On Teaching Global Environmental History with Places & Events

by Andrew Stuhl

“The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence…It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history”

—Aldo Leopold, “The Good Oak”

After spending a semester teaching global environmental history with a new digital tool, I am reminded of Leopold’s allegory. What do our technologies make visible about nature and time? How can we best wield them for student learning?

In Fall 2014, I taught with the Environment and Society Portal’s “Places & Events” database, which contains brief summaries of environmentally significant sites and historical episodes from across the world, linked to related resources within the Portal and beyond. Users can search the collection by keyword, slicing the historical record in a manner unlike the saw (or wedge or axe). They can also organize “hodge-podge” contents through mapping and timeline functions. For these reasons, the Places & Events database is more than just a “Wikipedia” of environmental history—it is a means of exploring the human-nature relationship at the broadest scales of space and time.

My initial pedagogical interest in Places & Events arose after learning about Wilko Graf von Hardenberg’s assignment in his Modern Global Environmental History course. As part of a pilot project, he invited students to draft five contributions to the database following the Portal’s guidelines. An entry included a title, a summary of no more than 50 words, a description capped at 150 words, one image, a related link, a few suggestions for more scholarly reading on the subject, and some other information (date, region, and keywords). I had hoped a similar exercise would freshen up History for the students entering my classroom at Bucknell University—non-majors from disciplines like Neuroscience, Economics, and Environmental Studies. Here was a chance to learn about environmental history by doing it, even if in a bite-sized fashion.

Working with Places & Events fulfilled this goal: enthralled by the assignment, my students added two-dozen items to the database. But it was the process, as much as the end products, that made this experience so fulfilling. Such a compact writing task led students into the challenging, creative space of doing history. In the gap between particulars and patterns—between a specific event at one time, and a history about the world—students sharpened the oldest, most distinctive tool in our belt: storytelling.

"Places & Events" contribution by Cassandra Denger for the course Global Environmental History at Bucknell University. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/map#/id/6881

“Places & Events” contribution by Cassandra Denger for the course Global Environmental History at Bucknell University. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/map#/id/6881

 

Places & Events as Model: Demonstrating Expectations for Digital Scholarship

A Places & Events entry has its trade-offs. As a piece of writing that does not exceed 200 words, it is no substitute for the nuance and depth of the historical essay or the historiographical review. And because the items are published digitally, they have requirements that at first seemed idiosyncratic to students in a history class—like copyright licenses and metadata, for instance. Like other historians teaching digitally have demonstrated, however, these constraints can be opportunities. The entries forced students to be concise, to write for a public audience, and to curate examples (and not just collect them). Surely other assignments meet these learning outcomes. Perhaps none are as engaging for non-History majors tasked with learning about global environmental history, though. And perhaps none make so tangible the emerging expectations scholarly communities have for rigor and representation in the internet age.

To get at these opportunities, I tweaked von Hardenberg’s assignment and integrated the exercise throughout the course. Rather than collect five items over the semester, I asked students to turn in four. The first of these was a practice exercise in which students drew only from course material to document a place or event we had already considered in class. I wanted to take the pressure of students who were unfamiliar with historical scholarship and give them a chance to get accustomed to the Places & Events requirements. The lead-up to the deadline for this practice run produced a few teachable moments. In class, I called up published items on episodes featured in our readings, to give students a sense of how a lecture or discussion might be condensed into a paragraph or two. I also seized the moment to consult with my colleagues in the library. Instead of giving the standard tour of databases, librarians talked with students about the importance of footnotes, copyright licenses, and metadata. In another context, this conversation might have been lost on students, or appeared as merely academic hoop-jumping. In light of the digital and public interface for their entries, however, students appreciated the importance of attention to detail, organizational structures, and the legal aspects of knowledge sharing.

 

Places & Events as Practice: Doing Global Environmental History

For the other three Places & Events entries, I asked students to think of these as a set. What story about global environmental history could be told through them? After our meeting with librarians, they were comfortable mobilizing our library’s resources to answer such a question. They were ready to make the leap to independent research.

