Graduate School, Academic Writing, and Identities Past and Future

July 18, 2016

Written by guest blogger, Scott Johnston 


As I discovered in graduate school, and while researching the article I wrote for the CJH called “Boy Scouts and the British World: Autonomy within an Imperial Institution, 1908-1936,” identity is a curious thing. It is flexible beyond all logical reasoning, even allowing humans to simultaneously hold multiple contradictory beliefs. Group identity is just as complicated, because those who share an identity often disagree about what it means to be part of that group, be it or ‘Canadian,’ or ‘British,’ or a ‘graduate student.’ But identity is a concept that academics need to engage with. From Brexit to Black Lives Matter to Truth and Reconciliation, identity politics continue to dominate current affairs. In all these cases, it is clear how contested and changeable identities are. I find this flexibility absolutely fascinating to explore.

It is very easy to equate a shared identity with unity. As historians, we would be lost without using groups’ monikers as shorthand to examine motivations, causes and effects. But divisions within identities can be just as revealing. “Boy Scouts and the British World” exposes some internal divisions in identity by demonstrating how fractured the Boy Scout movement was in the first thirty years of its existence. The Boy Scout organization is often considered a monolith of imperial culture, a tool for extending Britishness to Canada and colonies across the globe. This ‘Britishness’ was a vision of middle class masculine vigour, infused with racial rhetoric of a people restored and reinvigorated by experiencing comradeship in the great outdoors. A parallel organization, the Girl Guides, offered a similarly charged version of femininity. Children in these organizations were meant to find fellowship in doing their bit for the mighty project of empire. But this vision of Scouting was far from universally accepted. James Robertson, the Chief of the Canadian Boy Scouts, was constantly at odds with the movement’s founder, Robert Baden-Powell. Their conflicting understandings of what it meant to be a Scout, let alone what it meant to be ‘British,’ ‘Canadian,’ and ‘French Canadian,’ made for some spectacular clashes and crises. These crises are the focus of my article.

In a similar way, graduate school is full of crises of identity. Trapped between the knowledge that you are pursuing a prestigious degree at the highest level of education, and on the other hand feeling inadequate and unprepared to share your work with ‘real’ scholars can be challenging. The CJH’s graduate essay competition is a fantastic opportunity for graduate students to get a feel for academic publishing without the pressure that can often accompany submitting work to a journal. I am honoured to have won the award this year, and to have my work published in the CJH, but I feel that (having lost in previous years), the process itself was just as valuable as winning. Going through peer review and corresponding with the editing staff are useful experiences for any graduate student, and my work has improved because of it. I strongly encourage graduate students to take a chance and submit their work to the competition. I am sure there are many gems of well-written and well-researched papers out there that do not see the light of day because of the fear of failure. Click submit. It will be worth it!


Scott Johnston’s article, Boy Scouts and the British World: Autonomy within an Imperial Institution, 1908–1936“is available in the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire Vol. 51 Issue 2. Read it at CJH Online or on Project MUSE.

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