Academic rags to riches

March 18, 2004, vol. 29, no. 6
By Howard Fluxgold

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Associate history professor Joseph Taylor's academic rags-to-riches story should give hope to all students struggling to maintain their grade point average.

Taylor's early academic career was less than stellar. As an undergraduate at Portland State University he admits he “had mastered the fine art of probation” by doing just well enough to avoid expulsion.

“I had no real reason for being in university. It got so bad that in my last term at Portland State I didn't buy books for any of my courses.” He dropped out and didn't return to academia for almost nine years.

Taylor, now a Canada Research Chair, spent most of that time on a fishing boat which sowed the seeds of a successful academic career.
“I got on a fishing boat and by the time I was finished with that portion of my life the fisheries were completely devastated. It became increasingly clear to me that this was a deeply historical problem.”

With his interest in academics rekindled, he eventually enrolled at University of Oregon where his honours undergraduate thesis became the basis of an award-winning book, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis.

The book, his first, examines the social, cultural, economic and environmental contexts of the decline of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. It won the George Perkins Marsh award for best book in environmental history in 2000 presented by the American Society for Environmental History.

After earning his doctorate from the University of Washington, he taught at Iowa State University for more than seven years before coming to Burnaby Mountain in January to teach in the history and geography departments. He arrives at a time when salmon farming has become a hot topic in British Columbia with the recently released study in the journal Science on salmon toxicity.

Taylor contends that while the report is well done, it is “rediscovering the wheel in that a lot of these issues have been known for a very long time. Wherever fish farms show up, the same problems occur over and over. Each time, the fish farms say they've resolved the problem and each time people find out that's not true.”

He adds however, that he is surprised that economic nationalism has not become an issue. “All of the fish farms in Puget Sound are owned by one Norwegian corporation. Norwegian-dominated corporations are the primary economic engines of fish farms in B.C.”

Taylor says he was drawn to SFU because of the opportunity to work with both historians and geographers. “I find the intersection of history and geography extremely compelling,” he says. The Canada Research Chair gives him the resources to work on his next project on the fisheries which he describes humourously as “explaining what is wrong with my first book.”

And funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation will help build a computer lab for geographical information systems analysis. All of this “creates a place to do environmental history that is unlike anywhere else.”
Taylor believes that SFU is “institutionalizing an interdisciplin-ary approach to history.”

“SFU has staked out a position within environmental history that is not replicated anywhere,” he adds. Taylor, it appears, is well qualified to enhance that position.

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