Go South, Young Historian?

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Canadian environmental historians abroad are not unlike Canada geese. We might stand out a little, but it’s not uncommon to encounter us outside our own borders. Many of us fly (or drive) south each year to the American Society for Environmental History’s annual meeting, where we catch up with each other as well as non-Canadian colleagues. This past March, in Washington, D.C., we stuck out more than usual. Americans and Canadians alike joked about an impending Tim’s-and-maple-syrup-flavoured invasion.

We laughed, but as with most jokes, it had a kernel of truth. In the last two years, a handful of Canadians and Canadianists have secured tenure-track appointments in American universities, often in environmentally-themed positions. It’s probably tempting fate — especially given the continued scarcity of such positions everywhere — to christen this a trend. But it does beg the question: should more Canadian historians consider a move to the States?

I replied to American job advertisements, as many Canadians do, out of pragmatism. In a good year, tenure-track positions in Canadian history can be counted on the fingers of more than one hand. Canadian environmental historians benefit from immersion in a continental historiography that, perhaps uniquely among Canadianists, grants us access to the American job market. And we’ve been competitive south of the border recently, in places as diverse as Maine, Arizona, and Washington, D.C.

Not every Canadian can or will venture their luck down south. Early-career researchers are urged to cultivate a facility for rootlessness: we must be ready to move anywhere, any time, in order to attain that elusive position. But as environmental historians — heck, as people — we know the power of place. We hold onto places; we become fixed in place. Professional mobility is a privilege unequally distributed across genders, classes, and races. And, as Claire Campbell rightly notes, emigration is costly, in time, money, and emotion.

It seems timely and useful to offer this crowdsourced (n=6) guide for Canadian graduate students and postdoctoral fellows thinking of applying to positions in the States. Here’s what worked for us, and what we learned in the process.

Being Canadian won’t necessarily hurt you on the market…

  • As Claire puts it, “generally we seem to be thought of as not-American but not foreign. Our credentials, training, etc. ‘pass,’ as ‘basically American.’ … We’re curious and not really thought about, but not different. (That’s Mexico).”
  • Most American search committees won’t automatically dismiss your Canadian PhD. They may be more familiar with bigger Canadian universities such as Toronto, McGill, Alberta, and UBC. They will weigh up the rigour and reputation of your supervisor, committee, program, and institution, says Dagomar Degroot.
  • A larger population doesn’t automatically mean a more competitive market. In Claire’s experience, American positions tend to attract roughly the same number of applicants as Canadian positions. (As in Canada, positions in more desirable locations will garner more interest.) The increased scale of the American market also gives job-seekers more opportunities.
  • Canadian PhDs can appear more impressive on paper than American PhDs. Many of the former wind up holding one or two postdoctoral fellowships, which are still comparatively rare (and prestigious) in the States among humanities scholars. The same is true of multi-year doctoral funding from external agencies like SSHRC.

…but don’t expect Americans to be interested in Canada. Unless you’re applying for a position in one of the few, increasingly besieged Canadian Studies programs, your expertise in Canadian topics probably won’t be a major selling point. Again, place matters: interest in Canada skews strongest in states nearest the border (northern New England, Michigan, Washington, Oregon), and wanes as you move south.

So be prepared to place Canada in a wider context in your teaching…

  • Exposing American students to Canadian history is good for them. You can (and should) make this point in interviews. Claire argues that it helps students “think of ‘America’ in continental, if not hemispheric terms.” It also challenges an American national narrative that remains “fairly insular and exceptionalist.”
  • But American students won’t want to take courses on Canadian history, and American departments won’t want to offer them. Instead, propose some “North American” courses that include both Canadian and American historical content. This won’t be a stretch for Canadian historians conversant with the American environmental history canon.
  • You can also broaden your geographical expertise early on, Josh MacFadyen suggests, by including an American or global historical field in your comprehensive exams.
  • But don’t pretend to more expertise than you currently have. You’ll be asked in interviews whether or not you can teach American history. You probably can’t, at least not right that minute. You can, however, affirm your ability to teach courses in North American history, and/or your willingness to teach American history down the road.

…and in your research.

  • When selecting a dissertation topic, consider incorporating a theme with cross-border appeal and relevance. Framing our research around energy / water / climate change / the Arctic has worked in our favour outside Canada.
  • Connect your Canadian case studies to larger historical and historiographical contexts. Mark McLaughlin presented his research on the state, science, and resource management as capable of answering broader or universal questions. “It just happened,” he says, “that my study area was more often than not a small province on the east coast of Canada.”
  • Think outside the disciplinary box. Consider applying for positions in environmental humanities, environmental studies, and sustainability studies. If you do, be prepared to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of your research.
  • You can increase your competitiveness for such positions in several ways, Dan Macfarlane suggests. Research or teach about some aspect of environmental policy. Publish in journals or attend conferences that focus on natural resources or environmental studies. Write op-ed pieces. Work with an environmental group. Demonstrate some kind of engagement with environmental policy, economics, or law.
  • As with teaching, be open to extending the geographical remit of your research. When interviewing at Maine, Mark and I each expressed a willingness to incorporate specific aspects of local and regional history into our future research programs, if hired. This not only demonstrates your intellectual collegiality and “good fit” with the institution, but also underlines the flexibility and broad applicability of what you do.

Think internationally from the start.

  • Build your reputation and networks outside of Canada early on in your career, Dagomar advises. Attend meetings of the ASEH, ESEH, and WCEH. Attend Canadian Studies conferences abroad held by ACSUS or BACS. Attend workshops or (un)conferences that chime with your thematic or methodological interests. Participate in international research networks. Emphasize these activities in your job applications.
  • If you can’t travel abroad easily, forge connections in other ways. Claire’s suggestions: join the professional associations mentioned above and keep tabs on their activities, or collaborate on a research or teaching project with someone outside Canada.
  • The Internet knows no borders, and indeed, digital presence/expertise has helped nearly all of us secure positions. (We can’t emphasize this enough.) As Dan points out, you don’t necessarily have to become fluent in digital history or HGIS. You can cultivate a digital identity in many ways. Tweet. Write blog posts for The Otter, Seeing the WoodsActiveHistory.ca, or Findings/Trouvailles. Start your own blog or website, or help manage one relevant to your research interests.
  • At the very least, put together a basic professional website with information about your research and teaching, a copy of your CV, and your contact details. This will help people to locate and stay in touch with you easily, especially in those post-PhD years where you may change institutions and email addresses frequently.

That’s all we’ve got for now. What are your thoughts? Let’s continue the conversation below.

Many thanks to Claire Campbell, Dagomar Degroot, Josh MacFadyen, Dan Macfarlane, and Mark McLaughlin, whose thoughtful contributions made this post possible.

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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.


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