Rhizomes: An Interview with Mica Jorgenson

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Editor’s note: This is the fourteenth 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 Mica Jorgenson, a Senior Advisor at British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development.

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

I vividly remember my first archival experience: glued to the screen of a microfilm reader, devouring the gossip-filled accounts of fur traders at remote Hudson’s Bay Company forts in northern British Columbia. That was when I realized that history was not just about “big” matters like war or discovery. It was also about the petty rivalries between individuals and the question of how people were going to put food on the table in the winter. Places where the apparently trivial details of peoples’ lives disrupted grand theories of history especially captivated me. Graduate school appealed to me because of the opportunity to chase down the answers to some questions other people hadn’t solved yet. I took a year off after finishing my BA at the University of Northern British Columbia. Then I went back to UNBC to do an MA. My thesis looked at the history of First Nations’ presence in the gold rush at my hometown of Barkerville, in the Cariboo Mountains.

At the end of my MA I decided I wanted to work for BC Parks. It would be a natural extension of my academic research combined with my previous work as a summer student guiding paddling trips on the Bowron Lake circuit and working for Barkerville Historic Town.

Unfortunately, BC Parks does not hire historians. After two years of trying and failing to find anything comparable to my non-existent dream job (or anything at all), I returned to university. This time I moved across the country to take up a PhD at McMaster University. My dissertation was an environmental history of the Porcupine gold rush in northern Ontario. It was an opportunity to flesh out some of the big, border-crossing ideas about mining history I hadn’t been able to address during my MA.

I wish I could say I was strategic about my time and energy during the next four years. Instead my PhD was marked by a phrenetic mix of activities and outputs that appealed to me. I taught, attended conferences, took on research contracts, organized events, attended workshops, published articles, experimented with digital scholarship, tweeted, and served on various committees. I had a lot of fun because I (mostly) chose the projects that brought me joy.

At some point, my former MA supervisor (Ted Binnema) told me over coffee at a conference that my dissertation was not my magnum opus. “Save that for your second book,” he said. I took this advice to heart and wrapped up my dissertation at the end of year four—even though it wasn’t perfect. As my PhD ended, I transitioned smoothly into my first post-doctoral fellowship at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship at McMaster University. I also began interviewing for an eclectic mix of public-, private-, and university-sector jobs.

I had a lot more success on the market with my PhD in hand, but this was not a result of the extra letters in front of my name. In fact, employers regularly expressed reservations about my advanced degree because they assumed I would be bored working outside of a university. It was the skills I had learned tangentially that appealed to potential employers. These included skills in research, analysis, public speaking, writing, and supervision, all of which I had to learn to pitch to employers in their own language. My PhD also gave me confidence in my expertise and value as an employee.

I was not exactly resoundingly successful, even so. I submitted hundreds of applications and made it to only a handful of interviews. I was not the first pick for my current position. I was not even their second choice. I passed the interview and made it into a hiring pool. Six months later, I got the phone call from my current manager, offering me a position. I joined a small team handling consultation with First Nations for land, water, wildlife, mining, and forestry authorizations in the South Coast resource region. Covering an area stretching from Hope to Powell River (including the entire Greater Vancouver area), South Coast receives thousands of applications for different natural resource projects every year. As the centre of BC’s economy, it is an area of intense interaction between humans and the environment. It is also home to more than thirty First Nations with active rights to land and resources.

The South Coast Resource Region stretches from Hope to Powell River and includes all of metro Vancouver.

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

After six years of graduate studies, getting set loose on a series of small, interesting, and practical problems came as a relief. No more theory, no more jargon, no more talk without action. Instead I got to sink my teeth into building docks, digging wells, cutting trails, removing debris from salmon streams, irrigating crops, dewatering construction sites, reinforcing dykes, and a million other projects. Although each single file was smaller than a dissertation, none of them were simple: some will take decades, millions of dollars, and teams of dedicated professionals to sort out. But the tangibility of the work was immediately satisfying, as was the ability to be out on the land and see the impact I was having.

Every day I work next to biologists, engineers, computer programmers, foresters, economists, chemists, hydrologists, and many other experts. I get to ask them questions and work with them to solve problems. Collaborative, interdisciplinary work is incredibly productive because it means projects are not dependent on the energy and skills of a single individual. Whereas post-secondary institutions often struggle to get people working in different disciplines in the same room, it is a natural, regular aspect of my job.

Getting ready to meet forestry co-op students at UBC. Working across disciplines is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Photo: Mica Jorgenson.

On the other hand, academics largely get to pick what they want to work on. Public servants don’t have that luxury, and sometimes we get stuck with truly thankless work. Strict hierarchies limit our autonomy, while a critical public rarely appreciates the hard work that goes into every decision. I wish there was more support for public servants to conduct research or attend conferences. Academia and government would benefit from closer ties with each other.

