak to each other.

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As a member of NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment), I occasionally contribute blog posts to The Otter, our public blog. Over the past couple of months, fellow environmental historians Sean Kheraj, Shannon Stunden Bower and myself collaborated on a three part blog regarding the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board. Sean and Shannon contributed intriguing views that look at the CWB through the lens of history; I chose to focus on the loss of the Wheat Board and what it means to our farm. Find the blog here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10317

Events and perspectives continue to unfold regarding the end of the Wheat Board monopsony buying/monopoly selling power. (Aside: I tend to use ‘single desk’ and leave it at that, with apologies to all economists and V. Fowke, Canadian agricultural economist and historian). As a regular subscriber to The Western Producer, one of the pre-eminent farm papers, I enjoy reading the letters to the editor. Each week, over the past several years, heated exchanges and debates have brought forth many lesser-known sides to the issue, including past Wheat Board successes and failures, rants, interjections and declarations from politicians and other key players, and a healthy dose of western Canadian agricultural history. Based on truth, lies, fact and fiction (and no one is really sure which is which), the letters are entertaining, informative, and in many cases, attempt to predict the future.

So I thought I might try that, too. What I expect to see in the next few years, as a result of dismantling the CWB (sincerely hoping, for some of these, that I am wrong!):

1. Lower grain prices for wheat and barley. Huge grain companies make their money by buying low, selling high. That is called capitalism.

2. Lower grain quality regulation. Already, we see new innovations in malt barley marketing that allows for a grain grade somewhere between excellent malt barley and feed. Can you keep track of the taste of your favourite brew over the next few years?

3. A new rise in co-operative pool marketing. Viterra, once the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, turned public several years ago. The time will come when new pools will take its place.

4. Serious instability in rural train branch lines, owned and operated by small private shareholders. Much of their profit stemmed from moving CWB grain. With grain no longer under CWB transportation policies, the grain companies and the rail lines are expected to take a much larger cut in the profit, and the rural branch lines could fail. This will put increased strain on an already overloaded truck transportation system, with huge costs for municipalities, as well as farm profits.

5. Legal backlash and lawsuits against the Canadian government for compensation. If the CWB operated with a cash flow in part from grain profits, those profits should be returned to farmers. Of course, the federal government will charge that it has supported the CWB financially — which is also true. The resultant battle will drag on for years.

6. Possibly the rise of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Once the bane of the organized farm lobby and the subject of intense scrutiny and hatred, its new form (ICE Futures Canada) is attempting to re-establish a Canadian foothold in the grain market, particularly in the wake of the end of the CWB.

7. Farmers learning to buy and sell futures contracts. Hedging will be a key part of farm economics.

8. Farmers having to purchase Technology Use Agreements and buy new seed every year, similar to what is already done in the canola industry. Carrying your own wheat and barley over and cleaning it for seed will become obsolete. The offshoot will be the gradual demise of small, mobile grain cleaning companies and labs that test grain for germination.

9. Less wheat grown. Without the cushion provided by the CWB, farmers will not be able to ‘shop’ their grain to various elevator companies, trying to get the best grade possible. Wheat contracts will force farmers to sell only to the grain company with whom they made a contract. Then again, on the upside, less wheat grown generally leads to better prices, forcing the grain companies to compete for our wheat and durum crops.

10. More ‘information sessions’ and other local and regional conferences, attempting to sort out the biggest farm question: WHAT HAPPENS NOW? I’ll be attending a few over the next couple of months…!

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My recent research into flooding in boreal communities across northeastern Saskatchewan and northwestern Manitoba has drawn the interest of a local newspaper: the Nipawin Journal. I sent a press release, then stopped in to visit the newspaper and share some of our initial research findings on my return from my fabulous first research trip to Cumberland House. See the article here: http://www.nipawinjournal.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=3463461

My thanks to Melissa, editor at the Journal, for her professional interest in the project!

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Blog posts not only get read, they get shared. Or so I’ve learned this week!

