Arctic Environments in the Classroom

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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

It might be ironic that it was in Seattle, escaping the worst of a Winnipeg winter for the first time in a decade, that I came face to face with the problem of teaching Arctic Environments. I was to teach an “Arctic Special Topics” course at the University of Washington as part of the Fulbright Canada Chair in Arctic Studies – a course designed for the growing cohort of Arctic Studies minor students who came to the program with impressively interdisciplinary backgrounds as budding marine biologists, environmental policymakers, historians, and Indigenous studies scholars. Under the expert guidance of Nadine Fabbi, Director of both the Arctic Studies and Canadian Studies Centers, we also decided to forgo the annual Fulbright Lecture in favour of a lecture series, built to coincide with the class. And so began “Arctic Environments,” the title of the course and lecture series both, and the reason for my preoccupation with the question of Arctic Environments over the past months.

The guiding idea was to ask students to explore Arctic Environments as a question – to ask how people from different disciplines might produce knowledge about or understand Arctic Environments? From the course description:

“How Do Different Disciplines Understand Arctic Environments?” In this class we ask this question from many different academic and community viewpoints in our attempt to analyze how Arctic environments are “made”, reproduced and understood. Arctic environments are stories, dynamic materialities, places of home and care, objects of scientific inquiry, data sets for interpretation, policies to regulate or promote, and ever-changing effects of the climate crisis. We will hear from a wide range of perspectives on Arctic environments – including social scientists, colleagues in the environmental humanities, art historians, environmental field scientists, policy and governance experts, and those working closely with communities – in our quest to understand the many Arctic Environments that exist simultaneously in the contemporary North.

The central component of the course was the all-star list of speakers – Philip Wight on Alaskan pipeline politics; Andrew Stuhl on ignorance and the production of scientific knowledge; Rebecca Hall on labour precarity and social reproduction in NWTs diamond industry; Bruce Erickson on ice and claims to authority and knowledge; Warren Bernauer on extractive economies and environmental assessment in Nunavut; Isabelle Gapp on visual representations of Arctic ice. These were public talks, delivered over Zoom, with a robust attendance throughout from colleagues at UW and across Canada and the US (thanks for the free advertising NiCHE!). Each talk was recorded and will remain available on the UW Canadian Studies Center YouTube channel.

The course met twice per week – Tuesdays were dedicated to the speakers series while Thursdays were built around class seminars on the same topic. Each talk was paired with a suite of textual and visual materials, from a wide range of academic and artistic fields. To complement Phil Wight’s talk, for instance, we read a selection of archival materials from the Yukon Archives related to failed attempts to build natural gas pipelines from the Arctic Archipelago in the 1970s.1 For Warren Bernauer’s talk we read company and community submissions to the Nunavut Impact Review Board concerning the recent attempts to expand production at Baffinland’s Mary River Mine, while Bruce Erickson’s talk was accompanied by a focus on competing representations of nature in Churchill, Manitoba, through the town’s murals, its polar bear tourism economy, and its location as a fur trade centre, deep sea port, and oil spill mitigation hub.

Perhaps the most successful week prompted students to engage directly with the NiCHE Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series. Students read Matt Farish’s “Potential Resources: Operation Franklin (1955) and the Extractive Imagination in the High Arctic” and Clare Benson’s “Until There Is No Sun” in common, but were also asked to read two more series entries, chosen according to their own interests. Under the problematic theme of “explorations”, they were asked to bring to class themes, conflicts, questions, and apprehensions that emerged from their reading on dogs and ivories, from Svalbard to Inuvik. The readings broadened our understanding of Arctic Environments, geographically and conceptually, but they were also remarkable in forcing us back into the seemingly mundane environmental modalities. As one group framed their discussion question, “What is Ice?”:

A course built around research talks by colleagues was a rare luxury. But the format was a wonderful reminder of the pedagogical power of teaching with visual methods alongside open-ended questions such as Arctic Environments, particularly when paired with the reliable means of the historian’s craft (archives, newspapers, grey literatures, etc.) and publishing conventions. Students understood discourses of power contained in visual cultures. Maps, maps, and more maps – such as this one, borrowed from Arn Keeling’s Twitter/X – centred discussion on topics like how the state might view the resource possibilities dormant in a mid-century Arctic.

