Friday, February 13, 2015

Upcoming Roundtable: Activism and Academia

I have been helping to organize a roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto on February 24. Professors + Publics: A Roundtable on Academic Activism will explore how activism and academic work fit together.

The panel includes:
  • Prof. Nadia Jones-Gailani (University of South Florida)
  • Prof. Michelle Murphy (University of Toronto)
  • Prof. Melanie Newton (University of Toronto)
  • Melonie A. Fullick (York University)
  • Prof. Sean Kheraj (York University)
The roundtable will be moderated by the host of CBC Radio's Ideas, Paul Kennedy.

The discussion takes place at the University of Toronto Arts Centre at 1:30pm. You can register for free here.

It promises to be an interesting afternoon. Join us if you can!

Monday, December 01, 2014

Dissertation featured in ACJS Bulletin

My work on fundraising in the Toronto Jewish community has been featured in the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies' Fall 2014 Bulletin. Fittingly, it appears next to the announcement of new funding for the Ontario Jewish Archives (the principal repository used in my research), which is looking to better preserve its records for the future.

To read about my work, and all the other interesting developments in the field of Canadian Jewish studies, click here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

From the Academic to the Public: Using Academic Research in Museums

Take a look at the NRM's latest online exhibition: Caution! Railway safety since 1913.

It was based on research by Mike Ebester, a senior lecturer at Portsmouth, who specializes in the history of health & safety. With his expertise and interest in railways (both his MA and PhD were in railway studies), this exhibition has academic clout behind it, yet has been presented in a very accessible way for the general public. Also of note is the decision to put the exhibition online. This allows people from around the world to see it and also makes some of the NRM's archival material available to a much wider audience.

Academic work is increasingly expected to have public impact. Working on museum exhibits is a good way to do this. An important part of being a historian is translating research into a variety of forms: lectures, books, articles, theses and so forth. Museums offer yet another avenue for that hard-earned research material.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Can history and mobilities ever get along?

This past weekend, the Social Science History Association (SSHA) held its 39th annual conference in Toronto at the iconic Royal York Hotel. Being right on my doorstep, I decided to attend. The SSHA is a global group of scholars (although primarily American) who combine social science topics and concepts with the canon of historical study: temporality. I have always thought that history and the social sciences would work well together, but my penchant for highly social topics of study appears to be an unusual choice for historians.

I attended three paper sessions, each of which was tied to one of my areas of interest, but all of them unique and interesting in their own ways. The first, Migration to Tropical Frontiers, although disappointingly lacking two of the four presenters, allowed me to learn about a facet of the twentieth century's Jewish diaspora that I had never encountered before, namely a small enclave of migrants-cum-dairy farmers under the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Of particular interest in Allen Wells' paper on the subject was how the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had been bankrolling the group of 750 Jews, found itself in 1946 torn between the project and the enormous task of funding the urgent resettlement of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine. In the end, the Dominican project gradually lost its funding as Israel's needs became central to Jewish fundraising around the world. Just like my local case study of how Toronto's United Jewish Appeal became increasingly focused on Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee found itself shifting its priorities from multiple diasporic spaces to just one: the nascent State of Israel.

Two panels on Saturday attracted my attention. Toronto, European Suburb: Postwar Migrant Communities and their Visions of Homeland in Canada's Largest Diasporic City looked at how migrant communities in Toronto continued to stay connected to their places of origin. While my research on Jewish Toronto showed an increasingly vocal and assertive community, these papers showed that Toronto's other immigrant groups, including the Portuguese, Polish, Macedonians and Italians, were also gaining their voices at the same time, often using the same techniques of political lobbying, internal sponsorship, fundraising and public demonstrations. I was particularly interested to learn in Gilberto Fernandes' paper that the Portuguese community found itself divided by the 1961 'Bay Street Riot,' when rival groups fought for and against the Portuguese dictatorship of the time. It is quite similar to 1965, when Toronto's Jews took part in the 'Allan Gardens Riot' against neo-Nazis.

