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A Brief History of the Laptop Ban

"Laptop Toss" by The B's

“Laptop Toss” by The B’s

In recent years, several scholars have expressed a desire to ban laptop computers and smartphones from the classroom. This urge to prohibit the use of computing devices, however, may be a reflection of our own shortcomings as educators. It may also be a future liability for higher education. What are the implications of excluding technologies that have revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication from our teaching?

As a historian, I am all too familiar with the sentiments expressed in a recent article on NewYorker.com, “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom,” by mathematics and computer science professor Dan Rockmore. To support his case, Rockmore points to a handful of studies of student performance, comparing students with laptops to students without. For example, he looks at an often-cited 2003 paper in Journal of Computing in Higher Education titled “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments” [PDF], which found that students who multitasked on laptops during a lecture had poor performance on subsequent quizzes. A 2013 study by a team at York University found similar results. According to their conclusions:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

Some university faculty have since relied on these kinds of studies as scientific evidence that proves that computing devices are detrimental to learning. Their solution? Ban computers from the classroom!

In recent years, some academics have publicly bragged about their respective laptop bans, proclaiming victory over a perceived classroom intruder. In 2010, Washington Post profiled David Cole’s Georgetown University law class  for its noticeable lack of laptop computers. Cole implemented his laptop ban as early as 2006 arguing that the devices were an “attractive nuisance.” In that same year, Paul Thagard, a professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo, explained his decision to ban laptops from his classes as follows: “According to reports from various students I’ve asked, the vast majority are doing things that are not class related: surfing the Web, sending text messages, checking email, and pursuing other social activities such as Facebook. I’ve even heard of cases of students watching movies or engaging in video chat.” He also cited a list of studies of cognitive science that examined the impact of digital distractions on learning. In October 2013, James Loeffler writing for Time.com proudly admitted “I’ve now gone on to ban laptops in several courses. And the result? Many students are relieved.” Rockmore himself has drawn much attention for banning laptops in computer science courses. He confessed, I banned laptops in the classroom after it became common practice to carry them to school.” Rockmore’s article has even inspired others to copy his laptop ban.

Some academics seem to be prone to hostility toward computing technologies in the classroom. In fact, university educators have been doing this for over a decade now. For example, in 2002, Tim Lougheed warned readers of University Affairs that “The Internet has many merits as an educational tool, but it can be a disruptive presence in the classroom.” In 2006, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story about a law professor at the University of Memphis who banned laptops in her classroom. She said, “The computers interfere with making eye contact. You’ve got this picket fence between you and the students.” [1] In that same year, Dennis Adams from C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston claimed that the internet in the classroom, while a wonderful thing, “can also be a barrier to learning.” In 2007, a professor of strategic communication at University of Missouri exclaimed that her laptop ban was a great benefit to students who “have even mentioned that they feel like they are doing better without the laptop.” And in 2008, the law school at University of Chicago tried to shutdown wireless internet access in its classrooms in a bid to win back student attention.

"The times they are a changing" by Brett Jordan

“The times they are a changing” by Brett Jordan

This attitude toward laptops and the internet in the classroom was not always the case on university campuses. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when universities struggled to achieve “ubiquitous computing” on campus and implemented mandatory laptop computing programs for their students and faculty. For example, in 1995 Wake Forest University started a mandatory laptop program for students and professors. After initial faculty and student reluctance, according to one report, “the prevailing mood here is that the program is worthwhile. Professors are trying out new teaching methods; students do more work outside class, mostly by participating in on-line discussions; computer costs can now be figured into financial-aid calculations; and everyone in the program has equal access to computers.” [2] In Canada, Acadia University was a pioneer in the integration of computing and the internet in the classroom. In 1996, the university introduced a voluntary laptop program for first-year students called Acadia Advantage. According to a 1998 report on the program in Globe and Mail, “Lectures are spiced up with the use of CD ROMs, internet scoping and Power Point lectures that enable students to focus on the discussion and download the classnotes later.” Although attitudes toward these programs were not universally positive, there was a deliberate effort on the part of faculty and administrators to encourage both the integration of new technologies and experimentation in teaching methods. [3]

The optimism for computing and the internet in the classroom from the 1990s waned by the turn of the century. In 2001, Duke University rejected a policy of requiring students to use laptop computers in the classroom, primarily due to issues of costs and classroom distraction. In response to this decision, Julianna Gilbert (Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Denver) and Ken Stafford (Vice Chancellor for University Technology Services at University of Denver) wrote the following to The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We have learned that for the university to move forward effectively into the arena of technology-assisted learning, faculty members must be involved from the ground up in exploring the uses of computers in the curriculum, and sufficient support for them to engage in this activity is a necessity.

