Publication Date

March 1, 2012

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • United States

Our story begins in the spring of 2006, when Adrian Shubert, then associate vice president international and a member of the history department at York University, arrived in the then ASU history department looking for faculty interested in Canada (the ASU history department has since become part of the university’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies). Shubert was visiting Arizona as part of a collaboration involving ASU, York, and the University of Mexico through NACTS, the North American Center for Transborder Studies at ASU, and he wanted to explore the possibility of the two history departments working together on comparative North American and transborder Canadian/U.S. projects. The upshot of Shubert’s inquiries was that Susan Gray of the ASU history department traveled to York to investigate further potential partnerships.

Over the fall of 2006, Team ASU (Don Fixico, Paul Hirt, Dirk Hoerder, the late Chris Harzig, and Gray) drafted a proposal for a team-taught graduate seminar, to be taught over the 2007–08 academic year, on the Canadian/U.S. border and borderlands, organized around such topics as relations between Aboriginal and non-Native peoples, migration, environment, women and gender, and policy and politics. The team envisioned a variety of pedagogical settings, including at least two face-to-face meetings and other ways of bridging the geographical distance.

To get the larger project off the ground, a pilot course was developed. Colin Coates of York University and Susan Gray of ASU would jointly teach a one-term course on North American environmental history, focused around our shared interests in cultural landscapes.

There then began one of the longest and most intense periods of course preparation that either of us had ever experienced. We did not know each other; we had no significant financial support, although we had plenty of good will, from York and ASU; and we were clueless about a myriad of institutional incompatibilities. These last ranged from serious discrepancies between academic calendars and time zones to the challenges of reconciling the budgets we were awarded by our respective universities, which did not pay for the same things. We must say that without the generous support of Adrian Shubert’s office at York, and Alan Artibise, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at ASU, the pilot course could not have been launched and sustained. Adrian encouraged our collaboration from the beginning, and Alan, himself a Canadian, needed no persuading that studying the U.S. border with Canada was as worthy an endeavor as examining its southern counterpart with Mexico.

Despite this administrative support, the complications involved in mounting the pilot course proved real. Preparing the actual substance of the course, in contrast, proved easy, fun, and wholly engrossing.

In organization, our course was straightforward, moving chronologically from Aboriginal landscapes and the environmental exchange between Europe and North America, to the environmental impact of non-Aboriginal settlers on the continent. Along with biological changes arising from population growth and resource use, we also considered attitudes towards certain kinds of landscape, such as “wilderness” and rural and urban areas. Our rule of thumb for choosing readings was a ruthless egalitarianism; each week we considered pairs of Canadian and U.S. readings that addressed common themes in relation to different parts of the continent. Thus, for a week devoted to Aboriginal landscapes, we paired Julie Cruikshank’sDo Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination with Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache.

Just as the greatest reward for us proved to be our shared intellectual engagement in constructing the syllabus and co-teaching, so for the students the excitement came from working together. For we not only shared a virtual classroom, but we also paired ASU and York students together to write papers, telling them to use any medium at their disposal to communicate with one another. By the time we met face-to-face in Arizona for a field trip to the Grand Canyon (led by Paul Hirt, one of whose research interests is the Grand Canyon as a cultural landscape), the conversation was in full flow. By the time ASU visited York and Niagara Falls the following month, we were old friends. In retrospect, we suppose that what we did in the pilot course of the ASU/York collaboration constituted high-risk pedagogy, but it did not feel that way at the time. Instead, the pilot course felt like something worth our best efforts.

So worthwhile, indeed, that we determined to pursue an even more ambitious scheme for teaching across borders. During the 2008–09 academic year, Dirk Hoerder then of ASU and Carolyn Podruchny of York worked with us to mount in 2009–10 a yearlong seminar on the Canadian/U.S. borderlands. In preparing this seminar, Canadian and American perspectives came into play in ways they had not done during the run-up to the pilot course. For example, it very much mattered for what we taught and how we taught it, that ASU is located near the border with Mexico. Indeed, the U.S./Mexico border proved a constant presence in our considerations of the Canadian/U.S. borderlands.

