Engaging Environmental History Students Through Non-Traditional Means

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Still shot from a UNB student's YouTube video, Summer 2012
Still shot from a UNB student’s YouTube video, Summer 2012

During Summer Session 2012, I developed (with the help of Bill Parenteau, Jason Hall, and Teresa Devor) and taught the first environmental history lecture course ever offered at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Titled History 3355: Nature, Culture, and the Canadian Environment, the course examined the environmental history of the geographical space now known as Canada from the arrival of the first humans to the present. I had previously taught two more traditional courses during the winter sessions of 2009 and 2010, but in the last couple of years I have been increasingly exposed to the digital humanities and other less traditional means to engage students. I was thus eager to include some of these ideas in my course and to experiment with a non-traditional course format. I am now offering my experiences here as part of a new series of posts on the Otter which deal with teaching environmental history.


From the outset, I wanted to structure the course around big themes. As quoted from the course description in the syllabus, “we will be using Environmental History to reframe the traditional Canadian historical narrative.” Some of the course’s themes included “The First Nations,” “The Commodification of Nature in Colonial Canada,” and “Uses and Cultures of Waterways.” I did not simply want to rely on the usual Canadian historical themes. Instead, I tried to challenge my students to conceive of what were seemingly separate events as parts of larger historical trends and processes. While this may seem like an obvious approach, many of the themes in my course dealt with timescales of hundreds of years. Such an approach was also a way for me to cover a significant amount of material in a condensed period of time (five to six weeks).

With regards to course format, class sessions were on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for two hours and 50 minutes, and I divided each session into two 80-minute halves with a 10-minute break in between. I dedicated only the first half of class sessions to traditional lecturing. One of the reasons why I chose this format was to cope with the realities of a summer course, as it is difficult to hold a student’s attention for more than 80 minutes when it is 40 degrees Celsius with humidity. The other major reason was to dedicate the second half of each session to in-class work, and the type of in-class work during the second half depended on whether it was Monday or Wednesday. I also adjusted the course participation mark (25%) to reflect the high degree of work students did during class hours.

The second half of Wednesdays was devoted to Enquiry-Based Learning (EBL) sessions. EBL sessions are tutorials that are in large part student-driven and which provide opportunities to engage students outside of the normal tutorial format of readings and discussions. For example, students spent one of the EBL sessions examining eighteenth- and nineteenth-century citizens’ petitions to New Brunswick’s colonial government, available online through the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, for early examples of ecological awareness. I still based some of the sessions around a more traditional tutorial format, although I tried to include alternative types of readings, such as Jessica van Horssen’s online graphic novel about Asbestos, Quebec.

The second half of Mondays, meanwhile, was devoted to computer lab sessions when students worked on what I have termed Digital Environmental Histories, or short digital movies on Canadian environmental history topics. One of the themes of the course was examining how to actually “do” environmental history, and this sort of assignment, more so than the usual major research paper, prompted students to contemplate how to engage a wider historical audience. The in-class lab sessions were to ensure that students had enough time to complete their projects in a satisfactory manner, and I also omitted the standard midterm exam to provide even more time for them to work on their digital projects. In the end, the final products turned out really well, particularly since the students only had a few weeks to put everything together. The three digital group projects from the course are now available on YouTube:

Human-bison interactions in Western Canada, which was inspired by Jessica van Horssen’s graphic novel [note – this is an earlier version of the video]

the Brayons, the Acadians on the Upper Saint John River, in the 1830s and 1840s

Agriculture in Canada, with a focus on potato farming

Overall, I consider my experiment in teaching to be a great success. The students’ formal assessments of the course were excellent, and most of the students (there were 12 in total) approached me at one time or another to profess how much they enjoyed the course. As to be expected, not everything went smoothly. Certain portions of the EBL sessions were a little awkward, such as the fact that I assigned too many difficult-to-read citizens’ petitions, and I should have made their digital projects worth more. I also tried to encourage my students to use Twitter as part of the Digital Environmental Histories, but hardly anyone used it. However, I do not consider any of these experiences to have been particularly negative. It is important, though, that we, as teachers, continue to learn from such gaffes and constantly strive to improve how we engage environmental history students, be it through traditional or non-traditional means.

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I am an Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies, a cross-appointment with the Department of History and the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono. I have research interests in the history of forestry, resource management and science, modern environmentalism, and government comics in Canada.


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