The Lighter Side of the Academy

The following likely deserves a more serious investigation of the relationships between technology and society—and especially technology within the academy. Time is flying in more ways than one. A couple of weeks ago already, I was in Madison, WI, for the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting. Due to some other writing commitments, I was scrambling at the last minute to get my own presentation together (I’ll share more on that another time), which concentrated on the politics of determining environmental risk from mercury exposure on Lake St. Clair. Lake St. Clair falls on the border between the United States and Canada, so there were some interesting jurisdictional differences in the responses to mercury’s discovery in 1970.

Now, when you’re talking about environmental pollution on the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair doesn’t spring immediately to mind. First, while it’s tucked between Lakes Huron and Erie, it’s not particularly great (relatively speaking; beyond this case study, I’ve not spent much time exploring the lake. It could be great, but it’s not Great). Fifth Beatle kind of status? Probably not even that.

But I’m getting sidetracked. I felt it might be worthwhile to have some kind of visual aid in order to help my audience situate Lake St. Clair. The last-minute nature of my preparation (and let this be a lesson that last-minute work can never replace good, diligent, and more timely preparation) meant that a slideshow was out of the question, so I elected to bring a couple of overhead transparencies. This is another feature of time flying. Every conference I can recall attending has raised the issue of access to LCD projectors and laptops and the logistical (and likely cost) problems associated with having them available in every conference room. But overheads: now there’s a simple and widely accessible technology.

No overhead projector in the room. As a result, I had some pretty useless 8×11 transparencies that were pretty small and pretty invisible. Thanks to my friend and colleague Jody Roberts at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, who sprang into action as a good session chair should, I used his iPad as backlight to show the transparencies (this in mockish play). Thanks to my friend and colleague Claire Campbell at Dalhousie University, I have a visual record of this lame attempt (mockish play here, too, I suspect).

I blame the resolution of the picture for the lack of clarity; from my angle, the maps looked great (even if St. Clair is a little less than so). Now, I could provide a more heroic account of these events if I were to twist the historical record a little. The next day, my laptop was stolen out of my hotel room (which is the primary reason I’ve been relatively quiet over the past fortnight on the blog). In that light (and in a more liberal ordering of chronological events), I could suggest that even in spite of the theft of my laptop, I was still ready for my presentation with back-up transparencies. That would be the better story. And tempting as it is to “print the legend,” the historian in me is constrained to defer to an accurate recording of events. I’m a dinosaur and not a terribly organized one at that.

Lessons (whatever they were) learned…

The Contributions of Environmental History

At the end of February, I was invited to participate in a roundtable on the uses of environmental history (and its contributions) at York University’s New Frontiers graduate conference. Sean Kheraj (York University), one of the panelists, recorded the discussion, which you can hear on his podcast, Nature’s Past.

In retrospect, I feel I overstated the importance of science (not that it isn’t important, but rather that there is a difference between understanding and “knowing.” I suspect environmental historians, who rarely set foot into the lab simply need to understand and be able to read scientific literature with some facility). More on all this some other time.