The Realization of a Dream Course: History and Comics

Last fall, I blogged about a course that I was constructing that combined history and comics in the classroom. The course was then in its infancy, just starting to go through the University of Maine’s undergraduate curriculum approval process. Well, I’m happy to report that “HTY 221: History and Comics” made it through the approval process earlier this year and is now an actual course at UMaine. In fact, today is exactly one month away from when the course will be first offered, as part of the university’s Fall 2016 slate of undergraduate courses.

None of this is to say that it was an easy process to get to this point. While I’ve been thinking about how to construct this type of course since about 2012, I


Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, one of the required texts for the course “History and Comics.”

could find very few models to inform my thinking of how I could actually put it together. Once I had finally produced a first draft of the syllabus, it then had to make its way through three levels of university committees before receiving final approval. Two of the committees required several revisions before allowing the course proposal to move on, which compelled me, in a good way, to further think about and clarify the goals of the course. While the whole approval process took about six months, the final, general version of the syllabus was definitely much stronger for having gone through it.

I’m also happy to report that I just finished the transition from the general syllabus to the version specifically tailored for Fall 2016. I’ve included a PDF copy of the syllabus, as it currently stands, at the bottom of this post. Please feel free to use it as a model, offer comments, or simply read it for amusement. Now that I have been afforded with the privilege and opportunity to construct what I consider to be a dream course, it seems only fitting to share the final product.

History and Comics Syllabus, Fall 2016

Locating the Environmental History in Atlantic Canada Studies

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has even a basic understanding of Atlantic Canada that topics that we now think of as environmental history have long permeated the study of the region. With an Indigenous presence since time immemorial, and as one of the first areas in North America colonized by Europeans, Atlantic Canada has a deep and rich history of humans interacting with local environments. We see this reflected in early scholarship that focussed on the region’s political economy and resource exploitation, and again in works produced since the broadening of academic fields in the second half of the 20th century to include such categories as race and ethnicity, gender, and class.


A purchasable example of some of the excellent environmental history scholarship being written about the Atlantic Region.

In keeping with this trend, environmental history topics also abound among the papers scheduled to be presented at the upcoming Atlantic Canada Studies conference, taking place at Mount Allison University from 5-7 May, 2016. Indeed, the intention behind this post is to provide readers with a general breakdown of the environmental history themes and papers present in the conference programme (see the full programme here). It should be noted that all judgements regarding whether or not a particular paper fits within a certain theme, or even whether it can be considered to contain elements of environmental history, are my own, based on the limited information available in the programme, and do not reflect the views of the presenters. Accordingly, I’ve divided the papers into four broad, sometimes interrelated themes: Indigenous peoples, industrialization and economic development, shifting spaces and landscapes, and identities.

Scholarship that examines the lifeways of Indigenous peoples and their relationships with local environments has been steadily increasing within Atlantic Canada Studies in recent decades. While always important, this type of research is now critically so in the wake of Supreme Court decisions and land claims, the rise of the Idle No More movement, and the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. On the morning of 6 May, there’ll be a panel titled “Resource Extraction and Development in its Place: The Struggle to Recognize Animal Personhood,” featuring papers by Amber Giles, Sherry Pictou, and Travis Wysote. That same morning, Diane Obed and Danielle Root will be presenting on a panel titled “Indigenous Education Beyond the Classroom.” There’ll be another panel titled “First Nations, Land, and Power” on the afternoon of 6 May, with papers by Bill Parenteau and Elizabeth Mancke and Stephen Dutcher. Also on the afternoon of 6 May, on separate panels, John Reid will be presenting on “Cricket, the Retired Feather Merchant, and Settler Colonialism: The Troubled Halifax Sojourn of A.H. Leighton, 1912,” while Dawn Brooks will be presenting on “Indigenous Blueprints for the Imperial Landscape.”

Industrialization and economic development has been a common theme within Atlantic Canada Studies since the field’s earliest days, and will definitely be well represented at the conference in early May. Gregory Kennedy and Amelie Montour and Ronald Rudin will be giving papers on the same panel on the morning of 6 May, respectively titled “Shifting Patterns in Response to Environmental Change and Industrialization: Landscape and the Adaptation of the Household Economy in Cocagne, 1871-1921” and “Dam Projects: Local Knowledge and Landscape in the Post­War Maritime Marshlands.” On the afternoon of that same day, there’ll be two panels on Cape Breton and Nova Scotia: “Perspectives on Cape Breton and Nova Scotian Development” (Don Nerbas, Courtney Mrazek, and B.A. Balcom) and “Cape Breton’s Labour History” (David Frank, Claudine Bonner, and Kristoffer Archibald). Aaron Clarke and Lindsay Golding will be presenting late in the day on 6 May, on “Mills and their Importance to Community Infrastructure in 19th-Century New Brunswick.” Finally, Andy Parnaby will be presenting on “‘The counterfeit principles of a free enterprise system’: The Antigonish Movement and the Sydney Steel Crisis of 1967” on the afternoon of 7 May.

