Humanities

  • Ideas for Building Career Development into PhD Seminars

    By Loleen Berdahl

    Since the publication of our book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD, my co-author Jonathan Malloy and I have been asked for ideas about how to use the book in PhD seminar classes. I am delighted that faculty are looking for ways to help PhD students start thinking about their careers at an early stage, and that they are working to create a climate where students feel safe to discuss career options. Over the past couple of years, Jonathan and I have led conference sessions and workshops with PhD students, postdocs, and others interested in PhD career development that draw on the ideas we present in Work Your Career. Most recently, we offered a Career Corner session at the 2018 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and we were pleased to see students across a broad range of academic disciplines enthusiastically engage with the topic.

    For our sessions, we have led students in discussions and group activities. The discussions of PhD career development prompt students to think about the many career options—including but not exclusively academia—for which PhD students can prepare. The group activities are particularly useful to help students engage with the ideas; for these, we ask students to complete a self-assessment on a specific area for a short period, and then share their responses with each other in small groups of 3-4 people. This is then followed by a larger full group discussion. We conclude the process by asking students to come up with a personal “action plan” to develop areas they wish to strengthen. What we particularly enjoy about this collaborative process is that it helps students identify further strengths that they already possess. By developing an action plan students increase their awareness of how they can use personal agency to achieve their goals.

    Building off these conference sessions, I have developed a list of activities for faculty who wish to use Work Your Career in their PhD seminars or in non-credit, stand-alone professional development seminars offered to students. For the group activities (Table 1), I suggest that students begin with individual work, followed by small group student discussions, and then full class discussion. For some classes, instructors might consider including students at other stages of their program. This can have the dual benefit of bringing in some different perspectives as well as prompting more senior students to reflect on their own studies. For the reading responses (Table 2), I suggest that instructors limit responses to 250 words, and assign grades on a complete/incomplete basis to avoid any perception that there are “right answers.” The reading response items could also be adapted to serve as seminar discussion questions.

    It is rewarding to see that so many faculty—and particularly PhD supervisors, graduate program chairs, and department chairs—are deeply committed to advancing PhD student career success. For those who use Work Your Career in the classroom, I hope that you will find these activities useful as you guide and mentor your students. I welcome your ideas to expand this list, as well as any feedback on how the activities work in your classroom, at loleen.berdahl@usask.ca. And I thank you for looking for opportunities to prompt PhD students to engage with their own career development as early in their programs as possible.

    Table 1: Group Activities drawing upon Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD

    Group Activity Reading and Material
    Assess your current career competency evidence and strengths, and select areas where you would like to develop your evidence and strengths further. Chapter 1, particularly Table 1.2
    Explore how you can build further career competency evidence through program activities such as classes, comps, and dissertation, and create a personal action plan. Chapter 3
    Evaluate how you can build further career competency evidence through non-program activities, and create a personal action plan. Chapter 4, particularly Table 4.1
    Create an informational interview action plan. Chapter 4, particularly pages 87-89
    Assess and refine the significance of your current dissertation project idea. Chapter 5, particularly Table 5.1
    Create a schedule for the remainder of the semester, strategically booking tasks into high energy and low energy schedule blocks. Chapter 7, particularly pages 142-149
    Detail your current professional network, and select areas where you would like to develop your network further. Create a personal action plan to do so. Chapter 7, particularly Figure 7.1
    Appraise which PhD activities you find most energizing and rewarding. Chapter 8, particularly Table 8.2
    Develop a short narrative story that uses evidence to demonstrate one or more of your career competencies. Chapter 8, particularly pages 179-183
    Formulate specific strategies to identify the problem that an organization is hiring to solve, and create a personal action plan for how to approach job applications. Chapters 8 and 9
    Plan specific answers to the common questions raised during academic job interviews. Chapter 9, particularly Table 9.4

    Table 2: Reading Response Topics drawing upon Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD

    Reading Response Topics Reading
    What is your personal career goal? How does your PhD program fit into this goal? Chapter 1
    What are the strengths of your current program for your personal career goal and how can you realize these strengths? Chapter 2
    What factors should students regularly consider when deciding whether or not to continue their program? How can you make this a safe question for yourself as you move through your program? Chapter 3
    What are the opportunities for you to use non-program activities to increase your experience and skills? (Examine your university’s doctoral professional development opportunities and be specific in your response.) Chapter 4
    What are the opportunities for you to build your funding track record? (Search online for opportunities and be specific in your response.) Chapter 5
    Identify one potential scholarly journal option and one potential non-scholarly publishing option for your work. Explain why these options are good fits for your research. Chapter 6
    In what ways do you personally use graciousness, professionalism, and discretion to cultivate your own professional reputation? Chapter 7
    What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of an “academia-first” mentality? Chapter 8
    What amount of teaching experience do you feel would best position you to be competitive for tenure-track academic jobs? Chapter 9
    Which of the identified faculty “actions” do you feel would most benefit PhD students? What other actions, if any, do you recommend? Appendix

