Thursday, 23 January 2014

Who wants a war? I've got a war! We've all got a war for sale!

Only a few weeks into 2014 and I'm veering dangerously towards scepticism about the upcoming onslaught of WW1 commemoration that will descend upon us. But before I do the expected and descend into academic 'what-iffing', I decided to at least try to pen something that might be useful.

So, for what it's worth, last week I published an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen titled 'The Great War had more than one legacy.' You can read it here.

No doubt the ennui will pass. After all, the Great War history is as fascinating as it is horrible. Amidst all of the partisan bickering, we're sure to find some great material.

Margaret Macmillan's new book on the war's origins is getting good reviews. See the Guardian review here.

For an older take, I've always loved the beautifully stylish Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower 

And I've just seen a reference to this fascinating looking book on the year before the war, Charles Emmerson's, 1913: The world Before the Great War which isn't getting quite as good reviews, but who knows. Here's the Guardian review

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Popular history is right under our noses

Last week's announcement that Charlotte Gray's The Massey Murder  had been shortlisted for the Taylor Award is another indication that great stories that can be both popular, entertaining and innovative, are right there for Canadian historians to take.

Although it's hard to believe, I first learned of the story about the Massey murder in a book published almost two decades ago, Carolyn Strange's Toronto's Girl Problem. I still love that book for the way it gets right up under the weird sexual and gender ideas of turn-of-the-century Toronto. One of the reasons it's such a fun book is that the worried conservative critics of working women and their moral pitfalls were, essentially, right. The very small moves towards some limited freedom (and Strange shows just how limited it was) for girls working in factories really would amount to the kinds of things that the critics feared. Dating as a form of prostitution. Or that's how the average late nineteenth century society lady would now see what most parents would pass off as the typical dating habits of those in their late teens onward.

It's just that very few, these days, particularly care. Or not in the same way. We now are more interested in harm, disease, psychological costs, fulfilment, etc. And the old fashioned moralists are in a smaller group, or focused on younger kids.

But that gets us back to Charlotte Gray's book and its overlap with Strange's Toronto's Girl Problem. For both books tell the same story about one young working woman who took things right to the edge, killing the man who might (or might not) have been a sexual danger to her.

Gray's genius is simply to plunk out from right under the grasp of all the academic historians a story that had great potential, and then tell it in the right way.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A John A Miscellany

For your John A pleasure, in honour of the old guy's bday, herewith some reading suggestions:

Most recently, look to historian Don Smith in today's globe on the need to rethink Macdonald and his view of aboriginal peoples.

Then look to the same national paper from last week, with three contrasting views of confederation and three fathers thereof, Macdonald, Cartier, and George Brown, by Richard Gwyn and Alastair Sweeney and Barbara Messamore respectively.

Don Smith is perhaps not quite right when he says that his article in Historic Kingston is the only one taking on Macdonald's aboriginal policy. Technically perhaps, but I've always thought of D N Sprague's Canada and the Métis as being part of this revisionist process.

And, of course, go and read (and enjoy) Creighton's masterpiece two volume bio, parts of which can be sampled on google books (here). You'll get a taste for the whole thing.

Meanwhile, we'll all be anticipating Don Wright's forthcoming biographer of Creighton.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Kids Are Alright

Are we becoming more historically illiterate? Do we know less history than we used to? Does this matter?

These are some of the questions that I was happy to talk about on an episode of TVO's The Agenda earlier this week. The other guests were Toronto Star columnist and J A Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn, York U historian Sean Kheraj, National Post journalist Matt Gurney, and Ottawa U sociologist Diane Pacom.

I stood out somewhat on the panel by not quite accepting the premise of the show. It doesn't seem to me that people are, in fact, any less historically literate than in the past. At the very least, I'd like to see something more than anecdotes to prove that this is the case.

The one thing I wished I'd been able to say was this: the one historical constant in histories of youth and childhood in the modern period is that each generation thinks that its youth are going to hell. They are less respectful. They know less. They don't appreciate their elders. There are the dangers of mass culture - of radio, movies, television, video games, comic books, heck, if you go back far enough, even novels. (Wouldn't most parents today dream of a time when their kids read too many novels!)

So, in other words, we could have historicized the question we were asking. You know, 'plus ça change...' and all that.

But The Agenda really is a heck of a show. It was like being a student again, sitting in seminar. And Steve Paikin was a pretty good TA.

(if you're interested, you can watch the show above)

Monday, 6 January 2014

There's open access and then there's open access

I remain sceptical about the open-access publishing phenomenon in academia, especially for  historians. It's not that I'm against more people reading and having access to the work of historians. I'm just not convinced that this is the way to go about it. I doubt that the subscription costs to academic journals are the reason more people aren't reading them.

If we want more people to read academic history we have to write it differently. And having to give it away raises all kinds of problems - it's fine for tenured academics, but what of those who want to write for a broad audience? If we have to give it away, how valuable is the information we're finding anyway? If no one wants to buy it, giving it away just reduces its value.

Then there's the point that history isn't like a science. For one there aren't the hefty subscription fees for high profile journals, the things that bankrupt university libraries. And even more importantly, historians ought not to work like scientists, to always build upon the work of others, refining processes to make them better. History can only ever work this way in part. The greater danger of this approach is that we all end up sounding alike, stuck in narrower and narrower debates.

Historians ought to only ever speak to each other half the time. Just as often, there's the bigger audience, the community and the nation.

But to end on a positive note I see today there's a good development in an area of open access I can definitely get behind: opening up historical document online for all to see. I've written recently about the good news that the official records of Canada's parliament are all up online. Now it's the turn of Quebec's house of assembly to get their records up. You can access the material here.