A Conversation about Teaching Early Canadian History in the United States, Part 1: Cross-border Academic Biographies

About a year ago, Christopher Parsons suggested the idea that Borealia host an online conversation about being “early Canadianists” in the United States. He observed that there are a growing number of such cross-border historians, and still more Canadian PhDs are looking for jobs at American schools. It would be interesting, he said, to compare experiences with others who have made the transition. So we invited Parsons, along with Claire Campbell, Alexandre Dubé, and Jeffers Lennox, to sit down with editor Keith Grant for just such a conversation. It was a good long chat, so it will be posted in three parts. (Because the conversation took place over a few weeks, Alexandre was not able to respond to some of the later questions.) ~ Editors

Borealia: What is your own cross-border academic biography? Can you tell us something about your historical training, research, and teaching?

Claire Campbell: I did a MA in public history and then a PhD in history at Western University (then the University of Western Ontario). After that (2002-2013), I taught in Denmark, Alberta, and Nova Scotia. While in Canada I taught the garden-variety-eclectic range of Canadian history classes (regional, public, environmental) but then began doing more and more teaching in interdisciplinary programs in Canadian Studies and Environment, Society, & Sustainability. It also became clearer that environmental history was emerging as a really important and exciting field in Canada, thanks especially to NiCHE (the Network in Canadian History & Environment). So I’ve done almost all my research in this area.

When I came to Bucknell, the department was welcoming but really didn’t know what to do with me—a Canadianist was not on their “priority to hire” list. This had two effects:

  1. I cast most of my classes in continental terms. For example, I teach North American Environmental History, and even the Canadian survey has a strong comparative component.
  2. A now-retired faculty member apparently suggested that I could teach the French and Indian War (I’m guessing because that’s all he could think of when thinking of Canada). I was taken aback, because the term itself felt foreign (as I tell my students, we don’t call it that, in part because we were the French!). But I realized that what I could do was use precisely that difference of naming and memory—of story-telling and/for nation-building—to talk about the origin of national identities and national territories.

It should be said that I’m an expat by marriage, or “trailing spouse”—that is, my husband left Dalhousie for the United States in search of a more open discussion about racial diversity, in the academy and beyond. It’s ironic in many ways, not least because of the really deep history of African-Americans in Halifax and Nova Scotia—itself a legacy of the 18th century—yet that history is talked about more here than at Dal and Halifax. Our son was born here, and while he holds dual citizenships, it’s odd to think of him as an American.

Alexandre Dubé: In my case, it felt very much like a slow process of crossing multiple borders, in a way that retrospectively looks like a series of improvisations. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I began with a BA at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), before doing an MA at McGill and a PhD at McGill, all the while working at the McCord Museum. After the PhD, I had a postdoc in Paris, and other fellowships in Rhode Island and Virginia, before returning to Canada, at McMaster, and then back to the US at Washington University in St. Louis.

I know we often look askance at the tired “Two Solitudes” cliché, but crossing over the French-English border very much felt like that, for me, was the most important border-crossing, well before working in the United States. I am a Francophone, and grew up with very little ordinary contact with Anglophones until my graduate studies at McGill. I did not realize until later that it gave me a set of practical, and also intellectual references quite different from those of my students, whether in Ontario, or in the United States. It also meant that the prospect of a career in the English-speaking world began as nonexistent. Then it became something I could perhaps investigate. Then it became something I really needed to investigate.

UQAM was, I realize now, a much more directed approach to history learning and teaching than one that exists in Ontario or the United States, where students are left much more free to chose the classes they want. At UQÀM (and it was the same at other French-language universities where my friends were studying), even the concept of major / minor was much less central than it was, say, at McMaster or at Washington University in St. Louis. You did a B.A. in “History,” and that was it. You also had a lot of mandatory introductory surveys. There is no concept of “discussion sections.” To some extent, these feel still a little alien to me, even after teaching under that model for four years now.

Going to McGill felt like changing countries without changing cities. It is there that I realized the difference between the sort of historical imagination I had grown up with, and those of my colleagues from Ontario, Alberta, BC, or the Maritimes. Obviously, there are going to be some differences between all the provinces, and because of family histories, but the publishing and media culture reinforces some larger sets of distinctions and shared references. So, my version of “Early Canada” was heavily influenced by the long shadow cast by France, and by New France over Quebec.

