Problems of Place: The Importance of Place in Research

Editor’s note: this is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace. This is Heather’s follow-up to her first piece on the importance of connection to place in our work, and the impacts these structural pressures and realities have on our abilities to connect to place and community in our work, activism, and lives.

In my previous post in this series, I discussed my experience as a postdoc on the job market and the lessons I’ve learned regarding connection to place. In this post, I want to reflect on another important research dynamic for environmental historians—the connections we have with the places we study and work.

Recently, I published a post reflecting on a NiCHE New Scholars discussion focused on environmental humanities and activism. In our discussion, we spoke about the ways in which the structure of the academy can hinder the ability of new scholars to engage in activist-centered research. A similar discussion also belongs here on Environmental History Now.

My goal in academic work has always been to do work that makes a contribution to a community or to individuals, and I found that one way to do this is to invest in the places I study. In this post, I will reflect on my own experiences to highlight the importance of spending time in the places we research for environmental historians. I will also highlight some of the barriers emerging scholars in particular face in conducting place-based or community-centered research.

A brief description of my dissertation work will help to better set the stage for the argument I want to make here. My doctoral dissertation was an environmental and Indigenous history of gold mining in the Klondike region of the Yukon from 1890 to 1940. I analyzed both material and cultural changes that gold mining brought to the Klondike environment and to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s relationship with that environment. This study was rooted in a very specific place. In order to understand these changes and consequences of mining, I had to see the land first-hand. I had to walk (and paddle) across the areas that I read about, and eventually wrote about. I had to hear locals talk about the past and present landscapes, and the changes they have witnessed and learned about. Throughout my six years as a doctoral student, I spent much time in the Yukon, split between Whitehorse and Dawson City. I’ve gotten to know these areas so much so that it came to feel like home to me. I would never have been able to complete my dissertation in a way that allowed me to truly understand these places had I not spent extended periods of time in the places I studied.

Abandoned Mining Equipment at Bear Creek, the site of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation in the early 20th century (August 2014).

Confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers and Dawson City taken from the Moosehide Slide (July 2015).

My current work at the University of Arizona is a study of coal mining and energy transitions on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona—another project that is firmly rooted in a specific place. The extent of my connection to this place is minor compared to my dissertation work, but spending a semester in Arizona and travelling around the north allowed a deeper understanding of tensions and conflicts of mining’s past and present among Indigenous groups in Arizona that I would never have learned from secondary reading and archival research. I am only halfway through my time in Arizona—and still have lots to learn—but what I have learned from locals and from local traditional knowledge so far has further asserted my conviction to spend time in my sites of research.

I. Place-Based Research

Firstly, I realize that place-based research does not work for every project. My graduate school and post-doc research has focused on environmental histories of resource development as related to Indigenous histories, and each of these studies has been rooted in a specific place, though the larger processes and events I dealt with reached beyond local, regional, or national boundaries. Though my work has focused on Indigenous histories, much of my argument for place-based research as a methodological approach can also apply to non-Indigenous community-centered research.

I am not an expert on place-based research by any stretch, but since my dissertation defense in May of 2018, I have been reflecting on this topic a great deal and have been thinking about ways to improve and extend upon my own research approaches to better integrate place, and community, in my work. It is also worth noting that I see community-based and place-based research as distinct from each other, though mutually reinforcing (for example, to really do community-based research requires centering oneself in place, and to really know a place means to engage with local community).

Aboriginal Day celebrations at the
Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson (June 2015).

Place-based research for environmental historians can be tricky—we do study the past, after all, and in many cases our studies focus on great change over time. However, we can still conduct place-based research by spending a significant amount of time in the places we study. This goes beyond simply visiting the location for a short archival trip; it means getting a feel for the land, familiarizing yourself with the geography, and getting to know the area by spending time there. A crucial aspect of getting to know a place is to get to know the people who live, work, and play in that place. It means immersing yourself in the local culture and history. There are many steps that come before you start “researching,” which includes all of the above, as well as listening, learning, and building relationships. Place-based and community-centered research can’t be rushed. Instead, it requires slow scholarship which develops and grows over time.

II. Why Place-Based Research?

I advocate for place-based research whenever appropriate for four main reasons: 1) it provides insights not accessible otherwise; 2) it allows us to build relationships over time; 3) it offers opportunities to collaborate with locals; and 4) it provides an ongoing connection to our sites of study. To elaborate on each of these, I will briefly reflect on my dissertation research journey.

