Rhizomes: An Interview with Karen Routledge

Looking up the Macdonald Valley, Quttinirpaaq National Park, July 2017. Photo: Karen Routledge.

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Editor’s note: This is the second post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Karen Routledge, a historian with Parks Canada.

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

I have been a historian with Parks Canada since January 2010. I first heard of this career path in 1997, when I was an undergraduate student at Simon Fraser University. Charlene Porsild, the instructor for my northern history seminar, invited Parks Canada historian David Neufeld to speak to us. I was amazed that this kind of opportunity existed. I think I went up to him afterwards and said, “I want your job.”

Then twelve years passed. After a break from university, I did an MA in Canadian history and moved to the United States to do a PhD in American history. I didn’t entirely forget about David Neufeld—I kept seeing him at conferences, and he is unforgettable!—but I stopped thinking of public history as my dream career. For years I secretly felt that I would be a failure if I did not get a tenure-track job.

In 2009, I was at the World Congress of Environmental History in Copenhagen.* I ran into Meg Stanley, another Parks Canada historian, who told me that they had posted a job in Calgary. By then I had watched many friends struggle to get secure academic jobs. I realized I was excited at the thought of working with the Parks Canada historians I had met. I didn’t think I would get the job, but I met the minimum qualifications. I submitted my application using the free Wi-Fi at a highway rest stop in Mississippi, a few minutes before the midnight deadline.

At the head of Tanquary Fiord in Quttinirpaaq National Park, July 2017. Photo: Maria Quqsuut.

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

Most of my work is with northern parks and historic sites. I love this job because:

  • A lot of people see our work on interpretive signs or in exhibits. I feel that I am making a contribution to how others understand the past, including foregrounding basic tenets of environmental history such as the long human history of “wild” places.
  • I work as part of a team. Parks Canada has passionate, skilled, fun staff members. I have worked with historians, archaeologists, cultural resource management specialists, curators, conservators, designers, translators, GIS technicians, scientists, and local park staff. Many project teams also include contractors like Indigenous language interpreters, and external partners like cooperative management bodies, First Nations heritage managers and language coordinators, Métis organizations, Elders’ committees, and Inuit Knowledge Working Groups (Elders, Youth, and Hunters and Trappers’ Association representatives). It is inspiring to see so many different kinds of knowledge and expertise come together to form a final product.
  • I get to work on the land in places like Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site and Quttinirpaaq National Park. Well, okay… I am still at my desk most days, and I have been to more park offices than actual parks. But the importance and power of place is at the centre of everything we do.
  • And a few smaller but still awesome things: My job is usually 9-to-5. I leave my work computer and emails at the office. I never have to grade papers.

The main thing I miss about academia is dedicated time to focus on personal research and writing. Finishing my dissertation and turning it into a book has been a very long process. Still, I know that professors also do much of this work “after hours.”

Auyuittuq National Park, March 2016. Looking towards Qaiqsualuk (Thor Peak). Photo: Karen Routledge.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position? What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired sooner, in light of your current work?

Overall, graduate school prepared me quite well for working at Parks Canada. There was a lot I didn’t know when I started here, and there still is! But my MA and PhD advisors gave me a solid grounding for learning, and my new co-workers helped me figure things out.** The foundations of academic history—research, writing, and teaching—have all proved essential. My limited experience working in Nunavut during my PhD program was also important, because it started teaching me about collaborating with Indigenous partners. I do wish I had looked harder for opportunities to meet public historians and participate in public history projects, or even academic projects that were team based. This experience would have made me a better job candidate, and would have made the transition into full-time public history work less stressful.

With a Parks Canada truck at Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, soon after starting my job at Parks Canada in 2010. Photo: David Neufeld.

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

I would advise current grad students to consider all their career options seriously. I think this is becoming standard advice now, but I’ll say it anyway: tenure-track research jobs can be fantastic, but they are not the natural end goal of life. Seek out people both inside and outside academia who have jobs that interest you. Find out how they got there. Ask them what their day-to-day lives are like. Keep in touch—you never know when they might hear of opportunities and pass them on. If you have an interest in non-academic jobs, sign up today to receive postings from various job boards, so you can get a sense of typical job descriptions and qualifications before you go on the market. For federal government jobs, you can set up emailed job alerts on jobs.gc.ca. If you like the idea of a federal job and aren’t comfortable in both English and French, take some language classes. Do it now! There are many government jobs that don’t require perfect fluency, but do require a legitimate ability to communicate in both languages. The same applies to other languages that are relevant to your work; I still wish I had spent more time learning Inuktitut ten years ago. In general, if you come across any unique training opportunities, and are in a position to seize them, do it.

I would also encourage grad students to figure out what is most important to you, both in terms of professional and personal goals. Think about what you love—and hate—about your work. What brought you to environmental history, and what keeps you here? What types of jobs would allow you to keep doing what you love? And what do you need beyond work? Do you want to live in a certain city or part of the world? Do you need to live close to family? Do you want to have kids? Do you devote a lot of time to a hobby or volunteer work, and if so, does that require a certain work schedule? None of these things are necessarily incompatible with having a great career, academic or otherwise, but they are probably incompatible with saying yes to every career opportunity or demand that comes along. You will have to make hard choices, so think about what you want to still be holding onto at the end of it.

Chilkoot Trail National Historic Site, August 2015. Photo: Bruce Dansby.


* I also want to mention that I was able to attend the WCEH thanks to a NiCHE travel grant. So it is fair to say that I wouldn’t have my job without NiCHE!

** Shout-out to advisors Paige Raibmon and Tina Loo for my MA, and to Jackson Lears, Ann Fabian, Paul Clemens, Chris Trott, and the late Susan Schrepfer for my PhD. My co-workers across the country are too numerous to list here, but on this blog I would especially like to thank the historians who helped me when I first started: Lyle Dick, Frieda Klippenstein, David Neufeld, Scott Stephen, and Meg Stanley.

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Karen Routledge

Historian at Parks Canada
I am a historian with Parks Canada, based in Whitehorse. I work mainly with national parks and historic sites in Yukon and Nunavut. I have also published a book: Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). Please feel free to contact me; I am happy to talk to historians considering a career in history outside of academia.

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