Monday, 11 November 2013

Skills Toolbox: Research

Originally published at Water Cooler Humanities

Skills Toolbox: Research 
By Madeleine Peckham

While the “real” world isn’t very good at sizing up humanities grads’ skills, most people are aware that we have a lot of experience doing research. But what exactly does “research” mean, and how can this academic task be translated into a workplace skill?
Research involves far more than leafing through books or doing online searches. Research is a process.
Knowing how to research is one of the most transferable skills you possess, and one of the most valuable. Sure, you will probably never again be on JSTOR looking for peer-reviewed articles critiquing Juergen Habermas’ characterization of the 18th-century “public sphere”– bummer? hardly– but every job that requires analysis and decision-making requires research.
As I often tell my undergrads, the first part of research is crafting a good question. In a class, this is usually done for you by the professor. At work, it’s often up to you. How you develop your question involves what information you have available, what your time constraints are, and in what format you will be presenting your results and conclusions. A good research project can be seriously hampered by a bad starting question. As in academic research, it’s very important to get a clear handle on what demands the project needs to fulfill before you begin to execute it. Making brilliant conclusions tends not to impress people if you weren’t addressing the question they wanted an answer to.
Second, come up with a data-gathering plan. In grad school, we call this “methodology,” but in the real world, it’s often framed as a response to time constraints. What is the most efficient way of collecting data will allow you to maximize the amount of relevant information on your topic? When I worked at a DC non-profit, I often had to compare pending legislation in several different states. State legislatures used conflicting terminology and organized their databases differently. It was imperative to come up with a plan so that I didn’t have to waste valuable time viewing the thousands of database entries that were irrelevant to my study.
Choose your data wisely. As a TA, I often read papers that I know were “researched” entirely from the first hit on Google. Be sure to consider possible sample biases and be ready to justify your choices of what you select. In the work sphere, this often involves thinking about your sources of data– do they have political leanings? What’s the funding source? Who’s doing the work? What other work have they done?
And now the fun part– analysis. Data, contrary to what a lot of people think, doesn’t just speak for itself. It’s critical that you interpret what you find, keeping in mind how it specifically relates to your research question. Try to make your analysis as clear and concise as possible. The point here is to help people understand what you found, not to wow them with how much effort you put in.

Finally, draw meaningful conclusions. In undergrad papers, most students assume this just means restating what you’ve already presented. In a work situation, you will probably be expected to explain how this will advance company goals, support related projects, or offer an important new perspective. The key to this is to think about why your research question originated in the first place. What was the point of your study and what’s next?

Friday, 25 October 2013

Broadening the Humanities' Skill Set

Broadening the Humanities' Skill Set: The Role of GIS in Positioning the Humanities Student for Academic and Non-Academic Career Achievement

         The internet seems to be burgeoning with humanities doomsday articles lately. Questioning the sanity of humanities students, particularly of the graduate variety, these articles declare that the humanities student is voluntarily choosing a stark future, fighting for the rare tenure track position, scrabbling over the ever-more-coveted, but less than satisfactory adjunct faculty position. However one may feel about these articles (though their points are usually valid, I take their sensationalism with a grain of salt…but that’s another post in and of itself), it is quite apparent that the job market in every sector is shifting and that the humanities student needs to adjust accordingly in order to increase his or her chances of being gainfully employed down the road. These adjustments must necessarily include the consideration of non-academic career options. Our graduate programs tend not to properly prepare graduate students for a non-academic future, which means that the individual graduate student must often take it upon themselves to expand their skills in order to appeal to both the academic and non-academic job market. One of the paramount ways to broaden one’s skill set is to learn and embrace the methods of the digital humanities.

         This past April I attended the annual American Society for Environmental History conference in Toronto, Ontario, during which I sat in on the graduate student lunch. The lunch featured a panel of three historians representing non-academic careers. When asked what skill they wish they had learned that would benefit their current, non-academic career all three responded, “GIS.” Historical Geographic Information Systems involves the application of historical methodology to GIS technology in order to examine the relationship between time, space, and change. GIS can perform similar tasks in other humanities’ fields. For instance, English practitioners can use GIS to map the spatial and temporal literary patterns of an author. Not only useful for one’s graduate research, GIS and other similar skills can be incredibly helpful during the post-graduate job search. As Lauren Wheeler, one of the panelists at the ASEH luncheon, states, “anyone looking for work outside academia needs to have additional skills to get their foot in the door.” Wheeler, who has an MA in Public History from Carleton University and currently works as a Program Lead for the Alberta Museums Association, further states that “with the increasing digitization of industry and communications GIS [is] a particularly useful skill to have as it is not a common additional skill among arts educated graduates.” GIS skills can assist the humanities student in obtaining a job in many spheres of professionalization, including museums, government agencies, non-profits, and agencies that deal with contract work. Examples of the use and integration of GIS technology in these fields and others are many. Three individuals agreed to assist in better illustrating the effectiveness of GIS skills outside academia by sharing with me their own experience with integrating GIS into their humanities background and subsequent non-academic career paths.

