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Historian at UTSC pushes beyond disciplinary boundaries

COOKING UP A HISTORY LESSON: Professor Dan Bender, recent winner of the Principal's Award for Research at UTSC, enjoys the interdisciplinary aspects of his work. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

For Daniel Bender, the excitement of research and teaching is found in places where different disciplines overlap.

A historian and scholar at U of T Scarborough, Bender focuses his research on working class history and the study of working people, the study of American culture, and the study of empire. He enjoys the fact that his work as a social historian expands to other areas, including the history of anthropology, literature and biology. One of the programs in which he teaches is Intersections, Exchanges, Encounters in the Humanities, an exciting new offering that bridges different disciplines and responds to major shifts in humanities research.

The author of three books, Bender holds a Canada Research Chair in Urban History. His book Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and the Languages of Labour (2004) is an examination of New York City garment workers trade around the turn of the 20th Century, the meaning of sweatshops, and strategies of resistance. “That got me thinking about the idea of labour as something that wasn’t just the process we do to earn money or something that we do physically with our bodies, but instead as something that we think about and engage with intellectually, and this has moved me from being a social historian to someone who’s also engaged with intellectual and cultural history.” He previously examined the global anti-sweatshop movement in a collection of essays titled Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective (2003).

As a result of this research, Bender became interested in transnational histories, the place of American history within a global context, as well as and the views of ordinary Americans towards the rest of the world. He has just finished a book about that process, titled American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in an Age of Industry. Published in December 2009, the new book is a broad history and examination of American culture at the turn of the 20th Century.

“This book places industry and empire at the very core of the American intellectual debate, and looks at how Americans came to see and understand industrialization by comparing it globally,” he says. “Throughout the book is a story about the American turn-of-the-century fascination with pre-history and primitive peoples, as well as their view of people abroad, and it’s my contention that they viewed people abroad as living incarnations of cave people.”

The recent winner of the Principal’s Award for Research at UTSC, Bender says his interest in turn-of-the-century America in the global context has led him to his current project -- an examination of how ordinary people came to think about the rest of the world -- the concept of the exotic and its influence on Western perspective.

“I asked what comes to peoples’ minds when they think of Africa or India, and one of the first things is always animals. I’ve been to India several times, and when I come back I often get asked, ‘Did you see a tiger?’ And I began to wonder where that comes from. There are a billion people and many large cities, but I haven’t seen a tiger in India and probably never will, except in a zoo.”

The place of zoos and the exotic in American culture from the late 19th Century through late 20th Century is the focus of his current research. Bender contends that ordinary people in the U.S. throughout the 20th Century shaped ideas and their knowledge of the non-Western world by going to the zoo, and he is examining the concept of zoos as shapers of cultural experience. These ideas touch on issues related to the so-called civilizing project of empire, Bender says, “and working through, in a global way and in a trans-species way, issues that also touch on race.” He aspires for the book to be applicable not just to academia but for sale in zoos themselves.

A portable digital history and walking tour of zoos that also provides history is another of Bender’s current ideas in development. “The exhibits in zoos often talk about the present and the future, but they are very closed about the past and the zoo’s own history,” he said. “My idea is to develop something like a SmartPhone application that you could use when you’re walking past an exhibit and you can type in ‘polar bears’ for instance and get more information than what is typically available on the display panel at the zoo.”

At UTSC, Bender teaches a wide range of courses, including the popular Edible History: A History of Global Foodways. This course -- featuring cooking demonstrations -- examines how eating traditions around the world have been affected by economic and social changes, including imperialism, migration, the rise of a global economy, and urbanization. Topics include: immigrant cuisines, commodity exchanges, and the rise of the restaurant.

His other courses relate to U.S. political and cultural history and the politics of cultural production, which looks at “everything from hip-hop music to dime novels, from pulp fiction to painting.” He also teaches a U.S. history survey course, A History of Global Empires, and another unique offering, The History of Animals and People. “I’ve been asking, ‘Why do we only write history about people? Can you really disentangle the history of animals from people? I believe they are intertwined.”

Even as a child, Bender was always interested in history. He remembers being playing with little figurines or creating plays that re-enacted events such as the Homestead Strike of 1892, one of the most serious labour disputes in American history. “I got a lot of ideas out my books, and I used to think, ‘If a certain thing had or had not happened, what would have changed?’ And I would in fact play with history.”

Bender has been at UTSC since 2004. “One of the most exciting things about being at this campus is that, although I’m absolutely a historian and very comfortable in the field, this environment enables me to engage with others through a variety of disciplines and to expand my own historical inquiries to engage with others.”

Bender has also been involved in making the campus an international hub for the study of the history of working people. He helped organize a Summer Institute on transnational labour history, which took place in July 2008. That event drew historians and other scholars to UTSC from around the world for an exciting cross-disciplinary initiative and conference, he said. “Intellectually, this is an incredibly rewarding environment. I’ve been able to teach not just one narrow field but also global, comparative and transnational histories. This campus does not just put people in a box and label them as one thing, and it’s wonderful to be in a place that nurtures that kind of range and intellectual trajectory.”

Aside from his books, Bender has written multiple articles for prestigious peer-reviewed journals, as well as serving on editorial boards of first-rate journals. Bender was presented with the 2009 Principal’s Award for Research at UTSC for his work in American social and cultural history. At the awards ceremony, Bender was described as “a leading labour historian at the forefront of new directions in the field with ideas that transform our knowledge of the ideological justifications of industrial society.”


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