Once we realized that this would be the case, we decided to bring the border with Mexico explicitly into the course through assigned readings and a field trip to southern Arizona that included the Tohono O’odham nation, which is bisected by the U.S./Mexico border. (On the ASU trip to Ontario, we visited the Six Nations near Brantford, where historian Keith Jamieson discussed the contemporary implications of Jay’s Treaty for First Nations people wishing to cross the border.)

At ASU we found ourselves faced with any number of queries of varying degrees of explicitness about why we were bothering with the Canadian/U.S. borderlands when we could be studying the equivalent in the Southwest. “Your course is great,” the ASU faculty were frequently told, “but why don’t you…”? Pragmatic or parochial considerations explain only some of these inquiries. For Americans, we came quickly to understand, the border with Mexico is the problem, while the border with Canada is, well, just “there”; just as Canada is, well, just an extension of “us.” To our dismay, we found this attitude flourishing among the American students in the seminar, several hailing from Michigan being especially forceful on this point.

From the perspective of the ASU faculty (one of whom is also from Michigan!), one of the most engaging aspects of the borderlands seminar was in blowing up this complacency. To paraphrase Sheila McManus: a border divides, but it may or may not separate, and the extent to which it does so changes with people, politics, and material circumstances over time. Thus, one of the central questions of the seminar became: when and why do borders matter? This consideration took us far beyond the geopolitical history of the physical boundary between Canada and the United States.

Thinking about when and why borders matter necessarily engages national historiographies in provocative ways. Borderlands courses are not only transnational; they are inherently comparative, and therefore they encourage us to strive toward a truly continental understanding of North American history. Potentially, in other words, they force U.S. historians out of their tendency to equate the history of the nation-state with that of the continent. Such an attitude is as institutional as is it reflexive. Except for the two seminars with our York colleagues, ASU offers no “North American” graduate courses that are truly continental in scope.

To find their national historiographies so foundational and problematic came as something of a surprise to both ASU and York faculty and students. The York students, of course, had read more U.S. history than their ASU counterparts had read Canadian history. At the outset, however, all of the students were quite confident that they both knew their own histories and that they had a good idea about history on the other side of the border. Thinking about the Canadian/U.S. borderlands forced them, again and again throughout the year, to reevaluate what they thought they knew about their respective national histories. It did for the faculty as well.

To engage in the study of borderlands is to enter into a lively historiographical and theoretical debate over the importance of liminal geographies and interstitial inventiveness. Our students were apt to remind us that we professors used the concept of borderlands in a number of different ways—reflecting in part a historiography which often engages with borderlands concepts more by implication than directly. Indeed, the course raised issues about why borderlands is not a common theme in Canadian history. As Canadian historians all know, about one-fifth of the Canadian population in 1901 lived in the United States. The links between the two countries were through the force of sheer numbers cultural, economic and genealogical, as they had been long before and remain to this day.

If one takes a narrow view of borderlands as the area in fairly close proximity to the international boundary—let’s say 100 km—the vast majority of the Canadian people are borderland populations. Does this nearness mean that much of Canadian history can be understood as having taken place in an interstitial space, with escape, or markets, or inspirations, or fears only a short trip away? This is not normally the way that Canadian historians approach their subject matter. And what does it mean that so much of the American population is not located in the same borderlands space? As Steven High’s study of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes region during the 1970s and early 1980s so eloquently points out, American workers had a much harder time capturing the imagination of government elites, while Canadian workers were much more successful, with dramatically different consequences for working conditions on either side of the border.

Challenging students and faculty to think beyond the nation-state forces us all to consider the moments when the nation-state matters and the times when it has little significance. More practically, it requires some familiarity with both national histories and geographies. And it requires a good bit of financing, if we wish to take students from one location to the other. In the case of the second iteration of the course, the International Council for Canadian Studies generously supported the initiative. Along with support from York University’s International Office and from the dean’s office at ASU, the ICCS funds made the two field trips possible, and allowed the students on both sides of the border to establish a deep connection to their colleagues in the other institution. From the student feedback, among the key achievements of the course were that it forced them “out of their comfort zone” and gave them an added sense of responsibility. As faculty, we like to think that a cross-border course, similar to borderlands themselves, is a creative and inspiring place for engaging the history of two countries.

Susan E. Gray is associate professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. She is also co-editor of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.

Colin M. Coates is associate professor in the Canadian Studies program at Glendon College and holds the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Landscapes at York University, where he is also director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies.

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