This essay was originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca in March 2015.
With thousands of Toronto-area teaching and research assistants out on strike as well as a very recent faculty strike at the University of Northern British Columbia, opinion-makers have begun to draw up proposed solutions for the ailments of higher education. Not surprisingly, given the frequent attention it draws, most have targeted tenured and tenure stream faculty members as the blight on the system that is making higher education unaffordable. Over the past few weeks all three of Canada’s major daily newspapers (click here for the Globe, here for the Star, and here for the National Post) explained to their readers through ‘news’ reports or op-ed pieces that the underlying causes of the dramatic rise in itinerant labour is a result of the declining number of full-time over-paid tenured and tenure-track faculty willing to teach.
This type of editorializing – either through the guise of news or through the op-ed pages – is misguided and sets us back from actually achieving workable solutions and robust learning environments in our universities and colleges. Not only does the approach ignore research like CAUT’s, whose annual almanac this year suggests that in six of Canada’s ten provinces, universities spend more money on non-academic staff than academic teaching staff (suggesting that any discussion of costs needs to include the expenses associated with administration, student experience and student life in addition to classroom practices), but more importantly, for the purposes of this post, these attacks on tenured and tenure-track faculty mischaracterize the good work academics (and the students in our classes) are actually up to.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post since last July, when Toronto Star columnist and historian Richard Gwyn used his column to denounce professors as lazy, over-paid and generally poor at their jobs. Centring on history and political science, he claims that most are inaccessible, focusing on self-interested research topics whose resonance is limited to a small like-minded group of academics. Though Gwyn is careful to emphasize that there are many exceptions, his central message is that university professors have lost their robes.
Gwyn tells us his comments will no doubt “hurt – or even anger – many thoroughly well-intentioned professors who are convinced that unless they publish their careers will perish.” Though he certainly captured the sentiment, his analysis of its cause and the discipline as a whole (much like the media currently reporting on the crisis caused by contract and sessional teaching in higher education) is misguided. As someone who has recently embarked upon the career path that Mr. Gwyn feels is so unnecessary, I feel a need to at least ask for clarification, if not a full-scale retraction. To Mr. Gwyn (and the slew of other journalists who seem to share his sentiments), I ask, who are these slothful academics? Where are these failing history departments? Let’s name names and deal in specifics, if this is the real problem underlying the challenges faced in higher education.
As is hopefully apparent, I think that these journalists are wrong. In 2010, the last year for which I could find data, there were over one thousand full-time academic staff employed in a history department in Canada. Although many of them are not Canadian historians, the Canadian Historical Association reports a membership of 411 full-time employed academic historians for 2010. Although not all of these people likely teach Canadian history, what should be clear from these numbers is that anecdotal evidence – the kind upon which many of these observations are made – is relatively useless given such a large sample size.
On the surface, though, it appears that Gwyn has a point. If there are literally hundreds of historians working in universities, why aren’t these people engaged in national conversations?
My answer is two-fold. First, I don’t think every professor needs to be publicly engaged in order to make an active contribution to the field of Canadian history or their institution. In addition to the between four to six courses many of us teach each year (two or three a semester), academic historians are also involved in running their institutions and supervising students. For readers who do not work in a university, imagine giving a one-hour public address daily in addition to attending a couple of (departmental and faculty) meetings a week and having no staff to help you prepare. In addition to this work, you are expected to maintain a research profile and advise students on their projects and course work (that is, historians working in universities need to maintain the expertise and professionalism that makes us effective university-level teachers and separates university-level education from the senior levels of high school). In short, historians working in universities are busy and have little time to make short-notice interventions in public debates. When university professors enter into these discussions, it is usually on top of, rather than within, our regular expected duties. It is also worthwhile pointing towards a point Ruth Sandwell made on this site a couple of years ago: with hundreds of students attending our classes each week, the classroom remains an important – if not the important – site of public engagement.
Second, and more importantly, the premise of the question is wrong. Many university-based historians are active beyond the ivory tower and in many cases heavily engaged in civic discourse. Critics’ inability to identify these people is not a reflection on the quality or influence of their work.
So when pundits like Richard Gwyn criticize Canadian historians for their lack of engagement, I wonder, do they mean the historians working at York University?
This would seem odd. In addition to having a long tradition of publically engaged faculty (Jack Granatstein, Jack Saywell, Ramsey Cook, and Craig Heron immediately come to mind), newer faculty members are similarly oriented. Gwyn himself has shared the stage with one of York’s recent hires, Sean Kheraj. William C. Wicken has done considerable work as an expert witness in numerous treaty and land claims trials. The Tubman Institute, currently led by historian Michele Johnson, has been a leader in African diaspora studies and over their eight years they have mounted a number of projects focused on civic engagement. Indeed, many faculty members at York strive to engage directly with the public. Recently the department as a whole put together an excellent series of six-minute videos contextualizing World War One. This hardly seems like a disengaged faculty.
