It’s beautiful and sunny in the capital of Canada, and I’m enjoying a few relaxing days before flying back to Northern Ontario. Just like that, the 2015 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities is wrapping up. Where did the time go?
I expected to find big ideas and important scholarship represented at Congress and the conference of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), but the overall experience went far beyond my expectations. In the past week I’ve attended over fifteen sessions on everything from Indigenous archival records to the future of digital humanities, from publishing scholarly books to the archaeology of ancient Greece, from collaborative research to comparative literature. Many of these sessions are going to stick with me for a long time. While it’s difficult to synthesize what has been such a diverse experience, two themes that emerged from my time at Congress were: 1) a tendency towards introspection; and, 2) an increasing drive in the social sciences and humanities to connect research to the wider public. Both of these are good signs, and here’s why.
Reflexivity and introspection
The CHA conference, as my former professor Dr. Bruce Douville pointed out, very much emphasized self-reflexivity. The theme of the CHA conference as a whole, Rethinking Interdisciplinarity in History, is in itself indicative of this. Many of this year’s panels focused on methodology, approaches to research and publishing, what historians could be and what they should be. It makes sense that these discussions were on the table (or tables?) at this point in time. The discipline of history has been facing a number of challenges. Museums are changing, enrollment in history courses is declining, funding structures are shrinking. I wouldn’t say that the discipline is in crisis, but it is definitely in a transition – as are many of the social sciences and humanities both on- and off-campus. The fact that conferences like the CHA are turning inward indicates that historians and other academics are looking for new ways to move their research forward under such changes. It was definitely a good decision to come to Congress at such a time of introspection both in academia and in my personal life. I came away from it inspired, challenged, and prouder than ever to be a historian. Plus I met some great people and enjoyed craft beer for the first time, so what’s not to like?
Public history at work
This is both an exciting and challenging time to be starting a career. The job market is very competitive. Contracts have become the norm. Even in academia, it’s well known that tenure-track positions are hard to come by. That being said, public historians are working in all sorts of capacities and in places you might not have thought of. Discussions with practicing public historians at the conference brought up freelancing, entrepreneurship, private-sector consulting, corporate research, community-based research, government, and not-for-profits, in addition to the more well-known career paths of libraries, archives, and museums. Their efforts are also receiving attention in academic circles. I was happy to see that public history was well represented at the CHA conference in several engaging panels as well as an excellent keynote address by Dean Oliver at the Canadian Museum of History. Other appearances included presentations on the Museum of History’s new exhibit, The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great, history consulting firms, Toronto’s First Story mobile app, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (which looks amazing, by the way!). In his keynote, Oliver compellingly argued that public historians and academic historians have a shared goal of making original research accessible to the wider world, and that public engagement is essential to the discipline as a whole. If this indicates that the academy of the future will place greater emphasis on public outreach, I’m all for it. I want our communities to know why Canada’s researchers are needed and why their work is important. Being a public historian myself, perhaps I don’t have the most objective opinion… But it’s always nice to hear a respected professional echoing the sentiments that made you join a field in the first place!
With the social sciences and humanities experiencing profound changes both on campus and off, it is becoming clear that academic researchers, professionals, and the general public stand to benefit from one another. Many researchers are now examining their disciplinary practices and looking for new ways to collaborate, research, and engage, as well as discovering unforeseen challenges of today’s “information age.” As I reflect on my Congress experience, I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate in these discussions and discover how I can contribute my own pieces of the puzzle.