If classroom time is primarily characterized by lectures, then laptops are probably a distraction, and if students bring them to class for note taking, it is quite likely that some will use them for activities unrelated to the class (e.g., surfing the Web, using e-mail, etc.). [4]

As campuses introduced wireless networks and laptops became low-cost, mass consumer commodities, universities across Canada and the United States eventually achieved ubiquitous computing without deliberate programs or initiatives. The advent of smartphones (essentially multi-sensory, geospatial networked pocket computers many times more powerful than the laptops that Acadia and Wake Forest distributed in the 1990s) has only further transformed university campuses. The primary difference between the initiatives of the 1990s and the present seems to be a lack of coordinated programs and resources to assist in the integration of these technologies into our teaching.

Not all scholars have jumped on the “ban”-wagon. In 2007, Terence Day wrote a thoughtful piece on different approaches to integrating computing technologies in the classroom. Berlin Fang, writing in Educase Review Online in 2009 argued that the issue of technological distractions in the classroom“gives educators a reason to reflect on their own teaching or, rather, the instructional process as a whole. Viewed this way, distractions caused by computers might be the result of a failure to involve students in the classroom rather than the reason they are not engaged.” Similarly, J. Ellis Bell, a professor of Chemistry at the University of Richmond wrote about this issue in 2010, suggesting that student laptop distractions might be the result of boring lectures and poor teaching approaches. “Rather than talking about banning laptops from class,” he argued, “we should be talking about how to constructively use them to engage students in classroom activities and active learning.” And Robert Talbert recently challenged some of Rockmore’s arguments and suggested that “The real problem is not laptops per se but the unstable mixture of a certain kind of technology with a certain kind of pedagogy – namely, lecture.”

One of the stumbling blocks to getting faculty to rethink the use of computing technology in the classroom has been the persistence of the “myth of the digital native.” Too many faculty assume that students are somehow naturally adept at the use of computing technologies and the internet by right of birth within the past twenty years or so. As such, they fail to recognize a need to integrate computing skills into their teaching. Eszter Hargittai’s research at Northwestern University over the past few years has shown this assumption to be false. Instead, it finds that “even when controlled for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.” Such findings suggest that students do not enter the classroom with innate and uniform computing abilities. Rather than relying on the tired stereotype of “digital natives” faculty should be thinking about ways to integrate computing technologies and the internet into scholarship and learning as a way to provide students with a broader range of the computing skills.

Strict prohibition and regulatory compulsion has never struck me as good pedagogy. For more than a decade, reactionary prohibition of computing devices in the classroom has failed to restore the traditional lecture in much the same way as severe litigation against music piracy failed to save the recording industry. We cannot compel our students to learn by tossing their smartphones and laptops out the window. We should not seek to create artificial havens from information technologies and pretend that computing and the internet have not changed learning and education. University administrators should provide the programming and resources to encourage and support adaptation and experimentation with computing technologies in the classroom, as some did in the 1990s. We might be missing opportunities to improve student learning and make university education more responsive and relevant to our students. Banning laptops may seem like the simple answer, but it does not absolve educators and administrators from the difficult challenge of changing our teaching approach in the context of a changing world.

The internet has revolutionized information gathering, analysis, and communication, the very skills at the heart of scholarship. Yet, too many scholars view this technology as an impediment to education rather than an integral component of teaching and learning. I am regularly astonished by academics who express hesitance, hostility, and ignorance when it comes to computers and the internet. We should expect (and encourage) scholars to demonstrate intellectual curiosity about new computing technologies and their implications for human knowledge and understanding. When we see students use such powerful technologies as nothing more than tools of distraction and frivolity, we should strive to teach them how to  harness those technologies in better ways.