Maybe Gwyn means Western University. But then again, how does he address Western’s innovative and deeply rooted Public History program? In addition to a generally engaged history faculty (you can follow the department on twitter @westernuHistory), Western’s Public History program explicitly trains historians to engage wider audiences. The program is not solely based on theory or research but also has an important practical component where students intern at museums, historic sites and other institutions that support this work. Carleton and Concordia have similarly oriented programs and many (most?) history programs offer specialized courses reflecting a more applied approach to the historian’s craft.
Western is also home to NiCHE, an organization that focuses on building relationships among environmental history researchers. Here, perhaps, are Gwyn’s naval gazing academics. But then, Gwyn needs to explain NiCHE’s popular blog The Otter and workshops on popular publishing and their successful podcast (albeit started by York’s Sean Kheraj). This organization too, does not seem to fit Gwyn’s characterization.
Perhaps Gwyn doesn’t mean history departments in Ontario. Maybe he’s been talking to friends elsewhere in Canada. Let’s take a look at two universities in the west: the University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia. In Canadian history, the University of Saskatchewan is the home of well known publicly-engaged historians like Keith Carlson, Valarie Korinek, J.R. Miller, and Bill Waiser. Newer faculty, like Jim Clifford, Erika Dyck, and Kathryn Labelle all have research and teaching agendas that involve making their work accessible beyond the Ivory Tower.
If we turn to UBC, pundits like Gwyn would need to explain scholars like Tina Loo, a frequent contributor to Canada’s History, and the professors in the Faculty of Education who are instrumental in running the History and Education Network (THEN/HiER) and the Historical Thinking Project.
These are the large schools. Even at smaller schools, where faculty don’t have teaching assistants to offset our marking, we find historians whose teaching and research extend well beyond the university’s walls. At Nipissing, we could point to John Long‘s important work on Treaty Nine (which is very well represented in Alanis Obomsawin’s recent film Trick or Treaty). At Trent, we could look at John Milloy‘s influence as the head of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the Maritimes, John Reid‘s work – particularly his and Donald Savoie’s Shaping an Agenda for Atlantic Canada – likewise fits the profile of the civically engaged scholar Gwyn finds missing in Canada.
Likewise, if you’re on Twitter there are Canadian historians by the dozen making micro-interventions on national debates. Here’s a small selection worth following: Tina Adcock (@TinaAdcock), Mary-Ellen Kelm (@kelmme), Dominique Marshall (@Dominiq92516944), Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1), Ian Mosby (@Ian_Mosby), Andrew Nurse (@SackvilleNB), Adele Perry (@AdelePerry) and Dan Rueck (@danrueck).
My central point, then, is this: Canadian historians are not disengaged from the central issues facing Canadian society. I literally did no outside research in drafting up these examples. Anyone with a serious interest in the practice of Canadian history could likely draft a much longer and exhaustive list of publicly engaged historians. We should therefore expect this level of research from the media and socio-political pundits.
There are, of course, many other university-based historians who are not as engaged in the public sphere. But here – based on my experiences – these scholars are working in universities with heavy teaching loads, are active and innovative researchers, or have made the decision to serve their universities rather than focus on research and civic engagement. There is no single trajectory for the university history professor. To address this subject without sufficient nuance, then, is harmful both for the historical profession and Canadian society more broadly.
Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian history at Huron University College and an editor at ActiveHistory.ca.
For more on this topic see our podcast coverage of last year’s CHA session on Canadian Historians and the Media. Better still, consider attending or submitting a paper or poster proposal for our upcoming Conference on New Directions in Active History (the deadline for proposals is April 15).
 See the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada, 2014-15, Table 1.4: University Expenditures, 2011-12. My goal in making this point is not to further the idea that employment in universities is a zero-sum game where positions have to be removed from one area to support another. Most non-academic staff I know are essential to the learning environment. My point here is solely that the situation is far more complex than journalists and pundits usually make out. I’d point anyone interested in developing a more nuanced understanding to the issue to read Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift. On the need for us to understand university spending more broadly see Alex Usher’s post on understanding Administrative Bloat on the Higher Education Strategy Associates blog.
 For the total number of historians working in universities and colleges see the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada, 2013-14, Table 2.9: Age Distribution of Full-time University Teachers by Major Discipline and Subject, 2010-11. Numbers for the CHA are derived from personal correspondence with Michel Duquet, the organization’s executive director.