Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.


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I really enjoyed this interview, with Derrick Kunz of the Green and White, University of Saskatchewan newspaper:


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The following was originally published (in slightly edited form) for ActiveHistory.ca 23 January 201. We’re a group of historians interested in thinking about history and its current and future applications.

So, I’m writing a book.

What follows, for your January darn-it’s-cold-and-I’m-ready-for-something-kind-of-fun reading pleasure, is a primer (briefing notes) about the book. Given the growing recognition that Mother Nature remains strong and rather angry about human-induced climate change – kudos to everyone who spent Christmas with no power – I’m writing about human migration.

Drawing lessons from families who pulled up stakes and moved during the Great Trek from one biome (prairie south) to another (boreal north) due to drastic climate and economic problems during the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties, this book is based on history but with an eye to practical suggestions for the future. Imagine me having a conversation with my Grandpa and Grandma: what should I do to be prepared? Some of the following five lessons may or may not apply to your situation. It depends if you have a horse. Lessons may be tongue-in-cheek or serious. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

The underlying premise of the book is that climate change is happening and is worsening, and that Canada (in particular, Canada’s middle north and north) has been pinpointed as a place to which climate migrants from around the world may flee.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Lesson one:

Leave sooner rather than later. Leave at the first sign of things going drastically wrong. Use this opportunity to go directly to a place where you think you might like to be. North Bay, Ontario? The Pas, Manitoba? Prince George, BC? Excellent choices – fresh water, some farmland, some trees, but with access to hospitals and schools. Edge places, with a lot of variety. You will be much more successful if you move sooner and get established, while you still have some capital and some energy. Waiting, hanging on where you are until the last moment, will cause you trouble in the long run. Takeaway: pull out your map of Canada and pinpoint possibilities. Then do your homework.

Lesson two:

Take family with you. And friends. And choose a place where you know a few people already. This is called social capital and you will need it. If things go to ‘hell in a handbasket’, as the old saying goes, you may need to rely on each other, pool resources, work together. This is no time to stand on your own, be stand-offish or independent. Social capital can save you or pull you through when things are tough. This will also help when you get lonesome and homesick for the place that you had to leave. Having your family and friends with you, instead of leaving them behind, will take the edge off your move. Takeaway: start making a plan, involve your friends and family, and make your social capital work for you.

Lesson three:

You will probably have to take lots of small jobs that rotate seasonally rather than one job. Yes, you’re right, you will be poorer. But you shouldn’t starve. Losing the single employment that brings in cash can put you in the poorhouse faster than you can say ‘mortgage payment.’ Having lots of small jobs usually means that you have a lot of skills that are portable and have value. You will need to be flexible if you are forced to move because of climate change. You may not find a job in your area of expertise, or you may find one but it may not be full-time. As the economy shifts beneath our feet, you may need to branch out. If you’re already on this path, good for you: you’re one step ahead. Takeaway: the future economy is perilous. The one-job, one-wage norm is changing. Change first, on your own terms. Be ahead of the curve.

Lesson four:

Physical labour will probably be required. Some of it will be hard, some of it will be icky. Learn to chop wood, use a chainsaw, haul water, build a fire, cook with wood, grow a garden, pick berries, shoot a gun, catch and gut a fish, learn your plants in the real world instead of the supermarket, and in general get closer to the land. Buy workgloves and work boots and work clothes. Expect your work days to last longer than 7.5 hours. Expect to work outside in all weather, in all seasons. Can you fix things yourself? Brush up on that. If storms and floods and fires and other major catastrophes are increasing, you need to be ready. Takeaway: join Scouts, make friends with an active grandparent who cooks, sews, cans, and has a garden, volunteer at a summer camp, take classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and mechanics, and get fit. Be brave.

Lesson five:

Your horse might die of swamp fever. Otherwise known as ‘migration surprise,’ there may be material things (wifi gadgets, electrical gadgets, cars) or animals in your life who will either miss the old landscape so much that they won’t work in the new one (if, by chance, you end up in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods) or they find something in the new one that may kill them. Horses, for example, seem very good at contracting infectious anemia (swamp fever). Transmitted by mosquito bite, and mosquitos are common to nice wet areas, the best line of defense is to learn to make a smudge. Build a fire, then partially smother it with wet straw. Smokes like the dickens. Mosquitos hate it. Word of warning: cars don’t like northern roads, which are notorious when they exist and worse when they don’t. Buy a truck. With a winch. If you can’t afford a truck, and only have a car and a horse, take your chances on the horse. As for your internet fix, that’s harder. See lesson one about choosing your destination. Takeaway: cars vs. horses: horse wins. Cars vs. trucks: take the truck. And address your wifi habit before you go.

Recap: move first, move with friends and family, be flexible, be prepared, and be ready for surprises.