Another common environmental history theme at the Atlantic Canada Studies conference will be shifting spaces and landscapes. On separate panels on 6 May, Shawn McCarthy and Beth Jewett will be talking about, respectively, “From Trial to Solace: Beaubears Island’s Emerge as a Public Space” and “Atlantic Canadian Golfscapes: Constructing ‘Natural’ Playing Fields, 1873­-1945.” Stephanie Pettigrew, Keith Grant, and Elizabeth Mancke, Adam Nadeau, and David Bell will be on the same panel, also on 6 May, on the subject of “Empire, Law, and the Making of Colonial Societies.” On 7 May, also on the same panel, Miriam Wright will be presenting on “The Chinese Immigrant in the City: Reflections on Race, Class and Gender in the Public Spaces of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1895­-1949,” and Karolyn Smardz Frost will be presenting on “Planting Slavery in Nova Scotia’s Promised Land.” Then later on the same day, Gary Hughes will be giving a paper titled “Changing Landscapes: The European and North American Railway.”

The final theme is identities, which can be deeply intertwined with a sense of place. Martha MacDonald, Shoshannah Ganz, and Vicki Hallett will be on a panel on “The Politics of Culture in Newfoundland” on 6 May. In addition, on 7 May, Christine Harrens, Harvey Amani Whitfield, Ruma Chopra, and Catherine Cottreau-Robins will be on a panel titled “The Early Black Experience in the Maritime Colonies.”

It is exciting to see so many fascinating papers, on a wide variety of topics, in the programme of the upcoming Atlantic Canada Studies conference. It is my hope that this thematic guide will help conference goers locate those papers that are most likely to contain elements of environmental history. Good luck, and happy conferencing.

Discussing The Revenant In An Undergraduate History Course

Let me start with the following: this post is late. If you follow me on Twitter, you might recall that I promised to write this particular blog post on 18 February. Things got busy, so the post got pushed back. My apologies.

If you have no clue what I’m talking about, let me catch you up. I’m currently teaching a third-year undergraduate course called “Booms and Busts in North American History” at the University of Maine. The course examines natural resource development and the broader commodification of nature in the geographical area now referred to as North America from the 16th century to the present. You should also note that I’m new to the History Department, having just started last January, so enrollment in Booms and Busts was low, with a final tally of seven students, all male. And with a 75-minute discussion meeting scheduled for every other week, I’m constantly trying to think of interesting ways to engage a small group of men, all of whom are around the age of 20, in a dialogue about the past exploitation of resources for more than an hour.

(Side note – I’ve discovered that college students in the United States, at least the ones I’ve encountered, are REALLY intrigued by the whole concept of the Canadian Heritage Minutes, even when they involve fish.)


Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in The Revenant (20th Century Fox).

In early February, I suddenly had what I thought was a brilliant idea. We had just covered the fur trade in Booms and Busts, and some of the students had asked questions about The Revenant, which was then in theatres. The backdrop for the film is the western North American fur trade in the 1820s, and I had heard from friends and colleagues that it left you with a decent sense of how difficult life could be on the “frontier,” so the students’ eagerness to discuss certain aspects of the plot got me thinking that I might be able to incorporate discussion of The Revenant into the course.

From the outset, I wanted to make sure this whole venture didn’t turn into a bunch of guys sitting in a room chatting about how awesome it was that such and such a scene went down in the way it did. Yes, that did happen to some extent, but much less than you might think. Much of the credit as to why this turned into a worthwhile academic exercise has to be given to the critical reviews that students had to read in conjunction with seeing the film, which we all agreed to go see on our own time. Stacy Nation-Knapper wrote the first one, titled “The Revenant is Beautiful, Disappointing Art,” for, while the other was written by Sean Carleton, titled “The Bloody History of Accumulation by Dispossession,” for Canadian Dimension. Both reviews are solid scholarly pieces of writing, and complement one another really well, each approaching the critical analysis of the film in a different manner.

When I put together the discussion reading list, I made a point to assign Nation-Knapper’s review as the first one that students should turn to after watching The Revenant. She does a great job of describing the film as art, highlighting how its artistic merits can contribute to the viewer’s understanding of the past:

The cinematography is breathtaking and breaks the fourth wall in alarming ways that draw the viewer into the cold, the fear, and the violence of the setting. Actors’ breaths fog the lens when they strain in the cold, their blood splatters the screen as their bodies are brutally mangled, water splashes the camera as Glass [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] is swept over a waterfall, and the final scene leaves the audience with Glass staring and panting directly into the camera. The film is gory, much like life in the early nineteenth-century fur trade…

This is the sort of thing I had in mind when I initially came up with the assignment: use the film to give students some sense of the harsh realities of the fur trade. And yet, as Nation-Knapper notes, “The Revenant is not history.” Although inspired by some true events that are part of what is now the legend of Hugh Glass, “the filmmakers made disappointing choices of appropriation and sensationalistic excess.” Nation-Knapper skillfully deconstructs many of the film’s historical inaccuracies, so I won’t get into them here. What this allowed for, though, was an in-class discussion about the role of historical fiction. A few students believed that historical films should be accurate as possible, while others argued that some artistic licence with past events is fine if it means that more people will be exposed to historical content.

Another topic that Nation-Knapper tackles head on is that of Indigenous appropriation. As she wisely concludes, “It’s perfectly acceptable to tell stories about the fantastical exploits of dead white men without appropriating the very real lives and experiences of Indigenous people or insulting Indigenous histories by ignoring or altering them to embellish non-Indigenous tales.” This opened up a whole new avenue of discussion, in which we covered a range of subject matter, from past and current portrayals of Indigenous people in film to the controversy over sports teams inappropriately adopting Indigenous images or culture.