         The first contributor is Kaitlin Wainwright, another panelist from the ASEH grad student luncheon, who is currently a Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto, an agency that Wainwright writes is responsible for the interpretation and celebration of the city’s heritage. Wainwright has an HBA in History and Communications Studies and a Master of Arts in Public History from Carleton University. She says that she initially came into contact with GIS when she worked for the National Capital Commission in Ottawa. While at the National Capital Commission, she used GIS to study forest management by “track[ing] the species changes in tree stands in the Greenbelt over a forty year period.” In her current position at Heritage Toronto, Wainwright uses GIS to interpret the history of specific neighborhoods and the city as a whole. By using Google Maps, Wainwright has been able to collect, highlight, and manage the position and content of Heritage Toronto’s plaques and markers. Wainwright points out that many public history organizations are creating mobile applications that have a GIS component. GIS allows people to visually connect with history and the importance of place in history. She states that GIS enables professionals to interpret information and present in a user-friendly format. In her opinion, this is “the core purpose of GIS outside of academia and what makes it useful in a career.”

         Oula Seitsonen has an MA in Archaeology (2004) and MSc in Geoinformatics (2013). He has held a number of positions in the past at private companies and research institutions that used GIS and is currently a field archaeologist/GIS specialist for the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger in Stavanger, Norway and a GIS consultant company, Arkteekki Ltd., where he mainly prepares land use reports, such as groundwater mapping, for surveying and planning purposes. He has found that his knowledge of archaeology and GIS background assists him at his planning job with Arkteekki, Ltd. because he can skillfully guide planners away from sites that are archeologically rich. Seitsonen first started using GIS in 2002 on an old 1990s Geodimeter total state and has improved his GIS skills by way of a mixture of classes, on-the-job training and self-tutelage. He has been actively seeking GIS positions since 2010 when his five-year contract with the Archaeology Department at the University of Helsinki ended and he began studying for his Msc. Seitsonen remarks that the key to enriching one’s career through GIS is to keep one’s self up-to-date on the most recent methods and technologies and to also learn how to deftly sell one’s GIS skills and your academic background to potential employers.

         Brad Duncan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science and a PhD in Maritime Archaeology from James Cook University. In the past, Duncan has worked for Aboriginal Affairs, Heritage Victoria, a GPS surveyor in New Zealand and a commercial archaeological contractor. Currently, Duncan is a Maritime Archaeologist for the NSW Heritage Division of the Office of Environment and Heritage in Australia. Duncan learned GIS at his first job in New Zealand and in GIS courses in the Geography and Archaeology Departments at James Cook University. Duncan states that he purposefully learned GIS to accompany his archaeological knowledge and used GIS heavily in both his Honors' and PhD theses. GIS is particularly helpful in maritime archaeology and ethnoarchaeological investigations, Duncan contends, because it enables one to overlay multiple data sets and view this data from numerous angles, perspectives and themes. Additionally, he states that GIS is also useful for georeferencing old maps in order to decipher where potential archaeological site may be. Duncan write that all of the job positions he has had can be attributed to his background in GIS. According to Duncan, all archaeological students should be required to study GIS analysis. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

What are the “Liberal Arts,” anyway? – A Reply to Chris Berger

By Dustin McNichol

Originally posted on:

In a well-written and provocative article, Chris Berger argues that the liberal arts are suffering from a serious identity crisis and that apologists who champion them are missing the point. We must therefore, as Berger correctly points out, take a deeper look at what liberal arts and education mean. However, Berger’s argument that the arts’ principal goal is to cultivate the soul also follows an instrumental logic, and again misses the point of what the liberal arts are, and what their purpose is. In this article I propose to further discuss the state of liberal arts and higher education, offering my own proposal(s) for meaningful reforms.