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This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca 14 May 2013.

Over the past two years, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I’ve spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

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[Note: this post is a reprint from a blog I wrote for The Otter, the blogpost for NiCHE, Network in Canadian History of the Environment. Find the original post here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10456]

I remember my first sight of the old Albert Kessel farm. Nestled on the number Four Saskatchewan highway halfway between Biggar and Rosetown, I loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it — through the window of the truck on my way for my first visit to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ farm. “Wow!” I remember saying. “Look at all those great trees!” A northern Saskatchewan bush girl, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the distinctive and iconic prairie landscape. The spruce and jackpine seemed a dollop of ‘home-as-trees’, stretching to brush the clouds of the prairie sky.

I couldn’t predict, then, that one day I would own that piece of land.

When luck looped through our world and the land came into our ownership and stewardship, I found numerous treasures embedded in the landscape. Stone fences, crumbling. An old road, now leading nowhere. An orchard, the last few hardy trees still birthing fruit. A well, which, when primed, still spills forth fresh water. Another wellhead, furtively tucked under trees and surrounded by growth, littered with empty whiskey jugs – the remains of a still? A steel-wheeled wagon, abandoned so long that its front right wheel is encased by the tree that quietly grew from sapling to spire, anchoring the wagon to the earth, ending its rolling days. A swatch of the Bear Hills, never tilled, native prairie warming the soil like a thick kokum’s quilt.

Wagon at the Kessel farm. Merle Massie collection.

One hill in particular rises to attention, flowing above the farm and the circle of pine and spruce. At its top, a cairn of stones cradles an old, rusted, flagpole.

Flagpole at the Kessel farm, 2006. Merle Massie collection.

Since our purchase, I’ve been trolling the memories of neighbors, local museums, and community history books, gleaning accounts of the farm’s original owner: Albert Kessel, a garlic-chewing, eccentric, WWI bugler, journalist, Czechoslovakian master prize-winning bachelor farmer crossed in love. Fascinating.

Albert Kessel, 1958. “Yielded 45 bushels to acre.” Hills in background. Courtesy Biggar Museum.

I wrote about Albert Kessel and my search for knowledge about him in 2008, published in the June/July issue of The Beaver, now Canada’s History Magazine. I knew that Kessel operated a demonstration farm, which was widely-known and visited every year on field day by as many as 400 researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, federal experimental farms, the Searle Grain Company, neighbors, and busloads of schoolchildren. He called it Vimy Ridge Farm.

Kessel was a bugler during WWI, shot through the thigh at Vimy Ridge. In my article for The Beaver, I wrote: did this hill remind Albert of Vimy Ridge? Is that why he called his farm Vimy Ridge Farm? Did he ever blow his bugle up here? I thought it most likely that the hill, or the series of hills, reminded Albert of his harrowing French experience. In salute, Kessel erected a flagpole and every day, he would stump up the hill and fly a British flag.

At the time, I had never visited the real Vimy Ridge. All I knew of the site was confined to history books and photographs, a landscape of the imagination but never of experience. I thought that Vimy Ridge was like Hill 70 or another strategic marker on a theatre of war where every height of land meant a mile more of sovereignty. That changed in 2009, when I visited Vimy Ridge during a conference tour of Belgium and France.

The experience was overwhelming. The imprint of war on the landscape is still tangible. I visited the tunnels, shuddered at being underground, and felt my jaw drop as my eyes skidded over the craters and hummocks that pock the grass – debris from bombs that exploded on the landscape nearly a century ago. Whether or not you believe that Canada was forged at Vimy Ridge – and I’m not a pinpointer of history – knowing that you stand on Canadian soil in the middle of France redefines your perception of what it means to be Canadian.

But it was at the monument that I had my epiphany. And I wasn’t looking at the monument when it happened. I was looking out, at a flat French landscape that was both foreign and intimately familiar. I was reminded of my own words in that article I wrote for The Beaver: To the north of the yard is a commanding hill, hosting a phenomenal panoramic view of the prairies in a fifty-mile swing from east to southwest.

France, from Vimy Ridge. Merle Massie collection.

I knew, in that instant, why Albert Kessel named our farm Vimy Ridge Farm. It wasn’t about the hill – it was the view. From both Vimy Ridge in France, and Vimy Ridge Farm in Saskatchewan, the two landscapes provide a near mirror-image of space, sky, and panoramic earth. Of course, France is covered in towns, villages, trees, and industry: the pyramids are piles of coal, and that is what both armies wanted. Saskatchewan provides a relatively empty prairie view, studded with a few isolated farmsteads and an expansive agricultural skin regularly grown and shaved by generations of farmers.