[1] Brock Read, “A Law Professor Bans Laptops from the Classroom” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 31 (April 2006): A43.

[2] Jeffrey R. Young, “Invasion of the Laptops: More Colleges Adopt Mandatory Computing Programs” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44, no. 15 (December 1997): A33-A35.

[3] Meg Murphy, “Living the Acadian Experiment” Globe and Mail, 22 June 1998, p. C3.

[4] “Letters to the Editor: The Educational Benefits of Laptops” The Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 24 (February 2002): B22.

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Discussing Online Digital Communication at Second World Congress of Environmental History

"Guimaraes Portugal-4" by Fernando López

“Guimaraes Portugal-4″ by Fernando López

Next week, I will be participating on a roundtable at the Second World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal. Our roundtable is titled, “Beyond Texts and Archives: Experiments with New Sources and Methods in Environmental History” and it is scheduled for Tuesday, July 8, 2014 from 14:00-15:30 in CO-04 (CFPG). All the details about the roundtable can be found here.

I will be speaking about the use of online digital communications technologies in the global environmental history community. Based on my experiences as an editor and podcast producer for the Network in Canadian History and Environment, I will survey the use of online digital communications in environmental history from the advent of email listservs in the mid-1990s to the present.

Here is a round-up of all of the links and references that I may make in my remarks at the conference:

First H-ASEH message, 23, January 1996

Forest History Society website (ca. 1998)

ASEH website (ca. 2000)

ESEH website (ca. 2001)

Oosthoek’s Environmental History Homesite (ca. 1999)

Conquering the Highlands: A History of the Afforestation of the Scottish Uplands

Network in Canadian History and Environment website

Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast

The Otter: Canadian Environmental History Blog

H-Environment Roundtable Reviews

Geospatial Historian

Environment and Society Portal

Environmental Humanities Now

Wilko von Hardenberg, “#envhist: Social media and community-building in environmental history”

#EnvHist Tag Explorer Visualization

“Field Notes” on Environmental History

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Nature’s Past Canadian Environmental History Podcast Episode 43 Available

Episode 43: Environmental Scholarship and Environmental Advocacy, 2 July 2014 [47:04]
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Environmental history has been both friend and foe to environmentalism. Historians can provide important context for understanding contemporary environmental issues, but they can also offer a critique of environmentalism that could undermine the political and social goals of activists.

This is the subject of a recent review essay I wrote for Acadiensis. In that essay I ask, Are all environmental historians environmentalists? How should environmental scholarship relate to environmental activism? Should advocacy for environmental issues shape historical scholarship on the environment? Can history always inform contemporary environmental issues?

On this episode of the podcast, we explore these questions with a group of scholars from the Toronto Environmental History Network.

acadiensisspring2014Please be sure to take a moment to review this podcast on our iTunes page and to fill out a short listener survey here.

Visit the main page at http://niche-canada.org/naturespast and subscribe to our YouTube page here.

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Guests:

Jessica van Horssen
Alex Hall
David Zybelberg
Andrew Watson
Jonathan McQuarrie

Works Cited:

  • Sean Kheraj, Canadian History & Environment
  • Kheraj, Sean. “Scholarship and Environmentalism: The Influence of Environmental Advocacy on Canadian Environmental History” Acadiensis 43, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2014): 195-206.
  • Donahue, Brian. Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Fiege, Mark. Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West. Seattle: Unviersity of Washington Press, 1999.
  • McNeill, J.R. “Drunks, Lampposts, and Environmental History” Environmental History 10.1 (January 2005): 64-66.
  • Parr, Joy. Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
  • Ritvo, Harriet. The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Wrigley, E. A. Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Music Credits:

Citation:

Kheraj, Sean. “Episode 43: Environmental Scholarship and Environmental Advocacy” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 2 July 2014.

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#EnvHist Worth Reading: May 2014

Iqra Read

“IQRA: READ” by Farrukh

Better late than never, here are our picks for what was worth reading on the #envhist tag for the month of May 2014. We track this tag every month and try to pick out some of the more interesting articles, videos, and audio that Twitter users shared.

