Sea to Sea*: Teaching about Oceans

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Prologue: I’m on a year-long sabbatical from teaching, and here I am writing about teaching. After coming from a conference panel organized by Matthew Evenden with Colin Coates andGraeme Wynn about teaching. You really can’t turn it off.

Anyway, most of the time I teach at Dalhousie University, which has in recent years made agreat deal of its oceans research That makes perfect sense, since we are, of course, sitting beside one. The thing is, as with a lot of environmentally-related work at universities, the study of the oceans is presented exclusively as a project of the Faculty of Science (with a very occasional, peripheral nod to maritime law). This drives me up the wall, for two reasons, neither of which will be of news to anyone interested in environmental history.

One, sustainability is a human project. Indeed, the term has been critiqued for precisely its anthropocentric assumption: to sustain human life and comforts within ecological constraints. Be that as it may, whales didn’t bring us to this point – humans did. So to studymarine animal tracking or ocean acidification without studying the human history in, on, and around the ocean world is of limited use. As an alternative, in the first-year Environment, Sustainability and Society class, when we talk about whales (the students’ favourite section), the story is of the biological vulnerabilities of a certain species intersecting with the arc of industrial modernity; how people have dealt with a marine species with hostility, indifference, and empathy; how ideology and technology combined to harvest a little-known environment. Red Bay and the Basques, Nantucket whalers in the South Seas, postwar industrial whaling and the International Whaling Commission, Greenpeace and the song of the humpback whale. That section is team-taught by an historian, an architect, a whale biologist, and a political scientist, but the whole story is environmental history.

Second, it reveals the profound bias against the humanities within and around university culture. Universities and the media present the sciences as the exclusive source of environmental knowledge – in this case, oceans. The frustrating thing is that environmental historians and humanists are studying the ocean in useful ways, ways that are essential to furthering environmental protection. In the History department alone, we have classes on the early modern Atlantic World, and seafaring; one of my students last year uncovered a failed national park at Ship Harbour, on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore; and anyone who has taught a Canadian survey likely knows the story of Leonard Tilley (a Maritimer, natch), Psalm 72, and the christening of the new Canada as a Dominion:

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

But we have an uphill battle: against the association between science, advancement, and knowledge; against the vaguer rationales for the humanities.[i] Like oil spillsclimate change,the north, and other issues of current debate and decision, we can and do contribute to the discussion about oceans.

I think the line I liked best in that Globe article was “What we need are experiments…Lots of experiments.” My faculty – like many, I suspect – takes to dramatic curriculum reform like a cat to a bath. But as I was flying back from a workshop at the Rachel Carson Centre in Munich (where I’d workshopped an article on Nova Scotia’s maritime energy) I spent a lot of time looking at the airplane-seat-back-television map of Canada between three oceans. And it got me thinking:

What would an environmental history of Canadian water – or a history of Canada and water – look like?

Could we team-teach it between schools? Could different schools across the country offer different clusters that focused on their aquageographies, that students could collect and assemble into a minor/certificate? Transoceanic traffic at Memorial, coastal wetlands at Laval, prairie highways at Saskatchewan? Or a tri-ocean framework linking Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic, and an internal network for the Great Lakes, prairie rivers, and urban supply?

What kind of narratives would emerge? Paths (and rings) of exploration and settlement; industrial and consumer use and misuse; borders and diplomacy; art and identity?

What would an environmental history of Canada’s oceans look like here? Everything I read in the newspaper seems to ring history bells. When Halifax Shipyard won the federal shipbuilding contract in 2011, the motto “Ships Start Here” was superimposed over photos of Lunenburg shipbuilders working on the original Bluenose in 1920. When Ottawa announces a new park on Sable Island, when Yarmouth lobbies for subsidies to restart the ferry to Boston, or a provincial utility tests a tidal turbine in the Bay of Fundy – they are (mostly unconsciously) invoking and enlivening the historical realities of a near-island in the north Atlantic. (Well, it is: the Chignecto isthmus is pretty narrow. And Cape Breton alreadyis an island.)

I think I would want to include:

  • Navigation, mapping, routes, and hazards;
  • Exploration, climate, and seasonality;
  • The architecture and dynamics of ports and harbours;
  • The arts of coastal communities and the ocean in Canadian culture;
  • Power (literal and political): tidal and wind, then and now; oil transport and spills;
  • Disasters, reclamations, and rescues;
  • Subsistence and industrial harvests, and species collapse;
  • Canada’s playground: seaside recreation;
  • Diplomacy, dispute, and occupation.

As I finish this, a fog horn blows in the Halifax harbour.

*I know: … to Sea.

[i] As per the current discussion in the Globe & Mail, which acknowledges the value of a literate and informed citizenry, but laments the output of “Keats-quoting baristas.” “Can Canada’s schools past the next great intelligence test?” 5 October 2012.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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