What is our role? Environmental History and Activism

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NiCHE New Scholars met in mid-February to discuss the connections between environmental humanities and activism. I was joined by the newly minted Dr. Jessica DeWitt and Justin Fisher (both of the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan) for a motivating discussion which highlighted our definition(s) of activism, how we can employ activist approaches in our teaching and research, and shifts required in the academy to better support activist-centered scholarship. Through this discussion, we agreed that this generation of emerging scholars tend to be more vocally activist than previous generations. In the past, it seems, scholars were more hesitant to proclaim their activism because they worried it may hinder their publication opportunities or influence their ability to be taken seriously as scholars. As the nature of scholarship has changed over time, we believed that there has been a shift where, today, new scholars are almost expected to be vocally activist – if not activists exactly, we are certainly expected to engage with public platforms more than our academic predecessors have. The increased importance of digital scholarship and the acceptance of platforms such as social media and digital publications (such as sites like Active History and Unwritten Histories) to promote scholarship has strongly influenced this new trend in activist scholarship.

We each discussed how our scholarship is informed by, and rooted in, activism. Justin, whose academic research focuses on energy history in Saskatchewan, told us how it was actually his activist work that brought him to the field of environmental history. Justin has worked on a community-based project since 2017 that focuses on labour, energy, and coal communities in Saskatchewan, and his involvement in the community through active participation, conversation, and relationship building allowed him to see that humanists have things to say about climate change and other environmental issues. As he began his PhD project, his reading and research has further informed his activism.

Jessica, whose dissertation is a comparative history of Canadian provincial parks and American state parks, brought up a great point that in deciding which research topics we engage in, and make a case for their importance, in itself in activism. We all know Jessica as NiCHE’s social media editor, and she went into more detail on how activism informs her scholarly work outside of her research. In her work with NiCHE, Jessica employs activist theory and strategies as methods of inclusion and of forming community within environmental history, which she sees as a form of activism. I discussed how my research on the environmental inequalities of resource colonialism in Canada and the United States is informed by my own environmental and social justice activism, and I see this work as contributing to both more responsible environmental protection policies and more ethical consultation with Indigenous and other local communities in the mining industry in the future.

We discussed what activism means to us – in terms of activism and scholarship – and realized how widely it reaches by splitting it into two main categories: activism within the academy, and activism outside of the academy. In general, we all agreed that activism is the act of working to address inequalities and social injustices, which exists both inside and outside of academic structures.

1. Activism Within

We defined activism within the academy as working to level the playing field regarding both gendered inequalities and in terms of removing barriers between early career scholars and senior scholars, as well as encouraging early career scholars to engage with public platforms. Though it is becoming more common for new scholars to voice their opinions, it can still be intimidating for graduate students or the precariously employed to engage publicly in activist work. The structures of graduate programs can often narrowly confine us to follow certain steps in order to “successfully” graduate and find employment. However, these steps can also stifle our ability to engage in activist-centered scholarship. Anxieties about being on the job market, applying for funding, or requesting reference letters can outweigh our desire to truly promote our work, both inside and outside of the academy. In our discussion, we noted that the structural organization of graduate programs have largely not kept up with shifts within the academic world. As Jessica pointed out, doing activist work requires you being vocal and putting yourself out there. There is risk involved – which is something that early career scholars are not often encouraged to do by senior colleagues.

Our definition of activism within the academy also extended to a discussion of our teaching. The pedagogical decisions we make reflect our values and outlooks. Some of the ways we have employed activism in our teaching include the ways in which we frame our courses. For example, when teaching the Post-Confederation Canada survey course, I have structured the course to examine major events and processes in Canadian history through the lens of groups on the margins of mainstream society. Both Jessica and I encourage students to make connections between the past and present by being aware of current events, whether through assignments or through class discussions, students have picked up on threads that have changed over time, but also those that have persisted. Jessica also noted that activism in teaching includes empowering students with confidence and the skills of thinking critically to go forth and engage more with social and environmental issues on their own.

2. Activism Outside

We defined activism outside the academy as work that strives to break down walls between the academic world and the public and to create conversation, partnerships, and collaboration between academic researchers and the public.  This means addressing divisions between campus and community. Justin brought up the important fact that people can define themselves as activists, but to truly do activist work requires reflecting on who/what we advocate for, and asking how we have we included them in the process. In this sense, activism should be rooted in community, in both the questions we ask and the methodologies we employ. This includes spending time in the places we study, having both formal and informal conversations, being open about your positions, making connections and bridging gaps. Activism, then, means making decisions about the methods you use in your research.

Our discussion of what academic activism is, what it looks like, and how we can employ it in our work was exciting and motivating; however, we also realized that there are still roadblocks in our way. Ironically, yet not surprising, the largest hindrance we identified to doing activism-centered scholarship was the structure of the academy itself. As mentioned earlier, emerging scholars can be hesitant to engage in public activism because it is still not normalized within the academy. In our discussion of community-rooted research, we again found ourselves discussing how the current structures of academic programs do not accurately reflect what is expected of students. To clarify this, we used the example of doing environmental history research with an Indigenous community.  While completing graduate programs, students are pressured to complete their programs quickly, while also publishing in order to make themselves competitive on the job market. However, building relationships in communities requires spending time in those communities, getting to know people, having conversations, and building trust. Doing truly activist research requires slow scholarship. Aside from taking time to build relationships, slow scholarship includes writing in non-academic venues, such as newspapers, websites, for community use, and collaborating with community members. These are things that can’t be rushed, but they are also things that are often not valued on the job market. Emerging scholars today feel pressure to do everything, yet when it comes to writing application letters and polishing our CVs, we worry that we may not have enough “academic” publications, even if we have lots of public-facing or digital publications. Further to the concern about building “hirable” CVs, community-based research requires significant financial resources and time, which are often not luxuries graduate students are afforded in abundance. While we discussed these roadblocks, we each noted they were problems facing new scholars, but none of us had real solutions.

Clearly, these two categories are not easily separated, which is reflective of the fact that environmental history’s relevance continues to be rooted outside of the academy. We concluded that another form of activism within the academy is the act of fighting for activist scholarship. Going forward, we believe (and hope) that future generations of environmental humanists will further blur the lines between academic and community-based scholarship and that we will see the tide turn toward community serving work.

Thank you to Jessica and Justin for joining me for this great discussion. If you would like to get involved with NiCHE New Scholars, you can connect with me on Twitter at @heathergreen21 or via email at greenh1@mcmaster.ca. Watch out for our next discussion in March which will focus on energy history.

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. She is interested in the intersections of environmental and Indigenous histories, histories of Indigenous and Settler Relations, and mining history, particularly in the Canadian North. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.


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