Like Nation-Knapper, Carleton appreciates the “grotesque” beauty of The Revenant, and he finds aspects of the film to be deeply problematic. As he observes,

The film is being rightly criticised for its dangerous working conditions during production, for its failure to offer a compelling revenge narrative, and for its colonialist and patriarchal portrayal of Indigenous peoples. As many Indigenous reviewers have pointed out, it really is a white saviour film redux.

But for Carleton, the release of The Revenant also represents opportunity, “because it offers an all-too-rare representation of the bloody origins of capitalism in North America…[and] can spark important dialogue about colonialism’s (ongoing) relationship to capitalist accumulation…”


A scene from The Revenant in which some of the effects of the fur trade are made grotesquely apparent (20th Century Fox).

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this academic exercise, this was the part that I was most pleased with in terms of how it worked out. From when I first constructed the Booms and Busts course, I’ve always conceptualized it as an examination of the effects of the commodification of nature in North America over the last few hundred years, of how the arrival of capitalism to this continent’s shores dramatically changed the historical trajectories of various human and natural processes. Viewing The Revenant, coupled with Carleton’s critical reading of the film, provided students with a different and possibly more immediate way of understanding much of what I had been droning on about since the beginning of the semester. While that outcome was not entirely on my radar when I created the assignment, it was a well-appreciated addition. For the same meeting, students also had to read Alfred W. Crosby’s classic article on “ecological imperialism,” and so what followed was a vigorous discussion about connections between resource exploitation and settler colonialism.

As you can see, incorporating The Revenant into my Booms and Busts course generated discussion about a wide variety of subjects. Yes, we did talk some about this or that awesome scene, but the vast majority of the time was spent engaged in serious academic debate. I encourage others to give it a try. Believe me, if this exercise can keep my seven guys talking for more than hour, it should prove useful for just about anybody.

Counterbalancing Declensionist Narratives In Environmental History

Author’s Note: It’s been several weeks since my last blog post. Over that period of time, I got married, moved to the state of Maine, and started a tenure-track position at the University of Maine. Now that life is adopting something approaching a regular routine, readers can again expect regular posts.

One of the themes that seems to be the topic of continuous discussion within the field of environmental history is how we need to do more than simply produce declensionist historical narratives. For those who aren’t familiar with this topic, it’s the idea that environmental historians need to avoid the lure of only telling stories of decline, where humans have degraded or ruined such and such an ecosystem, built environment, etc., over time. Now, that doesn’t mean we should write negative consequences completely out of our histories, but I do believe that most of the time declensionist aspects should be counterbalanced in some manner so as to provide our audiences with a version of events that comes as close as possible to actual lived experiences.

I’ve actually been thinking about how to go about counterbalancing declensionist narratives quite a bit lately. The reason I’ve been doing so is my upcoming course titled “Booms and Busts in North American History,” which I blogged about a couple of times last fall (see here and here). As described in the syllabus, “This course examines natural resource development and the broader commodification of nature in the geographical area now referred to as North America from the sixteenth century to the present. Particular attention will be paid to resource booms and busts as analytical windows into the various political, economic, social, and environmental consequences of the past exploitation of nature.”

One of my goals with the course is to try to provide students with a well-rounded and complex understanding of the history of resource exploitation in North America, particularly since the arrival of Europeans. I’m sure for many people the term “exploitation” immediately brings to mind images of Indigenous peoples being displaced, forests being clear cut, species being decimated, and waterways being polluted. And rightfully so, because that is a major part of the legacy of the last 500 years of resource exploitation on this continent. But I believe it is incumbent upon me, as an instructor and environmental historian, to take the general narrative beyond mere decline to something more nuanced and complex. That doesn’t mean that there will always be an immediately obvious positive side to every lecture, article, or book, but more often than not there has to be something more that we can provide to our audiences than simply doom and gloom.


A view of the St. John River and the Mactaquac area before the dam was built. The image is from a great ArcGIS virtual tour called “Before the Mactaquac Headpond.”

Let me offer an example from some of my own work. For various past Atlantic Canadian and Canadian history courses, I’ve lectured on New Brunswick’s Mactaquac modernization project of the 1960s (see this Acadiensis article by James L. Kenny and Andrew G. Secord for a good overview). It used to be that I always viewed the project through a negative lens: a story of an unwanted dam and misguided state planning, of locals forced from their homes, farms and Indigenous lands flooded, ways of life lost, promises of employment not met, ecosystems greatly altered, salmon migrations being blocked, hatchery programs put in place, and so on.

A few years ago, my views on the dam changed somewhat due to a colleague’s observation about an article that I was then preparing for publication. The article, now published, examines the development of water pollution regulation in New Brunswick from the 1940s to the 1970s (you can find it in this book). With regards to the Mactaquac dam, I originally approached it as a massive collection point for sewage and pulp mill waste, one that had be dealt with by the federal and provincial governments before the project could move forward. While it’s obvious to me now, my colleague made the observation at the time that yes, the project was all of the negative things described above, yet it was also the impetus for the establishment of the first comprehensive pollution abatement program along the St. John River.


