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Communication and the Human Experience

Due for release this February, Introducing Communication is a new textbook featuring discussions on issues and challenges associated with mass globalization and new technologies. This smart and sophisticated text encourages students to reflect on how these consequences and implications come to bear on how we live and communicate. Author Amardo Rodriguez explains why his new textbook can be used in any introductory communication course.


By Amardo Rodriguez

Every fall, I teach the introductory communication course at Syracuse University. It is a large lecture course and a core requirement for our majors and minors. In preparing to teach this course a few years ago, I read every introductory communication textbook I could track down, both in print and out of print. What I found was simply striking. Nearly all the textbooks focused on only one perspective of communication – viewing communication in terms of messages. The reason for this is most likely because this is how the National Communication Association defines communication.

However, there are many other ways to define communication that are much more amenable to a world where divergence is increasingly more valued than convergence. We can, for instance, view communication in terms of problem-solving, as in helping us navigate and appreciate our diversity and complexity. From this view, communication becomes a problem-solving activity.

Suffice it to say, I never had any intention or ambition to write an introductory communication textbook. Initially, I was only seeking to develop a textbook for my introductory communication class, as I could find none – either in print or out of print – that could do what I believe any introductory textbook should ultimately do, which is to give new students a rigorous and comprehensive survey of the diversity of perspectives, heritages, and concepts that define a discipline.

Over the last five years I have committed myself to creating a textbook that my students will find both challenging and enlightening, meaning one that is intellectually rigorous and culturally fascinating. What has ultimately come from all of this writing and rewriting is an introductory communication textbook that I am confident many instructors and students across the US, Canada, and the world will find just as intellectually rigorous and culturally fascinating.

Introducing Communication covers eight different perspectives and introduces an array of concepts from around the world. It discusses why the study of communication is important in terms of deepening our understanding of the human condition, enlarging how we frame and resolve human problems and struggles, and appreciating the different perspectives that communication brings to the study of the human experience.

This introductory communication textbook also highlights the consequences and implications that come with different ways of defining, understanding, and studying communication, and it presents a robust and rigorous examination of these different consequences and implications. The book is ideally suited for persons who teach any kind of introductory communication course and are looking for a text that is theoretically rigorous, intellectually expansive, and pedagogically elegant.

My textbook is different to other introductory communication textbooks in three important ways:

I. It introduces students to a diversity of perspectives that I am yet to find in any other introductory communication textbook. I highlight how these different perspectives fundamentally expand and deepen our understanding of communication.

II. It highlights communication issues and challenges that are impacting peoples from around the world as our spaces and distances collapse and implode. For instance, I discuss how the proliferation of new kinds of technology is contributing to the demise of the world’s linguistic diversity.

III. It introduces students to communication concepts from all corners of the world and showcases the contributions of different cultures and peoples to our understanding of communication. I discuss concepts from African cultures, Middle Eastern cultures, Asian cultures, and Indigenous cultures. The book functions as a global introductory communication textbook by moving beyond the Western bias that permeates every introductory communication textbook and still fundamentally defines our understanding of communication knowledge.

This textbook could be used in any corner of the world without the instructor having to worry about promoting or propagating Western biases. In fact, the book looks critically at the Western hegemon that shapes how we define communication knowledge. It would therefore be ideal for any instructor looking for a textbook that introduces students to a global view of communication.

I have been using early versions of this textbook in my own large lecture class for the past five years and obsessively revising and polishing the text based on student feedback. The feedback has always been positive in terms of the book being accessible and interesting. The unsolicited comments from students have also been encouraging. Here is one humbling example:

Dear Professor Rodriguez, I want to start by thanking you for writing this textbook. I usually do not do the reading for any of the classes I take, but when the time came to read your textbook, I learned something new about myself. . . . I have learned that if something seems so out of the ordinary for me, it may make total sense to someone else. . . . If someone were to ask me for help to define communication, I would just hand them the textbook and tell them to read it. There are so many perspectives I learned that I didn’t even know existed. Thank you, Professor Rodriguez, for enlightening me. Keep on doing what you’re doing because not only have you enlightened me, you have enlightened many others.”

In addition to the book itself, I believe professors will find the Instructor’s Manual to be quite valuable. It has many supplementary readings from The New York Times that will help students appreciate how the concepts and perspectives found in the book expand and deepen our understanding of current events around the world. It also has relevant TED Talks, classroom discussion questions, and suggested essay questions. The accompanying Test Bank includes multiple-choice questions that reinforce key concepts and ideas. Like the book, I wrote these instructors’ materials with my students in mind, and I hope they will be useful to you and your students as well.

