Rhizomes: An Interview with Mike Commito

Mike's Bear Aware outreach in action at one of Sudbury's elementary schools. Photograph by author.

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. This interview features Mike Commito, an Applied Research Developer at Cambrian College, part-time instructor at Laurentian University, and hockey historian.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

I finished my PhD at McMaster University in June 2015. My dissertation focused on the history of black bear hunting and management in Ontario. It chiefly focused on how human attitudes towards black bears had evolved over the years and the impacts this had had on management and regulatory practices. Just a week after defending my dissertation, I took a job as a policy analyst at Northern Policy Institute, a northern Ontario-based think tank. After working at that organization for more than a year, where I rose to the rank of Research Coordinator, I took advantage of an opportunity at Cambrian College. Since October 2016, I have been an Applied Research Developer at Cambrian, where I broker R&D projects between local industry partners and our faculty, students, and resources at the college. Although that job pays my bills, my path from graduate school has also included teaching Canadian history part-time at Laurentian University and writing about hockey history for popular media outlets such as Sportsnet, VICE Sports, and the Athletic.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

My current position allows me to utilize the research, analytical, and communication skills I developed as a historian. One of my major duties as an Applied Research Developer is writing grant applications to funding agencies such as the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) in order to finance R&D projects. I have written grants for everything from innovations in predictive and preventative maintenance to automated temperature analysis at a French fry production facility. One of the things I like most about my job is knowing that I bring value to my organization through my unique skills as a historian, even when the subjects I am writing about often fall outside of my expertise as a Canadian environmental historian. I love my job at Cambrian because it also provides me with the security and flexibility to pursue my passions outside of work. Since 2016, I have been working as a freelance hockey writer, specializing in hockey history, for outlets such as Sportsnet, Sports Illustrated, and the Hockey News. More recently, I completed my first hockey history book, Hockey 365, which is scheduled for release in September 2018 with Dundurn Press.

The cover of Mike’s forthcoming book Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice, published by Dundurn Press. It hits book shelves on September 22, 2018, and can be pre-ordered now on Amazon and Chapters.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

The communication and analytical skills I developed during my graduate training in environmental history have helped me most in my career. Since there were few jobs in history awaiting me after graduation, I had to get creative and market my unique skillset to prospective employers. I was able to demonstrate that the critical thinking and communication skills I developed as a historian were valuable assets for organizations such as Northern Policy. Initially, their President and CEO, Charles Cirtwill, was reticent about hiring me. I know this because he told me so at a lunch meeting that I assumed was going to end with a job offer. Despite the fact that one of the region’s earlier think tanks, the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development (INORD), was co-founded by a historian, Matt Bray, Cirtwill was unsure about hiring a historian, because the public policy world is largely comprised of economists and political scientists. Nevertheless, I convinced him that the skills I had developed in my doctoral training would be assets to the organization. Although I didn’t get a job offer over lunch by the time the cheque arrived, Cirtwill called me a few hours later and informed me Northern Policy would be offering me a contract.

Heading into my interview at Cambrian the next year, I knew the job of Applied Research Developer included a lot of business development work, but also understood that a significant part of those duties included research and grant development. As a result, I was able to make the case that, given my extensive experience in research and writing my own grant applications, I was an ideal candidate for the position. Long story short, I got the job. Since then, I’ve brought in millions of dollars in research income to the college and helped local companies close their innovation gaps.

Beyond my current work at the college, I was able to use my historical training for paid writing opportunities with popular publications in the sporting world. Building off the research and writing skills I developed during graduate school, I was able to demonstrate to places such as VICE Sports and Sportsnet that I could produce and market hockey history to a popular audience. Recognizing that significant moments in hockey history could resonate with the public, I began using my research skills as a historian to dig up interesting nuggets from primary sources and tell those stories in a fun and accessible way.  During the 2016-17 NHL season, I wrote regularly for VICE Sports and also contributed to Sportsnet. I was able to leverage those experiences into a book deal and even an appearance in the NHL’s 100th anniversary documentary. This aired nationally in Canada on Sportsnet on November 26, 2017, and is now available for streaming on the NHL’s website.