A present-day view of the Mactaquac dam and headpond (

This dynamic of positives and negatives still surrounds the dam to this day. Built in the late 1960s, the dam was supposed to last close to a century, but problems with the cement used in its construction has ensured that it has be replaced, decommissioned, or removed by the year 2030. There is now a major debate underway in the area about what to do with the dam. Many want to see the St. John River reverted back to its original state, but others have come to view the dam and its headpond as part of the “natural” environment and don’t want things to change. Of course, then there’s the factor of whether it’s more economically advantageous to leave the dam in place or remove it. Let’s just say, the whole issue is complicated.

Accordingly, that’s how we, as environmental historians, should present such subject matter, by making it complicated. It’s easy to explain the issue of the Mactaquac dam as a simple declensionist narrative, but it’s not, nor has it ever been. Sometimes, an extra effort has to made to counterbalance the declensionist in our histories. That’s something we should all keep in mind on a regular basis. It’s what I will be striving for as I prepare the lectures for my upcoming “Booms and Busts” course.

Searching For A Moving Company: Tips for Academics (And Others)

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’ll be starting a tenure-track position at the University of Maine in January 2016. My partner and I have been spending much of this fall preparing for our move to the United States, and one of our main chores has been to search for a moving company. This will be our second major move in less than a year and a half, so we’ve learned a lot about moving companies and their practices in a fairly short period of time. In this post, I’d like to share some of what we have learned, with the hope that others can benefit from our experiences.

Some of you might at first think it odd that I’m discussing moving companies on what has, so far, been mainly an academically-focused blog. But many of you know, as I do, that choosing the path of academia means that you’re likely going to have to move around a lot. Most people complete their degrees at two or three different institutions, and then there’s the joy of moving often for postdocs and limited-term appointments as you wait for the elusive tenure-track position. In our household, we’re fortunate that we’ll only have to move twice. I know many others who’ve had to move what seems like an obscene number of times, sometimes across entire continents. And of course, not everyone decides to go the route of a tenure-track position. Whatever the case, the tips offered here really apply to just about anyone who’s searching for a moving company.

First off, take stock of your situation. How much stuff is going to be moved? Where are you moving to? How far away is it? Are there special considerations that must be taken into account regarding your end destination? These sorts of questions can shorten the list of potential moving companies. For example, some companies are only outfitted to do local or regional moves, so you probably don’t need to call them if you’re heading to the other side of the country. In our case, we’re moving to the United States, so we wanted to find a company that could help guide us through the convoluted process of importing household goods across the border.

The next step is to do a bit of research. Look in the phone book under “moving” and see which companies are listed. Type the name of your community along with “moving companies” into an Internet search engine and see what comes up. Ask your friends and neighbours about local moving companies that they’ve heard good things about. Indeed, the company that my partner and I ended up choosing for our current move came well recommended from folks at my curling club. One thing to keep in mind is that bigger doesn’t always equal better. In our experience, quotes from the national moving companies are often hundreds of dollars more expensive than their locally-based competitors.

Once you have the names and numbers of a few potential moving companies, it’s time to give them a call. This initial call usually doesn’t take very long. Basically, the company will ask where you’re moving to, the size of the place in which you currently live, and date ranges for the move, and then proceed to set up an appointment for when an assessor can come to your place to see how much stuff you have in order to calculate an accurate quote. DO NOT go with a moving company that doesn’t offer to come and do a free assessment. As one industry person explained it to me, such assessments are now pretty much standard practice, but there are less reputable companies out there that still don’t do them. Back at the curling club, one gentleman told me about how he and his family recently moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Peterborough. He mistakenly didn’t get an assessment done and simply informed the moving company over the phone that they lived in a two-bedroom bungalow. Once all of their stuff was loaded on the truck and weighed, the moving company then informed him that it was going to cost two and half times more than what they originally quoted him. In the end, he had to pay the full amount in order to get their stuff delivered. The point here is to make sure you have an assessor walk through your place. Generally, I’ll call and make appointments to have three or four walk through over the period of a couple of days.

Now we’re at the part when the assessor comes to visit. The first thing they’ll likely want to do is sit down to talk about the move, both to give you information and to get information from you. Next, the assessor will want to walk through your place and see how much stuff you have. Be sure to show them everything in every nook and cranny. The more they see and write down or input into their tablet, the more realistic the quote will be. Also, differentiate between things that will definitely be moved and those that are staying behind for whatever reason. After the walk through, you’ll most likely sit back down and chat about how the quote process will proceed. Don’t be surprised if it takes a day or two before the final quote is ready.

It is also at this time that the assessor is available to answer any questions that you might have. I highly recommend drawing up a list of questions beforehand to ensure you don’t miss anything. The types of questions will depend on your particular situation, but here are some we’ve found useful:

  • 10% guarantee: Many companies have guarantees that the final price of your move will not be more than 10% above of what you are quoted. This could end up saving you a lot of money (see the story above about the guy who moved from Sudbury), so verify with the company whether or not they have such a guarantee in place.
  • Range of quotes: Ask for a range of quotes, including with a full pack, just a fragile pack, or if you do all of the packing. You might discover that it’s not much more to get your stuff fully or partially packed.
  • Insurance: What’s the company’s policy on insuring items? How much does it cost to get everything insured?
  • Packing materials: Some companies charge for packing materials, while others do not. If you search around, you can likely find a good company that’ll provide free packing materials.
  • Storage: If something comes up, you might need to store all of your stuff for a while. Ask if they charge for storage. As with packing materials, you might be able to find a company that has free storage for up to a certain period of time.
  • Delivery date: When does the company think that your stuff will be delivered? How long will it take? Is there any sort of guarantee that it’ll be at the end destination by a certain date?