Duncan MacPherson, Untitled Map (n.d.). University of Toronto Map Library. Photo: Isabelle Gapp, shared by Arn Keeling.

The National Film Board of Canada’s vast online archives provided an inexhaustible trove of materials. We used Donald Wilder’s Nahanni (1962) and James Carney’s Search Into White Space (1970) to discuss prevailing assumptions about Arctic extractivism, but the possibilities in the NFB archives are endless. Television and films have produced Arctic-adjacent materials, from the gothic horror of the Franklin Expedition of The Terror, to the oil geopolitics of Occupied, to the climate anxieties of Season 4 of Borgen: Power and Glory. Arctic science fictions, although visual in a different register, broaden the Arctic palette further, from the opening section of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, to more recent material like Sam J. Miller’s Whitefish City. Arctic-based children’s literature does much the same thing (be sure to visit Quinn at Left Bank Books if you’re ever in Seattle).

Harry Palmer, McKinley Bay, NWT (c.1983). Image source: Flickr, artwork CC-BY. In 1982, Harry Palmer was the Director of Environmental Affairs for Dome Petroleum Limited, based in McKinley Bay and Tuktoyaktuk.
More of his work can be found here.

Photography and the zombie qualities of social media push questions in different directions. Facebook and other photosharing apps can be a useful repository for new source material for teaching and research. Personal photos, usually posted by people searching for a half-remembered return to the halcyon days of a hard-working Arctic youth, enter the public domain. A rusted palm tree on the shore of McKinley Bay, welded together with discarded pieces of drill rigs and oil drums, built by bored young engineers and technicians in the homosocial atmosphere of a northern resource camp while on an oil and gas drilling campaign in the summer of 1983. The palm tree was a seemingly innocuous summer lark, but in reality it presided over an imagined Arctic archipelago of human-made ice island oil rigs, dredged harbours, the connected sinews of pipelines balanced on top of the permafrost, and the imagined resource communities that would house Arctic Indigenous peoples and the small armies of settler technicians, surveyors, itinerant oil workers, executives and managers that bring Arctic oil imaginaries into existence. It didn’t emerge as the “original Dubai”, as one caption describes it, but as a text it did presage the vagaries of Arctic extractive economies.

These new sources become particularly fascinating when viewed as cultural representations alongside more common subjects of the art historian. The placid natures of A.Y. Jackson’s paintings of Port Radium or Lawren Harris’ Arctic landscapes can be read alongside Glenn Gould’s Ideas of North. This comparative impulse can take us to the Global Arctic as well – students can push interpretive limits of Arctic Environments by connecting with visual material as varied as Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice (1822-23 – because what student doesn’t love a bit of German Romanticism!) with Paul Nash’s Totes Mere (Dead Sea – 1940) to ask how visions of the Arctic helped to interpret new landscapes. Or they might look to global heat maps alongside the Government of Nunavut Fine Art Collection on loan to Winnipeg Art Gallery and Qaumajuq to question interpretations of environmental changes, contestation, and continuity.

All of this returns us to the question of Arctic Environments as they might appear in the classroom. Alongside Isabelle Gapp and Nadine Fabbi, I’ll return to these Arctic Environments as teaching and research questions next month in Aberdeen and in the new year in Seattle, as part of a Scottish Government Arctic Connections Fund grant. Our project is guided by the Arctic Environment itself – never static, richly biodiverse and peopled, and produced by human interventions both local and global. By framing Arctic Environments as a question, we can understand the Arctic as historical and dynamic, material and imagined, as a set of stories used to make sense of a complex nature.


[1] For more on these efforts, see, James Wilt, “All that is Frozen Melts into the Sea: Arctic Gas, Science, and Capitalist Natures.” Capitalism Nature Socialism (2022): 1-18.

Feature image: Duncan MacPherson, Untitled Map (n.d.). University of Toronto Map Library. Photo: Isabelle Gapp.
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Jonathan Peyton

Jonathan Peyton teaches cultural and historical geography at the University of Manitoba where he is an associate professor in the department of environment and geography. He is the author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia (UBC Press, 2017).

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