Interrogating the Concept of Categories – an Interview with Lochlann Jain

Stanford University anthropologist and artist, Lochlann Jain, speaks with Anne Brackenbury (former editor at University of Toronto Press who launched the ethnoGRAPHIC Series) to talk about Jain’s new book, Things That Art: A Graphic Menagerie of Enchanting Curiosity.

This debut work of graphic non-fiction offers an opportunity to interrogate the concept of categories using text and image. Jain, a biracial, non-binary, interdisciplinary academic, is used to transgressing boundaries and this book offers a highly original way in which to understand the limits of categories while making visible the things that often get lost between. With over 50 works of original art, each based on fictional categories, and four interpretative essays, the book doesn’t just tell, it shows, in witty and sometimes profound ways, how we make sense of the world around us.


AB: Thanks for sitting down to talk with me. I have been excited about your artwork since you first showed it to me a number of years ago. And I’m thrilled that it will now be available in book form for more people to discover.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is that it is both a conceptual/philosophical exploration, but also seems to have real relevance for the world around us and the times we are currently living through. Who do you think will be drawn (sorry for the pun) to this book and how does it arm them for challenging (or dealing with) the world around them?

LJ: Speaking of goofy puns, the funny thing about this book is that it started as just a joke, really. I was in a faculty meeting doodling; the doodle became my colleague’s nose, and then a bunch of different kinds of noses emerged from my pen, which I put under a heading, “kinds of noses.” Right away with that first collection (my sister’s nose, the nose of wine, a porcine nose, etc.) an implicit set of questions arose: what noses know what, how do we distinguish and recognize noses, who gets to do the recognizing, and so on. It was nearly accidental that I drew the nose – and yet noses turn out to be so rich with meaning. Who knew noses were so political? At the time, drawing offered some solace during an unhappy period. I continued with that series among my other drawings, and over the years I drew over 100 of the Things That collection.

Things That Art both locates and creates frictions in the elements of the drawings: word, illustration, and collection. The goal is to undermine some of the expectations set up by the familiar forms that it builds on – that is, primarily the form of flashcard (word and illustration) and then the museum or zoo (curated collection of similar/related things). Many of the drawings use these elements to create little paradoxes and gaps where not everything matches up. The conceit of the project is that these gaps can shine a light on, and thus get an audience to think with me, about how categories work, and our assumptions about what belongs together and why/how. For example, how is money as a form of the representation of value (and state power) similar to lipstick as a form of representation and value (and gendered relations)? What kind of world/imagination makes these similar?

I found the form of the word/image/collection generative in that it could push a fundamentally poetic project (making connections and leaps among meaning, sound, and the shapes of letters and words) into a visual mode. Things That Art investigates the registers and grammars of naming and abstracting in relation to each other, sometimes in arbitrary ways. The conceptual leaps thus make intuitive before rational sense and can create possibilities for knowing otherwise, disturbing fixed identities, and lateral thinking. At least that’s the aspiration.

AB: I think this is what I found particularly exciting about this work. It doesn’t really ask: Which of these things don’t belong? Instead, it seems to ask: How are these things similar? That is a shift in the way we think, and therefore act, in the world. It suggests we are not individuals at the centre of life, but relational beings who make sense of the world in the way we relate to other beings/things. And as far as I can tell, that is hugely important for understanding how we might approach contemporary problems from climate change to artificial intelligence.

LJ: Wow yes, that’s a really great point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And in truth, I can’t stand those children’s menu games of which doesn’t belong. This game is much more fun: how can we challenge and provoke new kinds of communities?

AB: So to take an example from the book – you created a collection of images under the label “Sounds like hairspray” which includes things like heresay, heresy, Hemingway, highway, fairway, harpsichord, aerosol, aperol. What prompted you to develop this particular category and how did you come up with these various “things” under this label?

LJ: I found that sets of categories allowed me to look at things slightly askance, and so I informally cast about between drawings to see if I could access a range of those ways of looking. Sounds like hairspray just popped into my mind one day, as did the populating images and terms as something totally random and yet fully belonging to the collection. (For virtually all the cards I just used the first things that popped to mind, though for a few I asked friends and family for suggestions.) With that category, my curiousity was piqued to think about the reliance of category headings in determining our thinking. Consider for example the ways that gender-crossing has been described in different ways since the 1950s, in part influenced by contemporary and shifting notions of “headings” such as gender, biology, and binaries.

