Place-Based Learning from the Arctic to the Maritimes

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Editor’s note: This is the first post in an occasional series called Eddies, in which Tina Adcock chats with fellow NiCHE editors on a topic (or topics) of their choosing that’s been on their mind lately. In this post, Heather Green talks about her past, present, and future engagements with place-based learning in her research and teaching. You can find all the series’ posts here.


Tina Adcock: So, where would you like to begin?

Heather Green: I’ve been spending a lot of time the past year or so thinking about pedagogical approaches to environmental history. The roundtable that I had organized for ASEH 2020 would have focused on this theme with a group of scholars (Liza Piper, Dan Macfarlane, Jamie Murton, and Camden Burd) at various stages of their careers who have taken different approaches to teaching EH. I’ve been inspired, or influenced, by place-based or field-based learning in my own education—a little bit during my undergraduate degree, but more so in my graduate studies—and have been thinking about how to adopt some of these teaching/learning approaches on a smaller scale.

TA: You worked in various places in northern Canada during your graduate studies. How has this shaped your thinking about place-based learning? Were there any particularly memorable or influential experiences that helped shift or crystallize your thinking?

HG: Great question! My time spent in the places I researched were really informative in thinking about how people connect to land and place.

A monument to the original townsite outside of the town of Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
A monument to the original townsite outside of the town of Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Photo: H. Green.

I spent only a short time (two weeks) in Resolute Bay, Nunavut during my Master’s degree. Learning about how the Inuit community related to their local landscapes was extremely important to my research, which looked at how post-closure mining landscapes played a role in community memories of mining. But it was revealing even beyond that. Susie, the community member I hired to assist me with interviews, and her brother took me on a tour of the area outside town. The places they deemed interesting or worth showing me revealed some of the ways they connected to place more generally. We visited a monument to the original townsite settled during the High Arctic relocations. While I had read about this historical event, the visit reminded me that individual and collective connections to place went beyond my own interest in mining. For Susie and her brother, these connections to place, identity, and history were fuller and more holistic.

The Tombstone mountain range northeast of Dawson along the Dempster Highway.
The Tombstone Mountain Range northeast of Dawson along the Dempster Highway. Photo: H. Green.

My research in the Yukon during my doctoral studies really encouraged me to try to get a lay of the land. I was writing about a particular region, so I wanted to understand, as best I could, where specific places mentioned in the historical record were located, how far away or how near they were to other places, and so on. To do this, I spent time exploring the area and trying to translate its contemporary landscape into a historical one. Since I was interested in how Indigenous peoples experienced the Klondike Gold Rush and gold mining after the rush, I wanted to learn more about culturally and historically important areas. People I spoke with formally and informally over the years told me about different places that fit the bill, like Moosehide Village or the Tombstone Mountain Range. But it wasn’t until I went to those places myself that I could really make connections between the past and the present.

The photo depicts original cabins dating to about 1900 at Moosehide Village.
Original cabins c.1900 at Moosehide Village. Photo: H. Green.  

On my first visit to Dawson City in 2013, Liza Piper and I wanted to visit Moosehide Village, the reserve created as a direct result of the Gold Rush. This requires permission from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Heritage Department. You can either get there by boat or by hiking over the Moosehide Slide. While we were asking around about hiring someone to take us downriver, several Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people told us how special a place Moosehide was: that it was a very peaceful place, that we would enjoy it. Once we got there, I immediately understood what they meant. It’s difficult to explain, but you can feel the importance of the place just by being there on a quiet afternoon. I’ve since been to Moosehide several times, and have hiked there over the slide, which was an impactful trail in itself. The place never fails to affect me.

The photo depicts a wooden sign with "Moosehide trail / Tejik ddhatay" carved into it against a backdrop of forest and long grasses.
Moosehide Trail sign displayed as you enter into Moosehide Village. Photo: H. Green. 

One really special memory of Moosehide comes from an interview I did there with elder Julia Morberg, who has since passed on. We talked in her cabin, and then she spent a lot of time taking me around and showing me different medicines she made from plants found nearby. She also took me to the village’s old schoolhouse and showed me all the photos on the walls, telling me about who was in them and sharing memories of her childhood in Moosehide. This was another important lesson for me in place-based learning.

TA: These are some wonderful stories: thank you for sharing them! Traditionally, one barrier to doing place-based learning in northern Canada has been the high cost of travelling to and living in the region. You were able to overcome that with the help of funds from the Northern Scientific Training Program, which is terrific—but also unusual, as scholars in the humanities aren’t always eligible for such grants.

I’m also recalling Adrian Howkins’ comments on the disadvantages as well as advantages of visiting the places we study: the potential to unthinkingly elide past and present experiences there, and the temptation to assume that one’s experiences in a place can be generalized across cultures. How might your projects have turned out differently if you had not been able to visit the northern places you were studying? And, reflecting on your own experiences, can you see any downsides or possible dangers in using place-based learning as a methodology?

HG: If a scholar is inclined to generalize experiences across cultures, then perhaps they aren’t ready to use the methodology of place-based learning. We have to keep in mind when we visit sites of study that what we see, hear, and experience today is not the same as what people saw, heard, and experienced in the past. This is a challenge. I’ve found it very helpful to see for myself how spaces were laid out, but this doesn’t automatically make me able to reconstruct how things “really were” at the turn of the twentieth century. Each time I visit the Yukon, I hear stories or opinions from people of different cultures, and from people who share aspects of culture(s), that offer alternative perspectives and experiences. Not everyone from a culture shares the same opinions on mineral development, for example. I think the ability to look for the nuances and intricacies of historical experience comes with training and practice over time. Graduate students may need to develop this foundational skill before embarking on place-based learning.

I hadn’t really thought of spending time in the Yukon as a specific methodology when I was there, though I now understand it as such. My experiences are limited, of course; I’ve never lived long-term in the Territory. Even so, my work would have been extremely different had I not gone to these places, primarily because I relied on interviews and oral histories for both projects. My Master’s research would certainly not have been possible without visiting Resolute. I don’t think my Yukon research would have been possible, either, in the way I wanted to do it, without spending time there. It was important for me to visit in order to build trust with the community and to avoid the exploitative practice of extracting information and disappearing forever. I am not an expert at establishing relationships with communities, and there are lots of things I could or should have done better, but it would have been detrimental for me not to spend time in Dawson specifically and the Yukon in general over the past eight years.

TA: Have you run into any challenges so far in adapting experiences or approaches learned in the North (which I don’t at all mean to homogenize!) to your old/new home base of Nova Scotia? I imagine that some of what you learned during your undergrad degree at Cape Breton University might be easier to apply at SMU, simply because Cape Breton and Halifax are part of the same province. But perhaps not!

HG: I haven’t had much opportunity yet for field-based learning at SMU. My courses next year do include a few trips, so that will be the real test. What I have noticed about teaching northern content in Halifax is that students generally lack any specific points of reference to the North—which I completely understand, having grown up in similar circumstances—but that they are very eager to learn about the North. Lectures that focus on the North often generate the most questions, largely because the region still remains so distant and (I hate to say) mysterious to many students here.

I have tried to adapt some of what was foundational to my own education in terms of place-based or field-based learning in other places, however. While I was based at the University of Alberta, I co-ran a field trip to Jasper National Park, which I’ve written about for NiCHE and Active History. I also organized a couple of field trips as part of the Environmental History of North America class I taught at McMaster in the spring of 2019. I didn’t find that the learning experiences were region-specific in either case. More important were the core principles of learning about and understanding the relationship between history, people, and place by being present in that space, and connecting the historical reading and learning that happened in the classroom to the actual site.

TA: In recent years I’ve felt some discomfort teaching about northern Canada, given that I live and work in southern Canada. As Stephen Bocking recently reminded us, there’s a long history of southerners professing to be experts or authorities on the North on the basis of relatively little experience or knowledge of the region and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. The effects of such pronouncements on northerners have ranged from non-existent to disastrous. I worry about unintentionally reinscribing this settler colonial subject-position and its associated logic, even though I’m careful not to present myself as an expert and to bring northern Indigenous voices and experiences into my classroom in various ways. Do you ever feel a similar kind of discomfort? If so, how have you responded to it in your teaching practices?

HG: I do think about this in both my research and teaching, but I’m not sure I have a very good answer to your question. Like yourself, I am very open with students about situating myself in relation to my work. I spend time discussing some of the problematic historical relationships regarding the North and southern research there, as well as the problems with exploitative research in/with Indigenous communities.

This reminds me somewhat of debates concerning who can write what type of history. Can only women write women’s history? Should only Indigenous peoples write histories that include Indigenous peoples? Must you live in a region to research that place? I think about my position as an “outside” researcher often: an outsider both to the North, and to the Indigenous communities with whom I’ve worked. It’s important for researchers to consider what types of limitations this may pose—keeping in mind that being an insider can also have its limitations!

Not residing in a place is not necessarily a reason to avoid studying it. In fact, there may be more danger in not teaching northern content. When I started studying this region, I noticed very quickly how much the North and the Maritimes have in common, particularly residents’ feelings of being marginalized or neglected. Teaching northern content enables my students to see both similarities and differences in the structures of colonialism, economic development, and migration across Canada. Students are also surprised to learn that they have internalized older notions or misconceptions about the North—its status as “empty,” or as an “untouched wilderness,” or a place with year-round winter—despite relatively limited exposure to the region’s history. Not teaching northern content in courses, or not teaching courses focused on the North would actually make me more uncomfortable than a possible lack of expertise, as I feel that that would continue the cycle of overlooking or marginalizing the region.

TA: How do you foresee your commitment to place-based learning evolving, now that you have a continuing position in Halifax? What kinds of activities, relationships, or competencies would you like to develop, now that you have the ability to take a long-term—even, perhaps, a consciously slow?—view upon this part of your pedagogical practice?

HG: I have been thinking a lot about this question since beginning my position at SMU, especially since the prospect of place-based learning drew me there initially. Now that I have time to explore the region through the lens of environmental history, and with teaching in mind, I hope to incorporate more such methods into my classes. The History department at SMU has an Applied History minor, so courses with applied or experiential learning at their core are very much encouraged and supported.

My upcoming Environmental History of North America course includes one walking tour of Africville to accompany a unit on environmental racism and discrimination, and another of the Halifax harbour and waterfront. I have some other afternoon-length trips in mind as well: it’s tough to choose only one or two each year! The students I taught at McMaster loved field trips, but we also met in three-hour blocks, as opposed to 75 minutes twice a week. I don’t want to burden my students with activities outside normal course hours, especially since many work full-time while attending university full-time.

I’m also associated with the Atlantic Canadian Studies (ACST) program, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying this region. It offers a fourth-year undergraduate course in the environmental history of Atlantic Canada, which I’m hoping to run every second or third summer. Luckily, there is institutional support to structure it as a field course, or to include a field-based component. I’ve been tentatively envisioning a course that allots 60% of its time to learning methodologies and historiography and discussing readings in the classroom, and 40% to spending time in a specific location. There are so many options fairly close to Halifax: PEI, Cape Breton, New Brunswick, and the South Shore are all only a few hours’ drive away, and each offers different thematic possibilities. I’m very much looking forward to developing this course. I’ll take things slow to start with smaller stretches of “field camps,” but over time it may become fully field-based.

Being able to take a consciously slow approach to developing such pedagogies is a welcome feeling. I can take my time when incorporating place-based or applied teaching and learning, really thinking through the competencies associated with each course and connecting with local folks and organizations in the places I take my students.

I’m particularly grateful to have the time and stability that a tenure-track position affords as I approach the work of building relationships with Indigenous communities in Mi’kma’ki. I have no connections or prior relationships with Mi’kmaq communities on mainland Nova Scotia, and few in Unama’ki (Cape Breton) from my undergraduate days. My work focuses on the intersections of Indigenous-settler and environmental histories, so forming mutual relationships is critical to me as a scholar, especially one who aims for public and community engagement. I’m figuring out best practices around forming relationships with these particular communities at a time when my institution’s relationships with local First Nations communities is far behind where it should be. In that sense, taking a slow approach to scholarship and building mutually beneficial relationships is even more critical. Discussing how we establish relationships with peoples and places isn’t only a matter for the environmental history classroom; it will be a key part of my course on the histories of Indigenous and settler relations, too.

TA: Hear, hear! What a great note on which to wrap up this conversation. Thanks, Heather!

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Heather Green is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Saint Mary's University. Her current research projects focus on the development of trophy hunting and wildlife regulation in the Yukon and a history of coal mining and power generation in Northeastern Arizona. You can connect with her on twitter @heathergreen21.

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