1. Backstory with the American History Guys podcast episode on US oil history

At the end of May, Backstory, a US history podcast, published an episode that examines America’s addition to oil. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the dawn of the twenty-first, this episode takes a broad look at US energy history and the rise of oil.

2. Dan Macfarlane on Asian Carp, invasive species, and the Great Lakes

Picking up on themes in his recently published book, Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Macfarlane surveys the problem of invasive species on the Great Lakes in the years before and after the seaway in a new article on ActiveHistory.ca. He explores the social, ecological, and economic complexities of the impact of invasive species.

3. Public lectures on Indian environmental history from Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

For the past two years, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has hosted a series of public lectures on different aspects of Indian environmental history. Topics include science and religion, climate change, elephants, ecological restoration, rivers, and much more. Curious? You can listen to them all online.

4. Dan Allosso’s US environmental history library

Anyone who has been following the #envhist tag over the past couple of months knows that Dan Allosso is reading a lot of books in US environmental history. Dan is a graduate student studying US and global environmental history. He also runs an amazing new website. Blogging your reading as a grad student is an excellent practice. If you’re looking for a model, check out Dan’s site.

5. The animals of Chernobyl

Last month, NYTimes.com published a video about the work of biologist Timothy Mousseau. He has been studying the long-term effects of radiation exposure on animals near the nuclear disaster site in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Watch this video.

 

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Inventing Stanley Park wins 2014 CHA Clio Prize for BC History

Jenkins and Kheraj celebrate dual Clio Prizes at CHA annual meeting at Brock University.

Jenkins and Kheraj celebrate dual Clio Prizes at CHA annual meeting at Brock University.

I am very happy to share the news that Inventing Stanley Park won the 2014 Canadian Historical Association Clio Prize for outstanding contribution to British Columbia history. Obviously, this is a tremendous honour and I am grateful to the prize committee and the rest of my colleagues in the CHA. This was very exciting news.

Here is the citation for my book:

Inventing Stanley Park is not just an environmental history of one of Canada’s great urban parks. It is also a story about Canadians’ complicated relationship with “Nature”. On the one hand we like our nature “virgin” and “wild” but we also want it “tidy” and “handy”. Kheraj tells a story of a tongue of land that falls just short of closing the mouth of Burrard Inlet, controlling access to what became Vancouver Harbour and its extension,Indian Arm: a location so strategic that for thousands of years it was home to Coast Salish people and then with the arrival of immigrants was quickly declared a military reserve. Harvested by First Nations and then by sawmill loggers, its strategic military value preserved it from urbanization until invasion threats passed and this much-used landscape was declared a natural refuge. Kheraj documents the interaction of humans and the environment of the park area from its early habitation through the response of Vancouverites to a dramatic blow-down in the park in 2006 focussing on how ideas of park changed over time. His work draws on a rich, recent literature on parks in general and on Stanley Park in particular, but he moves beyond the accepted premise that nature is a human construction and argues that ecosystems are, in their unpredictability and force, a key part of the historical record. He sees the physical environment as an actor that deserves independent attention, and yet cannot be disentangled from human actions in the park. In Stanley Park, Kheraj provides a microcosm of the contentious issues one sees in the creation of larger national parks, including the eviction of Indigenous People and the suppression of subsistence uses, along with the issues of urban parks influenced by the “city beautiful” movement with its bourgeois aesthetic and class components. Drawing on a sophisticated literature this accessible, well-illustrated volume overturns some popular understandings of the park and invites us to see it as a site with multiple histories still being written. It captures the flavour of a quintessential British Columbia landscape and the ongoing debate over how to define and defend it.