Thinking through the work of categories, I also played with vectors, such as negatives or playing with the notion, letters, and sound of “thing.” Another line of investigation considers information that is slightly creepy when listed together (things used to test car safety, or historical techniques of treating drowning victims). Another vector ends up presenting pseudo-information, such as, say, things with epi, which plays with linguistic groupings. And so on!

AB: The drawings in your book are very childlike. They exude a kind of innocence but also that uncensored honesty that children are known for. Was this intended or did it sort of emerge along the way as you started drawing?

LJ: I have a couple of different ways of thinking about this question. First, there is a way in which abstracted knowledge forms are often presented as “elementary” – zoos and flashcards are for children and animals and illustrations are often presented in this naïve or cartoon style. Graphic charts will often simplify information as if the complexities were just noise. So I mimic this style on purpose. Perhaps an analogy to what I’m trying to do could be seen when “wild” things happen at the zoo that make frenzied parents cover their children’s eyes: the snake eats a live chicken whole, or the giraffe drinks the pee of the other giraffe.

Second, I drew this over the course of 8-10 years, and so the style of images progressed with it. I redrew most of the early images that I include in the book, but the curious reader will still be able to divine the timeline of the drawings both conceptually and graphically, and I purposely made that part of the project. The idea is definitely, as you say, to present a straight-forward illustrative framing – even misleadingly simplistic. I think that works for what I am aiming toward with the project in terms of using simplified drawings and words to push the conceptual elements of word and image in various representational economies (art, economics, gender, marketing, grammar, charting, etc.). I’m hoping that in this way the reader will be surprised when they experience the darker and more conceptual elements of the project. Still, if I had continued the series I would have been interested in pushing in different ways on the illustrative dimension to see how to challenge that form. This was perhaps a good indication that this project had reached a natural conclusion.

AB: The use of some more grotesque images and cuss words seems deliberate. Were you wanting to shock the reader or make them laugh or get at something more authentic?

LJ: I have always been interested in how at base, so many insults are simply meaningless – as a person of half-Indian descent, even though my father disavowed everything Indian except the sweets (which I still love), my sisters and I were occasionally called “Paki.” This could be painful even though (a) not strictly true, and (b) not in fact an insult. When we were kids my best friend used to whisper that “bastard” was the absolute worst thing someone could say. Another virtually meaningless word. And once when a kid named Craig was teasing me about my name, my mother suggested I call him “craggy mountain,” which I did. It infuriated him. These swears and insults indicate how language is both meaningless at one level, and extraordinarily active and effective on another. The collection “Things generally used as insults” aims to open this gap between the innocence of the thing that suddenly finds itself exploited as an insult, the word with its different textures and meanings, and the thing we already know or imagine, which is the person to whom the insult is addressed. The purpose then is not really to shock or to make someone laugh, but to crowbar the gap between word, thing, and meaning in a context where there is already only a tenuous relationship.  These words are so often used as linguistic pellets of exclusion, so I wanted to literally draw the odd-balls back into the equation.

I was kind of amazed and intrigued to see how this form I’d developed for the initial nose drawing became so useful as an interpretive and experimental device: I sort of loved seeing what would happen as I kept slotting different ideas through the keyhole.

AB: If you were taking a transatlantic flight, what would you bring with you to read/look at/watch? (Or would you just watch an inflight movie?) 

LJ: My flights are so boring! Once I get over the initial disappointment of no free upgrade, I use the time to catch up on email, write reviews and reference letters, and catch up on other work. I do like watching in-flight movies though because they tend to be better at altitude. I’ve always thought that and someone recently told me that it’s a real thing.

AB: Really? What is it about altitude that makes a movie better??

LJ: Something about being packed in the space with others, the stress, and so on. Maybe the movies aren’t as good in business class because there is more space and fewer people; we’d need to gather some data on that.

AB: Will you ever write a purely textual book again? Or are you hooked on the image/text relationship for good?

LJ: I’m currently working on several projects, and I think the projects tell me what genre they are meant to be, in a way. The history of hepatitis B I’m working on would make a great graphic novel. But there are many fascinating details and a complex argument that lends itself to text. I’m also working on a graphic novel (for lack of better word) called My Failed Transition, about the weird and wonderful aspects of a gender non-binary existence. Finally, I’ve been working on a series of drawings related to the history of technology and discovery of air.

