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.
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