Postcards from America II

America Guided by Wisdom, John J. Barralet (1820)

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It’s the end of the semester here, finally,* so I can stop that frantic new-class routine of doing the reading the morning of night before and think back over the year that was. This really involves thinking about two different moves: from Canada to the U.S., but also from Dalhousie to Bucknell. This post focuses on the second, more immediate change, between schools. Even though in the grand scheme of the universe it’s not a huge shift – I still teach history, right? Canada’s still where I left it, right? – so much is different that I’m not sure where to start. (*Even the term is longer by a couple of weeks. Classes start two weeks before Labour Day. The horror!)

Dal is a mid-to-largish school in a beautiful, historic city on the Atlantic coast. It wants to be a research-intensive U-15 school, giving most of its attention to ocean sciences, but still have a certain Maritime warmth in the classroom. (An ad campaign a few years ago used the face/palm-bad tagline “surprisingly unstuffy.”) Bucknell is a small private university in a beautiful, tiny town in rural Pennsylvania. It’s a liberal arts school that has added successful, and lucrative, colleges in management and engineering, which has caused some tension as to quo vadimus – but I’ve still heard more reference to liberal arts education here than in my entire 9 years at Dal.

One difference is where I’m situated. At Dal I was spending most of my teaching time in Canadian Studies and Environment, Sustainability, and Society: fantastic, team-taught programs defined by issues rather than disciplinary identity. Depending on my co-instructors and the topic, my job was to be an historian, humanist, or even social scientist. I felt more stimulated by this kind of teaching, both the conviviality of conversation and the feeling of engaging the state of the world today. I also really liked the idea of being an ambassador for history, to see non-history students pick up some historical material. (According to this video by a then-student, Sustainability 1000 was practically ALL history.)

At Bucknell, my classes are designated “environmental,” but they’re history courses. They look fairly conventional in how they’re framed, as time + place = Canada since 1860, the eighteenth century in North America. But drawing out environmental factors from that narrative feels, well, more like environmental history, compared to either trying to represent “All History Ever” or insisting “History is Important Please Pay Attention Thank You.” I’ve been surprised to find it’s just as rewarding to see students who expect a certain pastness to their history classes (i.e. Patriots and redcoats) realize how close this past is underlying current environmental problems. Both approaches are necessary – bringing environmental analysis into history, bringing historical thinking to environmental studies. But I feel less like a salesperson, nag, or a third wheel; more like I’m broadening something from the centre rather than elbowing or shoehorning something in. And I’m kind of disappointed in myself for feeling that way, taking the slightly easier way out, because I want the other model to work.

As at Dalhousie, most of my students at Bucknell aren’t history majors. Most students in the College of Arts and Sciences – that’s about 2/3 of the university – fall under a Common Core Curriculum, which requires a series of breadth requirements. This is more than just a language, a science, and a humanities course: it means they have to take courses that deal with diversity, the environment, international relations, etc. And these courses can be found in any department; for example, to fulfill your “environmental connections” requirement you can take a class in ecocriticism, management, food politics, or North American environmental history. In fact, it’s in the department’s interest to classify their courses this way, to draw students.

I think this is a major win. It mixes kids up, moves them around, gets faculty talking to each other. It signals that higher education has a responsibility to address issues of social awareness and civic justice and ecological change, and there are different ways of doing that.

And it reflects and requires a conversation between the entire faculty about the nature and objectives of teaching. At Dal, faculty sovereignty was paramount; older colleagues talked in hushed tones about the “blood on the floor” after discussions over curriculum, which meant nobody wanted to take up discussions over curriculum. People don’t like being told what to teach (even though most of us are at some point!) But this simply about relating different classes, perspectives, and methods to each other. If I’m going to argue that American undergraduates should know something about Louisbourg or the Métis, I’m going to need to link these stories to their understanding of North America and what else they’re learning. Again, I think the difference comes from the faculty here thinking of themselves as part of providing a liberal arts education – in the broadest, most ‘classical’ sense – a multifarious and yet cohesive ideal.

One thing the schools have in common is strong academic programs that address the environment in creative ways … even as they continue to speak in principally operational and managerial terms. Dal’s College of Sustainability is an award-winning program, and people at Bucknell (people – plural) actually talk about environmental humanities. But sustainability in both places means Leed, light bulbs, and led by engineers. The institutions are still proceeding on a different track than their teaching and scholarship, particularly when it comes to the arts and social sciences.

I was worried this post would turn into Dal bad, Bucknell good – because that isn’t the case. I miss many of my Dal colleagues and our classes. I miss talking about things that matter to Canadians. And I think the students at Dalhousie were, on the whole, more interested in doing something. The students here are generally more committed to the Greek life and socioprofessional networking than social causes. Dalhousie students are privileged too, of course, but it often felt like they were pushing the faculty into action; here it’s the other way around. And Bucknell isn’t perfect. It’s remote, the students have a worldview that extends about as far as New York City, and the administration is worried about money too. But if the arts and humanities feel beleaguered even here, they aren’t treated as superfluous. And at the end of the day, that counts for a lot.

Truthfully, I miss Halifax much more than Dalhousie. But I think that’s part of the next post.


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