We must first agree on what the “liberal arts” are. Berger explains that they are a “branch” of education, but this is only partially true and clouds our understanding of them in history, since societies perceive and construct educational systems differently throughout time. The Greek model, which stressed civic virtue, also existed alongside geometry (which Plato was particularly fond of) and mathematics; the arts and sciences were not “branches” of education, they were education. This model reigned roughly until the Enlightenment, when a relentless preoccupation with compartmentalizing forms of knowledge began to displace the previous epistemological unity which the Greeks favoured. In the nineteenth century, the ascendency of Darwinian theory and the creation of “social science” disciplines marked the end of the marriage of arts and sciences (to put it into contemporary terms) as disciplines became increasingly specialized and fractured. Only in more recent times have we begun to understand arts as inherently distinct from the sciences.

Whether or not this is a problem or represents some sort of “crisis” for liberal arts is another matter entirely. It is becoming increasingly clear that our current strategies for defending our vocations and forms of knowledge are not successful. Indeed, apologists for the liberal arts ought not appeal to nostalgia, as Berger does, since the Greek model only belonged to an elite and would continue to do so until the Enlightenment, when ideas of citizenship became increasingly universal and men of letters began to appear in groups other than the clergy and political elites. Today’s universities, with their ever-expanding armies of undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students in all disciplines, are in fact the exact opposite of the Greek ideal. Indeed, a liberal arts education is now a popular affair; more than ever, people are being introduced to our common heritage of ideas, great thinkers, politicians, and events.

But even this optimistic understanding of the liberal arts as “liberating” is only partial. The liberal arts are often looked upon positively by apologists who are forgetting a more frightening, and indeed disturbing truth: that throughout history, great thinkers trained in the liberal arts have been complicit in humanity’s darkest moments and events. To take an example, twentieth-century Europe, the (sometimes still) so-called centre of humanistic and enlightened reflection at the time, barbarically smashed itself to pieces during its first half-century with the help of a great deal of highly-educated men and women. The liberal arts bear great responsibility for the tragedies of Europe’s twentieth century. This grim observation is simply to point out that we cannot view the liberal arts nostalgically, or as meaning the pursuit of “justice” as Berger argues. The darker reality of the liberal arts means that justice cannot constitute its unifying principle; there is no “golden age” when the arts were not captive to human desires, temptations, and flaws. But its ambivalence offers us a clue as to our predicament, since the liberal arts seems to not only signify thinking about humanity, but being human and participating fully in all of our successes and failures.

On what grounds, then, can the liberal arts be defended? Widely defined, the liberal arts – a body of different humanistic forms of knowledge – cannot be separated from their function; in other words, what the liberal arts are is also what they do. More specifically, they ask questions. The act of learning necessarily turns on the asking of questions and the confrontation of our own ignorance; knowledge acquired, in turn, provokes more questions. We must, then, see the liberal arts as centred around the questioning of society, humanity, reality, history – anything and everything that is human and that humanity interacts with. This is not an end in itself but rather a process. To take an analogy from Plato as Berger has done, Plato’s cave not only signifies a destination or end goal (the leaving behind of ignorance) but also the process of searching for light and truth, whatever that may be. The liberal arts have always asked questions and sought answers, and will continue to do so because the act of questioning is universally human. Here we can find common ground for a robust defense of our function in universities and in societies.

I do not mean that questioning and thinking in the liberal arts refers uniquely to deconstructing and “understanding” our reality; quite the opposite. We need to reach beyond truth towards what is beautiful, human, imperfect, even contradictory. Nietzsche famously said that he did philosophy “with a hammer”; indeed, a hammer can destroy and tear down, but it is also used to construct, to create, to build. To put it differently: asking “what is truth?” can end a conversation; what it really does, however is create a new one. Questioning is what the liberal arts are all about, from the ancient Greeks to the postmodernists.

We need to change the conversation about liberal arts. This cannot be done, as many believe, by finding a unifying principle such as justice, or preserving some sort of traditional model for our disciplines. We must continue to live in our society and engage with it as previous thinkers, politicians, academics, and artists have done. This website is an excellent example of the liberal arts in the twenty-first century.

Changing the conversation about liberal arts means taking the liberal arts’ timeless, universal, and central function – asking questions – and applying it to today’s new forms of education. It means creating new ways of seeing humanity. It means that university professors can no longer ignore the massive changes that the Internet and technology have wrought in our societies. It means that the question of employment and “usefulness” of a B.A. must be dealt with seriously, not simply ignored as “capitalistic” or besides the point. We must make sure that the intrinsic value of questioning is not forgotten in the deafening cacophony of media and popular discourse that insists that we are in a crisis. We must not allow discursive nonsense that disenfranchises our purpose as liberal arts graduates and creative/critical thinkers go unanswered. The liberal arts still have much work to do in this respect.