The last, and best-attended of the sessions I chose was Migration History and the 'Mobilities Turn.' My interest in transport history has introduced me to both pure transport history and also the world of mobilities, a new sociological sub-field which examines how people move around and how their movement becomes part of their daily routine. However, as two of the papers showed (one delivered by the geographer Colin Pooley and the other by historian Donna Gabaccia), while historians and social scientists study almost the same thing, they rarely communicate or collaborate. As Pooley showed, mobilities work is rarely historical. Most scholarship is theoretical and often uses field work undertaken in the present to address today's mobility landscape. Rarely does it venture into mobilities of the past. Likewise, Gabaccia clearly demonstrated that leading journals in the field of migration history and mobilities (The Journal of World History and Mobilities respectively) do not cite each other and, while both are ostensibly talking about people moving around, they use incompatible vocabularies.

Both papers came to a very similar conclusion. In short, these two sub-disciplines (and, as Pooley did, I would add transport history as a third) need to collaborate and realize that they both have techniques and ideas to share with each other. Mobilities offers insight into the experiential side of moving around, while history allows us to see change over time and whether mobility was different in the past. It is, however, early days. As Gabaccia explained, the social sciences need a "rupture" from their current dichotomy of the present and a contiguous past to appreciate that past events are not homogenous. Until then, mobilities cannot effectively be implemented into historical study. As Pooley demonstrated in his own extremely interesting work reconstructing everyday mobility from life writing in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gaps in historical sources make a social science-like analysis problematic. Several people in the panel suggested a roundtable at next year's SSHA meeting to begin the process of reconciling historians and social scientists in a joint study of mobilities and (as several people correctly mentioned) immobilities with migration and other histories of moving around.

Reflecting on the mobilities debate, I wonder if the sides really are that far apart. I think immediately of the copious work on 'railway spine' and similar imagined ailments in Victorian rail travel. In the latter part of the 19th century, reports of mysterious ailments afflicting railway travellers began to appear in the press and even in he pages of the Lancet.[1] Freud spoke of the sexual excitation caused by the rhythmic movement of trains.[2] The railway compartment was an ambiguous mix of public and private, cosy and threatening (especially after the Briggs Murder).[3] The railway compartment necessitated a new set of behaviours. Reading while travelling became a popular activity to respect the privacy of fellow travellers. This, in turn, spawned the mass publishing of books.[4]

As these examples show, the history of Victorian railway travel seems to mix the temporality of history with the experience of travel as outlined by mobility studies. Part of the difficulty in reconciling these two fields is that much of the work on Victorian railway travel is part of yet another discipline – Victorian Studies – which combines history, literature and social science. Similarly, my introduction to much of this was through railway studies, a discipline combining history, geography, archaeology, social science and economics. Could it simply be that social scientists and historians are being a little stubborn? As this debate unfolds, we may find that the differences are not so insurmountable as we once thought.

1. Ralph Harrington, “The Railway Journey and the Neuroses of Modernity,” in Pathologies of Travel, ed. Richard Wrigley and George Revill (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), 229–59.
2. Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, []
3. Harrington, “The Railway Journey,” 229-59; Matthew Beaumont, “Railway Mania: The Train Compartment as the Scene of the Crime,” in The Railway and Modernity: Time, Space and the Machine Ensemble, ed. Matthew Beaumont and Michael Freeman (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 125–53; Kate Colquhoun, Mr. Brigg’s Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder (London: Little, Brown, 2011).
4. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1986).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Happy Birthday, Panama Canal!

Today marks the 100th birthday of one of the greatest engineering projects ever completed. While plans to unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans existed for decades before the Canal was actually built, it took multiple attempts to successfully complete the project.

In the end, it was American money, American engineering and Caribbean labour which carved a route between Colòn and Panama City. It must not be forgotten that the American endeavour built on the failed French project, which had accomplished more work than has been acknowledged in the popular imagination.[1] But it was the American decision to run construction like a totalitarian state, controlling everything from working practices to leisure time, which allowed the Canal to open on August 15, 1914.

However, the momentous occasion was overshadowed by the deteriorating situation in Europe. Whereas the opening of the Canal should have been a great occasion for the celebration of global cooperation in what was arguably a project from which all trading nations could benefit, the opening came just weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland. Much of the traffic during the first few years of Canal operation was naval, especially once the United States opened up the Pacific Theatre.

