Postcards from America III

My office, 69 Coleman Hall, Bucknell University

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Well, I’ve now lived in the United States for a year-and-three-quarters. I live in a very pretty small town, with wonderful nineteenth-century streetscapes; work on a beautiful campus at a liberal arts university; and have a big backyard that’s full of lilacs and cherry blossoms a good month ahead of what would have been in Halifax.

But it’s not all lilacs and cherry blossoms. I grumble about dollar bills instead of dollar coins. Bunting bugs me. I keep CBC next to NPR on the Sirius favourites. I spell favourites “favourites.” Every now and then I’ll see a photograph of Halifax on Facebook or something and be shot through with homesickness.* And I tell people I’m Canadian every chance I get. I live here, but I’m not one of you, I’m saying.

I moved here with a lifetime of the Canadian superiority complex: the quiet but firm belief that we’ve gotten more things right. And yet there are things about the U.S. that I am being won to. (NPR being one of them; also, pretzels.)

It’s as Canadian as [insert cliché here] to compare Canada to the United States, Canadians to Americans. It’s reassuring to know we’re different; to think there’s a common “we” at all. After a year and a half, I’m a bit more aware of how tricky and lopsided these comparisons are. For instance, I always considered Canadian politeness preferable to American in-your-faceness; but politeness can be read as reserve, and in-your-faceness as friendliness. And people here are friendly. In another example, I still prefer peace, order, and good government, because I want everyone to get along and nobody’s feelings to get hurt. But the other day one of my colleagues pointed out that consensus works in the interests of the status quo, while conflict works against it. And that can be a good thing. Americans seem more willing to talk frankly, to hash things out, to clash if that’s what’s required. There are merits to both, I guess.

But this is a blog about environmental history,** and beyond broad strokes about national character and localized examples of snacks, there are three things that I’ve noticed this year in my environmental history classes – not necessarily bad or good, just different.

1. Racial diversity is talked about here. This matters to me because it’s why we moved (the subject of a whole other book), but it also shapes the classroom in ways that I had never considered before. Bucknell is far from perfect – three students were expelled this semester for making racist jokes on the campus radio – but here it mirrors the US the way that Dal mirrors Canada: at Bucknell, people talk about race in a way that people at Dalhousie didn’t feel they had to. The radio incident, and what it said about diversity in our hiring, classrooms, and campus culture, dominated the semester. Canadians really believe we are better on issues of race; it’s maybe more accurate to say that we don’t think we need to talk about it. Students here aren’t necessarily more enthusiastic about the conversation, or more familiar with the concepts (white privilege, environmental justice) but they expect to talk about it.

One of the best moments I had in my eighteenth-century class happened when we were talking about the Starbucks #racetogether campaign, and I asked them what they thought Starbucks should have done. One of the students spoke for about 3 minutes without a pause about how the company could implicate itself in the histories of displacement and plantation landscapes and corporate production and global trading and consumption and American identity. That was a good day.

That said, when the students say race they generally mean African-American, or Latino/a. Mid-way through my Canada survey, a student asked, “Are we going to talk about race?” I was taken aback because we had spent much of the class talking about First Nations and Métis. But she didn’t conceive of these peoples as racialized or part of the North American conversation about race. And neither “aboriginal” nor “First Nations” come easily to them.

2. Students seem confused about what they want from government. To be fair, I don’t know how this maps against their age (as millennials) or their class (these are generally very comfortable kids who haven’t had to think about what America should do for them). But I was genuinely surprised at how insistent those especially in my environmental history class were about the responsibilities of government. Flood and disaster response? The government should do something. Urban renewal? The government should do something. Environmental protection? Same thing. I suspect this is partly youthful naiveté – their concept of government is pretty vague, and they aren’t yet working on Wall Street or directly profiting from unsustainable industries – but a lot of the time they sounded practically Canadian. They’re surrounded by “liberty” as a term and an article of faith, but they seem much more sympathetic to collectivist thinking (or, conversely, foreswearing individual responsibility) when it comes to environmental action.

Two related anecdotes. A colleague with the Place Studies Initiative surveyed residents of the Susquehanna Valley region to gauge their level of trust in the federal government. 70% responded they trusted the National Park Service (with land conservation), but only 20% said they trusted the “federal government” to govern in the public interest. As Brandn pointed out, that suggests they don’t really have a clear sense of who or what the federal government is.

And last semester, one of my students went home at Thanksgiving and got into an argument with her stepfather – who is in the natural gas business – over the Keystone pipeline. “Why,” he said, exasperated, “did we send you to a liberal arts college?” I don’t know who was prouder – her or me.

3. And yes, American exceptionalism is a real thing. It’s been particularly apparent in the colonial era, which looms large here. I was initially asked to teach a class on the French and Indian War, which itself is such an American concept, but is still only a vague run-up to the Revolution. As far as the students know, the French and “Indians” just appear for George Washington to take on; that there are others on the continent besides the American colonists has never occurred to them. I was worried they would hate the eighteenth-century class because it was more about Louisbourg and Montreal than Paul Revere and Yorktown, as much about the fur trade as plantations. But to their great credit, they went along with it, French terms (seigneury, pays d’en haut, quelques arpents de neige, grand pré) and all. They also respected my outsider’s view on what had been for them a solid and sacrosanct narrative of national greatness.

Canada to them is remote, a big question mark they’ve never thought about. It’s McGill and hockey. But there were great moments when they seemed open to the idea that Canada, that thing up there, has been part of the American story; that their history isn’t just about or authored by them. Planters in Nova Scotia. The border at Niagara. And to be fair, my exceptionalism about Canada while in Halifax was probably just as bad. It’s just more obvious here because it’s not mine.

So maybe teaching in America isn’t better or worse, just different. Heritage Minutes seem more ridiculous. (“Men don’t wear pistols in Canada!”) I have to think through my teaching more carefully because they don’t have the backstory (“I had to look up what ‘portage’ meant,” one of my students told me). I have to show how it connects to what they know. But somehow I feel more strongly about it: I want these American kids to be interested in and curious about a place that has important historical lessons to share. And that’s probably true for a lot of people on both sides of the border.


*Before the Maritimers call me on it, I should be honest: I’m a come-from-away who only wishes she was from Nova Scotia.

 **P.S. It was pointed out that this post wasn’t really about environmental history as such. Do American students approach environmental history differently? I didn’t address it because truth be told, I haven’t noticed differences in how American and Canadian students see EH … in that neither group knows what it is, or how to respond to it. So in that, they’re more alike than not.

What have other people found?

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