Screencap of one of Mike’s appearances in the NHL’s 100th anniversary documentary.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

I think the skills and training I acquired in graduate school more than prepared me for finding work outside of academia. However, given my current audience for hockey history, I think I could have benefitted from a greater emphasis on marketing and the importance of public history. Since graduating, I have placed a premium on marketing my work to a broader audience. As my research and writing continually moves further away from academia, it has become even more important for me to present my work in an engaging and accessible way.

As I was completing my dissertation, I found myself in an advantageous position. The Ontario government announced it was reintroducing the spring black bear hunt – a controversial practice. I recognized that my historical research could contextualize the issue to the general public and policy makers. As a result, I marketed my work to news outlets and did a number of interviews with CBC Radio about my research, offering insights on the contemporary situation. I think environmental historians do a great job connecting their work with a wider audience, but I think it’s important for graduate students of all stripes to zero in on that.

Even after the spring bear hunt issue was resolved, I continued to use my knowledge on the history of black bear management in Ontario and advocate the importance of education as a way to mitigate contemporary human-bear conflicts. I even started a seasonal part-time business, Bear Aware, where I gave educational presentations to primary students at local schools and did promotional videos with Laurentian University. These efforts allowed me to mobilize my knowledge in a different way and make a difference in the community. In Sudbury, I became known as the “bear guy,” thanks to my trademark bear coat. In 2017, Maclean’s picked up on my outreach work and profiled me as part of the Hidden Talent Series in its annual University Rankings issue.

Mike’s Bear Aware outreach in action at one of Sudbury’s elementary schools. Photograph by author.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

Market yourself as broadly as you can. You never know where you may end up after graduate school. Always remember that your skills as a historian are incredibly valuable beyond academia. Although some organizations may not initially recognize the value that a historian can bring, you can demonstrate that the skills you acquired in graduate school are transferrable to industries beyond the academy. Here’s one last example of the importance of marketing yourself broadly and how it can pay off. In March 2017, I ordered a t-shirt from Violent Gentlemen, a California-based clothing company co-founded by former NHL enforcer George Parros. When it arrived, I discovered the packaging included an old hockey card and a postcard that referenced a notable moment in hockey history. Recognizing that some of my writing on hockey history had focused on themes that aligned with the brand, I emailed the company and offered to develop some editorial content for their website. I received a response from Violent Gentlemen and I’ve been writing for them for almost a year. You just never know what opportunities are out there.

Always remember that your degree still means something outside academia. Heading into my PhD at McMaster, my dream was to work in academia, specifically at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. As I neared graduation, however, I realized that this dream career might never materialize. In fact, there were even times when I wondered why I had even bothered with my degree if there was no place for me in the academy at the end of the road. But I have since realized that, even if things did not go exactly as planned, my PhD has led to other amazing opportunities and opened the door to new passions.

Regardless of where your graduate school experience takes you, finishing your degree is a huge accomplishment. You should be proud of it wherever you end up. If you would have told me five years ago that, in 2018, I would be bringing in millions of dollars of research income to Cambrian College, teaching part-time at Laurentian University, and establishing myself as a leading hockey historian, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am. Although the destination may have changed, I would not have taken a different path to get there.

Mike and his signature bear coat. It was profiled in Maclean’s “Hidden Talents” series in the 2017 University Rankings issue. Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn.
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Michael Commito

Applied Research Developer at Cambrian College
Mike Commito is an Applied Research Developer at Cambrian College, a part-time instructor in the Department of History at Laurentian University, and a hockey historian. Mike's writing has appeared on the Athletic, Sportsnet, and VICE Sports. His first hockey history book, Hockey 365, hits shelves on September 22, 2018. Follow Mike on Twitter @mikecommito

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