I was especially happy to have won the award alongside my colleague, William Jenkins, who won the Clio Prize for outstanding contribution to Ontario history for his book Between Raid and Rebellion: the Irish in Buffalo and Toronto, 1867-1916. Here’s the citation:

Using an innovative methodological approach which combines social historical methodology with historical geography, this book examines the lives and allegiances of Irish immigrants in Toronto and Buffalo in the period between the Fenian Raids and the 1916 Easter Uprising. Jenkins takes up the challenge of rendering the compelling allegiances of those communities intelligible through his examination of the transformations that took place over the politically-charged period of the narrative. The book is organized into two sections, both of which are grounded in a broad array of sources. In the first Jenkins examines the historical geography of the Irish immigrant experience in both Toronto and its American neighbor Buffalo, two rapidly growing cities that were both major destinations for Irish immigrants. In the second he provides an insightful analysis of the transformations and the ‘prevailing threads’ which run from the immigrants to their descendants. It is a work of remarkable complexity and it is firmly-rooted in the historical scholarship of both the Irish diaspora and Canadian and American politics. At one level, its insightful interpretations and its comparative structure add greatly to our understanding of a commonality of experience. More importantly, however, the subtlety and thoroughness of the argument and the skill of the author as a writer provide a richly nuanced study which accounts for national and transnational influences and for the power of geography as a vital historical determinant.

Also, you can read a new review of the book in BC Forest Professional here. 2 out of 5 cones!

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Re-Live #CHESS2014 on Twitter

If you missed last week’s Canadian History and Environment Summer School at York University, you can live the whole thing over again on Twitter. I have compiled an archive of all of the #CHESS2014 Tweets that captures almost every moment of the event. You will find comments, questions, photos, and even the audio from the keynote address.

This was a fantastic experience and I hope that we will continue such events in the future. Thanks again to NiCHE and the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies for their support. And I would like to extend special thanks to the organizers, Andrew Watson, Ben Bradley, Jessica van Horssen, and Jennifer Bonnell.

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#EnvHist Worth Reading: April 2014

"Read II" by ,a href="https://flic.kr/p/9dDD4c">Daniel Go.

“Read II” by ,a href=”https://flic.kr/p/9dDD4c”>Daniel Go.

It has been another full month of activity online in the environmental history community. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with the flurry of great work out there. To help you manage the flood of content, we keep track of the #envhist tag on Twitter for items of interest from around the world. Here is what was worth reading in April 2014:

1. Aerial views of the uneasy geometries of urban sprawl by Christoph Gielen

Just in time for CHESS 2014: Suburbia and Environmental History, TreeHugger.com profiled Christoph Gilen’s new book Ciphers. The book features amazing and hauntingly beautiful aerial photographs of global suburbs. Check it out and see suburbs from a different angle.

2. Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct

AudubonMagazine.org published an excellent, lengthy piece on the history of the destruction of the Passenger Pigeon. Barry Yeoman traces the complicated, tragic history of this once abundant North American bird.

3. Journal of Canadian Studies Special Issue on Environmental Studies

Following an excellent conference at the University of British Columbia in 2012, Matthew Evenden has edited a selection of papers from that conference in this special issue of Journal of Canadian Studies. With the aim of moving beyond the “culture of nature” framework, the authors in this special issue examine a range of topics of relevance to bigger questions at the intersections of Canadian and environmental studies.

4. Asbestos Communities

Professor Jessica van Horssen sits down for a recorded chat about her research on asbestos and Asbestos, QC on the Commodity Histories website. This is an insightful interview and provides great background on this fascinating research topic.

5. Environmental History Climate Change Forum

Perhaps the greatest environmental challenge of the twenty-first century, climate change looms large in the field of environmental history. Ten environmental historians offer short essays in this special forum on climate change. Like many of the other special forum issues of Environmental History, this one is certainly worth reading.

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Oil Pipeline Spill History at the National Energy Board of Canada Library

National Energy Board Offices, Calgary, Alberta.

National Energy Board Offices, Calgary, Alberta.

This week, I am taking advantage of some of the historical research materials available at the National Energy Board library in Calgary, Alberta. As we discussed on a recent episode of Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast, federal department libraries are incredible resources for environmental history. With the closure and consolidation of so many of these libraries across the country, I wanted to get to the NEB library before any materials got lost in the shuffle.

The trip to Calgary paid off almost immediately. I am currently working on a history of oil pipeline spills in Canada and I wanted to get a broad picture of the frequency of pipeline failures on Canada’s interprovincial and international oil pipeline network. The helpful staff at the library dug through the catalogue and we turned up this:

Pipeline Incident Database Binder

A binder full of every pipeline incident reported to the National Energy Board between 1959 and 1996.