As a young Québécois interested in “old” stuff, it is French history that forms the basis of your historical imagination—stories of French kings, French castles, French Revolution, French classical authors. It helps that France has a very robust historical self-identity, and thus produced (and still produces) numerous history books for kids, which I easily got in the school libraries. Similarly, as a child of the political 80s in Québec, New France was never really far; it never was truly cold history. It existed in family history, in politics, in songs, etc. It meant that “Canadian history” per se, was a different beast—a later creature of post-Conquest. Early Canadian history was equated with New France.

It also meant that New France lacked a certain exoticism that I was seeking. I wanted to do French history, early-modern or medieval. It took the amazing classes of Sylvie Dépatie at UQÀM to convince me that New France was such a rich and fascinating society, quite far from the portrait I had of it. An off-hand comment by Sylvie about French Louisiana—and about our ignorance of what was happening there—convinced me I wanted to research it, which Sylvie suggested I do at McGill, to work with Catherine Desbarats. Which I happily did.

Working on Louisiana put me in the interesting position of studying a place that was both New France (and thus “Canada”) and “United States-ian,” and which for the longest time belonged to neither national historiography. It also meant that the rise of Atlantic History provided me with a convenient approach to describe what I was doing.

My teaching has reflected some of the needs of the places where I had to teach; in the United States, my classes (about material culture, politics, maritime history) are framed as “Atlantic History” or “Early Modern France / Europe.” There is quite a bit of “Canadian” content, of course, because that reflects my training.

Jeffers Lennox: So, I never in a million years thought I’d end up in “the States.” I grew up in a family that was steeped in Canadian history. The three kids now joke often about the rounds of “provinces and capitals” that we would play at the dinner table. My father, a prof of Canadian literature, ensured that we cared about Canada.

I was drawn to Canadian history during my undergrad at the University of Toronto, inspired in part by classes with Arthur Silver and Ian Radforth. But my specific interests were pre-national, or what Canadian schools lump together as “pre-Confederation.” MA and PhD work at Dalhousie with Jerry Bannister (and Claire!) really opened my eyes to the field’s potential. I was also inspired by the Atlantic approach, which helped broaden my research interests. Acadia / Nova Scotia / Mi’kma’ki ended up being a great geographic construction to study because it was Indigenous, French, British, and American in different ways.

After the PhD I did a post-doc at the University of British Columbia (UBC) under Danny Vickers, and I really think he helped me acquire some early American street cred. The job market was terrible, and after a few long talks with Rosemary, my wife, we decided to open ourselves up to the U.S. Wesleyan was the perfect fit. It’s got a fairly progressive and weirdo attitude generally, and the department thought, “What the hell, let’s hire a Canadian for our early American spot.” More than that, they wanted me to feature as much early Canada as I wanted.

My teaching now reflects my larger interests. My surveys are transnational (students learn about Newfoundland in the “early America” class; they learn about Laura Secord in the “revolutionary” class), and my seminars just focus on whatever I feel like studying. This includes smaller classes on Indigenous history (inherently transnational), 19th-century Canada (which is difficult to divorce from its American influence), and how the British loyal provinces influenced the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

Alexandre’s comment about the Canadian two solitudes is an important one, in part because we could just as easily apply that to the American/Canadian divide. Students are shocked at what they don’t know about Canada, and very interested in what makes that part of the continent different from theirs.

It turns out that, for myself, coming to Connecticut completes an odd family and historical circle. My Mum’s ancestors arrived here in the 1640s. They lived in Connecticut until they migrated north to Nova Scotia as Planters in the 1760s. Small world, it turns out.

Alexandre Dubé: I think Jeffers’ point about “street cred”—or being legible, institutionally and intellectually, is a really important one.

Christopher Parsons: I’ve actually found the “fit” as an Atlantic historian in the United States a better one than I think I might have found as a Canadianist. So the opportunity to move to the states has been a welcome one for me.

I didn’t start out with an interest in Canadian history when I started at UBC as an undergrad. I got into it through a class on medical history and, in particular, reading about Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange. I found both Crosby’s method and the scale of his project exciting. As a project for this class, I wrote about the role of disease in the experience of 19th century aboriginal communities (particularly the Blackfoot)—research that I continued in an honours project.