After the assessments, the quotes from the various companies will come rolling in. It’ll be tempting to simply go with the cheapest price, but you’ll also want to weigh the answers you received to all of your questions. It is often the case that paying a bit more to receive a few more services works out better in the long run. Then once you’ve decided on a company, don’t hesitate to contact them with any concerns or questions you might have. You’ll likely be assigned someone who will act as your point person with the company. It’s their job to make sure your move goes as smoothly as possible. You’ve paid for the service, so use it to the fullest.

That’s about all of the wisdom that I can pass on regarding the search for a moving company. Do your research, ask your questions, and make your choice. I hope it all goes well. Good luck.

Seeing The Forest (Workers) For The Trees: Environmental And Labour History in New Brunswick’s Forests

Note – this post first appeared on the Network in Canadian History and Environment’s blog the Otter on Wednesday, November 4, 2015. To view the original post, click here.

We scholars can sometimes be our own worst enemies. Take, for example, how we often establish rigid theoretical distinctions between academic disciplines, fields, and subfields, thereby possibly limiting opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we should abandon theoretical distinctions entirely. But a lot can be gained from focusing a bit less on areas of divergence, and more on areas of intersection.

In my opinion, environmental history is particularly well suited for this sort of approach to scholarship. One of the common concerns that environmental historians voice about their field is that it is too theoretically imprecise, that it needs clearer theoretical distinctions. I tend to disagree. Of course, environmental historians need some sort of shared understanding of what it is that we do. But I prefer to err on the side of more general definitions, something to the effect of “the study of past interactions between humans and nature.” The beauty of such a general definition is that it leaves lots of room under environmental history’s theoretical tent for the inclusion of other fields and disciplines.

The international union logo for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

The international union logo for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

One example of the field’s theoretical inclusiveness in action is my own research combining environmental history and labour history. My book manuscript, based on but moving beyond my doctoral research, examines how the New Brunswick government attempted to rationalize the province’s forests and forest industries through the introduction of various modernization policies in the post-Second World War period. One of the chapters explores organized labour’s response to these modernization plans. New Brunswick woods workers and their union, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) Local 3012, disagreed with the provincial government that the future of the Crown (public) forests, and the forestry sector in general, increasingly depended on the unilateral success of the pulp and paper industry and the use of certain industrial forest management practices on Crown lands. But the woods workers did not simply oppose the government’s modernization plans. Rather, they put forward their own ideas as to how the Crown forests should be utilized—what Miriam Wright has referred to as competing “visions of development,” or what Tina Loo has called “expressions of an alternative modernity.”1

To gain a deeper understanding of how the woods workers thought the Crown forests should be developed, let me offer a couple of anecdotes. In the 1950s, New Brunswick’s pulp and paper companies frequently attempted to block access to woods camps to halt unionization efforts. Union officials were particularly upset by this obstructionism, given that most of the companies’ harvesting operations were on Crown lands. Andrew Cooper, a representative for the international UBCJA, was quoted in the newspaper L’Évangéline as saying the following at the September 1955 annual meeting of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour:

Les forêts appartiennent à la population de la province, a dit M. Cooper, et non pas à des employeurs qui coupent a mème une source naturelle. Les bûcherons paient leur pension dans les camps et ceux-ci peuvent donc être considéré comme leurs foyers, a dit M. Cooper. Pour cette raison, le patronat n’a aucun droit de dire qui peut ou ne peut pas leur rendre visite.2

UBCJA Local 3012 conceived of the Crown forests as a public resource, one that should be used for the benefit of New Brunswick workers, and not solely for the interests of large, international pulp and paper companies. Woods workers had laboured in the province’s forests for generations. The forests, according to the union, could almost be considered their hearth, their second home. Workers had cut the trees and yarded the logs, not the pulp and paper companies. The companies had no right to dictate who could visit the woods camps, especially those located on Crown lands. Union officials considered their efforts to unionize woods workers and negotiate better wages and working conditions to be an extension of the notion of the Crown forests as public resource, there to generate economic returns for New Brunswick workers.

Environmental historians inspect a decommissioned, all-in-one mechanical harvester at the Central New Brunswick Woodsmen's Museum in Boiestown.

Environmental historians inspect a decommissioned, all-in-one mechanical harvester at the Central New Brunswick Woodsmen’s Museum in Boiestown.

Here’s another instance that highlights this conception of the Crown forests as public resource. Woods workers across New Brunswick adopted militant tactics in the second half of the 1970s to oppose the introduction of all-in-one mechanical harvesters. Each harvester could replace as many as 30 workers. It was particularly galling to the province’s woods workers that in most cases jobs were lost due to the harvesters being used on Crown lands. On one occasion in July 1978, over 200 unemployed woods workers in the Miramichi region attended a meeting with the provincial minister of natural resources about five harvesters that had been recently introduced in the area. After the meeting, approximately 100 of them, frustrated by what was perceived as government acquiescence to the pulp and paper industry, went to the site where the harvesters were located. Their original intention was to simply block the road before the morning shift started, but the situation quickly intensified. An unknown number of individuals released their frustrations on the machines. By the following morning, one machine had been completely destroyed and two others had been severely damaged. Replacement costs ran upwards of $200,000.3

The point of these two anecdotes is to demonstrate that, despite initial appearances, environmental history and labour history often intersect more than you might realize. Indeed, for a more comprehensive interpretation of these past events, you have to avoid separating the workers from the forests. New Brunswick woods workers viewed the Crown forests as a public resource that, first and foremost, should be used for providing local employment and facilitating local economic development. Inextricably linked with the workers’ vision of development were notions of class, a commitment to community, and a sense of pride in their craft. Furthermore, the wood workers’ conception of their craft and their identities as workers was greatly influenced by the forests that surrounded them on a daily basis. Forest environments were like their second home. This interaction between workers and forests, and forests and workers, can be best understood through a combination of the practices of environmental history and labour history. Overall, many areas of divergence will remain, but undoubtedly our scholarship as environmental historians can only benefit by seeking out areas of intersection with other disciplines and fields.


