Teaching Water History

Photo: Tsja

Photo: Tsja

May is a month in which I do not want to talk, think or breath teaching, and yet here I am writing about teaching. The term is over, final grades have been submitted, a summer of writing beckons, but just a moment. The reason I am still thinking about teaching is because ideas raised in my fourth year student papers are still percolating. The papers were original, steeped in archival evidence and thought-provoking. To read the Globe and Mail these days, we should not expect much of our undergraduate students. The evidence of my seminar suggests otherwise.

For the past two years I have been teaching a research seminar in historical geography. Just what one does in a research seminar in historical geography seems to me pretty open to interpretation. As I am currently engaged in a project on the environmental history of Vancouver’s water supply, I have decided to give the course some focus around a topic about which I am curious and somewhat knowledgeable. I don’t try to replicate my research project as a seminar, nor am I using my undergraduate students as unwilling research assistants. What I am doing is asking the class to learn the craft of historical geography by examining the place of water in the urban experience, taking Vancouver as our readily accessible example. We visit archives, do field trips and visit archives again. Without going into all the details, it seems to be working.

Here are some of the papers I had the pleasure of reading:

Two students wrote on the history of fountains in the urban environment. I think I tossed out this topic as a possibility in one of our discussions but it is not something I pressed. Students interested in the affective meaning of place, design and the social geography of the city leapt on the possibility and turned up a range of interesting evidence: case files from city council on different fountain designs; photographs of fountain commemorations; and newspaper editorials decrying and praising fountains. One enterprising student even organized a bicycle tour of one particularly important (and now removed) fountain in Gastown for his friends and then offered it again as part of the ThinkCity series.

Another paper dealt with the decision to add chlorine to the Vancouver water supply during the Second World War, prompted in part by US military concerns about the health of US soldiers in port. The student turned up a pile of interesting correspondence sent by Vancouverites who felt that the taste of water (and its quality) had been affected for the worse and calling for an end to chlorination. The sources for the paper shed light on the sensory understanding of water as well as emerging fears of additives.

Finally, one student offered a complex examination of the history of Still Creek, crossing parts of East Vancouver and Burnaby, examining the extent to which sewage planning in Vancouver had transformed this stream. In some respects, this paper provided a helpful and close reading of one site caught up in the broader transformation of Vancouver streams and creeks for a modern sewage system—a problem dealt with in a broader regional frame by Arn Keeling (See his piece in the Urban History Review (2005)). Like the other papers, its strengths lay in a close reading of a single site or case, steeped in original evidence and supported by site visits and knowledge of the literature.

And what did I learn? Students will do the work and surpass expectations provided they have the tools. Field trips are always a good idea: they animate discussion, provide everyone with oxygen, real and metaphorical, and turn up good research projects. Finally, a lesson I learned this year—set a proposal assignment for marks midway through the term. Students get moving earlier and they make some important decisions. The second half of the term as a result involves research and writing, not topic-hunting.

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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