Chad Gaffield, History professor from the Faculty of Arts, was recently named Officer of the Order of Canada. The longstanding tradition of The Order was established by Queen Elizabeth the II in 1967. This year, The Order recognizes Professor Gaffield’s “leadership in interdisciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration as a historian and administrator, and for his pioneering work in the digital humanities.” The Faculty of Arts interviewed him to learn more.
Where were you when you heard the news that you were named an Officer of the Order of Canada? What was your initial reaction?
I was outside, I think, putting something in our garage, and my wife said, “Hey, the Governor General is on the phone!” The Order has this long selection process and the Governor General gets the pleasure of contacting those chosen, and there I was. It was kind of breathtaking; it’s funny how the physiology of your body responds to something like that. It was so unexpected that you’re stunned, excited, and amazed.
I’m sure your wife is bragging to everybody.
[Laughs.] Well, the Order of Canada is so well known beyond campuses. In academia, we’re sort of in a micro-culture and so things that are important to us do not necessarily have resonance in the larger society, so this is one of those things that attract a lot of attention.
Definitely. So what would you say the Order of Canada means to you?
Two things come to mind. One, it’s a celebration of an approach that’s seen as worthwhile. The other, it’s exceedingly motivating. You almost feel propelled to carry on, a feeling that takes me back to my PhD. Most successful people are always plagued with self-doubt; you think you could be doing a little more or better or differently. It’s great to have an injection that says Canada wants to keep this going.
It must be incredibly exciting, especially for a historian and an academic. Speaking of the academy, you’ve been recognized for your pioneering work in the digital humanities which also happens to be University of Ottawa’s new program. Why have you dedicated so much energy to the field?
For me, the program is the blossoming of something that began in the 1970s when I was a student. I realized that if I wanted to study the past, one of the ways in which I might do that would be to take advantage of computers. Our mission, at the time, was to gather and study evidence about people that had not left great speeches, people that had not been written about in newspapers or recorded in historical documents. We were convinced that to understand change you had to understand the history of the anonymous. Computers allowed us to build databases with information about where people lived; who they were married to; how many children they had; where did they work; where did they move, and so on.
So digital humanities are really about studying people?
Exactly. We can study groups that have been left out of the narrative or ignored –history of women, for example. Originally, historians didn’t mess around with technology. We were supposed to read books by great men at the time; and let’s face it, we focused on those who were officially in power. However, there was, in fact, evidence about women’s lives, but it would not be the same kind of evidence that would be used to study political or religious leaders.
So why do you think it’s important for researchers (both young and more experienced) to take an interdisciplinary approach to studying the humanities?
We have to embrace the idea that difference can be good and potentially enriching. Uniformity and homogeneity is the path to real weakness and vulnerability and a recipe for disaster. Diversity is strength. On campus we’re seeing more and more students are taking multiple programs – mixing and matching majors and minors. I have a student who studies history and biology which I think is great. We used to make this hard to do. I think we should embrace this because we can develop rich experiences, new insights and new ways of thinking.
I like what you said about embracing other approaches but having a solid foundation to draw from. What would you say is your foundation or your research interests?
There’s no doubt I see the world through the eyes of a historian. I study the last great change which was the rural agricultural world to an urban industrial world. I study the later 19th century into the start of the 20th century and look at the fundamental changes related to the climbing fertility, the emergence of mass schooling, concern about what language people spoke, questions of organization in terms of jurisdiction. You think about those profound changes between 1850 and 1950 in North America, especially Canada, we have a lot of evidence as to what happened here. It’s a good way to make sense of what’s happening now.
Do you think your research interests have evolved over the years?
I guess I’m increasingly convinced of two things. First, we need to make connections across campus in terms of student experience and in terms of our own research. Second, we need to look to the larger society. Canada’s on the international stage in an interesting way and we can contribute globally. And it’s not just me; it’s the humanities and the larger society.
As an educator at the Faculty of Arts, which part of your career has been the most satisfying? Or, are you ever satisfied?
To really make a contribution, you often have to think there’s room for improvement. Of course, along the way you want to feel like you’re moving forward. It’s such an exciting time at the Faculty. We’ve hired wonderful and energetic professors; and I feel a sense of excitement in just supporting them. I’ve been trying to ensure that my generation does not squish this new generation or force them to be like us. People like me, who always see room for improvement, are really counting on that new generation to feel empowered to make change. The new dean is terrific because he takes advantage of all the institutions around this university. There’s always room for improvement but I feel really excited about our Faculty.
You’re doing really amazing work, and it’s not going unnoticed. On behalf of the Faculty, we’d like to congratulate you again for this outstanding accomplishment.