1. Miriam Wright, A Fishery for Modern Times: The State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934-1968 (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001), 3 and Tina Loo, “People in the Way: Modernity, Environment, and Society on the Arrow Lakes,” BC Studies, no. 142/143 (Summer/Autumn 2004): 196.

2. L’Évangeline (Moncton), 14 September 1955.

3. The Daily Gleaner (Fredericton), 7 and 8 July 1978, Telegraph-Journal (Saint John), 7 and 8 July 1978, and The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 7 July 1978.

Constructing A Global Environmental History Course

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been constructing courses for my upcoming position at the University of Maine. My last blog post detailed how I recently created a course called “History and Comics,” where I use comics studies and the comics medium to introduce students to various topics and themes commonly encountered in the discipline of history. Since then, I’ve put together a fourth-year global environmental history course, and while it is still only broadly sketched out, due to the fact that it’ll shortly be going up for approval with the university’s undergraduate curriculum committee, I’d like to offer what I’ve come up with so far.

As I was writing the syllabus, I had two larger goals in mind. The first was that I wanted to ensure that students were thoroughly introduced to the subfield of global environmental history, but at the same time not overwhelm them with the history of everything. Seeing as how the globe is a pretty big place, I think the temptation is there to try to cover too much historical material. My solution was to limit the course to seven major environmental history themes: Migrations, Agriculture and Settlement, Forests and Forestry, Water and Waterways, Biological Exchanges, Urbanization and Industrialization, and the Anthropocene. For each theme, there will be four lectures that will, to quote from the syllabus, “follow a rough chronology and compare and contrast how environmental historical processes unfolded in different parts of the globe to provide students with a general understanding of each particular theme.” At the end of the two weeks dedicated to a particular theme, there will be a discussion meeting based on associated readings.

Some of you are likely already making mental lists of all of the themes that I could have included in the course but didn’t. Believe me, I spent a number of hours staring at the wall and contemplating what should be included. It seems that for every part that you put into a course there are something like ten parts that you have to leave out. Since it’s a fourth-year course, I decided that it was important to prioritize in-depth examinations of subject matter, rather than more shallow explorations of a lot of material. Besides, I deliberately chose the themes so that a wide range of periods, places, peoples, and non-human nature can be included.

The second goal I had in mind was to move away from the usual major research paper. Trying to engage students through non-traditional means has been an interest of mine for a while. Not only is this evidenced by the “History and Comics” course, but in 2012 I wrote a blog post for the Network in Canadian History and Environment, in which I described some of the non-traditional methods I incorporated into a Canadian environmental history course at the University of New Brunswick.

The main text for the course. Assigned readings will be used to make up for areas where it is lacking. (

The main text for the course. Assigned readings will be used to make up for areas where it is lacking. (

In the case of “Global Environmental History,” the main non-traditional component is group website projects. As noted in the syllabus, the goals of the assignment are: “to engage students’ research, analysis, and critical thinking skills through a means other than the usual major research paper; to get students thinking about ways to organize and communicate historical information for a broader audience; to foster the development of additional abilities in digital literacy; and to make available a final digital product that students could potentially use in academic or professional portfolios.” The plan is for the websites to be created with free, online software, like WordPress or Wix, while the website format will be generally left to the group’s discretion, although some basic elements must be included, such as a bibliography page. I’ve also scheduled in-class website development sessions, alternating with the discussion meetings at the end of the week, as “time dedicated to group progress reports, going over technical aspects of the website project, and working on the actual websites.”

As with “History and Comics,” if approved “Global Environmental History” will be offered in the 2016-2017 academic year. I’m going to use the interim to reflect on and continue to improve the general course framework already established. For those who are interested, see below for a PDF version of the course syllabus. As usual, suggestions and ideas are more than welcome.

Syllabus for Global Environmental History

Combining History and Comics in the Classroom

I first became interested in comics scholarship in the summer of 2011. While conducting research at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, I came across a photograph depicting some of the environmental literature distributed by the New Brunswick government in the mid-1970s. What immediately caught my eye was a French-language comic book titled Capitaine Enviro. Intrigued, I went back to my office and started searching the Internet for clues as to the comic book’s origins. I had no way of knowing at that point in time that I had just stumbled upon a whole new (to me) area of historical research.

The photograph that originally interested me in comics scholarship (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P366-1051).

The photograph that originally got me interested in comics scholarship (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P366-1051).