AB: Some people think you can make complex theoretical arguments in the context of a graphic novel but I get that text is sometimes the most appropriate format to work out a theory or argument. Once it is worked out though, a graphic novel of hepatitis B would be wonderful! Don’t rule it out. And a graphic novel on your transition would be more than welcome as well. I assume the graphic novel is a natural fit because of the growing interest in graphic memoir and its ability to capture memory and experience more viscerally?

LJ: Note the book is on my Failed Transition, that’s a crucial point but I’m not sure why yet. It’s still in process as an idea, but the goal will be to experiment with text and images in new ways and work out the ideas that way. I don’t think graphic memoir is any more visceral than words per se, it’s more about the fit among ideas and author. I will always be a huge proponent and admirer of words and text. In my view it’s tragic that in general people don’t read as much. Many of the social and even academic conversations I used to have about books are now about Netflix.

AB: So do you think scholarly communication is changing with the growth of the digital humanities, comics, podcasts, games, and other multimodal formats?

LJ: It’s an exciting time to be an academic in the sense that there are spaces and opportunities to do more innovative and experimental work. When I first started in the academy about 25 years ago, the questions (and answers) were more staid and uninteresting; this wasn’t because  they had to be textual, but because of the self-generated ideas for evaluation which were based less on originality and rigor than on disciplinary canons. Stanford asked me to resign three or four years after I was hired because my colleagues didn’t consider my first book to be anthropological enough, though they had hired me, technically, as an STS scholar and supposedly read the dissertation on which the book was based. Since I was in the middle of cancer treatment and had two small children, I realized in a very deep way how excruciatingly vulnerable scholars are to the judgements and tastes of senior academics and so how beholden we are to try to second-guess what they might want. For those institutional reasons it has been tremendously difficult to open the academy up to new questions and forms of investigation. But I see a change with the current generation of now senior professors more open to seeing and appreciating new kinds of work. Or maybe that’s just the small academic world in which I travel.

AB:  I think it’s more than just the world in which you travel. I believe the academy is making changes (albeit small changes) as the world around it changes. Things That Art is a book about categories that is not easy to categorize. If you were a bookseller and had to file this away in a particular section, which would you choose?

LJ: I’d probably file it with art books or graphic novels. I think it would appeal to folks who like to look at, and think with, pictures and I’m super excited to see where the popularity of this genre will go – I think there is so much untapped potential to work with word-concept-image that is just now being explored, and I envision that we will come up with a series of new terms that expand the graphic novel category: graphic biography, philosophy, memoir, etc.

AB: Yes there are many different genres emerging with forms like graphic medicine, graphic journalism, and of course, graphic memoir, but I like the way Things That Art charts its own space in that growing field as a graphic philosophy of sorts that uses the medium in a highly original way to show and tell how we sort information, thoughts, and concepts.  

So who do you see as the audience for this book? Scholars? Artists? Students? The general public?

LJ: Which categories of people will like the book? I sense a new card to be drawn!!

But seriously, one of the things I appreciate about the project now that it has been put together as a collection, is that I keep finding new ways into it, and it keeps surprising me. I’ve been thinking for example about how the range of representation works across the collection: charts, maps, graphics, dollar bills, diagrams, etc. … how do things that are already representations of things operate as things? I discuss some of that in my essay, but there is more there to mine. So I guess the point is that I can still entertain myself with my little paper mates, and the ability to self-entertain is a crucial part of living a happy life.

AB: Thanks for speaking with me. I’m excited to see how people respond to Things That Art. And I’m excited to see where your interest in art/visual formats and your scholarly research go in the future.

LJ: It has been great!! Thank you for all you have done to spearhead new work thinking across genres.


Lochlann Jain is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and a professor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London.

Want to learn more from Things That Art?

  • Purchase your copy of the book.
  • Read an exclusive excerpt from the book.

June and July Round-up

Highlights from the months of June and July.

Awards:

  • Johannes Remy’s Brothers or Enemies was awarded the Ivan Franko International Prize of 2018.
  • French Écocritique by Stephanie Posthumus is on the shortlist for the Alanna Bondar Memorial Book Prize.

Conferences:

  • Daniel Quinlan represented UTP at the Law and Society Association’s annual conference in Toronto.
  • Anne Brackenbury and Jodi Lewchuk presented our sociology list at the World Congress of Sociology in Toronto.

