pondering photographs

A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.

In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?

I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.

It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.

But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?

Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.

Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.

Instant ancestors, indeed.

[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]


Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.


legibility and viability

We have a blogging schedule here on saltwaterstories, but I’m afraid that in the busy-ness of administration and end of term, I’ve dropped my part of the ball (can you drop part of a ball?) And so, the timing is all off.

But here I am, in Chester, UK, where the tulips and cherry trees are in full bloom, at the biennial international Talking Bodies conference.


I can say with full authority that there are no tulips in full bloom in St.John’s right now.

I’ve come to this conference three times – every time, in fact, since its inception in 2013. It’s a highlight on my conference schedule and I’m so very happy that the fantastic creator and organizer of the conference, the incredible and seemingly indefatigable Emma Rees, has seen fit to accept my proposals each time.

There is nothing I like more than thinking and talking about bodies (yes, you can quote me on this). Especially when such conversations happen in a beautiful place like Chester, accompanied by great vegetarian food, and in the company of students, activists, independent researchers, and faculty members from 25 countries.

Sounds like bliss, doesn’t it? I can assure you, it is.


St. John’s has a cool and colourful downtown, but it doesn’t look at all like this one.

It’s also, as a colleague put it, an endurance test. Emma has us all on a tight and very full schedule! Days begin early and end late. Yesterday was a 12-hour day, with a plenary at 9 pm. The day before was even longer, with a feminist pub quiz to round things out. Tonight we ended just after 9. But earlier today, I played hooky for a couple of sessions to a) pick up a birthday present for my soon-to-be-12-year-old-who-thinks-he’s-a-teenager-already, b) respond to work emails (the curse of being department head), and c) catch up with long-lost blogging.


One of the things my find-a-birthday-present walk allowed me to do was to really figure out how it was that the different papers I’ve heard fit together. And I think that the comments of one delegate, Emma Hutson, who presented a paper on essentialism and anti-essentialism in cis and trans contexts this morning, summed it up. In response to someone’s commentary about Judith Butler, Hutson replied that it was important to think about the possible tensions between legibility, on the one hand, and viability, on the other. In other words, it is one thing to talk about how one might be properly read and understood in the world – how one is legible enough to be, in Butler’s understandings, grievable) – but the viability of such legibility is something else altogether. That is, sometimes the work of making oneself legible within and against dominant paradigms is just too much.

And here I think that Emma Hutson landed on exactly what I see emerging as a larger theme in the conference (at least in the context of the 24 papers I’ve listened to thus far): the limitations of dominant language and thought systems to articulate the diversity of human experience.


Hutson’s paper brought me to Delia Steverson’s work on the intersection of disability studies and Black literary studies. In her paper, she examined slave narratives by Moses Roper and William Grimes and observed, during the Q&A, that such slave narratives are always heavily mediated texts, constructed and created with the express purpose of supporting abolitionist causes. To what extent, then, were these texts about making the enslaved legible – as subjects – to a white audience, and what role did the articulation of pain and impairment serve in supporting that move towards legibility? There is, indeed, very little room to manoeuvre in slave narratives; there are accepted stories that can be told, and silences that must be maintained. But what did this mean for those who were not able to work within those parameters?

So, too, was the limitation of language a key element in a trio of papers by Jonathan Hay, Krystina Osborne, and Hanna Etholén that focused on autofiction, a genre that necessarily blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction. Even the term itself is contested. One could argue about the need for a term at all – why not just write and then publish the damn thing, after all? But if there’s anything that’s become clear in this conference (if it wasn’t clear before), it’s that we’ve been organized into needing categories in order to understand our world. There’s a fiction section. There’s an autobiography section. And things get messy in the spaces between. As readers, we tend to fret when we don’t know if something is true of false. We start to fuss about questions of authenticity. What’s real, and what’s not. And here again, the spectre of legibility rears its head: what we think and feel about authenticity lies at the heart of questions of legibility.

But as the author Chris Kraus, referenced by one panelist, indicated:

“It’s all fiction. As soon as you write something down, it’s fiction. I don’t think fiction is necessarily about inventing fake stories. The process of fictionalization is selection – why this and not that? If we look at any moment, what’s in it is practically infinite. Why do I pick up on your eyes and how they set on your face instead of what’s outside of the window? And what do I think when I look at your eyes, what does this moment make me remember? What we select from all this – all these digressions – that’s the process of fictionalization, that’s what we create. As soon as something gets written down, it’s no longer ‘true,’ because there are always 100 other things that are equally ‘true.’ And then everything changes as soon as something gets written down.” 

