Writing in public

A salmon leaping on a can labelThis past Monday I took part in a NiCHE New Scholars reading group. This group has been meeting for three years to discuss works-in-progress by its members—graduate students in environmental history in Canada, United States, and even some from overseas. I contributed the first paper to the group’s initial meeting in August of 2009 (a piece of writing left on the cutting room floor of my MA) and so I felt a measure of the distance traveled since when I offered up a thesis chapter for discussion.

The chapter was my second and it was written in the summer/fall of 2011 before I performed radical scopic surgery on my dissertation. Feeling lost in a large and baggy topic I narrowed my thesis from natural history museums in North America to a single institution, the Dominion Fisheries Museum in Ottawa, Canada. That painless amputation was performed just inside the new year, so it was interesting to look at this chapter on exhibiting and collecting from a new perspective.

I was initially shy about letting people read the chapter. It was long and rambling—and honestly doesn’t feel like it has one argument but several and I’m not sure if any actually dovetail. I’m happy I let that go. With a roundtable of probing yet receptive colleagues I felt both confirmed and challenged. Confirmed in my decision to split the chapter into two; one dedicated to collecting and the other to exhibiting. Challenged because there is so much work to do out before I can fill in the gaps that my readers so assiduously revealed.

In our discussion I felt like I rambled and stumbled. In hindsight the conversation was entirely valuable if not therapeutic. Talking something out is often an excellent way to thrash one’s way out of an emotional or intellectual thicket into a clearing. And so here I am in such a clearing: working hard on my final chapter (final in regards to its order in the thesis not final as in the “last”). And with a dawning sense of order that I know is immanent in the chapters I have written—but which only a hard and relentless revision will actually reveal.

That order includes acknowledging that while my thesis is about the Dominion Fisheries Museum it is not only or just a biography of that institution—it is also an attempt to historicize that thing we call the “fisheries” which we take as a self-evident category of activity and analysis. I hope I am adding something new about that by looking at how fish were displayed in the fisheries museum. Or, as I’ve put it elsewhere, how fish were conceptually and materially modeled at this “lost” museum.

The chapter I am now writing deals with the museum’s demolition and the dispersal of its collection. And what fisheries exhibits and displays looked like afterward. Today I had a good day of writing: almost 2,000 words and leaving off where some archival material points toward the chapter’s end. I want to have this chapter done by next week before I go canoeing in Algonquin Park; chasing the “speckled beauties” was the reward for completing the chapter so I must make haste…

I want to thank my colleagues for their participation. Lauren Wheeler (Alberta) hosted the call for a group that included Hank Trim (UBC); Rob Gee (U of Maine scholar visiting Dalhousie); Mike Committo (McMaster); Michael Del Vecchio (Western); and David Harris, my friend who skyped in from Melbourne, Australia.

Looking ahead

Next week I hope to write about the tension between writing chronologically and writing thematically. I hoped to address that question in this blog but it will have to wait.


I confirmed the location of another artifact that once belonged to the fisheries museum: a schooner model that is now in Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.


About Will Knight

I am PhD candidate in Canadian environmental history at Carleton University in Ottawa. I am currently writing a dissertation on Canada's fisheries museum. Never heard of it? That's because it was demolished in 1918...My thesis explores this short-lived institution and the conceptual and material modeling of fish and fisheries in late 19th and early 20th century North America.
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