A million years ago, as an undergraduate student with vague ideas of doing graduate work, I read What is History? by E.H. Carr. A slim volume, it packed a punch. One insight in particular I have never forgotten: Historians, he said, have any number of bees in their bonnet. Those bees are deeply personal (for example, did they grow up with a silver spoon or did they come from a working class background?) and they are profoundly social (did they write their book during a moment of social upheaval or even wartime?), making it our job to look for and listen to those bees. “When you read a work of history,” Carr advised, “always listen out for the buzzing.” In my scholarship on the history of historical writing and on the history of the historical profession in English Canada, I try to listen for the buzzing.
Oh, that’s a tough question. I admire different historians for different reasons: Adele Perry because she’s so smart; Ged Martin because he’s so curious; Bryan Palmer because he’s so interesting; Greg Kealey because he combined leadership and scholarship; Amani Whitfield because his Biographical Dictionary of Enslaved Black People in the Maritimes is so utterly brilliant; Megan Davies because she’s so creative in how she communicates her research; and Funké Aladejebi because she’s pushing Canadian history in really important directions. But who is my favourite historian? Today, it’s Ramsay Cook. Tomorrow, it may be someone else. But right now, it’s Ramsay because he embodied the traits listed above: intelligence, curiosity, clear writing, and through The Dictionary of Canadian Biography a commitment to academic leadership and the broadening of Canadian history. As I research and write a book about him, I keep listening for the buzzing. Coincidentally, he wrote the DCB entry for William Allen Pringle, a nineteenth-century free thinker and bee-keeper.
In one of our last conversations, I asked Ramsay the same question. His answer surprised me. John W. Dafoe and the Free Press, he said. Why your first book, I asked? Because I never thought I would write a book, but seeing my name on the cover confirmed that I could, and that maybe I had something to say after all. I certainly understood what he meant. I mean, I can still summon the thrill of seeing my name on the cover of my first book. But re-reading The Professionalization of History in English Canada makes me cringe! What were you thinking? Did you really mean to say that? All of this is to say that I am most proud not of my first book but of my most recent book: Canada: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2020). It was a tough assignment – Canada, from its Precambrian beginnings to the present, in just 35,000 words – but a fascinating assignment because it compelled me to think about synthesis and how to write synthesis. Was I successful? I’ll let others be the judge. But just the other day I received a lovely e-mail from a retired person who picked it up in their local book store, read it in one or two sittings, and felt compelled to write me.
Of course, I am not the president yet. But I can see challenges on the horizon: membership, the annual meeting, the future of the History PhD, precarity, access, reconciliation, EDI, and what might be called, for want of a better term, the whole French-English thing. I won’t pretend that I have the answers. But I do know that there are a lot of really smart people and that there is a lot of good will in the profession. And having written a short history of the CHA and most recently a history of CHA presidential addresses, I know that some of these problems are historical and that the CHA has gone from strength to strength. In other words, I take a lot of comfort in the CHA’s history, in its ability to adapt, experiment, and carry on to write another grant application, to organize another annual meeting, and to publish another journal.
Get involved. Volunteer to sit on a committee. Have your voice heard. It’s rewarding, even fun. Really, it is.
Predicting the future is a mug’s game. But here goes. Climate change. It’s going to shape our research agendas; it’s going to determine the questions we ask in the archives; and it’s going to drive the choices we make as an association (can we continue an in-person annual meeting in a climate crisis?) and as individuals (should I spend my carbon budget on a flight to Vancouver to deliver a twenty-minute presentation on some aspect of my research?)
My question would be: “What made you willing to give up all of that teaching and research time to lead the CHA?” My answer is: I believe passionately in the importance of history and in the CHA’s role in defending and promoting the practice of history in Canada.