Survey Says

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This past spring, we surveyed NiCHE members about the network. What were we doing right? What were we doing wrong? How should NiCHE evolve? Thanks very much to the 142 members who responded. For one thing, your feedback helped immensely in putting together our SSHRC Clusters midterm review. But more to the point, your feedback taught us a lot about the network. And a lot of it was encouraging. For example, 57% had attended at least one NiCHE event and 54% contributed to at least one NiCHE project in the past year. A full 28% had contributed to our website in the past six months. We had respondents from 7 nations, including all 10 Canadian provinces and 1 territory (Ontario, BC, Alberta, and Quebec topped the list, in that order).

Of course, those who answered the survey are not a representative sample of the network – they’re likely more active, or maybe just more interested in winning a book draw – so I can’t offer an accurate-within-2-points-19-times-out-of-20 sort of disclaimer. Still, here are eight things I took from the survey:

  • Environmental history / history geography ain’t just a guy thing. Some of my colleagues assume it is, and I’m always happy to prove them wrong. Forty-five percent of the survey respondents were female, which is in line with NiCHE’s overall membership.
  • We’re largely an academic network. No surprise. Although 22% of respondents came from government, the private sector, or the general public, a large majority were involved in higher education. Related to this, the most common refrain was the need for more public outreach: “Outreach to Community/Aboriginal organizations,” “Outreach to educators at elementary and high school levels,”“Lobbying government,” “More Popular Publishing workshops!” “Building a more public presence,” etc. “I would love to participate in an interest group or network but don’t see a lot of opportunities for people who aren’t working or studying in a university.”
  • We’re a young academic network, at that. No real surprise there, either. Of those in higher education, 44% were grad students, another 8% postdocs, and 11% untenured faculty. That gives us a lot of drive, a lot of motivation, a lot of knowledge of and interest in networking, but it’s not without risks. As one person wrote, “Mid-career scholars have not been nearly involved enough, even when they are explicitly invited to do so. … This makes me fear that NiCHE will slowly disappear once the pile of money is gone.” If mid- and late-career scholars find NiCHE useful, they need to step up.
  • We’re all busy. Replies to “What can NiCHE do to get your more involved?” included “Clone me?,” “Assign me a few more hours a day,” and “recommend a drug that does not require me to sleep for a third of the day? I’d love to be more involved – I actually feel guilty for not being more involved, but I am simply swamped.” Don’t feel guilty! NiCHE is not a make-work project for people in our field. We’d love you to contribute when you want to and when you can. NiCHE will thrive when people in the field thrive.
  • Surveys are good for learning. In terms of activities we should be doing but aren’t, a couple of folks said simply “a conference on Canadian environmental history.” Related to that, “Too many of the NICHE meetings have been programmed to exclude presentations except by a lucky few, usually pre-designated by the organizers before a more general call for attendance. As a result I usually don’t attend. No point if I am not being asked to do something.” Huh. We’ve tried not to compete with things that are already working, like the yearly ASEH conference, and our main annual event, CHESS, isn’t well-suited to a call for papers. But it’s a good point: we should offer more general calls. And maybe we should have a Canadian environmental history / historical geography conference. So, umm, who wants to organize that?
  • Surveys are good for teaching as well as learning. In terms of how to get you more involved: “I was going to say email subscriptions, but I see on the next page that you have those already, so I just signed up.” Meanwhile, another person wrote, “Provide information on an email list instead of the website; I find email lists much easier to work with because information comes to me. Perhaps NiCHE already does this, and I don’t know how to sign up.” For the record, you can subscribe to a feed that emails you new NiCHE postings every day: just visit http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=niche-canada/KOWt&loc=e…
  • We’re doing a lot right. There’ll be no “Mission Accomplished” banner, but it was hard not to be pleased to read: “Especially as a scholar outside of history proper, NiCHE has enabled me to remain networked with environmental historians (as a geographer) and to develop analytic and methodological skills that tend to be unfortunately disciplinarily bounded.” Or “NiCHE m’a permis de rencontrer d’autres chercheurs ayant les memes préoccupations que moi. De découvrir leurs travaux et d’échanger avec eux. Le site internet me permet aussi de me tenir au courant de l’actualité en histoire environnementale au Canada” Or “As a historian working in a northern location it is a strong link to southern academics and is vital to my staying connected with people, events and intellectual developments. … I feel like through NiCHE, I have a ‘central place’ to access information and ideas, promote research activities and connections, and hear about broader initiatives.” Or simply “You are doing just fine.”
  • We have a committed network. Perhaps the most gratifying response of all was that a full 60% of respondents expressed a willingness to be involved in NiCHE’s organizational structure beyond 2014, when our existing SSHRC Clusters grant winds down. Sixty-one people provided detailed advice concerning our longterm viability. “You’re doing great work now,” someone wrote, “in getting people thinking that NiCHE is theirs (podcasting, writing blog posts, and so on), so by 2014 they should be used to the idea that they’re responsible for sustaining it.” Amen sister.

There were lots of specific suggestions, and I hope those who made them will recognize the results down the road in improved website architecture, enhanced public outreach, and so on. Thanks again for the feedback. We’re always happy to hear more – niche@uwo.ca

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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