Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest Post: Untold Stories

Here is a lovely post on blending a personal story into a research project, from Shannon Stunden Bower, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

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So I’ve just published a book. It’s not incredibly long, by the standards of my discipline, but it is long enough, I hope, to be respectable. It is a revised version of my dissertation. I started the PhD in September 2001 and the book was published in June 2011. Even considering I have taken two maternity leaves, each of over a year in length, it’s taken me a while.

So given the book is fairly long, and given I’ve taken the time to think about what’s in it, why do I feel that some things are missing? That some stories are in my head, still, rather than on the page?

There is one tale in particular I want to tell. It’s the story that started it all, really. My book is about flooding in southern Manitoba. I grew up in the City of Winnipeg, in a house along the Red River. Yup, that Red River – the one infamous for flooding. My interest in the history of flooding was piqued in 1997, when my family was evacuated during what was called ‘the flood of the century.’ Digging into my family’s history, I discovered this was in fact the second time my father had been forced out of his home. In 1950, during a previous large-scale flood, my grandparents’ house was inundated. My father has a vivid memory of following my strong-willed grandmother down the basement stairs. She took one look around, saw the liquefied coal-dust staining the sodden walls, and declared the family was moving abroad, back to where she was from. And move they did. A few decades later, my father would buy the house I grew up in – the second house he would abandon to floodwater.

In some sense, my book is an attempt to make sense of my father’s story, which is the story of so many Manitobans. Why have people settled a flood plain? What makes them stay? How have they changed the wet prairie, and how has the wet prairie changed them? But I’ve always shied away from including this personal story in my academic writing. It is not out of a need to protect family privacy. My parents have given me their blessing to write about these things. And it is not like there are no precedents in my disciplines (history and geography) or even in my specific subfields (environmental history and historical geography). For example, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, one of environmental history’s landmark works by one of the subfield’s most important scholars, includes an extensive meditation on the inspiration he took from his family experiences.

Now, I’m not deluded. I know I’m not Cronon. I suppose I fear what I find charming in the writings of others might come off as silly and self-indulgent in mine. Interestingly, I’ve also shied away from telling my family’s flood story in less formal venues. I am an occasional contributor to The Otter, a group blog in environmental history run by the Network in Canadian History and Environment. During the spring of 2011, which saw significant flooding throughout much of southern Manitoba, I was asked to focus a few posts on the water situation in the province. I had nearly completed a post dealing with my family history when I suddenly hit the brakes, pulled a high-speed u-turn, and generated a more traditional post from a less-personal perspective. I was more or less happy with the two flood-related posts (here and here) I ultimately submitted. But still, neither post was the story I’d been sitting on for so long.

And so now I’m wondering why I’m deliberately choosing not to tell my family story. By laying all of this before Hook and Eye, I suppose I’m hoping for thoughts on whether there are gendered elements to this issue. Are women scholars more or less likely to include their personal stories in their academic writing? What factors bear on decisions to tell such tales or to keep them quiet?

And thanks, by the way, for letting me tell my little family story. Finally.

Shannon Stunden Bower

8 comments:

  1. Hi Shannon,

    What a lovely (is that too soft a word?), evocative story. Thanks for sharing it - finally! It certainly resonated, though my experience has been just the opposite - and I'm no Cronon, either!

    But right from the get-go (literally my MA year), all my work has had a personal inspiration, from either my family's experience or my own; at least, all of my better work has. And I've almost always referenced that inspiration, or that experience, in the written piece at some point. (The ultimate example may have come this spring, publishing a photo my father took of my brother and I at 7 & 9 with our camper at Forillon National Park, in a collection in which, I should add, other contributors also used their personal encounters as a jumping-off point into their essays.)

    I've sometimes felt a niggling concern that the biographical softens it (or "predictably feminizes" it) too much - but it feels a lot more honest and integral, both as an historian (crafting a point of entree into the story) and as a scholar (revealing the origin of the research question). And as you say, the leading male scholars of our field wouldn't hesitate to do this. Plus, the writing comes SO much more easily, and is a lot more enjoyable than when I'm doing the "thus-es & therefores." It's also more enjoyable for others to read, I think. I have the joy of having my father read what I've written ... and pick out the mistakes :) - or other people write to tell me it's made them cry. You can't get that with theory.