    Loleen Berdahl is Professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and co-author (with Jonathan Malloy) of the book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, 2018). After completing her PhD, she worked for ten years in the nonprofit think tank world. Her research considers public attitudes, intergovernmental relations, and political science career development, and she is the recipient of three University of Saskatchewan teaching awards. Follow her on Twitter (@loleen_berdahl), where she tweets about political science, higher education, and opportunities for students, among other topics, and connect with her on LinkedIn.

  • The History of Magic and Witchcraft

    To mark the publication of our new primary source collection, European Magic and Witchcraft: A Reader, author Martha Rampton provides some thoughts on how the book can be used in a course, the content and structure of the book, and the importance of studying magic as an integral part of human history and culture.

    “The History of Magic and Witchcraft” is a challenging course to teach. Over time I have found it necessary on the first day of the semester to remind students that it is a history class—in fact a history of religion in a sense, not a “how-to” seminar. I suggest that students drop the course if they are enrolled in order to conjure spells; but they rarely do, and inevitably mid-way through the semester, I hear: “When will we learn some magic?” “This class is all about religion,” or “When do we get to the witches?” So I produced a reader that satisfies everyone: those looking for incantations, those looking for werewolves, those looking for the horror of the macabre, and myself. Myself because my goal in European Magic and Witchcraft: A Reader is to reanimate a host of people and institutions locked in time. I have selected a wide-ranging assortment of source-types including hagiography, law codes, literature, court transcripts, scholarly treatises, grimoires, papal bulls, and witch-hunting manuals that allow readers to get as close as possible to the individuals that enliven the pages of the book: the people who used magic, condemned it, re-envisioned its purpose, and died because of it.

    In my view, a particular value of the book is that it is both non-linear and chronological—a seeming contradiction. By this I mean that when the readings are lined up chronologically, an interesting pattern emerges which demonstrates that at any given time there were diverse and clashing understandings of what magic meant or could do, depending on the community, institution, or individual under consideration. There is no straight trajectory from paganism, to romance, to learned magic, to witch-hunts, to skepticism. These constructs were co-temporal, intermingled, and each could appear in one context and disappear in another. From the earliest Christian centuries the capacity of the magic arts to carry off fantastic feats of revivification or transvection, for example, was contested. In the late medieval and early modern eras, diabolism, angelic magic, and Neoplatonic theurgy operated in European cultures side-by-side. Criticism of the judicial processes of witch prosecutions and suspicion from the medical profession are in evidence as early as the mid-sixteenth century when the witch hunts had barely begun, and this skepticism was voiced throughout the period of the witch trials. My chronological approach makes it clear that magic cannot be pinned down or neatly boxed and packaged; it was a mixed bag at any point on the historical continuum and for that reason is all the more intriguing.

    European Magic and Witchcraft is suitable for many audiences: scholars; teachers; students of history, English, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and religious history; and the general public. The book is designed for the university classroom where it can be used at all levels across a variety of disciplines. Clearly the text is appropriate for courses on European magic, where it has an advantage over other primary source collections in that it covers the full spectrum of magic and witchcraft from late antiquity through the early modern period. The early Middle Ages is often given short shrift in the study of magic and treated as a seed-bed or precursor to subsequent developments; the same neglect is evident in regard to Anglo-Saxon England and Scandinavia. My collection examines early medieval and northern European magic in their own right. The book is also eminently usable for Western Civilization and general medieval and early modern courses. While the collection is primarily conceived as a history book, it draws on materials suitable to English, anthropology, religion, and sociology classrooms, demonstrating the interdisciplinarity of knowledge. A focus on the gendered nature of magic practices and witchcraft theory lend themselves to a gender studies curriculum. Every chapter ends with a handful of provocative questions that help the reader think about each text from multiple perspectives. Finally, European Magic and Witchcraft is simply a good read for anyone interested in the subject. The chapter introductions and background information contextualizing each individual reading give the book a narrative structure.