And while one could argue that this relationship between fact and fiction doesn’t matter so much because it’s fiction, or rather, autofiction, the tensions inherent in this terminology are actually symptomatic of much larger issues. What happens if the categories that exist aren’t enough? And what happens to those who do not fit into the categories? Or those who want to escape those categories? What do we do with their stories? What does it mean to be legible? And what kind of work is involved in that process?


Chester Cathedral – only visible here because the leaves haven’t quite come out yet.

Garjan Sterk discussed the current status of race and racism in The Netherlands. A people that prides itself on being tolerant and open, the Dutch do not have a real word for ‘race.’ The closest approximation – ras – is thought to be too closely aligned with Nazi discourses. But the end result of not having a word is that the Dutch can very easily – and do very easily – argue that ‘We do not have any racism,’ which is patently untrue. Sterk took us through the various twists and turns of ever-shifting government policies and practices around the naming of various groups of ‘others’ through the also shifting parameters of the ‘allochtoon’ and how this shifting language has also affected political organizing among various social justice groups in The Netherlands. And it’s affected Sterk’s own work: as she has personally navigated the muddy waters of race and politics, she’s also started to discover that the traditional model for thesis writing, as she’s been taught it, may not be suitable for the work she’s trying to do, for the story she’s trying to tell. But are there alternatives available for her? How will she navigate that relationship between legibility – within the mainstream academic context – and viability?


The limitations of current knowledge systems was also front and centre in Katie Myerscough’s paper on the (now infamous) case of Rachel Dolezal, the white American woman who created a Black identity for herself. This is a tough topic to take on at a conference about talking bodies (actually, at any conference) but Katie’s approach, which located Dolezal and the furor surrounding the case within a much longer historical context, was probably one of the more nuanced reading of the situation that I’ve heard or read to date. What was abundantly clear in Myerscough’s argument was that the whole situation (for lack of better way of putting it) – Dolezal’s actions and the responses to it – are the result of centuries of racist policies.

If Rachel Dolezal’s actions have been productive at all, it is because they have shone a blinding light on the messy political, structural, and activist histories around the politics of naming. I don’t think she necessarily intended to do this; her most recent interview, in The Stranger, shows a remarkable level of narcissism and corresponding lack of awareness of the larger context in which her story plays itself out But here we are. As Myercough pointed out, “How we see race might be something we want to think about.” But do we actually have the language to have this conversation?


And all of this also takes me to my own paper (an expansion and reworking of ideas I explored here). I, too, have hit walls along the way. Walls that point to the failure of the colonial imagination to articulate the humanity of the indentured and the enslaved. Methodological walls that make it challenging to read between, through, behind, and around the archival material that remains. And walls that limit the possible ways for me to tell these stories within the context of academic audiences.

I am increasingly convinced, as my paper for July’s Creative Histories conference  (yaye! Another trip across the pond!) will argue, that the work I have done in this particular research project cannot be adequately captured in a conventional academic format. To make these stories legible in this context, requires some contortions that I am not certain I am fully prepared to make.

I’ll produce some academic articles as a result of this project (I already have), but really, these stories should emerge in another venue. But academia, as it is currently constructed, doesn’t have the language necessary to tell these stories. And as someone trained in this space, I’m not entirely sure I fully have the language yet, either. And so, I muddle along, working it out as I go.

I write.
I rewrite.

I think.
I rethink.

I story.
I re-story.

And in the end, I hope I will find the language to allow the story to tell itself, to emerge the way it wants – and needs – to emerge.


on the campus at University of Chester

Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.

But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?

And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.

Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.

That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.


No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.

Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).


Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…

For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.

The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).

The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?

The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).

The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.


The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.

The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.

This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.

This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.


the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.


organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University


Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.

How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?

This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.

It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.

It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.

It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.

It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.

But what about their daily lives? What were those like?

What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?

What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?

What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?

When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.

But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.

A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.

The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.

But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.

No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.


food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.


recipes escaping their cookbook!


A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.


somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.

And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.

Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.


Keep every scrap of paper.

Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.

Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.

Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.

This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.


With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.

What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.


Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.


Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 9.59.22 AM

Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.



Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

How Do You Research?

How Do You Research?

I remember my high school and early undergraduate education, and how I was taught to write my essays without using a personal stance. We were told that using pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ would weaken our arguments because these words suggest a biased, personal connection to the topic. If I wanted to be taken seriously as an academic, then I needed to distance myself from my subject matter, otherwise my work would be viewed as compromised and then dismissed.

This method of researching has never sat well with me, and considering the existence of this blog, I think it has never sat well with my fellow bloggers. What is wrong with keeping distance from the subject matter? It is implausible, irresponsible, and boring.