Although my time working for the province of BC has (inevitably) made me more sympathetic to the bureaucracy I once studied in grad school, I remain critical of the institution I work for and the way it wields its colonial power. Continuing to read and engage with environmental history helps me bring the question-oriented culture of academic research to my work in government. The province is still grappling with issues of racism and injustice in its relations with marginalized communities, especially in the natural resource sector. I feel lucky to work for a ministry actively working to address these issues, but it can still be frustrating to work within an institution with deep roots in colonialism.

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

On one of my first days in this job, someone at a meeting exclaimed, “I don’t understand how resource extraction is allowed in a provincial park!” At that moment I knew that I was the right person for this work. I had already spent so much time thinking about this question, using the work of William Cronon, Alan MacEachern, and Claire Campbell! My most challenging files continue to involve tensions between different ways of understanding the land and its purpose. What is a river for? Moving sediment, serving as a throughway for fish, disposing pollutants, transporting logs, living on, preventing floods, or recreating? Most of my time is spent navigating these multiple (and conflicting) ideas about nature.

What is a river “for”? Balancing the needs of people, salmon, eel-grass and industry (among hundreds of other values) is the most difficult part of working for the province. Photo: Mica Jorgenson.

Thanks to my training as an environmental historian, I already knew a lot about the legislation and legal cases at the core of my work. I was also an old hand at reading difficult-to-parse legal decisions and engineers’ reports. My ability to read across disciplines, absorb large amounts of information, and translate it for others has been foundational.

My past experience with teaching and presenting at conferences means that big public presentations never intimidate me. Facilitating a meeting or making a pitch for funding are not that different to running a seminar or delivering a paper. Graduate school taught me how to speak engagingly to a room full of people.

The digital humanities work I did as part of my dissertation has also been hugely helpful. The ability to work in ESRI’s ArcMap was not a requirement of this job, but I use this skill I learned in grad school every day. Often, I use ArcMap for simple tasks like fetching and converting shapefiles for clients who do not have access to proprietary software. Other times I use my skills for more complex tasks, like tracking down a file’s history or conducting original analysis on our records to track efficiency. Information about natural resource projects comes across my desk in a variety of formats—from descriptive letters or lines drawn on a paper map to spreadsheets, engineers’ reports, and geodatabases. My rudimentary programming skills and my familiarity with “messy” humanities data means I have practice making sense of large amounts of information. If I get stuck on something technical, these skills also make it a lot easier for me to communicate with our dedicated IT department.

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

Teamwork is one. I tried hard to join different kinds of teams in graduate school, such as teaching teams, conference panels, and organizing committees for events. None of this work prepared me for teamwork in government, however. At the end of the day, academics still largely work on their own. For me, a common pitfall related to teamwork is overpromising: I forget that I must take something back to my team for approval. I also have a hard time delegating. I tend to squirrel work away on my own ledger rather than asking for support. This often results in a big backlog of work for me, or big stacks of work I am not actually equipped to address.

Negotiation and tough conversations are another. Except for complaints about grades and the occasional controversy sparked by a conference presentation, I rarely had to manage conflict as a PhD or postdoc. Disagreements with colleagues were purely academic and rarely involved anything so tangible as peoples’ livelihoods. I spent my first few months in my new job terrified of tough conversations. They kept me up at night. I felt crippling anxiety whenever my inbox pinged or my phone rang. Over time, I have learned to appreciate them. Hard conversations are an opportunity to connect with another person on things that matter to them. They yield information that will help me make better decisions. Best of all, if you can demonstrate respect while having those conversations, you may have laid the foundation for a powerful collaborative relationship.

Before COVID-19, my office views could be very diverse. Working for the province meant getting to travel to remote communities in some beautiful locations. Photo: Mica Jorgenson.

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

Don’t overlook a job opening just because it doesn’t match your education and experience perfectly. If you can make a pitch for your “fit” with the requirements, you’re qualified. Frankly, government at all levels needs more environmental historians and the skills we bring, even if they don’t know it yet. It may take a little work to educate hiring committees on why you are a great fit, but rest assured that your ability to learn quickly, work hard, and keep an open mind make you an enormous asset to any employer.

For those who made it through the hiring process and are entering careers outside of academia, be patient with yourself. I remind myself every day that it took me 10 years to learn how to walk capably through the world of post-secondary institutions. Learning to navigate the worlds of government or private-sector work will also take time. I had to learn a whole new set of hierarchies, expectations, and acronyms. No matter how good their intentions, faculty in the university departments where I was trained couldn’t teach me how to move through non-academic work environments.

Finally, leaving the academy does not have to mean the end of intellectual work, especially if that work brings you joy. On a practical level, working a nine-to-five job has given me structure and time to pursue the stuff that makes me happy in my off-hours, including (but not limited to) scholarly research and writing. My experiences working on the land often provoke breakthroughs in my thinking and vice versa. Especially for environmental historians (I suspect) there is real satisfaction in doing work that has a tangible impact on the world.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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