November 2012 Archways

On Course: Big Oil’s Legacy

Students explore the global impact of the petroleum industry in a new 360˚.

By Larry Keller

Illustration by Jason Marz

Big Oil is so big that it has been the backdrop in novels (Upton Sinclair’s Oil! and Helon Habila’s Oil on Water), movies (There Will Be Blood, Syriana, and Giant) and political sloganeering (“Drill baby, drill,” and “How many lives per gallon?”).

Now it’s the focus of a cluster of courses at Bryn Mawr called “Transforming the Legacy of Oil.” This is the latest subject to be explored in the College’s 360˚ program, an interdisciplinary construct that examines a topic or theme from different perspectives.

Oil is a timely topic for intensive study. Locally, Sunoco entered into a joint venture with The Carlyle Group that will keep its huge Philadelphia refinery operating, but with a change in direction. Nationally, debate continues about climate change, energy independence, and the use of hydraulic fracturing—“fracking”—to produce natural gas.

The 360˚ course delves into the past, present, and future of oil from a global perspective, but with a Philadelphia subtext. That’s why students found themselves taking a chartered-bus field trip around the Delaware Valley that illustrated the region’s development from a 19th-century coal and oil hub to its growth into a major metropolis.

Even students from the Philadelphia area visited places they’d never been and saw the familiar and the mundane in a new light. Old houses with no driveways? They were built before residents commuted by car. Perilous narrow streets that reduce drivers to quivering jelly? Ditto.

The class drove past iconic symbols of the city’s industrial growth. Next to Penn Treaty Park on the Delaware River—where William Penn signed a peace treaty with the Lenape tribe in 1683—a PECO plant squats incongruously while interstate traffic drones in the background. Near the airport: the Sunoco refinery that once was the largest on the East Coast.

“I think it’s the best tour I’ve ever taken,” says Linh Tong ’13. “We had three tour guides. Each gave us a different perspective on what we were seeing.”

Illustration by Jason Marz

The “tour guides” were Professor of History Elliott Shore, teaching the “Legacy of Penn’s Oil” and providing background on the discovery, transportation, and impact of oil in Pennsylvania; Chair and Professor of Economics David Ross, teaching “Taming the Modern Corporation,” which, among other things, takes a look at how Standard Oil, BP, and Sunoco are among the large corporations that have dominated national and global economies; and Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities Carola Hein teaching “The Global Architecture of Oil,” which follows oil’s trail around the world and its influence on architecture and urban environments.

They hope to help students connect the dots between various facets of oil and to see the big picture rather than memorize minutiae. “The goal is to take academia out of its ivory tower and give it context,” Hein says.

That context includes providing the 11 class members with a real-world application of what they learn by organizing a conference on oil’s influence in Philadelphia, to be held in January.

“They’re learning to interview people, meet a deadline,” Hein says. “The students have to learn to organize a structured plan for the long-term … have goals and revise them.” Shore adds, “They’re getting practical experience.”

Not that it has been easy. At class one gloomy October morning, it’s clear students are uneasy about the scope of the conference. The professors know this because Sophia Abbot ’15 told them so. She’s a student advocate who attends many of the classes for no credit and relays students’ feedback about the course.

“Let’s go through this and see if we can calm down the level of anxiety,” Shore says amiably, sitting cross-legged atop a desk at the start of class. By the time he’s finished, the conference has been reduced from two days to one, with a dinner the preceding night. Students receive assurances they needn’t market the conference—which Shore suggests now be called a symposium—but can invite whomever they please.

Illustration by Jason Marz

The still-evolving event will feature expert speakers and the students themselves on panels and roundtables, with students’ research papers being incorporated into the program. They will be graded on “how well they can get the right questions before symposium participants—and organize themes of the conference,” Ross says.

“He wanted us to think of how to organize it so everyone isn’t just yelling at each other,” Tess Isaacson ’14 says.

“Even scaled back,” Tong says, “it should still be something we learn a lot from.”

Student concerns resolved, Shore moves on to a wide-ranging discussion that includes the fierce battle among railroads to move vast quantities of oil drilled in western Pennsylvania in the 19th century, and how Philadelphia became the destination for that oil. The 30th Street Station is “the last great monument [wealth that came largely from oil] built,” Shore tells the class.

Ross and Hein are seated with the students, and each adds insights as to how New York City later siphoned much of the oil trade from Philadelphia.

Today’s guest speaker is a chemist who predicts that in the decade of 2030 to 2040, oil supplies will be badly depleted and there will be a difficult lag time before affordable alternative energy is available. That gets the class thinking about the future of energy.

The chemist, like other guest speakers, chats with students as they all eat lunch together in the classroom. “They really allow us to engage with each other, not just give us a lecture and leave,” Isaacson says.

An earlier speaker was a pro-fracking geologist. Isaacson says he skirted environmental issues. But Ross had the class listen to a one-hour podcast of a fracking debate. “The teachers seem to try very hard to present all sides and give us all the facts so we can decide for ourselves,” Isaacson says.

Abbot says students tell her that the professors are succeeding in explaining the connections between their individual disciplines and oil. Their approach “influenced me in my outlook toward these problems facing society,” says Kerbe Erango Hfd ’15. “It helps me question my perceptions I had before I took the class.”

Isaacson, a Cities major, says: “The thing that interested me is the collision between cities and economics. When you have three classes build off each other, you have this really complete, full understanding of the subject.”

Her professors are equally enthusiastic. “The fascinating piece is with three in the classroom, we sometimes question each other. I think 360° is just as much about faculty development as student development,” Hein says.

“Oil” is Ross’s first 360°, and he’s sold. “I feel left out when I’m not there and my class is with Elliot and Carola because I’m missing out on engaging conversations.”

Comments on “On Course: Big Oil’s Legacy”

  1. Pleased to hear climate change featured in the study of oil. When I entered Bryn Mawr in 1961 there were 315ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Now there are 391ppm and the curve is rising at three times the rate it was in 1961. We’ve super insulated our home, nearly always use public transport and haven’t flown for five years. By the time my new granddaughter is 50 there will be run-away global warming if we don’t take really serious action now.