It is implausible because academics research subjects that interest them, and that interest often comes from a personal connection or fascination. It is irresponsible when the subject matter is a land, culture, or people, because keeping the distance from these subjects can result in not recognizing how the research will affect them. It is boring because the personal is what is interesting to everyone; the personal is the ‘human interest’ aspect and it exemplifies why the research is important not only to the researcher, but to the general public.

The personal connection has been understood as a bias, but it can also be viewed as perspective. Too often, researchers have analyzed a culture, people, or land, without considering an insider’s standpoint. This defines an identity from an outsider’s point of view, without letting the people inside define themselves. In acknowledging the personal connection in my research, I am acknowledging that there may be some bias and that I am considering where I stand in the subject. Am I part of the culture, or people? Or am I an outsider who is curious? My stance will affect how I view subject, and discussing it demonstrates that I have taken account of that.

From the position of my stance, I am able to determine my responsibilities to my subject matter. Carolyn Ellis considers responsibility and research in her article “Telling Stories and Revealing Lives.” She mentions that there are three kinds of responsibility of the researcher: procedural (like consent forms), situational (circumstances that arise when researching), and relational (staying true to character, and being responsible for one’s own actions and the consequences to others) (Ellis, 2007: 4).

Procedural and situational are commonly recognized and considered, while relational is difficult to institutionalize. It is to take into account the feelings, perceptions, and considerations of others while remaining true to the research project, and doing what is need to be done while remaining true to the self, even if it effects the findings (Ellis, 2007: 7-8).

On occasion, someone will say something during an interview that they would not normally say. I have had this happen in previous projects and had to ask the person interviewed if I may add it to my research. Doing so gave the person time to consider it and ask me about the relevance of what was said. If I had published without consultation, then I would have exploited that person’s trust, taken away her chance to contextualize the comment, and I would not have had the chance to explain why it was important.

The question that always comes up around research is: Why is this important? A subject matter may be interesting to the researcher, but why should anyone else care? This is probably where the personal is most important. The personal stories and touches illustrate how the research influences the lives of a community, a region, or a nation. It can make it possible to relate to unfamiliar places and people, and when their is relation, their is understanding.

Autoethnography is a methodology that makes it possible to resolve the personal in the research. While ethnography is a method of studying a subject matter in relation to culture, autoethnography researches the subject through the researcher’s personal accounts and experiences with a specific culture (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2011: 1). It creates a space for the researcher to discuss their position, their perspective, and their connection. It also provides an opportunity to write or discuss a subject matter in a voice other than the traditional academic one, allowing interpretation through creative writing, autobiography, performance, dance, and art.

In her book, Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography, Tami Spry demonstrates how she incorporates the intimate with the academic through her personal stories of live performance, the actual written scripts of her performances, and her theories on the methodology.  To Spry, those who use performative autoethnography live, breathe, and do the things they study on a literal level (Spry, 17). The body of the researcher is literally the body of the research.

While most of the research discussed in this blog is not performative, the researchers do consider the personal experience, the personal narratives, and how they we embody our subject matter. We know where we stand and why.

Ellis, Carolyn. “Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives: Relational Ethics in Research with Intimate Others” in Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 3, January 2007. Pp. 3-29.

Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner.  “Autoethnography: An Overview” in Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 12, No. 1, Art. 10, January 2011, 1-18.

Spry, Tami.  Body, Paper, Stage: Writing and Performing Autoethnography. California: Left Coast Press, 2011.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca), 2016

found poetry

Congress 2016  – the annual hoedown of Canadian humanists and social scientists – just finished in Calgary.  What can I say? With over 70 different societies, it was, as usual, overwhelming. But it was also, as usual, invigorating. A writer friend imagined us all in caps and gowns bucking on broncos, but that might be going too far….

I spent three full days getting lost on campus, listening to keynote speakers and to conference attendees, vising the book fair, catching up with friends and colleagues, hawking my book at the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine’s strawberries and champagne book event, and, of course, presenting my own two papers – as part of Women’s and Gender Studies et Recherches Féministes and the Canadian Historical Association.

I also filled my notebook with thoughts, ideas, and snippets and hints of ideas … the shiny, glittery things that caught my attention in the course of all the papers I listened to. And as I re-read these notes, it occurred to me that they served as a sort of inadvertent archive for unintended readers. What would others make of these scribbled notes – of my magpie-like practices – claiming the shiny, bright bits from the ideas of others and working through my own lenses and thinkings?


one of the many public artworks on the grounds of the University of Calgary

I could have gone back to campus for more on the fourth day, but my brain was well and truly full. And so I sat down to review my conference notes: creating word clouds, revisiting specific wordings and phrasings, and looking for links and connections.

