This course provides and introduction to the historiography in American environmental history. It assumes no previous coursework – students from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests encouraged to participate. The scope is broad. We will sample a range of topics from the colonial period to the recent past. We will read many of the most important works that have been produced in the last twenty years – the so-called “second generation” of writing in environmental history – and we will also review some classic texts. This is not a chronological survey of American environmental history, but rather a series of case study readings that represent broader thematic trends. The readings will challenge you to think about environmental history from four different angles. First, you will consider how humans have depended on, interacted with, and been shaped by the natural world over time. Second, you will study how Americans have perceived and assigned meaning to the natural world around them. Third, you will learn how human attitudes and actions have altered or reshaped the American landscape. Fourth, you will become sensitive to the gendered, class, and racial aspects of environmental change.
We will read and interpret major monographs, as well as critique and synthesize scholarship in various thematic areas (the task of the final paper). Our goal is to read these books with a critical but sympathetic eye, searching for ways in which the different approaches of various authors to writing research about the past might be helpful to our own work. We will try to view environmental history as more than a discrete subfield and think about how to integrate the environment into larger narratives of American history. We will also consider the possible contributions that environmental history could make to contemporary environmental controversies and policy-making. Compared to other academic fields, environmental history has been unusually successful in reaching large public audiences. So we will spend some time discussing the connections between environmental and public history and how to communicate effectively with audiences outside academia.
Photo: Camel’s Hump and Green Mountains, Vermont