There is one final and much more important question that should be considered seriously: is the “liberal arts crisis” real? Perhaps the fact that we view our disciplines with such criticism, and that we are on the agenda of many major universities, shows that we are doing our jobs. Perhaps there is no crisis in liberal arts education except for the one that we have created ourselves.

What are the “liberal arts”? Kudos to Chris Berger for questioning them – we should all continue to do so.

CC photograph on Flickr courtesy of “sparkovonovinski.”

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Spreading Research Through Media

As historians it is important for us to reach as wide an audience as possible.  One way to do this is to interact with non-print media.

Check out the following youtube videos featuring PhD candidates Omeasoo Butt and Victoria Lamb-Drover:

Listen to recent M.A. graduate Sarah York discuss Saskatoon's early sex trade on CBC radio:

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Notes from the Field

By Jessica DeWitt

Originally published for the University of Kentucky Political Ecology Group

            Outsider. Insider. My academic journey thus far often seems like a tightrope act between these two desires. My background and passion for state parks and nature has led me to become an environmental historian who focuses on parks. My dissertation is a comparative history of the development and management of state and provincial parks in the United States and Canada. I grew up "one mile up the hill, South on Route 36" from Cook Forest State Park in Western Pennsylvania. My parents owned rental cabins for over twenty years. Our cabins were authentic relics of an earlier era, built by hand from trees felled on the property in the 1920s. Rejecting the common path their middle-class backgrounds had paved for them, my parents took the cabins over after years of neglect in the early 1980s. My childhood was admittedly idyllic and largely spent meandering through the woods, alone with just myself, my dogs, and my nature. Even as a youngster I understood the deep divide that stood between my family and our renters; our tight knit community of small business owners and the droves of tourists; the insiders and outsiders. While the tourists assumed our life was serene, our business profitable, we understood how difficult it was to "make it" in the tourism industry, how difficult it was to hold on to the dream and to deal with the very tourists upon which are livelihood depended. Most of all, whilst the tourists sought an ephemeral thrill in what Joe Hermer refers to as a "knotless nature," we enjoyed what we viewed to be a deeper connection to the forest. The forest in all its natural (and manmade, but we'll leave the wilderness debate for another post) glory was a part of me, it still is a part of me, and it shaped who I am today.  

            In my mind I traverse this world cloaked in the distinctive experiences of my youth; a kind of admittedly self-important, superiority complex puts a little bounce in my step as I travel to various parks to collect historical documents and talk to park employees. However, within the first couple minutes of any park visit it becomes quite clear that my cloak is indeed invisible. Park employees look upon me with gazes that typically reflect some level of confusion as to why I am there. This is not to say that they hold me in contempt or are rude, they are almost always hospitable and as helpful as they can manage. Nevertheless, as they pull out long-forgotten documents out of the crevices of their offices (and sometimes attics), I can tell that they think of me as just another disconnected academic concerned with the irrelevancies of the past. I often find myself feebly interjecting, "I grew up on the outskirts of a state park...", "My parents owned rental cabins...", attempting to demonstrate how deeply connected I am to the subject, to develop a modicum of street cred, an acknowledgement from them that I am indeed an "insider." If these interjections work at all, their effectiveness is typically nullified once I start rambling about how I am going to analyze East/West and Canadian/American conceptions of nature or some other similar topic and their eyes begin to glaze over. "Yeah, that's interesting," they quip, eager to get back to the immediacies of the
present: campers to check-in, trails to clear, school children to host, budgetary constraints to overcome.
Cook Forest State Park: My beautiful homeland or the perfect case study for man's interaction with the environment by means of tourism and conservation?
            As strong as my impulse to be recognized as an insider is, at times I desperately just want to be an outsider. It seems that I can no longer return home to Cook Forest without constant analytical questions and thoughts streaming through my head. "I wonder how I can use this photo I just took as a supporting document for an argument in my dissertation..." "I need to remember to look up articles on the clean-up of the Clarion River..." "That sign is classic example of social norms controlling park visitor behavior..." "What is the deeper meaning behind the canoe liveries in the forest?" And so on. Every park I visit elicits similar thoughts. At times I desperately wish that I could turn off this inner dialogue and be a normal tourist, to just kick back and enjoy the experience without contemplating how my experience fits into the larger picture.