This was exactly what I was looking for. The binder contains 325 pages of every pipeline incident reported to the National Energy Board between 1959 and 1996. Page after page of spreadsheet charts include dates, locations, incident types, causes, quantities, product types, companies, and annotations for all reported pipeline incidents. This includes every oil pipeline spill. It is basically the mother lode.

I posted a couple of examples to Twitter as I browsed the binder before copying the entire thing:

Unfortunately, we could not find a digital copy of the database. That means that I have a very large data management problem on my hands. I have scanned the entire database and run it through preliminary Object Character Recognition software. I will then need to manually plug in the entries into my own spreadsheet file so that I can make the data usable. Once I do this, I will be able to show the following:

  • Total number of oil pipeline spills between 1959 and 1996 along with annual totals
  • Total volume of oil spills (for entries that include quantities)
  • Locations of pipeline spills over time by province and lines
  • Breakdown of oil pipeline spills by company
  • Causes of oil pipeline spills over time

I am also interested in manually exploring the qualitative data in the comments for each incident. As my Tweets from earlier this week reveal, the contextual information in the comments show many of the different (and sometimes bizarre) circumstances that result in oil pipeline spills, including mudslides, flying boulders, and human error. This is especially valuable because newspapers only seem to have reported on a fraction of these incidents.

In the meantime, I have been able to compile a broader history of pipeline incidents from the annual reports of the National Energy Board. The board first started reporting pipeline leaks, breaks, malfunctions, and other incidents in 1965. From this information, I was able show the history of pipeline incidents from 1965 to 2013:

NEBPipelineFailures 1965-2013

While not every incident resulted in an oil spill, the data point to a bigger picture of the degree to which Canada’s interprovincial and international pipeline system was subject to a multiplicity of factors that resulted in workplace injuries, deaths, explosions, and commodity leaks. Hopefully this history of oil pipeline spills will help Canadians better assess the risks associated with the transportation of large volumes of hazardous materials across the country.

My experience this week has also underlined the importance of these federal libraries. Access to the NEB collection at Library and Archives Canada is restricted and requires the completion of the time-consuming freedom of information process. The library holds materials that are easy to access and may not even be kept in LAC. That big binder of pipeline incidents was sitting on a shelf on 7th Avenue SW visible from the street. Who knows what other materials of historical significance are sitting on department library shelves?

Readers can learn more about this project at 2pm on 13 May 2014 at the Deer Park Branch of Toronto Public Library where Professor Kheraj will present some of his findings from this research. Details are available here.

Sean Kheraj is an assistant professor in the Department of History at York University. He blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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Ten Books to Contextualize the Alberta Tar Sands

Published on April 28, 2014, by in Uncategorized.

By Stacy Nation-Knapper, Andrew Watson, and Sean Kheraj

athabascatarsands

Athabasca Tar Sands, 1892. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

 

Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

The eighth and final episode of the series examined the history of the Alberta tar sands, arguably one of the most significant contemporary Canadian environmental issues. This episode featured a panel of speakers from the 2013 American Society for Environmental History who participated on a plenary titled, “The Fossil Fuel Dilemma: Vision, Values, and Technoscience in the Alberta Oil Sands.” We also interviewed Dr. Andrew Weaver, a climatologist from University of Victoria, member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a Green Party of BC Member of the Legislative Assembly.

Nature’s Past Episode 38: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VIII – Tar Sands

 

Here are ten books to contextualize the Alberta tar sands:

Chastko, Paul. Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

Focused on the politics of tar sands development in Alberta, particularly the inconsistent tensions between the federal and provincial governments, this book thoroughly explores the decisions taken at both the local and national level that contributed to Canada becoming a world leader in petroleum production. Divided into two parts, pre- and post-1945, Chastko identifies the importance of industry and scientific expertise in Alberta to the discovery of feasible techniques for separating the bitumen from the sand, before moving on to the role that foreign markets, federal-provincial tax structures, and emerging environmental concerns had for the growth of the industry in Alberta during the postwar years.

Clarke, Tony, Jim Stanford, Diana Gibson, Brendan Haley. The Bitumen Cliff: Lessons and Challenges of Bitumen Mega-Developments for Canada’s Economy in an Age of Climate Change. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013.