How then did I become a Canadian history graduate student at Toronto? I’m not really sure even now that I can look back on it with the benefit of a decade’s worth of perspective. I had read the work of my eventual supervisor and was interested in what he was doing with Native American history in New France, but I guess I still didn’t really think of it as Canadian history. It was only when I started my masters and my PhD, and I started taking fields courses and preparing for comprehensive exams in Canadian history, that I really began to understand that I was becoming a Canadianist.

And these influences were being undermined by my participation in research and conferences south of the border early on in my doctoral work. I was working with a latin americanist and an early Canadianist, both of whom encouraged me to apply to research libraries for fellowships as part of my research. So although I received funding from a pool for Canadian history through my department to go to France, I also received funds from libraries such as the John Carter Brown Library, the Newberry, and the American Philosophical Society that encouraged me to think about my project more hemispherically and in Atlantic terms.

It was through meeting people at these libraries that I started attending conferences and giving talks in the U.S., and establishing a network of friends and colleagues there—particularly in that university-rich stretch from DC to Boston. It wasn’t uncommon for me to get involved as the New France voice on panels and in conferences that were otherwise very Anglo- or Iberian-focused (the Harvard Atlantic History conference I went to had two people focused on the French Atlantic compared with over twenty who focused on either the Spanish or English Atlantics). It was a good opportunity for me to both introduce myself and my work and to think more thematically about how I could make my work visible in these contexts. In Jeffers’ terms, this is how I started getting “street cred” in the U.S.

The result of this work was that I was fortunate enough to receive a post-doc in “Early American Studies” in Philadelphia when I finished my PhD. Here again I benefited from a broadening purview within early American history. I was their first-ever Canadian postdoc and only their second to look at the French Atlantic World. But this more than anything else stamped me with the credibility I needed to get a job in an American institution teaching early American / North American history. It also socialized me into the historiographical debates, the key terms and issues in the field, and made my work visible as a type of early American history that I don’t think it would have otherwise.

So in hindsight I think that I could draw out some narrative about aggressive networking in the U.S., but my path was much more accidental. I was drawn to early American / Canadian history because of its transnational character, and I benefited from arriving in a moment where early American history was looking for opportunities to express and explore this same character.

Be sure to check back for parts 2 & 3 of this conversation. 


Claire Campbella Professor of History at Bucknell University, is interested in the environmental history of North America and the North Atlantic world. She has taught at universities across Canada and in Denmark, in the areas of history, Canadian Studies, and Environment and Sustainability. Publications include Shaped by the West Wind: Nature & History in Georgian Bay (2004), A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011 (2011), and Land and Sea: Environmental History in Atlantic Canada (2013) with Robert Summerby-Murray. Her most recent work, Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (2017), uses environmental history to expand public history and discussions of sustainability at national historic sites. She’s currently working on a new project, “The Islands of Canada: Canada as a Coastal Nation.” You can find her on Twitter @HKHClaire.

Alexandre Dubé, an Assistant Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis, is a historian of the French colonies in North America. He has held post-doctoral fellowships at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He will soon publish a book on colonial Louisiana and its role in the French Empire.

Jeffers Lennox, an Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan University, is an historian of early North America, with a specific focus on the history of interactions between British, French, and Indigenous peoples. His first book, Homelands & Empires: Indigenous Spaces, Imperial Fictions, and Competition for Territory in Northeastern North America, 1690-1763 (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming Spring 2017) explores how the Wabanaki peoples, French settlers, and British colonists used borders, land use, and the language of geography to control territory in what is now Nova Scotia / New Brunswick / Northern Maine. In a region without a sovereign power, Indigenous peoples defended their homelands against the imperial designs of European powers by refusing to surrender their geographic identity. His current book project investigates the ways in which Canada shaped the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. In North of America: Revolution, British Provinces, and Creating the United States, 1774-1815 (under contract, Yale University Press) he argues that America is the product of those provinces that refused to be subsumed by the Revolutionary experiment.

Christopher Parsons, an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University, is an interdisciplinary historian of science and the environment in the French Atlantic World. He is working on Cultivating a New France: Knowledge, Empire and Environment in the French Atlantic World, 1600 – 1760. This project examines French encounters with American environments that became literal and figurative sites of imperial experimentation, places to imagine the possible contours of a French colonial empire and investigate the roots and persistence of American difference. In this and related projects, he has a longstanding interest in highlighting the contribution of indigenous peoples to the evolution of European and Euro-American environmental sciences. Parsons was previously a Barra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.


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