The looming impacts of climate change seem to suggest that societies today are influenced by natural forces in new, significant, and unpredictable ways. Yet has human history ever been separate from its natural environment? Have we ever lived in a world in which nature is “out there” for humans to visit, study, and exploit, but not a factor in shaping our individual and collective lives? This course introduces students to the methods and themes of environmental history, exploring how the environment shapes the history of human societies around the world and vice versa. We will explore connections between culture, politics, and society, on the one hand, and disease, energy, climate, agriculture, and more, on the other, with ramifications for our understanding of the past and present.
This course is designed to introduce students to the field of environmental history and the diversity of historical phenomena that can be approached from an environmental perspective. A two-week course of ten meetings would devote a session to the following: (1) introduction to environmental history, (2) the nature/culture divide, (3) agriculture, (4) water, (5) environmental cultures, (6) climate, (7) energy, (8) science/technology, (9) disease, and (10) animal histories. The first four sessions would assign articles or chapters from foundational readings in this sub-field (Cronon, White, Fiege, etc.), providing reference points for students who wish to continue studying environmental history. Subsequent sessions would be based on paired readings that evoke a common environmental theme in two different historical contexts. The “environmental cultures” session, for example, would pair Martha Weisiger’s Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country and Andrew Denning’s Skiing Into Modernity, which each show how cultures develop in conversation with two different landscapes. The intent would be to signal that even very “human” categories like culture, class, and community all have histories that intersect with the natural world.
Class time would consist of discussion, short presentations, and group work. The discussion of the readings would allow students to clarify the authors’ arguments for themselves and for one another. Students will also be invited to express their thoughts relative to style and structure in historical writing, as is done in undergraduate history seminars. Short presentations (30 - 45 minutes) by the instructor would reinforce the comparative structure of the readings with further examples. If readings in the “energy” session, for example, focused on fossil fuels, a presentation could point out other energy regimes, i.e. hydro, solar, and animal. Finally, group work in class would mirror assignments emphasizing the development of observational skills: annotating maps, photographs, and paintings, writing field notes, and critically analyzing a piece of literature or primary source. In-class time, students would break into small groups to work on such assignments together. Over the first weekend, each student would develop their own annotation or commentary on an image, map, source, etc., related to a historical event or pattern. Their final assignment would be to expand this initial work into a short five-page paper by adding another primary source and/or additional secondary sources. The purpose of these cumulative exercises would be to prompt students to hone their analysis of primary sources.
Students in this course will learn to explore the role of the environment in human history, applying an environmental framework to the analysis of primary sources.
This skill will be reinforced and complemented by the development of observational skills relative to environmental phenomena in everyday life.
In addition to providing a foundation for the study of environmental history, this course serves as an introduction to academic history in general because its focus is thematic and methodological (parallel to histories of gender, race, class, etc) rather than national, geographical, or chronological.
Prerequisites: While there would not be any specific prerequisites for this course, I believe that high-school juniors and seniors, having likely done previous coursework in both American and world history, would be best suited for this course. Because this course asks students to look at familiar histories in a new light, previous exposure to historical materials will enable students to get more out of the experience.
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