Written primarily from the perspective of public policy and economics, this publication nevertheless relies on historical perspectives in its analysis of the challenges facing tar sands development in 2013. By comparing bitumen to other important commodities in the history of Canadian economic development, such as fur and timber, Clarke et al. characterize the manner in which tar sands development has been pursued as a ‘staples trap’ in which economic development is based on providing raw resources with little value added to the economy. The authors also highlight the threat of ‘Dutch Disease’ in which high oil prices cause the value of the Canadian dollar to rise, thereby discouraging investment in other sectors of the export economy.

Finkel, Alvin. The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Chapter 5, pp.99-140.

Only a portion of this book on the rise of the Social Credit movement and its governance in Alberta between 1935 and 1971 deals with the history of the tar sands. Finkel focuses on the emergence of reform politics and economic restructuring during the Depression, and the postwar turn toward more conservative and reactionary policies. In each case, a strong component of this political movement was the insistence that western Canada should control and benefit primarily from the development of its own resources and economic growth. It is during this time period that the bitumen of the tar sands are developed and within this context that petroleum serves as one of the main vehicles for crystalizing the politics of western exceptionalism.

Gismondi, Mike, and Debra J. Davidson. “Imagining the Tar Sands 1880-1967 And Beyond” Imaginations, Issue 3-2 (2012), 68-103.

An excellent introduction to the topic, Gismondi and Davidson use a series of 38 photographs to explore the history of the tar sands from the 1880s to the 1960s. By using visual representations to explore its political, economic and environmental impacts, the authors demonstrate that imagining the tar sands has always been a critical aspect of convincing the public, government, and industry to invest in the development of non-conventional oil in Alberta. Despite the drastic changes in the scale of development, a remarkable consistency distinguishes the depictions of the tar sands from booster days to the modern mega-project era of Suncor.

Marsden, William. Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta in Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care). Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008.

Written by a journalist, the scope of this book is the contemporary political and economic circumstances of twenty-first century tar sands development rather than its history. By situating the bitumen of Alberta’s tar sands within the context of the strategic geopolitics over oil, Marsden demonstrates that in recent years tar sands development has been steered as much by transnational demand for bitumen as it has by domestic circumstances. Yet this book also explores the effects tar sands development has had on regional politics and the environment by revealing how the provincial government undermined efforts to regulate the industry and buried evidence of its impacts on local ecosystems and human health.

McDougall, John N. Fuels and the National Policy Toronto: Butterworths, 1982.

Although this book is not specifically about the tar sands, its emphasis on the politics of fuels and energy in Canadian history is essential for understanding the forces at work within Canada that shaped the development of bitumen in Alberta. Using coal and natural gas rather than bitumen for his analysis, McDougall tracks the emergence of anxieties related to securing markets for the country’s energy producers on the one hand, and the needs of the country’s energy consumers on the other. During the twentieth century, the push for national self-sufficiency and the introduction of a National Energy Policy in the 1970s largely shaped the context within which the tar sands were developed.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York: Verso Books, 2011.

This book is not specifically about the tar sands, but the big ideas Mitchell presents about the relationship between the production and consumption of energy and the creation and stability of democratic politics provides an important lens for understanding the history of Alberta’s tar sands. In particular, Mitchell argues that the concentrated energy available in carbon-based fossil fuels enabled large concentrations of people, mass politics, and the leverage for labour to demand greater equality within society. By tracing the rapid adoption of coal during the nineteenth century, and then petroleum during the twentieth century, this book raises interesting questions about the place of bitumen in Canadian society and politics.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010.

This book explores the contemporary context of the tar sands by juxtaposing the western world’s insatiable demand for cheap fossil fuel energy with the inability of Alberta bitumen to satisfy the demand. By situating tar sands development within the context of society’s oil dependence, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk reveals that Canada’s new role as the US’s primary source of oil has resulted in short-term political decisions that cater to the business interests of large-scale extraction industries. Not only will the scale and pace of development have long-term environmental and health consequences both at the local and global levels, but the outcome for Canada’s economy and energy security is uncertain.

Pratt, Larry. The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1976.