What emerged from this process of bricolage was a collage of words and ideas. And so, in the spirit of found poetry and the magpie impulse, and in response to William Cronon’s observation (printed on a colleague’s final slide) that “Where one chooses to begin and end a story profoundly alters its shape and meaning” (Cronon 1992, 1364), I offer a found poem, a patchwork of ideas drawn from some of the papers I heard and from my own responses to those papers. Where I have taken the text directly from a paper, I include a footnote that cites the presenter’s name and the title of their paper. Where the ideas are just words that clattered around in my own thoughts, I’ve included no sources at all.


Prince’s Island Park in downtown Calgary. A really great place to think.

A final disclaimer: the poem is partial; it cannot begin to capture all the themes and ideas explored…many of those won’t become clear until I’ve sifted through them for a while. But this is a beginning, an opening.

and an even more final disclaimer: I can’t ever figure out spacing on wordpress, particularly if it goes outside of conventional paragraph spacing. So I have put the poem in in .jpeg format.

we are not data_Page_1we are not data_Page_2



Cronon, William. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” The Journal of American History 78.4 (1992): 1347-1376


(c) 2016 Sonja Boon sboon @ mun.ca

bloggy bits

bloggy bits


Cathedral berg, side view. Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

We’re full on into iceberg season, with the first IcebergFinder.com newsletter dropping into my inbox earlier this week and some sightings near to St. John’s. Further into Central Newfoundland, however – Twillingate, Bonavista, Greenspond – they’ve been seeing bergs for a while already….

But what do bergs have to do with blogs, and more specifically, saltwater story blogs?


Dry dock berg, side view. Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

Icebergs come in different shapes and sizes, each of them with their own specific name. A few years ago, a spectacular cathedral berg lodged itself just by Cape Spear. We often have dome and blocky bergs relatively near shore, and as they melt, we see dry dock bergs.

Bergy bits are those bits and pieces of bergs; they have the same histories, but they’ve broken off, split apart. They’re made of the same stuff, only smaller.

Bloggy bits might be seen the same way: like longer posts, they’re made of the same stuff, only smaller…

Now that the whole ‘blogging team’ is fully on board and raring to go, we’re ready to shake things up a bit in terms of structure, and we want to introduce some ‘bloggy bits.’ In addition to ‘regular posts’ – posts between 500 and 1000 words (or more, if it’s me) that explore a certain idea, or review a book, or comment on some articles or offer some kind of historical contextualization or autoethnographic exploration, we’re introducing two new thematic bloggy bits: Unintended Readers and Theory Thursdays.

More on both of these below….


Canada Day, early morning, from Signal Hill, St. John’s. Photo: Sonja Boon

Unintended Readers

“…a historian reading original source material is an unintended reader, reads something that was never meant for his or her eyes; a reader unimagined and unimaginable by the justices’ clerk, the census enumerator, the guardian of the poor, making their more or less legible transcriptions, registers, lists and observations” (Steedman 17-18)

Taking our cue from Carolyn Steedman’s observation, in a 2008 article, that historians are often “unintended readers,” we’re developing a series of bi-weekly series of posts that offer a way into the sometimes serendipitous, sometimes surprising, always intriguing world of archival research.

These posts offer tiny windows – little snippets into archival worlds. In these posts, which will appear every other Monday, we share some of the things we come across in our archival journeying – text or images or ideas that stick with us, even if we haven’t quite yet figured out how they fit into a larger picture.

You may just get a morsel of text, with nothing more than a question after it. Or perhaps, an image from an archival source, with the hint of barely formed ideas. Perhaps it will be a paragraph from a diary. Or maybe, a historical postcard, or a stamp, or a sound clip. All of this material will be primary source material.



spooky berg, no more than about 100 m from shore. Bauline, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon

Theory Thursday

Ok. So it’s not the most exciting title for a series of blog posts. But drawing on the idea that we’re all reading all the time, and that sometimes the ideas we encounter flit and float through our consciousnesses, with not quite enough on which to rest but with enough spark to be worthy of remembering, we’re introducing Theory Thursday, an opportunity for us to share some of the conceptual work that’s informing our thinking and writing. As with Unintended Readers, Theory Thursday posts (which will also appear ever other week) are bonbons – tiny, rich, cream-filled morsels of goodness that make you want more but also give you enough flavour to savour, enjoy, and remember.

Thanks for being part of this journey so far; we hope you enjoy these new additions.


St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo: Sonja Boon


Steedman, Carolyn, “Intimacy in research: accounting for it.” History of the Human Sciences 21.4 (2008): 17-33.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca