Creating an Environment for Environmental History: The Open Textbook Project

Covers from the Canadian history textbooks written for the BC Open Textbook Project.

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Writing a survey text (or two) on Canadian history presents peculiar challenges. No one can be expert in all areas and subfields and, in our post-Who Killed? discipline, the subfields are many and robust. Moreover, there’s no consensus on the metanarrative. All to the good, says I. But it’s still a challenge, and one that I would not have taken up under conventional circumstances.

Circumstances changed in 2012. That year, British Columbia’s Minister of Advanced Education announced the B.C. Open Textbook Project. The first principle of this project was to create a suite of openly licensed textbooks, all of which would be available on a free-to-use basis. A secondary objective was to create the textbooks in an online environment that would increase and accelerate accessibility. Building on these two ideals was the goal of adaptability, of producing a textbook that was perpetually unfinished, revisable and remixable by the user (faculty or student). This was the game-changer: the purpose of an open textbook is different from that of a conventional, static textbook. It is far less the poured-concrete-foundation of a course on which the lectures and learning stand than it is an invitation to do more.

How, then, to issue that invitation as regards environmental history?

I adopted two strategies. The first of these was the opportunity that a survey text covering several centuries presents to exploit a long-term view. While there are many acute or even cataclysmic environmental watersheds in Canadian history, there’s also real value in looking at environmental change over the longue durée. Establishing the arc of a story that unfolds from, say, the 1200s through the nineteenth century establishes a massive framework in which instructors and students can intervene with additional details, test or refute the model, or offer alternative and/or parallel stories.

Bison make for good eating. They also make for great drive-belts. Nineteenth century industrialization was one of many stressors on the Plains bison population. McCord Museum, “Interior of Workshop,” engraving by John Henry Walker, ca.1850-85, M930.50.8.79. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Bison make for good eating. They also make for great drive-belts. Nineteenth century industrialization was one of many stressors on the Plains bison population. McCord Museum, “Interior of Workshop,” engraving by John Henry Walker, ca.1850-85, M930.50.8.79. CC-BY-NC-ND.

By way of an example, we can look at the story of bison. (That is, Bison bison bison, an animal so nice they had to name it thrice.) Some historians and anthropologists have theorized that declining – indeed, collapsing – populations of Indigenous peoples in the pre- and proto-contact periods sidelined humans as a prime predator species in much of North America as early as the sixteenth century. One result was the accelerated recovery of foodstock species. It follows that the old chestnut about the bison herds “blackening the plains” actually describes an anomaly, something that came about because one brake on their growth was gone.

As European and African resettlement of Canada and everything east of the Mississippi advanced, the bison herds thundered westward, drawing in their wake the many Indigenous peoples who fed on them. Plains culture – already distinctive and strong – flourished and was widely emulated. Guns and horses arrived in the eighteenth century, transforming these societies especially as hunters of bison. Soon, however, Plains peoples were competing against well-armed newcomers. Bison numbers began to drop … perilously.

The effective extinction of the Plains bison in the nineteenth century brought with it profound crises in the lives of Plains peoples. These conditions paved the way for further colonization and imperial conquests across the whole of the North American West. The bison were incompatible with the modern grain economy heralded by the newcomer populations; herds waded through fences, consumed early farmers’ efforts, and trampled everything else. Likewise, Aboriginal communities that the bison sustained were an obstacle to Canadianizing the prairies, thus Ottawa’s pursuit of treaties and reserves to contain these communities. The fact that both Plains bison and Plains Indigenous populations were in freefall in the period after 1850 was no coincidence. These demographics were intimately connected, and their collapse presaged the transformation of the Prairies from a gargantuan commons into a checkerboard of private property.

Bye-bye, bison. Skeletal remains at Gull Lake, SK, ca. 1891, getting ready for a ride on the CPR to a fertilizer plant in Central Canada. McCord Museum, “Buffalo bones gathered from the Prairies,” anon., 1891, M-0000.298.11. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Bye-bye, bison. Skeletal remains at Gull Lake, SK, ca. 1891, getting ready for a ride on the CPR to a fertilizer plant in Central Canada. McCord Museum, “Buffalo bones gathered from the Prairies,” anon., 1891, M-0000.298.11. CC-BY-NC-ND.