I received a lovely phone call from the producers of CBC Saskatchewan’s The Afternoon Edition with Craig Lederhouse. I will be interviewed tomorrow re: my piece on Saskatchewan Ghost Towns, and I’ve promised both SaskTel on Demand, as well as ActiveHistory.ca, that I will be sure to mention them both. Once the interview is finished, I’ll try to download the podcast here.

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Recently, I was invited to visit the town of Loverna, SK, a stone’s throw from the Alberta border, with a documentary film company out of Saskatoon.

This experience — wandering through a virtually empty town, scaring the pigeon who had made his home in the curling rink foyer, visiting the still-used Anglican church, peeking in the windows of the old Elk’s Hall and garage — was a fun way to spend a day, if a little sad (even for a historian).

There were surprises: the artifact I had originally dismissed as yet another old wagon proved, on further examination, to be a horse-drawn manure spreader — surely organic groups would hearken to the knowledge of prairie pioneers, pre-commercial fertilizer! The box of empty stubbie beer bottles at the back of the hall were another great find.

Saskatchewan is littered with the remnants of towns, villages, and abandoned farm yards, the detritus of humanity moving through the landscape and sojourning for a short but intense period of time. Other towns, of course, remain vibrant, even growing. New house starts in Biggar, an hour west of Saskatoon (where I live), have been phenomenal over the past six years. The so-called ‘Saskaboom’ is spilling  back to the rural regions, at least those within striking distance of the major centers, or near the extractive industrial centers of potash, oil, or gas development. Ironically, although the region around Loverna is crawling with oil and gas workers — we saw no less than two helicopters in the area, in addition to extensive oil pump operations — workers are not moving back to the rural towns. Or at least, not Loverna.

My experiences with the video crew that day got me thinking about ghost towns, and how it has become an urban craze to drive out of the cities to poke through and photograph the remants of the rural past. I recently wrote a blog post for ActiveHistory.ca on the craze. Read it here: http://activehistory.ca/2012/01/sad-empty-places-marketing-ghost-towns-in-saskatchewan/

Happy Ghost Town hunting.

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Recently, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) has created a new initiative: Environmental History Television! (Well, that’s the basic idea, anyway…).

With 25 Flip HD video cameras distributed to Environmental Historians across the country, 3 to 5 minute movie clips will soon be pouring in to EHTV on YouTube. The inaugural video, posted May 27th by Sean Kheraj, features an overview of the recent EH+ conference in Hamilton, Ontario. (And yes, I’m in it, too…). There is some lovely footage of the Burlington waterscape on Lake Ontario, the Botanical Gardens, and some thoughts from conference attendees. I second Claire Campbell’s view that we should get together like that once a year… Click here to see the video: http://youtu.be/AUDzDzLsoHk.

As the summer progresses, those of us who received Flips will be charging around, collecting and editing video clips reporting various aspects of Canadian and international environmental history. I’ve promised a tour of our farm, and last week I captured a major bicycle race that had been moved to Biggar for environmental reasons. A trip to Niagara Falls is also in the bag, and may be uploaded fairly soon. Stay tuned!

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This coming weekend — April 29th to May 1st — is EH+, the conference for Canadian environmental historians. Co-sponsored by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, it will be held at Hamilton.  It promises to be an interesting event. With a keynote speech from Andrew Nikiforuk (Dirty Oil: Tarsands in Alberta fame…), the weekend offers a chance to get together, discuss, and reflect on the current state of this particular genre of history. As well, there will be some great new ideas for projects, proposals, and possibilities moving forward.

In reading the statements of the participants — which, if you are so inclined, can be found online at http://niche-canada.org/, then click on EH+ and Participant Statements — two distinct themes come to the forefront. One, most of the members of NiCHE and attending this conference feel that it is time for environmental historians to step it up in terms of their public participation. Environmental historians have real perspective and wisdom to offer to policy developers at municipal, provincial, national, and (even?) international levels. We study how humans interact with their landscape, and that means physically, economically, and culturally. And, as we move through issues of climate change, environmental degradation, floods and droughts, pollution, and toxicity, that knowledge becomes the keystone to future planning.