    As evidenced in popular literature, film, and college catalogues, interest in magic and witchcraft among students and the general public has mounted for several years, and for good reason. These topics shed light on popular and learned religion, heresy, folk medicine, rural culture, marginal populations, the development of intellectual/social constructs, juridical processes, and gender dynamics. Yet even given this, the academic study of magic has only recently been accepted as fully respectable. The history of the scholarship on magic is as interesting as magic itself.

    Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century research evinced a fascination with late medieval demonology and paranoia about heresy. Scholars argued that the medieval church manufactured the stereotype of “the witch” and imposed it on a selected population that, brutalized by repression, torture, and threat of execution, confessed to heinous crimes and the sin of heresy, and that without the Catholic “creation” of Satan as the powerful counterpart to God, the witch trials would not have been possible. However, early-twentieth-century folklorist and anthropological findings revealed that many features of the European “witch” appear in cultures untouched by Christianity. Most of the ideas and practices attributed to European malefici are virtually ubiquitous. Some historians argued that medieval magic was the residuum of ancient Teutonic religions or an organic vestige of pre-historic, non-Christian fertility cults. Marxist writers viewed witchcraft as a form of political dissent, and some studies reveal that local populations took an aggressive stance on the village level against what they perceived as the very real threat of sorcery and did not depend on the Inquisition to define witchcraft for them. Whatever the particular angle, virtually all scholars now writing on the subject acknowledge that the broad concepts behind magic and witchcraft as played out in the medieval and early modern periods were not particular to Europe but were versions of phenomena commonly experienced by all peoples in some form. This perspective is crucial because it has sensitized scholars to the value of studying magic within networks of societal beliefs.

    Even though by the mid-twentieth century magic was understood as an integral component of human culture around the world, academia tended to view magical practices (and the study of them) as frivolous “oddities and superstitions,” “fantasies of mountain peasants,” “mental rubbish of peasant credulity and feminine hysteria” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The European Witch Craze 9), or “a topic which most historians regard as peripheral, not to say bizarre” (Keith Thomas, “The Relevance of Social Anthropology” 47). Over the last four and a half decades as magic studies have proliferated, the reaction to the subject as an academic pursuit has changed. In 1998, Claire Fanger voiced an increasingly widespread attitude about the importance of magic by questioning scholars who minimalize it: “What precisely does it mean for a practice to be ‘marginal’ if it is widespread, if it is transmitted over several centuries, if textual evidence for it is relatively abundant,” especially given the fact that the relevant texts were forbidden, highly secret by their nature, and deliberately destroyed on a recurring basis (Conjuring Spirits x)? In short, magic is no longer a trivial subject on the edge of legitimate historical investigation, but is central to the story of human culture.

    Martha Rampton is Professor of History at Pacific University. She concentrates on the early medieval period with an emphasis on social history and the activities and roles of women. She is the founder and director of the Pacific University Center for Gender Equality.

  • The Story Behind Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD

    In the lead-up to this year's Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, where authors Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy will be leading a Career Corner for graduate students, we are pleased to present some background information on their new book, Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD. Pick up your copy at Congress or order it online today!

    Jonathan Malloy, Professor and Chair, Political Science, Carleton University

    The issue of career paths for PhD students has received increasing attention in recent years. As someone who has been engaged on this topic since the 1990s, I am excited to see this conversation moving forward and to add my voice to them with a new book, Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, 2018). In this short and accessible volume, my co-author Loleen Berdahl and I offer practical advice to on how to navigate a social sciences or humanities doctoral program in Canada to lead to career success. It is both about doing a PhD and what to do with a PhD—and thinking about both from the start. One of the things that makes our book distinct is that we strongly advocate a seamless approach to PhD career development that does not require having to decide between "academic" and "non-academic" tracks.

    We developed this approach based on our own personal experiences. While we only met in 2014, both of us pursued PhDs in the 1990s being open to the idea of non-academic careers and taking a proactive approach to publishing, networking, and overall career development. After finishing her PhD, Loleen worked outside academia in a public policy role, a career path she greatly enjoyed. For my part, as a PhD student I worked in government briefly and began to write materials for doctoral student audiences, authoring a guide for incoming students in my program and an essay for The Bulletin (the now-defunct official University of Toronto newspaper) on the need for more work and attention to non-academic jobs for PhDs.