These interactions between exotic bacteria, Indigenous humans, bison populations, Plains cultures, invasive horses, and homesteader agriculture take place over a very long period of time indeed: the process may have started as early as 600 years ago. Without wanting to fall prey to reductionism, this is a slow-motion environmental event without which “Canada” – that is, the original federation of four provinces – could not have successfully annexed Rupert’s Land, at least not when it did. It is a story that can be sliced very thinly and scrutinized both microscopically and longitudinally. Undergraduate students can take one small piece (or the whole) and develop critiques of original evidence, experiment with ethnographic approaches, or test the whole hypothesis. The open textbook format, which allows for remixing, gives instructors the ability to pull together the sections that align in that environmental saga, rearrange them, highlight their connections, hyperlink from one part of the textbook to another, or  insert sidebars. The point is the possibility of telling the story in any number of ways, which is as it should be, perhaps for environmental history in particular.

What then? That brings me to my second strategy, which is more technological. Embedding videos in the open textbooks – something that is possible in the html versions – allows students to see and hear some of Canada’s leading historians addressing their special interests and critical themes in the discipline. (There’s an example here.) It also opens the door to recording debates, visually testing documents, and adding these to a bespoke version of the open textbook re-tailored by the instructor. BCcampus even produced an open textbook on adapting open textbooks (that is, a modifiable document on how to modify documents). Doing so shifts the dynamic of course assignments away from the tyranny of what are often called ‘disposable’ projects – i.e.: essays – toward intellectual activities that are visible and consequently subject to the critical eye of their peers as well as their profs and even successor classes. The textbook becomes an expandable residence for historical debate.

Student willingness to engage in this kind of dialogue with the textbook is made possible by the technology and it is made necessary by twenty-first-century concerns for the environment. Too often “the environment” is depicted or understood as something that exists somewhere else: in the forests, in the Arctic, perhaps at sea or in the air. In point of fact, it is everywhere, both materially and intellectually. As Madge (the manicurist immortalized in 1960s dishsoap commercials) would say, “You’re soaking in it.” Revealing that constant intimacy across centuries is the challenge to which an introductory Canadian history text should rise.

Some of the best literature on environmental history, too, highlights the environment of the mind. The idea of “nature” and the “natural” are so ubiquitous in the Canadian iconography that they need to be unpacked and examined. These include our notion of “parks” as places where “nature” is left undisturbed, a bucolic countryside in which people are more godly, and traditions of leisure time that are more likely to involve a cottage and a canoe than a stadium packed with chanting spectators. If there is a national currency more generously decorated with representations of wildlife, trees, and water, I’ve yet to see it. How does it come to pass that people who have never observed a stand of maple trees will melt at the sight of a red leaf?

Several of these themes are explored in the Post-Confederation volume. In that instance – and recognizing that there are vastly more of us working the post-1867 side of the house – I solicited expert sections from some three-dozen colleagues across the country. As far as environmental history goes, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of historians who reference common themes, including the relationship between place and perspective on the environment, the connections between the urban and ‘nature’, the rise of landscape-oriented tourism and art, and the links between fuel consumption, socio-economic change, and modernity. Each of these provides an entry point for students considering, say, the matter of global climate change through a 150-year wide historical lens.

The open textbook was never intended to be a monument, something cast in stone with pretensions of perfection. These two volumes exist so as to be perfectible. They are themselves an environment in which historic change is possible. The question then becomes not, “Does the text contain enough on environmental history?”, but “How can we add more?”

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John Belshaw

Long connected with Thompson Rivers University as a History professor, also a consultant to the post-secondary sector and a struggling novelist. Has authored, co-authored, and edited several articles and books on the history of British Columbia, including Becoming British Columbia: A Population History (UBC 2009) and Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 with Diane Purvey (Anvil 2011).

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