The second theme that rises out of the participant statements is: scale. No, not the numbers that pulsed back at me this morning as I stepped on the metal monster in the bathroom. By ‘SCALE,’ geographers are essentially talking about size. In most cases, scale refers to space, as in the following: I could map where I am right now as 1) my basement office, in a diagram that shows my house layout; 2) in my house, on a map of the town of Biggar, SK; 3) in Biggar, on a map of Saskatchewan; 4) in Saskatchewan, on a map of Canada or North America; 5) on Earth, as opposed to other planets in our solar system.

You get the idea. Scale is a key concept when defining space and place, but it can also apply to time or theme, as necessary. All that is needed is a very clear indication of scale — what scale are you using in this study, and why.

Geographers define their scale, and away they go with their research, conclusions and publications. Historians, however, must spend an inordinate amount of time defending their choice of scale, especially if that scale is anything less than national in scope.

And that’s exactly the point. Canadian environmental historians, as opposed to geographers, have inherited a burden of guilt from Canadian historians in general. Canadian historians have spent decades turning themselves inside out trying to argue which is the best scale to study Canadian history — local, regional, or national. In far too many cases, practitioners have argued that the best or only scale at which to write ‘good’ history is national in scope. Somehow, the impression is that only national history has the capacity to truly affect Canadians.  By extension, those that study regional or local history — read between the lines, me! — have an uphill battle to defend their choices. Dismissed as parochial, the local in particular has all-too-often been denigrated by academic historians, and not practised.

The cloud over local studies causes particular angst for environmental historians, whose research can and does quite often turn on the local. Engagement with the environment, and environmental history, is often most in tune with the physical presence of the land, and human influence/built environment/cultural perception/degradation of the landscape. Yet, many of the participant statements for EH+ push for, even demand, a much larger scale — national, transnational, or international in scope. It is only on this scale, some declare, that we as environmental historians can have an impact on national policies relating to the environment.

But I question this attitude, while supporting it in theory. I would love to see environmental historians regularly consulted on national environmental issues. I think the world will become a better, cleaner, safer place for all (humans and non-humans alike) when these sorts of consultations take place now and into the future. I think, however, that environmental historians can make as much of a difference, collectively, while giving significance to the local. For example, someone who has done extensive research on chemical, endocrine, and other pollutants within a watershed would be an excellent member of that watershed’s technical advisory committee. Or, a local environmental historian might be a superb fit on a city’s payroll, not as an archivist or storyteller to children (those are perks of the position…), but as a policy advisor: in 1952, the flood crest hit two meters above where you are proposing to site that construction. You should move it to higher ground.

Environmental historians may, in fact, find that their key center of influence — the place where they can do the most good — is the local and the regional. And really, what can possibly be wrong with that?

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I am pleased to report that Dr. Maureen Reed, a geographer and assistant director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan has asked me to join her team. The postdoctoral appointment will involve working with Dr. Reed on her co-sponsored project through Carina Keskitalo of Sweden. Dr. Keskitalo is an associate professor of Political Science at Umea University and is the lead project co-ordinator. This many-layered project, funded by MISTRA (The Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research), focuses on “Preparing for and responding to disturbance: Arctic lessons for Sweden.” Research teams in Sweden, Finland and Canada will co-ordinate projects related to community reponse to flooding, pest infestations, severe storm events, and economic restructuring in forest use. Focusing on boreal and boreal edge communties, I will feel right at home.

As a historian, I will bring a critical focus that will investigate change over time, particularly in terms of policy implications. Working primarily with flooding events — such as the massive spring run-off in 2010 in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and the expected flooding predicted for this coming year — I will have one eye on the news reports, and another on the community and administrative response. If you have stories or photos to share, please contact me. Your expertise is valued.

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