When Alan MacEachern issued his lovely summer call for photographs of historical landscapes (http://niche-canada.org/node/10423) I considered where I might go, what I would like to see. But my heart knew that I had already made this trip, even if it did not conform exactly to specs. My story draws together two landscapes separated by an ocean and half a continent, and almost a century of time. The story of Vimy Ridge, and the cascading memories of place, connected a little farm in Saskatchewan with an iconic Canadian symbol.

One day, we’ll raise the flag again. We’ll do it for tenacious Saskatchewan homesteaders; for unlucky romances; for Great War and Vimy Ridge veterans; for excellence in prairie agriculture; and, for garlic-chewing bachelor farmers.

And that’s my story.

Vimy Ridge Farm Flagpole, 2012.


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First, I’d like to tell you a story about something that happened in our house yesterday.

My ten year old son, a huge J.R.R. Tolkien fan (he has watched all of the Peter Jackson movies — extended version — several times, and has read the books to boot) was rooting around in my office. He unearthed a lovely, boxed BBC radio version of The Lord of the Rings adapted by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell.

He was delighted! Some of his favourite stories, in audio format!

The drawback — they are on cassette tape. He was excited, but not quite sure what to do.

“Mom! Do you have a Walkman that I can listen to these?” His eyes were shining in anticipation of crawling into his bed with his stories on a rainy day. Well, that was the first drawback. Once upon a time, I had my brother’s old Walkman, that played cassette tapes. But I lent it, years ago, to my great uncle as he lay dying in hospital, along with a selection of books-on-tape to keep him entertained. It never made it home, for whatever reason.

But I did have, in the back corner of the closet in my office, not one, but TWO ghetto blasters. Riches, indeed!

He hauled out the first one (the larger one, which was older and heavier and I have no idea why he picked it). And promptly disappeared to get things set up and get his story into his ears.

Back again, within five minutes. “Mom, the earphones won’t fit in the hole.” Hmmm. I had forgotten about this small technicality. Remember, back in the 80s, when headphones were huge, earbuds were not invented, and the plug was about two inches long? Yeah, those kind. Well, I may have the ghetto blaster, but I no longer have those headphones, nor do I have an adapter.

So, we switched to the smaller, slightly newer ghetto blaster. It had the proper-sized headphone jack, adaptable to his snazzy earbuds. Excellent. I returned to my own tasks, and left him to it.

Less than three minutes later, he was back. “Mom, how do I get it to go to the beginning?” He was puzzled and clearly stumped. “Press ‘rewind'” I said, equally puzzled. Wasn’t that obvious? “But it makes a terrible noise, Mom! And it takes so long! I think something is wrong! Please come and help.”

Well of course, everything was fine with the boom box. He had the tape in the right way down, so that was fine, but he had it facing the wrong way (side two) so even if he had pressed ‘rewind’ and waited, he still wouldn’t have gotten to where he wanted to be. I patiently explained how tapes work, how they move through the boombox, how they have been recorded on both sides and so you have to flip them over. And yes, it does take time to find the right spot in the tape. And yes, it does make noise when it rewinds or fast forwards. And yes, it’s a lot harder to skip ahead or back. You have to go by feel.

He glared, grumped, and moaned a bit more at the weirdness of it all, but then settled down to listen.

Typically, when a new piece of technology makes its appearance in our house, I am the last to figure out what to do. Or, second last — I might be a shade more up-to-date than my husband. But miles behind our kids, in most instances. When I brought home a new Samsung tablet computer, my son promptly took it in hand to get everything operating well. Remotes, Wii games, and the kids’ ipods are similarly ‘their’ territory.

So this incident made me feel a lot better. As a parent, I had an area of expertise that I could share — related to technology. Of course, they ribbed me for that. ‘Mom, this is from, like, the 1980s!’, as if that was just after the dinosaurs. Yes, I really am that old. And I like old things. I am a historian, after all.

It reminded me, though, of an incident in the archives last year. While rooting through some Saskatchewan Archives Board files on the Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life from 1952, I found a fabulous recording on a blue, small vinyl record of the meetings that were held in my hometown of Paddockwood. I was beside myself. My grandmother was the secretary of those meetings, which I knew from her written records carefully preserved in the archival documents. I was so excited to hear her voice again, and went running for the archivist to see if we could play the recordings. But, unfortunately, the archives no longer has the technology to play those old records. They weren’t the same technology as a simple turntable, I learned. In fact, I had ‘discovered’ an oral record that the archives had lost track of.

They took it away and assured me that they would investigate getting it transferred onto something useful in our ‘modern’ era. I never saw or heard from them again on the issue — I shall have to send a reminder email to see where they are at. But I’m guessing that no news is bad news, in this instance. The technology may no longer exist to hear those recordings.