    I think you and I are peculiarly lucky in doing environmental history, since we're talking about issues (like Manitoba flooding) and places that really matter, to others as well as to us. Congratulations on the book, too! It's on my desk, since my next book is a study of five historic landscapes (including the Forks of the Red River) -- born of a love for traveling across Canada, which all started with being a kid in that camper.

    Claire

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  2. I think a lot of academic work is biographical in origin. That's certainly the reason I became a postcolonialist: I wanted to understand what it meant to have lived in Africa (Tanzania) as white Canadians in the mid-1970s. Great post! Thanks for writing.

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  3. Claire, what an amazing comment, on an amazing post.

    Heather, I had no idea!

    My work, too, is rooted in my biography: I study digital culture, and my dad was a computer science professor in days before personal computers, and some of my earliest memories are of minicomputers like the Univac, and huge dot matrix printers, and reels of magnetic tape storage ... the machines and the people around them always fascinated me.

    I'd love to hear some other stories about how our research interests sometimes and in some ways spring for our lives ...

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  4. Claire, you make good arguments, both here in your comment and also in your scholarship, for including personal stories. I'll look forward to your book addressing the Forks. I think that is one of the few places in Manitoba that manages to express some public memory of flooding. And I definitely agree it is good to be an environmental historian, for this and other reasons.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. It is interesting (to me, at least) to think that most of us grapple in one way or another with the relation between biography and scholarship.

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  5. I second Aimée - I'd love to hear more stories about this.

    And I meant to add this earlier ... I double-checked, and the photo has us at 13 & 11. (Not sure if that's a)early on-set memory loss; b)deliberately trying to forget the awkward early teenage years; c)me already lying about my age.) Sorry, the historian in me couldn't let this go.

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  6. So interesting to read this and be startled to remember that I integrated my personal experience (my father's death, a variety of family memoralizations of him) into my dissertation in its conclusion. Somehow, I've completely "forgotten" that memorialization in a project that overall examines memorialization and mourning (in Cdn. fiction, through fictional photographs). So that even when we do integrate the personal voice, there are pressures to leave it at the margins. . .
    Thanks so much for this evocative reminder.

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  7. Hi Shannon,
    What a great post! (Although the link to your book is not working...) I recently had a review of my book that argued that it presented a detached rather than an intimate history of industrial change in the subarctic (I'm paraphrasing). I was pleased, to be honest, by this comment -- if only because I thought that it rather astutely identified my approach to history at the time. My book (also from my doctoral dissertation) was an attempt at finding my historical voice, and I wanted this voice to be imbued with authoritative/objective detachment; there was also a lot of influence from my science background at work in that project.
    Since then, I've recognized that I want and indeed need to embrace the intimate stories that I find in the past and that draw me in. It is what keeps my interest in archives going and therefore I think/hope it might make my own writing more compelling.
    But is there a gendered dimension to all this? In my experience at least, there is. The voice that I aspired to emulate, was the masculine voice of my supervisor and mentors through graduate school. (I had relatively few women as mentors, and those who I had were not directly in my field.) If I were to include a personal story, I would do so only in search of irony, humour, or to establish my authority, but not to reveal my feelings or sentiments.
    I think part of the reason history appealed to me in the first instance, was that it offered the opportunity to write, but to do so without having to reveal myself -- rather I could write about someone else, somewhere else. Of course, this is somewhat of an illusion, we are in everything we write. But it's taken about 10 years for me to realize that.

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  8. I think that there is a gendered element to this sense of 'safety' and 'authority' in detachment. Instead of complaining about gendered expectations, however, I wanted to say how much I appreciate this post. I am currently working a project that is also somewhat biographical in nature. I have been transcribing letters from my grandmother's great aunt who lived just outside of London during the Air Raids in England during WWII. I find the intersection of warfare and the quotidian fascinating, and my great great great aunt writes beautifully and has captivated my (and my friend's) hearts, so I have decided to pursue the topic academically. I, too, will probably have to think a lot about what is required for me and my project to be taken seriously :S

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