    I ended up in a position as a faculty member in a department with a large PhD program. Every year, I saw new waves of PhD students constantly struggling with the same issues over and over—not just about academic careers, but every aspect of their programs. I also realized that the mentality I had developed back in my own PhD years gave me a broad perspective and a lot of tacit and relevant knowledge that could be passed on. A particular moment for sharing this knowledge was in 2010, when “rumour blogs” became popular among many PhD students and junior academics, including some devoted specifically to Canadian political science (my discipline). These unmoderated bulletin boards responded to the genuine need and desire for career information and guidance in the sprawling and often opaque world of academia, but were ugly and disreputable—aggressive, often sexist, and defamatory. I decided to counteract this by creating my own blog, “Advice and Discussion about Canadian Polisci Jobs,” and for a year made weekly posts of career advice for Canadian political science PhD students and junior academics. The blog was well-visited and attracted commentary and discussion. I eventually ran out of fresh things to say every week, but the blog stayed up for years and continued to attract visitors.

    Loleen was mostly out of the academic world for ten years and while her work connected her to other PhDs working in a variety of non-academic environments, she was not actively engaged in doctoral career mentorship issues. But she later returned to academia with her position at the University of Saskatchewan, and in 2014 we were both elected to the board of the Canadian Political Science Association (CPSA) and met for the first time. After discovering our shared mentality and approach to PhD education and job opportunities, I sent Loleen a link to the blog. Loleen has a strong applied background in knowledge mobilization, and saw the potential for the blog to be expanded and updated to help promote much-needed discussion on the issue. She suggested it could be the foundation of a book, an option I had not previously considered. The idea for Work Your Career came together easily at that point, and Mat Buntin at University of Toronto Press was instantly receptive and supportive.

    Our engagement on this topic goes beyond the book to include research and outreach initiatives on career mentoring and development. Of particular note are our conference workshops for PhD students and recent graduates, doctoral supervisors, and interested faculty. After two decades of thinking about PhD education and academic mentoring, I find it encouraging to see a growing number of students and faculty looking at opportunities for doctoral students to prepare for multiple career paths. We will be discussing these ideas further at our Career Corner session at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences on Wednesday, May 30, and welcome all Congress participants interested in PhD careers to attend.

    Doctoral students, individual faculty, academic disciplines, and universities are paying growing attention to the career training and futures of Canada’s social sciences and humanities PhD students and graduates. I am happy to have Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD as part of the larger discussion.

    Jonathan Malloy is Professor at Carleton University.

  • Encountering History through Primary Sources: Medieval England

    As we prepare for this year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, we reflect on the significance of our immensely popular series of primary source texts: Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures. The series, edited by Paul Edward Dutton, has now reached twenty volumes, and has made it possible for instructors to design new and innovative medieval history courses. To mark the publication this season of the new edition of Medieval England, 500-1500: A Reader, and to celebrate the contributions of the RMCC series, we are pleased to share the following post by Katherine Allen Smith on the joys of teaching and learning through primary sources.

    As a first-semester undergraduate, my favorite class was a 100-level history course on “England from Julius Caesar to Elizabeth I.” The class struck that perfect balance between big-picture and personal narrative, and our professor had a knack for telling stories that were memorably sad (Orderic Vitalis’s father leaving his eleven-year-old son in a Norman monastery), dramatic (remember the ailing Richard the Lionheart directing the Siege of Acre from his silk-draped litter?), or gross (think William the Conqueror’s corpse bursting during his funeral at Caen). He lectured from an ancient notebook, turning its onion-skin pages so carefully as to imbue them with an aura of mystery. We freshmen mostly listened and tried to write everything down, the bolder of us asking questions. (As one of the shyest students in the class, I rarely raised my hand, though I was often puzzled by the discrepancies between the pronunciation and spelling of so many English place-names, not to mention the intricacies of medieval currency.)

    This course helped me see that doing history could be as exciting as detective work—like Inspector Alan Grant tackling the mystery of the “Princes in the Tower” from his hospital bed in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time—and awakened me to the existence of primary sources (a foreign concept to many American high schoolers of my generation). These firsthand accounts were a revelation to me. You have to admit, it is pretty incredible that we can eavesdrop on sixteenth-century court gossip via ambassadorial communiqués, or peruse Henry VIII’s personal household budget (and, by the way, you would not believe the quantities of meat and fish he and his courtiers consumed). At the end of that first semester in college, I declared a History major and spent much of the next three-and-a-half years learning as much about the past—in particular, about the medieval and early modern centuries in Europe—as I could.

