An emerging academic trend I’ve observed recently is the use of social media, particularly Twitter, to crowdsource ideas for university or college courses. This makes a lot of sense to me. In the pre-social media age, we were basically limited to the scholars we knew personally for whose brains we could pick. Now, you can post an appeal for course ideas on Twitter, create a hashtag or access an established one, then watch as the ideas roll in from colleagues and supportive strangers from around the globe. Not all of the ideas will be good ones or compatible with how you want to develop your course, but this is one of those situations when it’s better to have too much of something than too little.

I’ve decided to experiment with this method of crowdsourcing ideas for an upcoming course. As mentioned before, I’ll be assuming the position of Assistant Professor of History and Canadian Studies at the University of Maine on January 1, 2016, and one of the first courses that I’m creating is titled “Booms and Busts in North America,” scheduled for the Spring 2016 Term. I envision the course as being an exploration of the consequences of the commodification of nature in the geographic area now known as North America from the 16th century to the present.

I actually began my experiment on Friday, August 28, with a general appeal presented as a series of numbered tweets:

1. Looking for some ideas from the Twitterverse re: a course I’m developing titled “Booms and Busts in North America” for winter 2016.

2. It’s a history course, and my plan is to examine the consequences of the commodification of nature in North America post-1500.

3. There will be a particular focus on boom-and-bust economies to make explicit a variety of themes and processes.

4. Want to cover range of geographies and experiences, from fur trade to oil and gas in places like present-day North Dakota and Alberta.

5. Also, I want to move away from simple focus on economic consequences to a more inclusive examination.

6. This would include environmental, political, social, etc. consequences of “resource” extraction and management over time.

7. Sounds like a big undertaking, but I think a series of focused themes and topics could work quite well.

8. It will be a third-year course, so suggestions for readings and topics appropriate for that level would be greatly appreciated.

9. I also plan on putting together a blog post with the suggestions I receive from the Twitterverse. Thanks in advance, folks.

A couple of things to point out. First, I didn’t use a hashtag to reach out to a broader community of scholars, since I figured there would be lots of ideas coming in from my existing group of Twitter followers. Second, the course isn’t actually a third-year course, as noted in tweet #8, but a fourth-year one.

Here’s a list of the suggested ideas I’ve received so far:

@ooHugh: Badly underappreciated is hydro dev’t in Northern Manitoba, state intervention means not conventional boom / bust but; It has commodification of nature in spades; hydro power now produced @ a loss at expense of indigenous ppl & local ecology;  Shortish introductory doc on subject but there’s a wealth of relevant published resources

@journeymanhisto: Wheat–ties together land, env change, settlement, railways, and the market, with multiple cylces of boom and bust

@Thomas_D_Finger: Have you seen Charles Kindleberger’s book Manias, Panics, and Crashes?

@TinaAdcock: Kate Beaton’s “Ducks” deals w/ these themes in contemp. oil sands in v. nuanced, sophisticated way.

@ruralcolonialNS:  I’ve been using Steinberg’s Slide Mountain, Folly of Owning Nature for over a decade – thought-provoking & students like it

As you can see, it’s a short list, but there are some really good ideas here, from general themes to specific sources. I really appreciate @TinaAdcock’s suggestion of Kate Beaton’s “Ducks,” as it fits well with my own interests in comics studies. Nevertheless, I think my first lesson from this experiment might be that using a hashtag could be extremely beneficial.

But this part of my experiment, that is, crowdsourcing ideas, is not yet over. I’m still looking for suggestions, so if you have any, please send them along. You can post in the comments section below, send me a tweet (@MarkJMcLaughlin), or contact me via email ( And yes, there will be a follow-up blog post in the near future, where I will reflect on the general experience and whether it was worth the effort.

Once again, thanks in advance, folks.