Rhizomes: An Interview with Anne Dance

Anne Dance speaking at the Parliamentary Internship Program Farewell Lunch, June 2017. Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services, ©HOC-CDC, 2017.

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Editor’s note: This is the sixth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. This interview features Anne Dance, the Director of the Parliamentary Internship Programme, a non-partisan initiative of the Canadian Political Science Association. She holds a BA (Hon.) from St. Thomas University, an MA from the University of Victoria, and a PhD from the University of Stirling’s Division of History and Politics.

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 was very strategic about graduate school. I approached my degrees as self-contained projects and focused on completing each “project” component, step by step. I was able to research topics that I cared about and that had clear policy implications. Yet I tried to avoid pigeonholing myself because I love learning and am curious about everything.

Taking part in the Parliamentary Internship Programme between graduate degrees helped me understand how the skills I learned in academia could translate to legislative settings as well as policymaking and advocacy. So too did the various jobs I held outside academia. Between completing my PhD and starting my first postdoc, for example, I taught an intersession class, worked as a poll clerk in a provincial election, researched pension policy and Bitcoin for a government agency, and edited thesis guidelines for a university.

More than anything else, the guidance and support of excellent supervisors brought me to where I am today. From the start of my undergraduate degree to my postdoctoral fellowships, my supervisors helped me find funding, championed my applications, and gave me a comprehensive and entertaining rundown of different career opportunities inside and outside academia.

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

The best part of my job is supervising the 10 Parliamentary Interns. These paid, full-time, non-partisan university graduates work in the offices of both opposition and government Members of Parliament (MPs). Over 10 months the interns write research papers, run workshops for 250 young Canadians, take part in legislative study tours, organize six legislative study tours for visiting provincial interns and Congressional Fellows, and learn about Parliament in academic seminars. The interns are extraordinary people and I learn just as much from them as they learn from me. It is thrilling to watch them tackle the internship and then go on to change the world.

Parliamentary Internship Program spring reception, June 2018. Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services, ©HOC-CDC, 2018.

I also really enjoy working with the diverse range of people who populate the unique village that is Parliament Hill. On any given day I learn from experts in the political science community; government relations and advocacy; the House of Commons administration; program alumni; and of course MPs and their staff.

I enjoy being busy, and this job certainly fits the bill. While no two days are exactly alike, I can expect at least one hundred urgent new emails in my inbox every 12 hours or so. Each year I organize and chair the selection committee for the Parliamentary Interns, organize a two-week intensive orientation program for those selected, and help interns arrange over one hundred meetings in Ottawa as well as their legislative study tours to Québec City, Brussels, the United Kingdom, Washington, and Iqaluit. I teach weekly academic seminars, oversee the interns’ research projects, and run eight major events, including the Jean-Pierre Gaboury Research Symposium. I secure funding for the Programme, write grant applications, manage the Programme’s budget, write annual reports, and handle strategic planning. I also spearhead recruitment efforts and oversee a communications policy. Sometimes I do one-off projects; last year, for example, I worked with volunteer alumni on a new Foundation, a new website and online application system, and a harassment prevention policy.

Anne Dance and the Parliamentary Interns meet with Representative John Lewis, the civil rights leader, during their 2018 legislative study tour to Washington, DC. Credit: Office of Representative John Lewis.

My job requires a PhD but is not based at a university. Time moves differently outside of graduate school and it can be a challenge pursuing all of my academic projects. Like everyone, I would love more time for research and for keeping up with the field. What’s more, securing access to resources some other academics take for granted—journal subscriptions, library catalogue access, office supplies, administrative support, meeting rooms, WiFi, a computer, and credentials for conferences and publications—is a challenge. More than anything else, I miss the comradeship and peer support fostered by many academic departments. This is why I am brainstorming ways to deepen networks and opportunities for the ever-growing community of unaffiliated scholars in Canada.

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

My graduate degrees emphasized writing, research, and teaching. My training in these areas has proved valuable in running weekly seminars and supervising research papers. Experience organizing academic conferences has also proved tremendously helpful in my current position.

In retrospect, opportunities like TAing for University 101 (an academic class for community members), sorting through files at the Scottish Political Archive, and providing basic IT support for a local environmental history lecture series were really worthwhile. They made me think about the purpose of university research and outreach and profoundly affected my publication goals and teaching. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make research and educational opportunities more accessible to a much wider audience. Exclusively publishing in an academic journal or presenting at academic conferences is not always the best route to go, or the route with the most impact. For many readers, a newspaper op-ed or briefing paper is more accessible than a journal article behind a paywall.

