Reflecting on Active History, Public Engagement, and York University

In November, I gave this talk at York (click for text). The subtitle was "My Experiences Here." I didn't dwell enough on the "here" part.

In November, I gave this talk at York (click for text). The subtitle was “My Experiences Here.” I didn’t dwell enough on the “here” part.

Maybe it’s the snow day, but I wanted to take a moment to reflect on how lucky in many ways I was to attend a department that encouraged online participation and public engagement. This is the sort of post I would never have written when I was in the program, but now that I’m in a full-time teaching position elsewhere I can sing some praises (without seeming like a suck up). As I note at right, I gave a talk at York University on public history and the university, subtitled “my experiences here.” I don’t think I gave enough justice to the “here” part.

I greatly enjoyed (as I always do with her work) Melonie Fullick’s piece in today’s Globe and Mail, “[t]he university has everything to gain from Twitter.” It’s a piece that explores how universities have and should engage with the public far more, and why graduate students need to be encouraged to do this. Of course, prompting this post, was a very nice shout-out to ActiveHistory.ca (of which I’m a member of the editing team):

An example of such forms is Active History, based at York University, which aims to “[connect] the work of historians with the wider public and the importance of the past to current events.” The site contains blog posts, book reviews, academic papers, and podcasts, created by a diverse group of scholars including graduate students, freelance researchers and writers, postdoctoral fellows, and librarians, as well as faculty. The goal is not merely to disseminate information, but to set up an informed dialogue with various audiences who can also contribute to what is being discussed.

Fullick continues to speculate on why this isn’t encouraged in most programs. It did, however, prompt me to reflect on why I thought ActiveHistory.ca was actually encouraged in our own department (and also, in my own department, as I’m pretty sure my online activities played a role in my hiring).

I took my PhD in the Graduate Program in History at York University, defending in November 2011. I’ve been critical of aspects of graduate studies at York, especially around what I saw then (as a probably too verbose graduate student speaking up on the faculty list-serv) as PhD over-enrollment. So this isn’t polly-anna-ish boosterism, as those who know me personally would know. No organization is perfect.

But when it came to ActiveHistory.ca, the department was nothing but supportive. This came in material ($$) format, which let us and continues to help us with our nominal server fees. But, more importantly, it came in continuous moral encouragement. We were featured in a promotional video the department commissioned (you can see my media debut from a few years ago). E-mail messages would note us, and faculty provided encouragement throughout.

Sometimes we use straw people in our arguments, and one canard that I’ve trotted out (full disclosure, remember) and have engaged with countless times on social media, is that academics need to connect with the general public. ’tis true. But that can sometimes have a ring, an indictment that you’re not doing enough. Today, this often takes the form of open access publishing (something that as a Canadianist I struggle with), but historians have been doing this for ages.

I’m reluctant to name names, as mainly I’d miss somebody, but the department at York is full of people who have engaged with the public in a number of ways. This wasn’t open access publishing, but a different approach. [note that this list is based on my own experiences, so I’m sure it’s woefully shortMarcel Martel’s Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History underpins a ton of public outreach activities (least of which was funding for ActiveHistory.ca), from public lectures, conferences, workshops, and outreach to the museum community in Toronto. Michele Johnson, part of the Tubman Centre Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, has been doing amazing things with black history (and I hear through the grapevine that ActiveHistory.ca might be able to be involved). My doctoral supervisor, Craig Heron, has a long record of working with the public, both through formal institutions like Hamilton’s Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, media interviews, and accessible books like the Short History of the Canadian Labour Movement (now in its third edition!). Colin Coates and the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies do an incredible job of hosting events, publicizing Canadian studies, and increasingly deploying content online for anybody to consume. It’s a testament to the department that they recently hired Sean Kheraj, who has done more for putting history online than anybody else that comes to mind.

All this is to say that:

(a) I think I was pretty lucky. Thanks to York’s GPH.

(b) It wasn’t a big commitment. A few hundred dollars to help in a very concrete, tangible way, for server fees. But more importantly it was the continuous recognition of this sort of work.

I don’t know how representative York is. Maybe historians are more open to the public?

Enjoy the snow day!

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Active History, Public Engagement, and York University

  1. seankheraj says:

    I too was a graduate student in the Department of History at York University. As a faculty member in the department now, my comments may also be construed as boosterism, but I whole heartedly concur with your remarks, Ian. The department has indeed been open to making history public and opening its work to audiences beyond Vari Hall.

    And just to add to the list of Craig’s public history work, he is also very active in public heritage issues, especially the cuts to Library and Archives Canada:

  2. Ian Milligan says:

    Thanks, Sean.

    I hesitated before even listing any names, as it’d be a list that (a) necessarily left people out; and (b) drew on my own personal experiences in the department. I could have also added the work that went down around the Canadian Museum of History consultations in Toronto (in which you performed perfectly, BTW).

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