Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Historians’ Histories: Sarah Van Vugt

It’s 2017 and we’re back! I’ve got tons of exciting blog posts and projects planned for this year, and I can’t wait to show them to you! But right now, we’re going to start off with a brand new post in our series, Historians’ Histories, the series where we do the historiography of historians! (You can see the previous post in this series by clicking here.) I’m excited to announce that the latest post comes from another dear friend of mine and my supervisor-sibling, Sarah Van Vugt!

Without any further ado, here’s her bio:

Sarah Van Vugt

An Ajax, Ontario native and happy west coast transplant, Sarah Van Vugt has degrees from York University and recently completed her doctorate at the University of Victoria. In her academic life, she’s a historian who studies Canadian, gender, and beauty/body history (including war worker beauty pageants!) Sarah is also a Learning Strategist at UVic, where she is lucky enough to work with and around students in all disciplines. For fun, Sarah knits, bakes, reads, avidly participates in her local food swap, hangs out with her husband and her cat, and produces rather a lot of jam.


What is your background (education, life experience, etc..)?

I grew up in suburban Ontario, outside of Toronto. At university (Glendon College), I started out as a French major, and planned to be a French teacher eventually. I had really enjoyed history in high school, so I took some history electives – that turned into a history minor, which turned into a double major, which turned into grad school!


What drew you to history in the first place?

I think the heavy reading and writing elements of history were a big draw. I’ve always been a big reader, and knew since I was young that I wanted to be a writer in some way. It turned out that I’m abjectly awful at writing anything fictional, but fortunately I’ve been much better at historical writing! I also liked putting together coherent and organized arguments in essays, and debating ideas with my peers in seminars.


Why did you decide to become a historian?

Although I enjoyed my studies in French, I had some particularly amazing history professors during my undergrad. My experiences in their courses really stoked my interest in the field, and their encouragement to pursue history helped a lot too. Before conversations with them, I hadn’t figured out that history could be a career, that I could continue to study and find out more about a discipline I enjoyed. Grad school wasn’t something I knew anything about at all. Unlike some of the other students I met, no one I knew or was related to had pursued a graduate degree. So, connection with and advice from excellent history profs was a big factor. Most importantly, though, finding an area I’m passionate about, and a research project I wanted to pursue, sealed the deal. During the last year of my undergrad, I wrote an essay for a social and cultural history course on women workers during the Second World War, a topic which ultimately became the centre of my research as a historian!


Why did you decide to focus on your particular area of study?

This is a tough one, because I feel like my “area of study” is pretty broad and (intentionally) messy! I study women’s and gender history, as well as labour, sexuality, beauty, the body, and visuality during the Second World War in Canada. I pursued women’s and gender history because feminist work is important to me, and studying the gendered experiences of work and sexuality was and is compelling. Finding beauty, body, and visual histories was a revelation to me! I find these areas super exciting to work in, because they remind me both that history is a sea of greys, and that it’s okay for studying history to be both serious and pleasurable.

More concretely, I also chose to study women workers during the Second World War in central Ontario because I had found readily available sources on this topic that hadn’t been dealt with in detail before and were, at the same time, exciting and interesting to me.


If you didn’t go study your chosen area, why kind of history do you think you would want to do?

Before I found out about beauty and body history, I was very interested in both the history of Quebec and the history of French in Canada more generally. In my undergraduate studies in French, I even took a number of linguistics courses focusing on the history of the French language. So, I might have pursued a project around francophonie in Canada. If I had to choose another specialty to expand into now, I’d probably look at other topics that connect to body history; maybe I would want to study food history, or cosmetics and performance, or masculinity and beauty.


What kind of work do you do as a historian?

In the past, I was lucky enough to teach a couple of undergraduate courses in beauty, body, social and cultural history. I’ve also done some independent research work: I spent a very fun summer researching and creating a series of themed historical tours for St. Ann’s Academy in Victoria.

Right now my remunerative work is not in a historical field, but I still benefit from the skills and abilities I developed as a historian anyway. As a Learning Strategist at UVic, I work with individual students to develop and pursue personalized strategies for effective learning at the university level in everything from reading and writing to notetaking and test preparation to time management and goal setting. It’s an amazing job that reminds me daily how much I’ve learned over the years about how to be a student! I love working one-on-one with students in a more collaborative way, something that isn’t often possible in the formal classroom setting. Listening, empathy, and critical thinking are hugely important as a strategist. I think I understand the experience of being a student much better now than I ever did before.


What is the coolest and/or strangest thing you’ve ever found or learned while doing research?

It’s impossible to choose just one, so here are three of my favourites. First, I was delighted to see a quilt, sewn from the bandanas of women workers at Defence Industries Limited, hanging in the town hall in Ajax, Ontario. What an amazing way to transform one piece of material history into another! Second, there was a special ring with a hook in the town archives in Ajax: women workers used the ring as a way to quickly cut string they used to tie together explosives to be used in shells. Finally, there’s a pleasantly quirky statue on the grounds of St. Ann’s Academy in Victoria, which was a girls’ school: a fountain shaped like a battleship, sailing away from a lighthouse, and with a canon aimed at a fort. At some point (although not anymore), the fountain shot water thirty feet into the air from the canon at the fort!


If you could go back in time, whether to live or just visit, which time and place would you pick and why?

I think it would be interesting to go back and visit some part of my family history, to see what family members were like in their younger years and get a better understanding of that legacy. I wouldn’t want to live in the past though – too many diseases to die from that we have better treatment for today! 😉


What is your favourite historical book/film/museum/etc, and why?

This one is easy: my favourite historical film is A League of Their Own. It has everything: gender, family drama, a team you can cheer for, baseball dresses, a Victory Song that lists Canadians among members of the All-American League, plus it’s set during the Second World War (the time period that I study). Also, Tom Hanks’ speech in the film about how “the hard is what makes it great” was basically what got me through both comps and my dissertation defense.


In your opinion, what is the most important event or person in Canadian history that everyone should know about?

Before she was chosen to be on the $10 bill, my answer would have been Viola Desmond! She’s not only an important part of Canada’s history of race and racism, she was also a beauty professional who ran her own very successful beauty school.


Where can we find you on the web?

Email: slebel[at]uvic[dot]ca

Academia.edu: https://uvic.academia.edu/SarahLebel


Many thanks go out to Sarah for her answers! And also, she deserves many congratulations for recently convocating with her Ph.D! Her work on beauty pageants is really quite amazing. I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did! Don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new roundup (did you miss them?), including a list of everything I missed while I was on vacation!

If you are interested in participating in this series, please get in touch by emailing me at unwritten histories [at] gmail [dot] com or by sending me a message on Facebook or Twitter.

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  1. Hi Andrea;

    It seems a number of your historian friends are not actively working as professors. Is this a common scenario in your estimation? Regardless, keep the bios coming. I enjoy hearing about the careers and interests of other people in the field.

    • Andrea Eidinger

      January 3, 2017 at 3:05 pm

      Hi Rick,

      Actually, that is very common. Only about 20% of people with phds end up working in academia, and I believe that in history the number is even lower. I’m sorry to say that the job market out there is absolutely brutal, especially in recent years. But I’m glad to hear you like these biographies. They are some of my favourite posts, and I think it’s important to spotlight the work of historians working outside of academia as well. 🙂

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