Studying environmental history can be a good choice because it is hard to pigeonhole yourself in a field that is so interdisciplinary. To be a good environmental historian, you need some grasp of politics, policymaking, the earth sciences, literature, and many other disciplines. The field also helped me develop an appreciation for nuance and conflicting narratives: in my MA thesis, for example, the same story of land reclamation could have been told multiple ways, depending on the narrator.

Anne Dance and Catherine Mills doing fieldwork at Rumbling Bridge Gorge in Scotland. Credit: Emily St Denny.

Finally, signing up for a graduate degree like environmental history that emphasizes the importance of fieldwork is never a bad thing. Fieldwork shaped my research and made me a better scholar. More to the point, few positions in the current job market offer offices with windows, never mind the chance to spend time outside and learn from community members.

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

I wish I had paid more attention to the structure of academic departments and how they related to graduate studies, faculties of arts, and the broader university. The universities I attended did an extremely good job at providing training and support for students as well as faculty. Now that I am in a management position I often think about how this was achieved. As a graduate student I was very quick to notice problems in my working environment, but was less cognizant of the context—namely, the many capacity deficits and structural challenges facing most universities and departments.

I wish I had done more training in statistics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), quantitative research methods, social media management, communicating research to the public, public relations, and conflict resolution. That said, I only had so much time to complete my coursework and research projects. All of this training would have lengthened my degrees.

Anne Dance speaking at the Parliamentary Internship Program Farewell Lunch, June 2017. Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services, ©HOC-CDC, 2017.

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

There is no perfect recipe for graduate school; every experience is different. Knowing what you want to get out of a degree can be helpful, but you should also anticipate some surprising plot twists. I recommend drinking water, getting sleep, taking care of your health, pursuing non-academic activities, and keeping in touch with friends. Do your readings, write your essays, and dive deep into theory. Think about publishing sooner rather than later. Treat administrative staff and adjuncts just as respectfully as you do senior scholars. Cultivate a sense of humour. Make an effort to meet people outside of a university setting. Work hard, but don’t strive for perfection or a perfect thesis. Understand the context of your institution and the profound trials confronted by the academy. Find trustworthy mentors. Learn to listen and ask reasonable (i.e. short) questions. Aspire to be competent, organized, and self-aware. Build and maintain positive initiatives in your department.

I had every advantage during graduate school: full funding, extraordinarily supportive supervisors, fun and brilliant cohorts, fascinating locales, and projects that were meaningful and interesting. Yet I still battled imposter syndrome and almost quit several times. In retrospect, I wish I had been more aware that grad school is challenging for everyone, and that structural inequalities create particularly onerous barriers and trials for specific people and communities.

Graduate school can be isolating. Remember that your cohort members are probably feeling just as overwhelmed as you are, if not more so. Learn to take joy from others’ triumphs as well as your own.

Collaboration is a key skill to develop in graduate school. As a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University I was fascinated by how John Sandlos and Arn Keeling collaborate frequently on their research. Similarly, my PhD supervisor Catherine Mills is committed to developing interdisciplinary methodology with scholars in the hard sciences. These are admirable qualities in academia, but they are even more valued outside it. Employers want to hire people who can put their egos aside and work effectively with individuals who have different perspectives, experiences, and abilities.

Think strategically about your next steps, and read some expert advice on how to do this—I would particularly recommend Jonathan Malloy and Loleen Berdahl’s Work Your Career for PhD students. Ask your department if you can organize sessions with graduates who have pursued careers outside of academia. Visit the career office. Make use of on-campus counselling services. Figure out what you need, and ask for it.

Whatever you do, avoid pigeonholing yourself: members of my two graduate school cohorts include a historical fiction writer, a journal editor, a learning strategist, a Coast Guard College librarian, a museum curator, a communications expert, a financial literacy analyst, a historical blogger extraordinaire, a property assistant at a Scottish palace, a law office administrator, and the most patient cooperative insurance salesperson in Western Canada.

Graduate school is not a team sport, but maybe it should be. Nearly a decade has passed since I started my first graduate degree, and I learned a great deal during my time at university. But my sharpest memories are of my cohort. I remember time with my classmates—taking coffee breaks between seminars at UVic; brandishing bargain-bin turnips as a lure while chasing a disgruntled pony around rural Scotland. In the end, these are the memories that have stayed with me.

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Anne Dance

Academic Director
Dr. Anne Dance is the director of the Canadian Political Science Association's Parliamentary Internship Programme. Her many research interests include the travel writings of agricultural expert E. Cora Hind, public space and Canadian legislatures, the Athabasca oil sands, the Sydney tar ponds, and mine site remediation in the Arctic.

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