Q&A with Dr. Dominique Marshall on Gendered Design in STEAM

This article has been cross-posted from Gendered Design in STEAM Bulletin, Issue Five | November, 2021 (pp. 21–23)

In this issue, we talk to Dr. Dominique Marshall, Professor in the Department of History at Carleton University and Co-PI for the GDS Program.

1. You’re one of the Co-PIs, along with Bjarki Hallgrimsson, on the GDS Program, how did you get involved?

Five years before the program on Gendered Design in STEAM started, the Carleton University Disability Research Group (CUDRG) had already shown me how fruitful partnerships between historians and experts in STEM could be. What unites the Medical Engineering, Social Work and History members of this group is an interest for tacit knowledge and forgotten histories of technologies, pieced together by users with disability, and transformed by them. The theme of disability, like most of the topics I have studied so far, concerns the past of families, their relationships with broader institutions, and the ways by which the age and the sex of household members are understood in different cultures and classes. The work of the CUDRG, initially concerned with Canadian cases, was expanding towards transnational stories when it attracted the attention of research officers at Carleton and at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), who were looking for a team to support exploratory projects on gendered design in the Global South.

I was delighted by their suggestion of working with Bjarki Hallgrimsson and his colleagues; I had heard him speak a few months before about the wheelchairs he had prototyped in Uganda with fellow designers and participating rural communities, in the spirit of what members of his profession call ‘Design for the Millions’. For both of us, the promise of resources to hire a professional project coordinator, as well as the opportunity to include graduate students and interested Faculty at Carleton, made the prospect of this large endeavour compelling, and less intimidating. I brought several historians with me: the initial details of the program were ironed out thanks to a post-doctoral fellowship in History. Later, we added two emerging historians to the team: one MA student with experience in oral and spatial histories of urban transportation, and one PhD student interested in the use of data science in public libraries and in graphic presentations of history.

2. You have a long career as a historian, what are your highlights and most proud achievements?

I helped create the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNHH) a decade ago, which has provided an occasion to try several historical ideas and ways of working. The CNHH includes archivists, veterans of aid and development, graduate students, and emerging scholars from the country and abroad. We have harboured initiatives in many directions: the rescue of personal and institutional archives; the collection of oral histories; the creation of collaborative projects with NGOs celebrating anniversaries, organizing their archives, or researching their past; the building of virtual and traveling exhibits; the organization of workshops; transnational exchanges between scholars and students.

For many of us in this field, the past of humanitarian encounters can only be fully studied by looking beyond the gloss of annual reports, the officialdom of state archives, and the immediacy of media accounts. Documents and testimonies about the daily experiences of aid, and about the various ideas at stake, can only see the light of day when historians encourage and sustain trusted relationships with humanitarian and development workers who, in turn, have long tried to secure the trust of their own networks of solidarity and support. I have attempted to create or find such documents for my own research in the history of Oxfam Canada, and the history of the Conference on the African Child organised in 1931 by the Save the Children International Union. This is very close to the method designers of GDS call “participatory design”. These are also the principles that preside over the work of the much larger Carleton’s Local Engagement Research Refugee Network (LERRN), of which I have been a member for the last three years, as one of two historians. I discover regularly from colleagues of this group how more equitable investigations involving Northern and Southern researchers and communities can be conducted and supported for the long haul, and how lessons from the field can be brought to policy makers in constructive ways.

“…more attention to hidden issues of gender could change understandings of the history of international relations…”

I am also glad when I come across occasions to write historical pieces that can be immediately useful, as colleagues of the United Kingdom do so well around the group ‘History and Policy’. This ambition underlays my last three writing projects. I was responsible for the historical chapter of a comprehensive Canadian textbook for studies in philanthropy and nonprofit management, for instance. It helps practitioners identify historical trends amongst the multitude of facts and dilemmas they face when they have to make small and big decisions. Besides, I wrote the conclusion and summary of a very nice collection of essays on the history of women in Canadian foreign relations, in which I tried to ponder, from a dozen of case studies, how more attention to hidden issues of gender could change understandings of the history of international relations: the study of the role of Southern populations, the production of genuinely transnational collaborations, the abandonment of polarized and cyclical postures between virtue and fatalism.

Finally, I worked with Communication Officers of four NGOs with whom I had previously collaborated on history projects, to prepare an article on how their own organizations’ longstanding ethical traditions in humanitarian photography could help humanitarians, and many others, face current challenges of the digital communications.