Before I began any primary research for my dissertation, I visited Dawson City and meet with members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department to discuss my research project and to determine what a mutually beneficial research relationship between myself as the researcher and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation could look like. Once receiving approval for my project under a Traditional Knowledge research protocol agreement, I began my archival research in Dawson City and in Whitehorse, and began spending more time in these places to better get to know them. This was especially important for me as an outsider to the North, but also as an outsider among Yukon Indigenous groups. I made regular visits to the Yukon throughout the course of my PhD. Sometimes these trips were only two weeks, and sometimes they were three months.

Hän Singers at the Moosehide Gathering (July 2016).

Each time I visited I attempted to spend as much time in the community as possible in the form of volunteering for events like Aboriginal Day, the Dawson City Music Festival, and at the Moosehide Gathering. This allowed me to connect with locals and chat with them more informally about life in Dawson. I attended events in both Dawson and Whitehorse, traveled around the region visiting different towns and learning as much as I could about their histories. I appeared on local radio stations and was interviewed by local newspapers about my work, and delivered public talks to keep the community up-to-date on my work and to ensure they were ok with the way I was presenting their stories.

I conducted a handful of recorded interviews for my dissertation project, but in many ways what I found most valuable was learning from local people and local places in informal settings. Having conversations with elders at events or in the Heritage Office, visiting Moosehide Village, talking to non-Indigenous locals at one of Dawson’s many watering holes all provided me with insights about the history of the Klondike that I would never have gotten from archival sources. Hiking in areas that were greatly affected by mining also gave me greater insight and appreciation for the scale of landscape change created by mining in the Klondike—again, something written sources could not provide.

The Tombstone Mountains in the Blackstone Uplands—a culturally important area for Yukon First Nations impacted by the construction of a ditch for water delivery to the gold fields in 1910 (June 2017).

It is well known that written records do not do justice to preserving Indigenous history. For the time period my research covered, it was difficult to find written sources produced by Indigenous people or that directly referred to Indigenous peoples, and when I did find such sources, they were usually fragmentary, stereotypical, or one-sided. Further, during my period of study, the colonial archival sources didn’t much care about or mention environmental change created by mining. Without hearing stories from local elders or speaking with local heritage experts, visiting cultural centers, and attending local events, I would not have acquired the depth of knowledge that helped me better understand the social and political trauma resulting from the implementation of the Yukon-Alaska international border. The archives did not tell me where the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in had to travel to hunt and fish as mining expanded. The written record was silent on the intimate feelings Hwëch’in children felt about their education on reserve versus off the reserve, and what they did at residential schools to make them feel connected to home. These are aspects of research we can only get by spending time at our sites of research.

Spending time getting to know the place and the people there also allowed me time to slowly build relationships in both Dawson and Whitehorse. I’ve established friendships there, good relationships with archivists, and with researchers at the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department. Frequent trips to my place of study allowed me to stay connected with local current events as well as with people, and it assured locals that I was committed and invested in their community. Since finishing my PhD, the relationship with place and community has not stopped. As I continue to revise my dissertation into a book, I have continued to visit the Yukon. There are elements of my study I want to expand on, I want to visit with those I interviewed to seek their approval on how I represent their words, I want to interview some more folks, and I want to keep working with this community. I am invested both academically and emotionally in this place. By spending a significant amount of time in the Yukon throughout my degree, I have developed an ongoing connection to this place and have became passionate about advocating for the North.

Taking the slow scholarship and place-based approach has also allowed me the opportunity to work on some new projects with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department through collaborating on a grant application, which—should we be successful—will result in some publicly engaged and community-driven research projects. This is a possibility I am very excited about, and an opportunity that would not have arisen had I not spent time rooted in place.

III. Barriers with the Academic Structure

There are things I could have done to improve my methods and approaches to this project, which I continue to work on. I write from a fairly privileged position as someone who has had many opportunities that allowed me to conduct place-based research, but this is unfortunately not the case for many graduate students and emerging scholars. The current structure of the academy does not lend much support for emerging scholars to conduct this type of research, though, ironically, we are increasingly expected to do this type of work in order to secure employment. Some of the barriers emerging scholars face in conducting place-based environmental history research include: 1) lack of funding; 2) time commitment; 3) distance from sites of research; and 4) the migrant and precarious realities of academic life post-PhD.