Over the next few years, my forays into comics scholarship kept getting bolder. At first, I simply incorporated comics images into conference presentations, guest lectures, and my own teaching, often using the aforementioned Captain Enviro comic (see the full Captain Enviro comic book here). As I became more comfortable with the subject matter, I gave a conference presentation in Toronto in the spring of 2013, workshopped a paper at the 2013 meeting of the Northeast and Atlantic Canada Environmental History Forum, and last summer published an article in the journal Material Culture Review. A couple of years ago, I even started daydreaming about the possibility of one day being in the position where I could create an undergraduate course that combined history and comics.

Well, that daydream of mine is one step closer to becoming reality. In the last couple of weeks, I have been putting together courses for my upcoming position with the University of Maine. One of the courses that I’m proposing for the 2016-2017 academic year is called “History and Comics.” As described in the course syllabus, “This course provides a concise introduction to the field of comics studies, and then relies on the comics medium to acquaint students with some of the major topics and themes that are commonly encountered in the discipline of history. Comics are highly accessible and foster active engagement, making it a powerful medium through which to experience the discipline of history.”

The course is currently structured to unfold over 15 weeks, with a three-class-per-week schedule. The first three weeks will serve as an introduction to the field of comics studies (history, form, and culture), while the following 12 weeks will focus on some of the major topics and themes in history. It’s in this second part of the course when the interplay between history and comics really begins: “When we enter the portion of the course focused on various topics and themes in history (weeks #4-15), the first class of the week will be a contextual lecture of that week’s topic or theme, the second class will be an examination of how that topic or theme has been dealt with in comics over time, and the third will be a discussion of specific examples of comics.”Students will be introduced to a “wide and varied selection of subject matter,” including politics and political discourse, armed conflicts and mass atrocities, nature and the environment, Indigenous peoples, labour and the working class, and the LGBTQ community.

The textbook for the comics studies section of the course.

The textbook for the comics studies section of the course.

While students will engage with a variety of comics materials, there are four main texts for the course. Randy Duncan, Matthew J. Smith, and Paul Levitz’s The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture will serve as the textbook for the comics studies section. The other three texts are graphic novels, to be read over the term: Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Students will also have to produce discussion papers on two of the three graphic novels as part of the course evaluation. In the discussion papers, “students will interpret, evaluate, and criticize the methods and content used by the comics creators to impart historical meaning and narrative.”

All of this is to give you a basic sense of the course. However, for those who are interested, a PDF copy of the course syllabus is available below. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please send them along. The course will be going in front of the undergraduate curriculum committee later this fall. It’s still in the early stages, but if approved, it is my hope that “History and Comics” will grow with me as I become even more acquainted with the comics medium and comics scholarship.

Syllabus for History and Comics

An Evaluation of Crowdsourcing Course Ideas Through Social Media

It’s been three weeks since I first published my blog post on “Crowdsourcing Course Ideas Through Social Media,” and as promised, what follows is an evaluation of my experiment to seek out ideas via Twitter for a new undergraduate course titled “Booms and Busts in North America” that I’m creating for my upcoming position at the University of Maine.

Relying on my original post as a full-length explanation of my experiment, I proceeded to tweet a link to the post and a request for help on four occasions: twice on September 2nd, then once each on September 7th and 14th. I also used a variety of hashtags to try to reach beyond my immediate followers, including #envhist (environmental history), #cdnhist (Canadian history), and #amhist (American history). I’m sure there were others that I could have used, but those were the ones that seemed appropriate at the time.

My attempts to spread the message were fairly successful. Over three weeks, my blog post received 105 views. Most of the views were from Canada and the United States, as one might expect, but the post also generated interest in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Japan, and Singapore. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the views corresponded with the days in which I sent out my tweets.

In total, there were 11 contributors to my experiment, and here is a full list of the suggestions they sent to me:

@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

@mmurphySMB: Fisheries on Georges Bank or any industrial fishery in North Atlantic. No ideas for texts but check w/ @robgee18

@DaleBarbour: At the risk of being a one trick pony; beaches/resorts. You can even argue there’s a boom and bust pattern to them #envhist

@mica_amy: don’t forget mining! Two upcoming books might be of interest (one from J. McNeill one from @JohnSandlos and A. Keeling).

@jeffmanuel: sorry for the immodest promotion, but my book analyzes boom-and-bust resource econ in northern MN ; also check out Steven High’s work with paper mill workers in northern Ontario

@DanAllosso: Last yr I added a bit to my class taken from Bill Kovarik’s writing on ethanol:

@journeymanhisto: This recent post I wrote for @historyrecipes deals with a food assignment, but really useful for studying commodification; “History Bound Up in Every Bite: Food, Environment, & Recipes in the Western Civ Survey”

The suggestions ranged from specific sources to general themes to the names of scholars who have written on particular subjects. The mix of ideas demonstrates, I think, that my requests for help reached a decent cross section of expertise.

So, the verdict: was my experiment on crowdsourcing course ideas through social media worth it? Definitely. Much of my time and effort was spent writing the original blog post, but most folks aren’t likely going to go through with that step, nor do they necessarily need to. A general request for help expressed through one or a series of tweets, disseminated by way of well-established hashtags, and repeated often enough would probably serve the same purpose. As a result, seeking out course ideas via Twitter takes very little time and effort, and that which you do put into it has the potential to reap great rewards. Some of the suggestions I received were already on my radar, while others might not fit well with how I eventually end up constructing the course, but it is doubtless that there were ideas that I might never have come up with on my own, or at the very least not as quickly. The whole experiment was more than worth it, and I’m sure that I’ll continue to use a similar, more toned down version of it when creating courses in the future.