    The further I’ve gotten from my undergraduate experience, the more clearly I can see the immense value of the critical reading and research skills I gained at college, but also how much I missed out on. In four years of studying history, I learned a great deal about kings and wars, the growth of political institutions and legal systems, but relatively little about the 99% of people who were excluded from power in the past. The vast majority of the historical actors I encountered were men, though at the end of my college career I took a fabulous class on premodern private life which fully integrated women’s experiences (using the groundbreaking first edition of my co-editor Emilie Amt’s Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Reader, published by Routledge in 1993). My college self’s view of what constituted a valid historical source was also quite narrow, being confined to things like chronicles, legal records, letters, and speeches; certainly I had little sense of how one might “read” archaeological findings, works of art, or literature as primary sources.

    Graduate school opened my eyes to social and cultural history, to considerations of how variables such as race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and age intersected to shape the experiences of historical individuals, and to the ways in which material culture and literary works could illuminate the past. When I began teaching my own courses, I was eager to expose my students to a multiplicity of historical perspectives, and to share with them the excitement of encountering the past through a wide range of primary sources. I began building classes around the innovative primary source collections that were coming out in the 1990s and early 2000s: Michael Goodich’s Other Middle Ages: Witnesses at the Margins of Medieval Society (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) formed the basis for a class on the experiences of marginalized groups in medieval Europe, and I was so taken with Jacqueline Murray’s wonderful Love, Marriage, and Family in the Middle Ages: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2001) that I created a course with an identical title just so I could teach it. In the years since I discovered Murray’s reader, I’ve developed several courses around UTP’s Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series: Alexander Callander Murray’s From Roman to Merovingian Gaul and Paul Edward Dutton’s Carolingian Civilization have provided foundations for courses on Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages; the first and now second edition of The Crusades (edited by S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt) has seen me through a dozen iterations of a course of the same name; and since 2006 I have been using the first edition of the Medieval England reader in my class on England from the Romans to the Tudors.

    Working with Emilie on the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader was great fun because it allowed me to revisit that class where I first discovered my love for history, and to add new sources that I think will delight, intrigue, and move students. It was also a real challenge, since we were eager to retain the strengths of the reader’s first edition. Published in 2001, it was notable for its inclusion of many different types of texts representing the experiences and perspectives of medieval English women as well as men, members of different socio-economic classes, and a range of political and spiritual viewpoints, as well as for its incorporation of lesser-known sources alongside old standards of English political and legal history. We aimed to preserve these aspects of the collection while expanding its chronological breadth and incorporating new sources that would offer instructors the possibility of teaching thematically and encourage students to draw comparisons over time and get creative with sources. In the end, we produced a second edition in which fully one-third of the material is new. Here are some of the highlights.

    Recognizing that most surveys of English history begin before 1066, we crafted a new first chapter to highlight key events and institutions of the Anglo-Saxon period from c. 500 onwards, and allow students to assess the impact of the Norman Conquest on the English. Many new sources are meant to work in conjunction with retained sources to elicit questions about continuity and change: readers might trace the concerns of rulers and subjects over several centuries, compare wills made by Anglo-Saxons with those of late medieval Londoners, or trace the evolution of attitudes towards English Jews. We were also keen to include examples of new genres that historians have used creatively in recent years, such as household account books and proof of age inquests, which give a sense of the texture of daily life in the Middle Ages. Finally, the second edition highlights the potential of non-textual sources to shed light on the past, and encourages readers to put texts into conversation with other forms of evidence. We hope you and your students will enjoy juxtapositions like an account of twelfth-century siege warfare with the plan of a contemporary Norman castle and Polydore Vergil’s account of the Battle of Bosworth with a description of Richard III’s recently rediscovered burial.

    This is just a small taste of the new material in the second edition of Medieval England: A Reader, which was just published this semester. For my own part, I am very excited to begin teaching with it! Now, back to working on my syllabus….

    Katherine Allen Smith is Associate Professor of History at University of Puget Sound.

  • One in a Thousand: One Hundred Years Later

    One hundred years ago, Eddie McKay, the WWI flying ace featured in One in a Thousand, was shot down and killed. To commemorate his life and death, and the publication this year of Eddie's story in an innovative new microhistory, author Graham Broad discusses how he was compelled to research, write, and publish Eddie's story. To learn more about Eddie McKay, you can of course get your hands on a copy of One in a Thousand, but we also urge you to check out Eddie's account on Twitter: @AEMcKayRFC

    I don’t believe in such things, but if I did, I’d say that Eddie McKay was pursuing me.

