Dr. Eric Strikwerda is an AU assistant professor in the Center for Humanities. He teaches a number of courses, including this article’s focus: History 338: History of the Canadian West. This is the first of a two part look into the course.
What is History 338 : History of the Canadian West about?
Dr. Strikwerda: It’s about the history of Canadian West from the earliest times until the mid to late 20th century. It goes a bit beyond that. We start to get into the 21st century.
It’s a wide scope of a course. It deals with the current prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, as well as British Columbia.
When was this course created? When was the last update of the course? Of the learning materials?
Dr. Strikwerda: The course was first created back in the early 1990s. It’s undergone several revisions since then. It’s currently undergoing another one now.
It’s not an eText course, is it?
Dr. Strikwerda: No. It’s on Moodle, so the course commentary and study guide is all on Moodle. It’s all available online. But there are a number of texts associated with the course. Those come to students in the mail.
If it’s textbook course, have you heard of any issues with the textbook that students might want to be prepared for?
Dr. Strikwerda: No, I don’t think so. It’s actually pretty good and interesting reading. We rely on Jean Barman’s The West Beyond the West for British Columbia and the old Gerald Friesen book The Canadian Prairies: A History. I say old because the book was originally produced in 1984. It underwent some minor revisions in 1987, but that’s the last that anyone’s really looked at it.
It’s a very good text. However, it’s a little bit dated.
At present, I’m working with some friends of mine at the University of Alberta to basically write an updated analysis of the entire region. It’s going to be a new survey of the Canadian West and North since 1870. Why 1870? This is when Canada acquired the vast Northwest territories and all of Western Canada. In 1870, as I like to sometimes say, Canada became the second largest geographical nation on the planet. It’s a huge territory and a huge story.
We are aiming to complete the book by 2020, which will be the 150th anniversary of the transfer itself.
Is that coincidence?
Dr. Strikwerda: No it’s not. I taught a similar course to this one at the U of A before, too, and the problem with Gerald Friesen’s book is that it falls apart after World War II. It’s got a very good analysis from the earliest times to the Second World War, but it’s less strong thereafter, and I think Gerald Friesen was dealing with a paucity of source material. Since that time, much new material on the region has been published, so we have a lot more information about the post World War II years.
The West has been a very important part of the cultural story of Canada, certainly of the economic story of Canada with oil and gas in particular, but also at an earlier time with wheat, and at an even earlier time with the transfer of furs.
What we see then with the development of the Canadian West is generally what we call a staples analysis. Staples are generally sort of raw resources that are either produced and then exported or produced and then consumed within Canada.
In this case, then, we are talking about a direct line from the fur trade, for instance. It’s after contact with aboriginal people, of course. The fur trade shaped many of the institutions in Western Canada and the North, for that matter, too.
Following fur, then we start to see things like coal extraction, which becomes very important to the Canadian economy and Western Canada?as well as wheat and gold and other foodstuffs like commercial fisheries.
The basic premise, then, is that all of the institutions, all of the institutional structures in the West and the North are directly related to staples production. It’s kind of like, if you think about it, the way that the West has developed has largely been contingent on the staples needs of the region.
There is a reason why our urban structure looks the way that it does. There is a reason why our transportation systems and our communication systems look the way that they do. They are all more or less set up to aid staples production and export.
That’s a story that continues today when we talk of pipelines and so on: how do we get our oil and gas products to tidewater? as they say. When we start to build pipelines, or other transportation corridors, this is part of a much longer story that has its roots way back in the fur trade.
About how many students take this course, on average?
Dr. Strikwerda: Usually it’s about, at any given time, 45 or so. It’s fairly popular.
What kind of learning style is it? For instance, is it very open ended or does it give fairly detailed instructions?
Dr. Strikwerda: It is open ended.
What students would like to know about this course is that it features three written assignments. We are historians, so we are always interested in the written word. In crafting high quality essays that really get to the heart of the context of the history of the region.
What kind of writing skills do you need to have?
Dr. Strikwerda: What I tell students is that you don’t need to write in a highly technical kind of way. For the most part, the more you can keep it clear and sometimes even conversational, the better. In some disciplines, the emphasis, I suppose, is on the technicality of big words and terms and that sort of thing. What we are really going for in history is communicating the past.
The way it’s been described to me in the past, and I think that this makes sense, is you don’t want to “write up.” By that I mean trying to find the biggest words and the most convoluted sentences. That’s what you want to avoid. You want to write simply because, after all, your goal is to convince your audience of something. You don’t want to annoy your audience with convoluted sentences and big words, right?
A great example of what I’m talking about is that students will think they need to use the word utilize instead of use because utilize sounds more technical. In essence, they are the same thing, right? So, use use.
If this course isn’t a requirement of their program, why should students take it as an elective?
Dr. Strikwerda: I think it’s got some very interesting content. It’s going to change the way people think about their own region if they happen to live in Western Canada, but also, it might change the way they think about the region even if they don’t.
What part or concept in the course have they seen students have the most trouble with?
Dr. Strikwerda: I don’t think really any. It’s a fascinating story. I think that many students get caught up in the epic sweep of it all.
It is true that some students approach writing essays with some trepidation, especially in an upper year course. This is a 300 level course, so it’s a little more demanding than our 200 level offerings. All the same, there is no prerequisite for it.
Students might want to take History 224 or 225. That’s the pre- and post-Confederation histories if they want to have a sense of the wider context within which this whole story is playing out.
What’s a good way for students to deal with the more troublesome parts?
Dr. Strikwerda: I don’t think there really are any troublesome parts. I really don’t. I think that it’s a very well conceived course. I think that if students follow along in the modules, they shouldn’t have any real trouble.
The tutor for the course is me. I am always willing to speak with students on the phone or respond in email if that’s their preference.
Are the assignments fairly similar in the amount of work required, or are some of them much larger? (and, if so, which ones.)
Dr. Strikwerda: Yes. We give students the questions on which they are required to write, but I’m also open to students coming up with their own essay topics if the ones we offer them don’t interest them for some reason.
I’m pretty flexible in that way. I’m the person who grades everything. I work in close communication with all the students.
You talked about challenges. I guess these could be challenges associated with any online course.
As you know, from being an AU student, it can be difficult if you are not a self-starter or if you don’t carve enough time for yourself to do the course well. That’s true enough for any online course.
If you are going to a bricks and mortar offline university, you go to your lectures and then you do the assignments and you finish the course.
With this, you can have as much or as little communication with your tutor as you like. I have had some students who go through the entire course, and I have zero contact with them ever. That’s fine if that’s what students want.
As a rule, I initiate communication at the outset, but thereafter, I invite students to come and send me an email or give me a phone call or whatever. I’m always happy to chat.