Media Highlights:

 

New Releases:

The Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015: Part 2

by Donna E. Wood

My June 18 blog post provided a brief overview of my recently released book Federalism in Action: the Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015. It also commented on the first two questions addressed in the book:

1. What governance choices did each province make in taking on the federal programming?

2. How do the devolved public employment services (PES) compare to federal delivery?

This blog posting deals with the last two questions:

3. How is the Government of Canada managing its role post-devolution?

4. How does Canada’s PES work together as a whole? What challenges remain?

To assess the third question, I needed to reflect on the federal role in a post-devolution world. In my view, there are four important dimensions. Ottawa still controls the money (most of it coming from the Employment Insurance or EI account) and sets the legislative, policy and accountability framework under which the provincial and territorial PES programming operates. There are ‘pan-Canadian’ programs to be managed. Determining how PES programming is coordinated across the country, securing stakeholder input, and ensuring that comparative research is available to improve the programs on offer requires federal leadership. Finally, not all employment services were devolved: Ottawa deliberately kept direct responsibility for key target groups: Aboriginal persons, youth and persons with disabilities.

The Government of Canada’s performance in all of these areas between 1995 and 2015 was weak. The federal-provincial and federal-Aboriginal accountability arrangements were inadequate, confusing, controlling, and non-transparent. Given that 87 per cent of PES programming is now devolved, there is no good reason for the federal government to still be involved in the direct management of programs for youth and persons with disabilities. Pan-Canadian programming declined significantly during the Harper Conservative years after 2006 when spending was reduced and all the research institutions and coordinating bodies put in place by the Liberals were defunded.

The Forum of Labour Market Ministers ─ the intergovernmental body responsible for pan-Canadian coordination ─ rarely met at the Ministers’ level until it was revitalized by the provinces and territories in 2013 following the Harper Conservatives unilateral decision to replace the Labour Market Agreements with the Canada Job Fund.  With the demise of the Canadian Labour Force Development Board in 1998, the only formal way stakeholder’s views were heard was when Ottawa decided to hold a consultation or seek input.

On the fourth question, Canada’s public employment service in 2015 did not work well together as a whole, as it was highly fragmented and complex. With 52 bilateral federal-provincial-territorial labour market transfer agreements, 85 federal-Aboriginal agreements, as well as direct federal youth, disability and pan-Canadian programming, it was very hard for Canadians to figure out who did what and who was responsible for what.

These problems can be rectified without diminishing the positive value of devolution. In my paper Strengthening Canada’s Public Employment Service Post-Devolution, released by the Caledon Institute for Social Policy in September 2016, I outlined the challenges facing Canada’s public employment service and suggested the following changes:

  • Develop a pan-Canadian multilateral labour market framework agreement
  • Consolidate the four agreements into one agreement
  • Devolve responsibility for federal youth and disability programming
  • Re-affirm the federal stewardship and coordination roles
  • Restore the National Aboriginal Labour Market Management Board
  • Develop a National Labour Market Partner’s Council
  • Include comparative research in the mandate of the Labour Market Information Council

Since the completion of the book manuscript in 2017, federal-provincial-territorial governments have made progress on many of these suggestions. They have agreed that the four labour market transfer agreements will be consolidated into two: a Labour Market Development Agreement or LMDA (focusing primarily on those with an Employment Insurance attachment) and a Workforce Development Agreement or WDA (covering everyone else). This should significantly reduce complexity, especially with respect to accountability. These new bilateral agreements started to roll out in May 2018, with Ontario and British Columbia first off the mark.

After a very long gestation period the Labour Market Information Council under the Forum of Labour Market Ministers was finally launched in May 2018. Its scope was clarified as focusing strictly on labour market information, not research. Pan-Canadian research will be undertaken by a new federal entity yet to be established, the Future Skills Centre. Stakeholder input will be secured through a Future Skills Council. This all seems to be good news but only time will tell.

However, the Government of Canada has demonstrated no intent to devolve youth or disability employment programming. Given its confirmation of the ‘distinctions’ based approach to Aboriginal employment services, there will be no pan-Aboriginal labour market management board. As a result, some complexity and fragmentation in Canada’s PES will remain.

In 2018 we celebrate 100 years of Canada’s public employment service.  Devolution to the provinces, territories, and Aboriginal organizations started more than 20 years ago. Phase one under the Chrétien/Martin Liberals involved the initial offer in 1995 and the acceptance of federal staff, assets, contracts and programming responsibilities by eight provinces and territories. It also involved the establishment of Aboriginal labour market entities and pan-Canadian institutions.

Phase two under the Harper Conservatives moved the other five jurisdictions to similar devolved arrangements and increased funding for non EI clients. However, the Conservatives reduced federal involvement in pan-Canadian initiatives and unilaterally changed the federal-provincial transfer agreement rules.