The Canal Record, the official newspaper of the American-controlled Canal Zone, reported the momentous occasion. The report seems subdued, especially given the years of work leading up to the event, but the situation in Europe weighed heavily on events (in fact, the congratulatory telegraph published by the Record came from the American Secretary of War). The Record reported that:

Commercial traffic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by way of The Panama Canal was inaugurated on Saturday, August 15, by the Government steamship Ancon, which made the trip from entrance to entrance in approximately nine hours, well within the previously estimated time for the passage of a ship through the Canal. The complete trip from the ship's berth at dock No. 9. Cristobal, to the end of the dredged channel, five miles out in the Bay of Panama, was made in approximately nine hours and 40 minutes. There were no unscheduled delays, and the handling of the vessel in the locks and through the channel sections characterized the entire operation as one of the smoothest up to that time.

The Ancon carried, as guests of the Secretary of War, about 200 people, the list including President Porras and his cabinet and other Panama Government officials the members of the diplomatic corps and resident consuls-general, officers of the- Tenth Infantry and Coast Artillery Corps, officials of The Panama Canal, and a few others. A special train was run, leaving Panama at 5 a. m., on Saturday, conveying the guests from the Pacific end direct to the dock at Cristobal.

The vessel left its berth at about 7.10 a.m., arrived in the Atlantic entrance at 7.30, and at Gatun Locks at 8 o'clock. It entered the lower lock at Gatun at the same hour and passed out of the upper lock on the water of Gatun Lake about one hour and a quarter later. The entrance to the Culebra Cut section at Gamboa was reached at about 11.15, and Cucaracha slide was passed at 12.20 p. m. Pedro Miguel Lock was reached at 12.56, and the vessel passed into Miraflores Lake at about 1.19. It entered Miraflores Lock at about 1.56, and passed out of the lower lock into the sea channel at 3.20. It arrived off Balboa docks at 4 o'clock, and reached the end of the dredged channel at 4.30. This completed the official trip, and the vessel returned to Balboa, anchoring in the channel at about 5.10 p. m. People gathered to witness the passage at various points along the route, and at Balboa as many as 2,000 were present.[2]

Elizabeth Parker, who had come to the Canal Zone during construction to marry her fiancé, witnessed the opening from the deck of one of the first ships through the completed canal. Her recollection perhaps more accurately sums up the mood of the day, as a "dream of centuries had come true!"[3]

From an academic perspective, the construction and operation of the Canal remains an interesting topic of study. Whereas earlier historiography of the Canal focused heavily on the political machinations and engineering, more recent work has been more social and cultural in nature.[4] The science of malaria control is frequently cited as the main reason for the French failure and the American success.[5] The gold and silver roll (the division of black and white workers) is used as a case study for racial segregation outside the continental United States.[6] More recently yet, historians are beginning to shed light on leisure and tourism in the Canal Zone. This is one of my main areas of interest and it helps to illustrate just how much control the American administration had over the workers during construction of the Canal. Such strict control was necessary to combat disease and prevent a repeat of the French failure, but it also calls into question the status of the Zone as a utopia.[7] The dream world so often talked about by people living in Panama during construction days wasn't as open and free as one might expect.

Nevertheless, the project opened up one of the busiest trade routes in the world. In the globalized 21st century, containerized shipping has thrived thanks to faster journeys between Asia and the Americas, all because of a visionary endeavour completed 100 years ago today. Happy birthday, Panama Canal!


1. For a detailed look at the French effort, see the first third of David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (London: Simon & Schuster, 1977).
2. Canal Record, August 19, 1914. Online at
3. Elizabeth Kittredge Parker, Panama Canal Bride: A Story of Construction Days (New York: Exposition Press, 1955), 90.
4. McCullough, The Path Between the Seas.
5. Paul S. Sutter, “Nature’s Agents or Agents of Empire? Entomological Workers and Environmental Change during the Construction of the Panama Canal,” Isis 98, no. 4 (December 2007): 724–54.
6. Michael Conniff, Black Labor on a White Canal: Panama, 1904-1981 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985).
7. Alexander Missal, Seaway to the Future: American Social Visions and the Construction of the Panama Canal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).