What is your preferred definition of history and why?
My preferred definition of History focuses on how historians develop interpretations of the past. Until recent decades, the focus of History undergraduate curricula on the transmission of knowledge left little room for methods courses. Moreover, the characteristic one or two methods courses often focused on historiographical debates without closely examinating the interplay between different interpretations and different ways to choose and study specific kinds of evidence. In my experience, few professors were keen to teach methods courses, which was good for me because I have always been deeply interested in the changing ways that historians study the past. Happily, undergraduate curricula are now moving to an integrated approach in which courses on specific times and places usually include close attention to primary sources and research approaches. Beginning in the first year if not in high school, students are now getting the chance to study primary sources at scale and to develop their own historical interpretations while learning about the conclusions of established scholars. The vastly increased online access to primary sources has accelerated this change in pedagogy. Undergraduate programs today usually aim to develop epistemological competencies as much as to transmit knowledge about the past. Undergraduate research funding programs are now common. Of course, I think we continue to need a more open and inclusive attitude to new research strategies and curriculum change. Examples might include learning how to develop computational approaches to think through complex relationships hidden in vast digitized corpora of sources or how to use technology to read closed books that are too fragile to open.
Who is your favourite historian, living or dead, and why?
That’s an easy question for me. My favourite historian is Julia Gaffield whose research on Haiti and the Atlantic World has helped transform how I see the history of Canada in the changing global context of the Age of Revolutions. Moreover, Julia’s imaginative and relentless pursuit of archival evidence in diverse repositories in multiple countries demonstrates why our knowledge and understanding of the past depends upon taking new research questions seriously even in the perceived absence of sources.
Although excessive pride is unattractive, of all your writings, which are you most proud of and why?
In thinking about my work, I have always feared the day when I would look at a publication without seeing various ways that I could strengthen it or perhaps revise it thoroughly in light of subsequent research. While this day has not yet come, fortunately, I think undertaking and writing about the construction of the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure will have a unique and enduring place in my memories. Working with talented and devoted team members through failures and successes was a highlight of my career. The fact that diverse researchers are using CCRI to enable various research projects and to address expected and unexpected research questions is rewarding and stimulating.
Thinking about your time as president of the CHA, what was its greatest challenge?
I remember that the greatest challenge facing the CHA in 2000 was financial, following years of inflation without membership fee adjustments. And we were not alone. At the previous year’s meeting of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française, I witnessed an hour-long debate on whether to increase the annual fee by five dollars. In the prolonged discussion, I could see why association leaders had avoided the topic for as long as possible. However, my reading of the CHA’s balance sheet made it clear that a significant increase was urgently needed. And I had had occasion to learn about the far greater membership fees of counterpart associations in the sciences, where fees could only sometimes be paid from their relatively generous research grants. The result was a proposal for members to invest in themselves as historians; to take seriously the importance of the CHA by doubling the annual fee. This proposal included calibrated fees for less advantaged members. I remember asking members if we were not ready to invest in ourselves by taking our association seriously, why should anyone else? At the general assembly, I compared the increase to moving from paying the equivalent of one meal in a restaurant each year to two meals. The proposal passed unanimously without discussion.
If you could give one piece of advice to a member of (someone joining?) the CHA, what would it be?
One piece of advice would be to embrace the opportunity to collaborate with other members in the CHA to advance the discipline on campus and across the larger society. History matters now perhaps more than ever. And the CHA has demonstrated in the past and continues to show today how collective action can make a significant positive difference. Historians have never really been "solitary scholars," and it is encouraging to see greater recognition of the value of collaborative and well as individual initiative. All those expressions like "hang together or hang separately" and "to go far, go together" ring true in the case of the CHA.
2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the CHA. This milestone gives us pause to reflect on its durability and also on what its future might be. Hence, what do you think the future has in store for the CHA and for historical research in Canada as the association commences its second centenary?
For any organization to reach its 100th anniversary is quite an achievement, and to be able to look forward to the coming years is an exciting challenge. One memory from my first day as president was being taken aside by a very senior scholar and former president who told me that the CHA was on its deathbed with no prospect of recovery. From his perspective, a declining membership reflected internal conflicts, university marginalization, and societal disregard. While I knew that federal and provincial budget cuts had produced hiring freezes and much-reduced research funding by the mid-1990s, I felt committed to working toward a bright future for the CHA. As it turned out, the times did indeed change; a decade of vastly increased federal research funding and provincial increases along with retirements brought a whole new generation of historians to the CHA who readily invested in their organization by 2008. By this time, more than one-half of all regular full-time professors on Canadian campuses had been hired in the previous decade. Despite enduring and changing challenges in recent years, I do not doubt that a questionnaire for former presidents will again be circulated on the CHA’s 200th anniversary.
If there were one more question you would like to ask other presidents, what would it be? Could you please also answer it for yourself?
One question for other former presidents would ask about how we remember our experiences during our mandate. One colleague talked to me about CHA involvement as “service.” The word “service” has never captured my sense of what such involvement means. Rather, I feel that being elected by peers is a profound honour and privilege that is deeply rewarding despite challenges along the way. I feel exceedingly lucky to have had the experience and am convinced that it contributed to my teaching and research, however indirectly. Do others agree?