Though we are encouraged as students and early career scholars to spend time immersing ourselves in the places and communities in which we research, the reality is that this support does not extend much beyond words. I did my PhD at the University of Alberta, which has research centers that provide opportunities for students to apply for research grants and financial support for research and field work activities. I have also been privileged to have had supervisors in both my graduate degrees who accounted for student research and community engagement in grant applications. Even with this support throughout my graduate studies, the financial burden of conducting fieldwork was a real consideration, not only in the actual cost of travel, accommodation, and research expenses, but also in the time away that I wasn’t earning money through other employment. Many graduate students have less support than I did for fieldwork and research travel, making this task even more burdensome.

Front Street in Dawson City (February 2018).

Though my PhD institution had a Northern research center which provided funding opportunities to students, the reality is that the sciences were largely favored over the humanities. This was reflected in the number of funding awards granted to humanities scholars, as well as a disparity in actual dollar amounts of awards. Humanities still has to fight for a place at the table when conducting Northern research—I am sure this applies to other geographic or temporal areas as well. Though I did receive research funding for some of my research trips, many came at personal financial cost. Even those trips in which I did receive funding saw me living in a tent for two months of my stay or eating peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal almost daily to stretch that funding further.

Another consideration for many emerging scholars is the time commitment required to do place-based research. Academics, even emerging ones, have lives outside of research that we must also account for. Many students have to take up full time work in the Spring and Summer and can’t go away for a long stretch of time. Not everyone can afford to make frequent visits to the places we study, or to spend extended periods of time there. This reality is compounded when we live far from our sites of study. This is something I have struggled with since leaving Edmonton, which was relatively close to the Yukon, and moving to Ontario for a postdoc (another Yukon history project), which seems like a world away from the Yukon in terms of distance traveled.

So far I have focused on graduate students, but in many ways, I felt more supported and able to do place-based research while I was still in my graduate program. Because place-based research requires slow scholarship, a doctoral program allows for a relatively generous amount of time to build relationships over time and develop a connection with place. However, in my experience, once you’re on the job market, the migrant realities of precarious employment throw a wrench in the safety net a grad program provides. Once we find ourselves on the job market, the process of slow scholarship is rushed as we are pressured to push out publications and other outputs that do not fit well with place-based or community-centered research and writing.

Many other contributors in this series have discussed the reality of academics moving around frequently for jobs, and Andrea Eidinger, more recently, wrote for Active History about the hardships of sessional employment, which also requires relocation without many of the supports provided to full-time faculty. Frequent relocation has an influence on our ability to conduct place-based research. Multiple moves for short-term jobs also makes research planning and travel more difficult as postdocs, sessionals, and contract employees do not often receive financial support for research travel. All the other outputs we must provide by the end of these contracts also do not allow as much room for spending time away. It seems that in order to secure full-time positions, and eventually tenured positions, we are expected to conduct rich research projects, engage with the public, and produce writing that reaches beyond the academy — all admirable goals that many of my generation of scholars desire and attempt to do anyway—yet it is mostly those with tenured positions who are afforded the flexibility to conduct place-based research and other forms of slow scholarship.

The frustrating reality is that in order to secure employment, emerging academics are expected to publish and carry out an active research program, yet the academic structure does not support us in achieving these goals. These restrictions affect the production of environmental history and humanities place-based research; a process that generally requires slow scholarship, trust and relationship building, and some degree of collaborative work cannot exist within a structure that expects us to turn out publications from research projects quickly then move on to the next.

Displayed at the boat docks for visitors leaving Moosehide at the Moosehide Gathering (July 2016).

With all of this said, I’m not sure what the solution is, other than a monumental shift in the structure of academia to take seriously alternate methods of research production and dissemination and to realize the importance of place-based and community-centered history projects. I am hopeful that this change is coming—we are seeing more and more engagement with digital humanities platforms that opens up a wider space for alternative approaches and “non-academic” voices. In the meantime, I encourage emerging scholars to continue visiting their places of study as possible and to continue to develop connections with place and community. Not only does it provide richer insights and personal connections, but it makes the journey through grad school more fulfilling and meaningful because you are rooted in place.