But as LeVar Burton would say, you don’t have to take my word for it. Go try it out for yourselves.

Preparing the Oral Presentation for the Humanities and Social Sciences Thesis Defence

In the lead-up to my PhD defence in November 2013, one the main worries that I had floating around in my head was how to structure the oral presentation. I asked various friends, colleagues, and mentors for advice, which they gladly provided, and I conducted Internet searches for any sort of list of best practices. Much of what I encountered online was geared towards the physical sciences, and as an historian, only some of what I found was beneficial to me.

A few minutes ago, I saw a request for help on Twitter that reminded me of my pre-defence experience: “HELP: how do i structure my thesis defense? im looking online for tips but coming up short because everything is science-centric.” Suddenly, this call for help flipped a switch in my mind. I recalled that of the 40-50 people who were at my PhD defence, several came up to me afterward and stated that they really liked how I had structured my oral presentation. A few of them even wanted a copy of my presentation, which I was more than happy to pass along.

With that in mind, and since tips and advice meant for those studying the humanities and social sciences can be hard to find online, I’m providing here a few pointers that I found especially helpful. Please note that my area of study is history, so some of what I describe in this post might not be useful in your situation. As individual experiences can vary widely, use at your own discretion. For example, much of what I’m relating here will likely apply more to North American graduate programs than those located elsewhere in the world.

First point: breathe. When you initially sit down to work on the oral presentation, it can seem like a large and nebulous task. However, keep in mind that you’re at the end of a very big and very difficult project, your degree/thesis, and what you’re about to face is just the last step. I’ve always found the best way to tackle any large project is to break it down into a series of smaller jobs or tasks. That way, I can quantify what I need to do, plus it makes the whole endeavour come across as manageable, which you might need to remind yourself during panicky moments. Besides, who doesn’t like crossing tasks off a list?

My next pointer is to get advice from as many sources as possible. Don’t just rely on this post. As stated above, I talked to friends, colleagues, and mentors. You might even be able to get presentations to use as templates from a couple of them. There’s also your supervisor, who should have some advice for you. Moreover, search online, use resources available through your university, hit up the library, etc. Like anything, the best decisions are usually the well-informed ones.

Next, be sure to follow your graduate school’s presentation guidelines, if they exist. If you’re supposed to keep your oral presentation to a maximum of 15-20 minutes, then do that. Don’t go over the time limit. In fact, respect your audience and never go over the time limit, whether you’re presenting at conferences, teaching a class, etc. Also, if your grad school has guidelines as to how the presentation should be structured, follow them and not necessarily what I’m outlining here.

When giving the actual presentation at the defence, put your best self forward. Remember, you’ve worked really hard for a long time to get to this point, so don’t tarnish it with a weak presentation performance. I know that not everyone is comfortable speaking in public, but do your best. It’s better to be a little overdressed than underdressed, meaning wear more formal clothes if you have them and maybe not jeans and a t-shirt. Speak slowly, enunciate well, and don’t get too jargon-y. My mother always told me that if you’re reading something aloud to an audience and it feels like you’re going too slow, then you’re probably going at a proper pace. In history, it’s commonplace for people to read from a script, much to the chagrin of some. If it’s more commonplace in your field to not read from a script, be sure to practice a lot beforehand. Even if you’re going to read from a script, practice reading it in front of family, friends, colleagues, etc., if they’re willing.

Finally, the structure of the presentation. Once again, I’d like to reiterate that my approach seems to have worked well for historians, although it might not be the best fit for your field. I’m going to describe the basic outline below, but you can find a PDF copy of my presentation at the end of this post.

To begin, I thanked everyone on my PhD committee, then those who were in attendance at my oral defence. I then proceeded to outline how my presentation would unfold, so that folks had a basic idea of what I would be talking about that afternoon. The next section was an explanation of how I became interested in environmental history generally and my dissertation specifically. This part of the presentation was popular with the audience. Indeed, my off-campus external wished that I had left in some details that I had taken out about growing up on a small family farm in northwestern New Brunswick.

The section on how I became interested in my dissertation segued into what I termed “insights gained from my research.” Basically, this is where I laid out my research methods, some of the questions that came to me while I conducted the research, and my “aha” moment, that is, what my dissertation was going to explore. Once all of that had been established, I then moved on to my historiographical and theoretical considerations. This is where I discussed my theoretical approach and how what I had written fit in the larger body of scholarship.

The next part of my presentation was a breakdown of the various chapters and findings. You should keep in mind that the committee has already read your thesis, so you just need to provide a nice summary of what you found, not a complete rehashing. People in the audience who haven’t yet read your thesis, or who won’t read it, will also appreciate a brief summary of your findings. In the final section, I highlighted what I considered to be “three important and interconnected conclusions.” This is where I tried to draw some larger lessons from my study. Admittedly, they weren’t perhaps the strongest, but that’s what the book is for.

That’s about all I have to offer. I hope you find some of these tips helpful. One last pointer: remember, you are the expert. At your defence, you’ll know the topic better than anyone else in the room. Take the time to think about the questions and answer them confidently. Good luck and enjoy the experience.

If you have any more helpful tips, please leave them in the comments section below.

Mark McLaughlin’s PhD Oral Presentation, November 2013