I know that archivists are acutely aware of the impact of the frighteningly fast changes in technology. Records put on one kind of disk or burned onto a CD Rom seem out of date just a few short years later. Even computers, with their constant upgrades, no longer seem to take into account ‘older’ technology. (For various aspects of this debate and concern, see:http://blogs.cisco.com/government/technology-changes-the-game-for-next-generation-governments/; http://archivists.ca/content/technology-and-archives-special-interest-section. See also various articles inArchivaria.)

I have one computer that I no longer use but am too afraid to throw away, because it has a ZIP drive and a 3.5 inch floppy — neither of which my new computer possesses. I still have old documents, including my MA thesis, on 3.5 floppies and zips. One of the reasons I bought a tablet computer was so that my children would get used to using touch technology — but I also note their frustration when they have to use my ‘old’ computer. It is pretty slow, by comparison. I can’t imagine what they’d think of my stored computer, gathering dust in the bottom of my closet. I think it has Windows, but a really old version.

(Full disclosure: this house has two desktop computers that are hooked up, and one in storage, in addition to two laptops, one tablet, two ipods and two smartphones. There are four people).

So, although I suppose some people may call me a technological hoarder, I can see the benefit: after all, I had a ghetto blaster, that worked, just when my son needed it. That’s something. I just have to make sure I have a house big enough to keep all my old computers and other technology, when the new ones enter our lives.

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I spend a lot of time in used book stores.

Like you, I have my favourites. Saskatoon has a couple of dandies, although less than there once was. We never go through Calgary without a several-hour stop at Fair’s Fair (the original) and its labyrinthine and wonderfully cool basement.

I even have a favourite out here in rural Saskatchewan. A few years ago, a wonderful man, Ralph Crawford — and his entire book collection — moved to the town next door. He had operated a used book store for years in New Brunswick, but when a new highway bypassed his town, business slowed.

A friend was looking into real estate in Saskatchewan, which, twelve years ago, was an excellent buy compared to everywhere else in Canada (that has since changed, with the Saskaboom going on). Ralph traveled out here and promptly purchased a lovely old brick bank building. Then he packed up several truck loads of books. Several. Semi-truck loads. And out he came.

His store in Perdue is an adventure. First of all, you can’t see in the windows. They’re stacked too high with books. I don’t recommend wheelchairs — don’t even try. The books are piled across every spare inch of horizontal real estate, including the floor.

I’m not sure which section I love best. He is an avid book collector and his coming has opened the shelves of many local people, serving as a swapping place for our respective hoards of books. Perhaps the cookbook section is my favourite. Ralph brought along several boxes of local cookbooks from the Maritimes, the kind each Women’s Auxiliary and church group and Homemaker’s club make and sell as fundraisers every year.

It has given me a sideline, thinking about recipes as a cultural and historical indicator of place. Not many Saskatchewan cookbooks have a section on lobster; that’s a staple in east coast cookery.

What I really love, though, are the finds within the books themselves. After I bring home my latest pile, it usually takes me a while to actually read them. Some of the books I choose are meant as reference books, after all. I may not need them right away. But when I do, lovely things pop out to greet me.

Old bookmarks from libraries and bookstores, coast to coast in Canada, a few from America and occasionally one in a language I recognize but can’t read, add themselves to my collection.

Letters and notes often drop out. Most are fairly businesslike, relaying strict information and little else. Others…well, let’s just say that people give a lot of books for Christmas and Mother’s Day presents. Flyleaf inscriptions reveal the same.

I like pamphlets, too. Often, they are for sales long past or events back in 1973. I was alive, but really small and unlikely to get too far on my own. But I enjoy knowing that someone else went to the latest local theatre production, or enjoyed some music.

Business cards have become more common. One fell out of my new/old copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac last night while I was reading. Its title caught my attention: The Crypt of Academe. John L. Brown. (and an Alberta phone number). Wow! Now that’s a title! A quick Google search (how did we ever work without the internet?) revealed “U of A professor John Brown’s The Crypt of Academe, a tongue-in-cheek account of his 26 years roaming the academic halls.” Cool! It’s not his own title, it’s his book! Now that one, I may have to get.

I have also found invitations, scribbled notes for groceries, grocery store and other receipts, sticky notes, newspaper clippings (including obituaries), and recipe cards. Fair’s Fair book store in Calgary — yes, I know I mentioned them once, but really, they are that good — keeps a collection of things they have found in books under glass on one of the counters. Some of them are probably valuable, like old postcards of Calgary and playbills from vaudeville acts in the 1920s.

I’ve never found any money, though. But like all of you, I religiously check the bible in each and every hotel room I stay in. Someday, that urban legend of the guest who leaves money in the bibles will come true for me. I’m sure of it.

And I know exactly what I would do with it: find a good used book store.

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