    About fifteen years ago, when I was a TA in the Canadian history survey at Western, I was asked to give a guest lecture about Canada in the First World War. It was my first lecture and I was quite unsure of myself, but I knew that the lecture would be more meaningful for the students if I told them about someone from their own university who had been killed in the war. The campus had no First World War cenotaph—it’s a long story—but I found Eddie's name in an old book about Western’s history. I looked into his story briefly. He was a rugby player who became a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Perfect.

    I spent a few hours in the university archives looking for a picture of him to no avail. I left, stretching and yawning, rubbing my eyes, and paused to glance for a moment at a nearby display case. And there was an old and yellowed photo of Eddie McKay, wearing his rugby team uniform, looking straight back at me from the pages of a scrapbook about Western’s sports history. I alerted the archivist. “That’s weird,” she said. “I flipped to that page at random this morning.”

    Odd things like that happened again, over a decade later, when I decided to write a book about Eddie, like the time I took my laptop to the local market for a change of scenery. Sipping coffee and writing, I looked down for a moment at the top of the table. Somebody had etched “Eddie” in it. So that was weird, too.

    Again, I don’t believe in that stuff, but Eddie McKay does haunt me in a way. I can’t really claim to know him. Even if he had survived the war, it’s improbable that I ever could have: he would have turned seventy-eight the year I was born. Would I have liked him, or would he have liked me? He was athletic and a soldier. I am bookish, uninterested in sports, and unmilitary. And it would be incredible if he did not share many of the commonplace sentiments of his own age that rightly find no place in our own. Yet something about him compelled and still compels me inexorably. I’d mention him once a year when I guest lectured, and later in my classes when I started to teach. Then in 2007, I persuaded my senior seminar to do a little class project about him. Together, we gathered material about his life, at least the stuff we could get locally, and placed a commemorative marker for him on campus. I pass it often. My wife, who works at the university, can see it from her office window.

    In 2013, I hashed out an idea with Natalie Fingerhut, the Higher Education History Editor at University of Toronto Press. A biography, of sorts, of Eddie McKay. Could it be done? I dunno, I said. I’m not sure if there’s enough material. What the students and I had gathered in 2007 provided no more than a sketch. Even better, she proposed. It would really be two biographies: the story of Eddie McKay and the story of how I wrote that story—or failed to write it. A pedagogical microhistory.

    So, I committed biography, as they say. Sort of. I was able to locate only about six documents relating specifically to Eddie’s life prior to his twentieth year, for example, so the “biography” was pretty much confined to the last three years of his life when he was a student and soldier. Moreover, the experience of thinking my way through things I had taken for granted, such as how I went about doing history, why I believed the things I discovered about the past were probably true, laid me bare. Oh, back in the day I had taken the obligatory theory and methods courses, and I had wandered the thickets of “theory” over many hours of beer and argument with classmates who were convinced that there was nothing in this world that we could be convinced about. But I had always believed that, for all the interventions of the post-modernists, the core methodology of the historical profession hasn’t changed much over the years. We write about more things and often take a broader perspective, but fundamentally it seems to me that most historians do what historians have been doing for a very long time: they gather evidence to tell stories and make arguments about the past.

    My book, One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps, is the story of a promising young man who was killed in a terrible war. It is also the story about how I struggled to learn what I did about him, how I came to certain conclusions—however tentative—about him, and how I dealt with gaps in the record and the mysteries I couldn’t resolve. Where is he buried? Who was the mystery woman who inquired after him when he failed to return from his final patrol? What was in the envelope, addressed to him, that was never sent by the President of UWO in 1917? The book serves as an entry point, then, for students wanting to learn more about historical theory and method. It’s possible to skip the methodological discussions and read the book as biography alone, but it’s my hope that readers who come for the history will stay for the historiography.

    Eddie McKay was killed in action the day after his 25th birthday, 28 December 1917. For the past two years, I have been tweeting significant events in his life from @AEMcKayRFC. You can follow him there. In a future blog post, I’ll ruminate some about how I learned to stop worrying and love the tweet.

    Graham Broad is Associate Professor of History at King's University College at Western University and the author of A Small Price to Pay: Consumer Culture on the Canadian Home Front, 1939-1945 (2013).

Items 1 to 5 of 10 total