This book traces the government-corporate negotiations between the Province of Alberta and Syncrude to open the Athabasca tar sands for production of synthetic oil during the 1960s and 1970s. By focusing in particular on the efforts of the oil lobby, Pratt reveals the highly-organized and well-funded tactics employed by the oil industry to coerce the government to approve largely unregulated tar sands development. Written by a journalist at the same time as the events were taking place, this book is incomplete but has since become an essential text on the history of Alberta’s tar sands.

Sheppard, Mary Clark, ed.. Oil Sands Scientist: The Letters of Karl A. Clark, 1920-1949. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1989.

This book follows the career of scientist Karl Clark from his early involvement experimenting with methods of separating bitumen from sand to his central role in the establishment of commercial development of synthetic crude from tar sands. This book combines a brief biography of Clark with a collection of his correspondence to various colleagues, government agents, industry specialists. In many ways, the research and work of Clark mirrors the progress of tar sands development in Alberta. As Clark made new breakthroughs, he shared his work with oil industry engineers, and encouraged the government to open the resource for development.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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#EnvHist Worth Reading: March 2014

Published on March 31, 2014, by in Uncategorized.
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“reading – lectura” by Antonio Mantero

As many readers know, a lot of great articles, announcements, resources, and much more get posted to Twitter, using the #envhist hashtag. For four years now, Twitter users have been sharing environmental history content and we wanted a way to bring more attention to it here. This is the first article of what will hopefully be a monthly column of selected links from the #envhist feed. This is what was worth reading in March:

1. Events in the Collective Environmental Memory of Humanity [Video]

A couple of months ago, Jan Oosthoek’s Environmental History Resources website launched a YouTube channel. This is one of the most recent uploads and it highlights twenty-two key events in global environmental history that professional environmental historians regard as turning points in the relationship between humans and the environment. The quality is great and the video is certainly provocative. I am sure there are plenty of other turning points one could add to this list (so please post comments), but this seems like a pretty good start.

2. H-Environment Round Table Review: The Wired Northwest [PDF]

Jacob Hamblin has done terrific work for the past couple of years editing the round table reviews for H-Environment. The series is an innovative departure from the standard book review format. It convenes a panel of four scholars in a related sub-field to review a new book, followed by a response from the author. This edition of the round table review features Paul Hirt’s The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s, a sprawling regional history of electrification. The reviewers include, Donald C. Jackson, H.V. Nelles, Adam Sowards, and Eve Vogel.

3. RCC Perspectives 2014, No. 1 – The Edges of Environmental History: Honouring Jane Carruthers

Based on the proceedings of a workshop, this issue of RCC Perspectives honours the career of Jane Carruthers, a pioneer of South African and world environmental histories. As editors Christof Mauch and Libby Robin state in their introduction, “Carruthers has been a great influence on the discipline of environmental history in South Africa and beyond.” This issue features essays by Harriet Ritvo, Thomas Dunlap, Tom Griffiths, Emily Wakild, and Lisa Sedrez among others.

4. Trading Consequences Official Launch

One of a handful of winners of the Digging into Data Challenge, the “Trading Consequences” project is a collaboration of environmental historians in Canada and  computer scientists in the UK. The project uses text-mining software to analyze trade and commodity flow patterns in the British Empire in the nineteenth century. A couple of the project leaders, Jim Clifford and Colin Coates, recently announced the official launch of the project, allowing users to explore the search and visualization tools that they have built. Readers should definitely try out the commodity search tool.

5. Stephen Pyne “Green Fire Meets Red Fire; Environmental History Meets the No-Analogue Anthropocene”

Writing on the Pinchot Institute for Conservation blog, fire historian Stephen Pyne explores the significance of historical perspective to understanding contemporary environmental circumstances in the Anthropocene. Pyne finds himself in sharp disagreement with “the most ardent Anthropocenarians,” who might suggest that “the present has so ruptured from previous times that the past can offer no meaningful guidance.” Instead, he argues, “there is good cause to view the uneasy detente between nature preservation and the Anthropocene historically.” Of course, Pyne uses fire as a lens to make this case. He astutely notes that fire is one of the defining characteristics of the Anthropocene. This is a fascinating read and certainly well worth it this month.