History that Matters

No need to ask, I’m still not all that engaged in my school work. At least I’m crying less this term.

I had to present a statement of my research project this week. (For those who forget or are tuning in mid-journey, I’m looking at something about childbirth on Pelee Island in Southern Ontario in the early twentieth century. Think isolated, no hospital, women all giving birth 30+ kilometres over water by boat or plane by 1950.)

This week, we were required to draft a one-page statement describing the research focus/question and discuss one relevant historiographical work on the topic. I had a really hard time with it. I keep changing my research question, trying to tune it into something that will be useful to me after this degree is over. I also need it to be something very interesting (to me) so that I can keep with it for the next half a year or so. And it must be feminist. Once I’ve begun it will be difficult to change and a very large number of words will need to be written about it. I’m finding it hard to do something history (maybe since my background is Women’s Studies?) that will translate outside the academy afterwards. Assuming I will be leaving the academy afterward. If I stay in, I don’t know what discipline I’ll land in. I need something with some transferability.

So, still playing with my general topic of childbirth on Pelee, I thought, instead of looking at the physiologic/medical process of childbirth and how that changed maybe I could look at the communities of mothers on the Island, and how that changed. Maybe something about women and community and the influence of a patriarchal medical model of childbirth on the larger community of Island women/Islanders.

The thing that ties me to this project is the anticipation I have of talking to the women about their lives. There are a handful of these mothers who are the age my grandmother would be if she was still alive. Women who have had incredible lives and their history is unrecorded. I presented a research statement on this idea but it was lousy. My heart is obviously not in it and it’s hard to be passionate when you aren’t really present. I fumbled for words to talk about it, the interest from others was poor, my own interest weak.

So now I’m thinking back to what it is that gets me excited about a project. I realized that it’s when I believe in the purpose of what I’m doing. When there’s learning involved or sharing, or building connections. When I believe that what I’m doing is important on a larger scale, when it goes beyond myself. When I believe that what I’m doing is going to make a difference.

I don’t believe that writing a 40-60 page paper is going to make a difference in anyone’s life. I think it’s important history that deserves recording, but to have it sit on a shelf in the university library? What’s the point of that? Is this merely an act in methods and discipline? /sigh/ For many, that answer is yes. It’s a stepping stone to a PhD program or to a job in government policy or else teacher’s college or ?? History is too often done in isolation, buried in the archives, with findings published intermittently in journals. Not always, but this is the way of the Ivory Tower.

I want to make a connection. I want what I want to do to matter. I have another idea now — and maybe it could work. It bridges History and Women’s Studies/Activism but what did they expect from me, really?

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