Rhizomes: An Interview with Merle Massie

Prairie crocus at Massie Panoramic Farm, 2017.

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Editor’s note: This is the third 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 Merle Massie, a farmer and adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.

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?

Well, depending on how you look at it, my path could be viewed as a good news story, or a nightmare. I entered graduate school in the fall of 2006 and defended my dissertation in December of 2010. I loved being in graduate school – immersing myself in research, thinking, writing. These practices remain my core passion. After my defence, I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship funded by MISTRA – the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, working on northern and boreal flood issues in a comparative context. I got to work with the Saskatchewan River Delta, its history, its people, and its champions. Go visit – it will blow your mind.

The Saskatchewan River Delta, 2011. Photo: Merle Massie.

I then won a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship (which my Mom spells SHIRK), which allowed me to conduct some new, in-depth research into the history of Saskatchewan’s Great Depression. But an email arrived from the University of Manitoba Press: hey, Merle, who is publishing your dissertation? I looked at it, sitting as a pile of dusty, marked-up defence copies in a box in the bottom of my office closet and replied, ummm, no one? In a whirlwind, we set to work and emerged with Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan. You need really powerful reading glasses to read it (small print. Really small print), but it won the Saskatchewan Book Award for scholarly publishing in 2015 and I loved schlepping around Saskatchewan to read from it and present its stories. I pulled quite a few out and published a long series in Rural Roots (a newspaper from my hometown region), which was a big hit. One lady cut them all out and put them in a scrapbook – now that’s my definition of success.

But despite job application after job application, and ticking all the boxes (postdocs? Check. Dissertation to book? Check. Other journal articles and chapters and papers and presentations and conferences? Check.) I received precisely no offers for a full-time, tenure-track position. But then again, I’m picky. My husband and I own and operate, and participate within, a multi-generational family farm in west central Saskatchewan. Leaving it was non-negotiable. So, a Saskatchewan university, and only a Saskatchewan university, was what I needed. But neither were interested, so I laid that dream down. The grieving process for abandoning that dream remains ongoing. And no, I don’t teach – despite multiple emails and phone calls over the years, asking me to do so. I love teaching, but I don’t teach as a sessional. That’s my line in the sand: hire me on the tenure track, or the answer is: no thanks.

Nonetheless, other opportunities came calling. I took a research officer position at the University of Saskatchewan and moved from there to a communications officer role with a non-profit. All of the research, writing, and editing skills that we develop as we work our way through a PhD and postdoctoral fellowships are easily re-focused into these or similar roles. I soon realized that I thrive when I take on roles that allow me to be immersed in researching, writing, and crafting stories. So that’s what I’m doing now: researching, writing, and crafting stories from home.

Merle Massie putting up a flag at Massie Panoramic Farm.

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

I love the solitude of my office, my space in which I create and breathe new life into old stories for a new audience. I’m at work on a biography – new ground for me – but it’s been an opportunity to grow and learn as a storyteller, not as an academic. I’m deep in the life story of Sylvia Fedoruk, a much-loved Saskatchewan figure who straddled science (medical physics) and sports with equal success. I love being able to cast off the need for stilted literature reviews and theoretical constructs, and dig deep into the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of Sylvia’s world. I’m building a career for myself, taking my skills as a writer and centring my identity as an author. I have the flexibility to apply for writer’s grants, or take contract work in writing or editing or research, yet also fold those opportunities into my daily life.

What would I change? Money, I suppose. I don’t believe that writers, editors, researchers or authors are compensated to the level that their skills demand. But that’s up to me, to a point. I demand fair compensation and for the most part, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t take the job. I also only rarely write for free – this post being an exception, because I am a fan of Tina, and she asked me.

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

Environmental history helps people to understand that the environment is not just the backdrop, but a main actor in history, and deserves its starring role. I appreciate its perspective, and I think through landscape and space to tell stories. But otherwise, I must give credit to people like Bill Waiser, whose work in public history has helped pave the way for crossover academics like me, who take our research training and use it to delve deep into stories, but choose to write with passion and pain and truth and fearlessness and abundance for a public audience.

Prairie crocus at Massie Panoramic Farm, 2017.

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

There is far too much emphasis on writing skills that are useful only for the narrow publication fields in which academics work. Graduate training must recognize that writing – good writing – is a skill for everyone. I’d love to see graduate students gain writing skills first in writing for a public audience, and in a variety of genres: from op-eds to reports, magazine and newspaper articles to blogs, to creative writing and literary non-fiction. Good writing is a marketable skill, but companies are leery of hiring academics because they think that trained academics will only produce ponderous, jargon-filled, and esoteric writing that is leaden and brutal to read. And in a lot of cases, they are not wrong. So, let’s change this perception by changing how we train graduate students. In 75% of cases (or more), your future career is not on the tenure track. So let’s make good writing the focus, with a small specialty in academic writing, as an extension – and not the other way around.

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

Take creative writing classes, plain language classes, public writing classes. Brush up your skills by writing blogs, writing newspaper and magazine articles, and try your hand at opinion pieces. Eschew obfuscation. Don’t disguise academic articles as blog posts; they are really not – not – the same thing. Fill your desk with Lego, stuffies, pictures, great pens that roll out the ink smoothly, and thick writing journals. Play fetch with a dog. Pet a cat. Grow good food. Breathe deeply. Watch clouds. Don’t spend time chasing someone else’s path. Climb to the top of your own mountain. Real life is where it’s at.

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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.

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