3. You’re a Historian – where is the link with Gender, Design and STEAM?

Last year, when asked about ways of facing the rapid and often worrisome changes in the development of artificial intelligence, Dr. Isabel Pederson, a specialist of Digital Life, Media, and Culture at Ontario Tech University, told the audience of a webinar organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) to study the last thirty years. This is where my discipline fits, and I owe to historian of 17th and18th century European science Stéphane Van Damme a good summary of the promises of the field, in a chapter published a decade ago: historians of sciences and technologies, he writes, help restore the former strangeness of habits of thought that have come to seem normal; they remind people of the debates, the institutions, the types of communications, the links to local material cultures, practices and adaptations, the varied intermediary figures, and the many other circumstances required for one technology, or one scientific discovery, to become valid, known or rejected. Aware of these many dimensions of knowledge, historians, like many social scientists and artists, are good companions to practitioners of STEM who are mindful of the cultural nature of their work, and of the potential biases of their routines. This the role of the ‘A’ in the acronym ‘STEAM’, which has come to define the program.

Historians are also trained to think about fruitful ways of recording the past, up to what they call ‘the history of the present time’; in this way, they can help document and analyse STEM colleagues’ ways of working. Part of the GDS project is informed by what historians call life histories, oral interviews centered on long and wide storytelling, from each project. The work of “public historians” is also fitting for research in Gender, Design and STEAM, very much like the work of ‘public scientists’. It speaks of knowledge that belongs to everyone. Early on, people interested by this project gathered on the possibility of building a digital exhibit to share results, attract contributions, and provoke exchanges. Public historians experiment regularly with the thoughtful presentation of documents, and with ways of making such materials engaging to different audiences. Again, this is very close to the exercises of ‘visualization’ familiar to designers. Working across disciplines like we do weekly in GDS allows us to discover commonalities between fields, as much as it encourages transfers of unknown knowledge and methods from one discipline to the next, an aspect of ‘interdisciplinarity’ which it is better known.

“…historians, like many social scientists and artists, are good companions to practitioners of STEM who are mindful of the cultural nature of their work, and of the potential biases of their routines. This is the role of the ‘A’ in the acronym ‘STEAM’, which has come to define the program.”

4. What have you learnt from your involvement in the GDS Program and what are you looking forward to?

This fall term at Carleton I’ll teach a course on Canadian histories of science and technologies based on what this project has allowed me to understand since its beginning. In addition to what I have already presented here, I can say that watching the twenty research teams at work also offers a constant opportunity to think comparatively about the place of Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge (ITK), including in Canada. Collaborating with designers from here and abroad has given me words to understand several activities I valued implicitly before. What that they call ‘iterative prototyping’ offers words to think about the many steps of my teaching and research habits, for instance, by slowing them down, naming them, and discussing them. This is not unlike the way by which long life histories help pace testimonies and uncover less well-known phenomena. Gendered topics, such as the lives of people in their homes and amongst their families, often exist at that speed.

“Working across disciplines like we do weekly in GDS allows us to discover commonalities between fields…it encourages transfers of unknown knowledge and methods from one discipline to the next, an aspect of ‘interdisciplinarity’…”

In conclusion, a little more than halfway through, this program has already offered many surprises. It has been wonderful to see how, left to their own project teams, ideas about gender and what designers call ‘making’ find their way in different contexts, and the extraordinary variety of directions the twenty initiatives have taken with these notions in their luggage. The researchers and communities involved are informed by their own, old, and active ideas of what happens in their own community and cultures. In many ways, like it has done for me, the program has offered many researchers opportunities to make these connections more explicit. The decentralized format we were given as an initial challenge, as well as the strange way by which the pandemic restrained our physical movements and increased our virtual communications, have, I think, facilitated work across places on a more equal footing.

Citations and references

  • Carleton University Disability Research Group (CUDRG)
  • Carleton’s Local Engagement Research Refugee Network (LERRN)
  • Carleton course on STEM in the History of Canadian Society and Policy (learn more)
  • Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNHH)
  • Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS)
  • History & Policy, connecting historians, policy makers and the media
  • Marshall, D. (2004) ‘Children’s rights in imperial political cultures: Missionary and humanitarian contributions to the Conference on the African Child of 1931’, The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 12 (3): 273–318
  • Dr. Isabel Pederson (2020) ‘Big thinking: Networked bodies, AI and our future digital lives
  • Stéphane Van Damme (2010) ‘Histoire des sciences et des techniques’ in Historiographies: concepts et débats
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