Member of the Week: Nicolas Kenny

Nicolas Kenny

Department of History

Simon Fraser University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

Right now, I’m working on a social and cultural history of railways in Montreal with my colleague Magda Fahrni (Université du Québec à Montréal). Railways are often examined in terms of nation building and economic transformation, but we’re trying to understand the way trains, tracks, and stations changed the way people experienced the city in the nineteenth and twentieth cities. How did railway infrastructure create new spaces of encounter, tensions, risk, personal dramas, and aspirations that defined what it meant to live in a rapidly changing urban setting? For me, this stems from my long-standing interest in the sensorial and emotional dynamics of urban life. My earlier projects on sensory experiences of industrialisation and on the emotions and soundscapes of mid-twentieth-century radio broadcasting were driven by a deep fascination with the unique atmosphere of cities.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

One of my favourite courses to teach is called City Life. It explores global trends in urban development with a particular focus on the past two hundred years or so. I also use the opportunity to connect broader debates about the social tensions that have always animated cities to the fascinating story of the Vancouver region where my university is located. It’s a city shaped by a dramatic natural landscape and recent but rapidly evolving processes of settler colonialism, global migration, and unbridled real estate speculation. I love working with students on public history projects (walking tours, commemorative plaques, etc.) that inject historical memory to a city that seems to always want to reinvent itself while conveniently forgetting the layers of exclusion and inequality that continue to define it.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

My colleague Rebecca Madgin (University of Glasgow) and I recently launched a new book series with Peter Lang called The City as Place: Emotions, Experiences, and Meanings. The focus is on works that explore ways in which the city is invested with meaning through everyday lived experiences across all times and places. We’re very excited about the first proposals we’ve received and I’m happy for this opportunity to spread the word to anyone out there who might be interested in submitting one! You can find full details here:

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

Current circumstances notwithstanding, my advice is always to get outside and walk around. Obviously, the pandemic has hit cities hard, and for many urban dwellers going for a stroll isn’t even possible right now. If it is, precautions must be taken. But to me it’s essential that when conditions permit we get out and feel the city’s movement and vibe, observe buildings and landscapes and the way they’re organized, and find overlooked traces of the past that give form to our present. Even if you’re working on completely different places and periods, tapping into your current city’s energy raises new questions and adds perspective to your work. Just observing the effects of lockdowns is a thought-provoking exercise in itself. For my part, I’m looking forward to celebrating a renewed connection to urban life when that’s finally possible.

Click on the play arrow, below, to listen to Nicolas Kenny explain how he came to be interested in the sensory history of cities and discuss the effect city planning and gentrification have on the sounds, smells, and feelings of cities, with The Metropole’s Alec Dawson. 

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