We are now into devolution Phase three under the Trudeau Liberals. Hopefully my book Federalism in Action: the Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015 will shed light on what has transpired in the past in order to facilitate future policy learning. There is no shortage of work that needs to be done in this often neglected but essential area of public policy.

The Devolution of Canada’s Public Employment Service 1995-2015: Part 1

Some Candid Thoughts by R. Peter Broughton, author of ‘Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett’

Guest post by R. Peter Broughton, author of Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett

As a retired high-school math teacher, I fall into no particular camp. I’m not a scientist, an astronomer, or a historian. But perhaps, with no particular axe to grind and at my advanced age, I am oddly suited to bring some new viewpoints to bear on writing a historical biography of an astronomer.

As far as astronomy goes, some of my professors, including the renowned Helen Hogg, actually knew Plaskett. The equipment he used as well as the techniques and methods that were familiar to him were still current. But it was only after a course in the history of mathematics that I took as part of a master’s degree a few years later that I began to see the unity of the humanities and the sciences. I began to feel that, by reading extensively, I could learn what interested me. Encouraged by Professor Kenneth O. May, I thought that eventually I might make my own contributions to knowledge.

Fortunately for me there was a means to do so. I had joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as an undergraduate and over subsequent years held virtually every office in the Society, giving me a broader understanding of the great variety of attitudes, backgrounds, and challenges faced by this subset of Canadians. Though I found that the RASC Journal and monthly lectures by experts provided a means of keeping in touch with some of the recent developments in astronomy, I realized that it would be through the history of the subject that I would try to make my mark. Boldly I thought there were few significant developments in Canadian astronomy before the twentieth century, so it would not be a preposterous goal to attain familiarity with the entire history of astronomy in Canada. Of course science really knows no boundaries, so I was inevitably drawn to explore some topics on a broader scale.

Writing for the RASC Journal had its rewards. I was able to address topics that interested me and in the process found at least a few encouraging readers and sympathetic friends. This experience gave me the confidence to write for other journals as diverse as Annals of Science and Journal of Geophysical Research, and eventually to write two books, Looking Up: A History of the RASC and Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett.

My hope is that this biography of John Stanley Plaskett will appeal to a very wide audience. The astronomical community is already familiar with Plaskett as one of a fairly small group of astronomers to make major contributions to the science in the first half of the twentieth century. For such readers, this book will flesh out Plaskett’s personality and provide pertinent illustrations of how he managed to become so highly-regarded at home and abroad. Amateur astronomers, who often like to read (on cloudy nights) about the accomplishments of a former generation, will appreciate Plaskett’s rise from humble roots to international acclaim. He achieved fame for himself and his country by learning on the job, and without ever taking a formal course in astronomy. But I really hope this book will reach beyond those aficionados of astronomy to a broader audience.

I do think the Canadian public thirsts for stories of national heroes. For decades, professional historians have largely derided such figures as elitist, preferring to focus on down-trodden minorities or those whose experience or impact has been localized. So says one of the few notable exceptions, Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? Moreover, he writes, these historians in academe often write in a turgid style admired only by their colleagues. Fortunately, there have been counter examples. One shining example is Michael Bliss’s biography of Sir Frederick Banting, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1984 with a second edition in 1992.

Though Plaskett cannot be credited with saving countless lives as did his contemporary, Banting, he did, along with Banting and a handful of others, put Canada on the international radar as a country making serious advances in scientific knowledge. Before the First World War, Canada was a backwater in the arts as well. It took pioneers like Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Group of Seven to bring awareness to the world that important advances were occurring in the vast land north of the 49th parallel.

Finally, and in my opinion, most importantly, I hope that this book will break down some barriers. I would be delighted if humanists realized that they can learn the ways of science from the biography of an astronomer. Scientists may appreciate the value of history when they see how personal, political, and economic forces shape their working lives. Perhaps professional historians may see the value in writing for a broad audience, and writers of creative non-fiction may understand that there is no need to embroider the facts.

I should not kid myself. Five years after Bliss’s second edition of Banting: a Biography came out, an Angus Reid poll found that only 11 percent of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four knew that Banting had won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of insulin. If that’s the best that an outstanding writer and historian could achieve, I will be amazed and delighted if 11 percent of Canadians of any age come to recognize the name of John Stanley Plaskett as Canada’s founding astronomer.

R. Peter Broughton was president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1992 to 1994. His service and extensive writing on the history of astronomy led the International Astronomical Union to name a minor planet in his honour.