To guide them, I presented a number of ways of approaching the trio of places and events. First, students could target a single place and track changes there over three different eras. As a second option, they could choose one period of environmental change and compare its manifestations in three different landscapes of the world. Third, they could take up one of the twelve pre-selected themes of the Places & Events database (like biodiversity, population, resources, or disasters) and situate this theme in time or space. Talking with students about these options—whether in class or in one-on-one meetings—felt like a pedagogical Trojan Horse. On the surface, I was laying out the expectations of the assignment. But, on a deeper level, we were examining the potential of both digital tools and a global lens on history. Through the computing power of the database, students were thrust into the position of assembling discrete historical phenomena from across the world and the historical record. Like other environmental historians have noted, these moments of conscious, experiential learning are profound for students and teachers alike.

Students responded to these discussions with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Given the material at their fingertips and the scope of the course, they were eager to get started, but had trouble deciding where (or when) to begin. To launch them, I encouraged them to survey the existing collection, both to get a sense of what intrigued them most and to avoid duplicating entries. I also asked them to turn in one of their set of three entries in mid-November, while the remaining two were not due until the last day of the term. This allowed me to coach students more effectively, whether to correct a project veering off track or encourage one in a deeper, more nuanced direction. As an added bonus, the earlier deadline gave me a batch of entries to send off to the folks at the Environment & Society Portal. Only some of these were selected for inclusion—which prompted me to return to students before the end of the semester to review the expectations for the assignment and digital scholarship more generally.

Below, I include a map of all my students’ entries eventually selected for publication. A glance reveals decent geographical coverage, but notable gaps. In hindsight, I would have incorporated this image as a touchstone in wrap-up activities. Why did we choose these places and events? Where are areas of concentration, whether historically or spatially? What places and times are left out? Why? How does this map, and the narratives it makes possible, compare with our course text, J. R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun?

 

Andrew Stuhl's students produced twenty-four "Places & Events" entries that were published on the Environment & Society Portal

Students in Andrew Stuhl’s Global Environmental History class produced twenty-four “Places & Events” entries that were published on the Environment & Society Portal (www.environmentandsociety.org).

 

Places & Events as Story: Situating, Curating, and Juxtaposing

Though I didn’t have the map to spark closing conversations, students did reflect on their Places & Events contributions. In addition to the three entries, I had students submit a reflection essay of 750-1000 words. There, students explained their choice of items, described their research process, and explicated the lessons about global environmental history found in their trio of entries. The sophistication in these essays startled me. Students who had little prior training in history or historical research pinpointed some of the most crucial skills in our subfield, all orbiting the craft of storytelling.

Consider commentary from Katelyn Young, a Neuroscience major, on how historiography provided the point of entry into her work on international environmental legislation. “I was intrigued by the ideas that Arthur McEvoy introduced in his work on California fisheries,” she wrote, “particularly his discussion about how activities that are associated with oceans are notoriously difficult to regulate.” From here, Katelyn detailed how she used McEvoy’s perspective as a lens on the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment—what did participants have to say about marine ecosystems and fisheries?. “Thus, my overall approach in selecting [Places & Events] entries,” she continued, “was to show that the United Nations has formally recognized the broad range of human effects on the environment.” With just a few entries, she linked the 1971 UN Seabed Arms Control Treaty and the reforms to marine regulations found in the 1982 UN Law of the Sea. Other students deftly situated their own work within a body of scholarly knowledge, from the conception of the first entry to the synthesis of the set of three.

The strongest student essays demonstrated an awareness of how curating and juxtaposing entries could enrich historical narratives. Since they could only select three Places or Events, students leaned in to obvious geographical and temporal differences—or similarities—to offer parables about the human relationship with nature. As Cassie Denger, an Economics major, noted, exploring oil spills in three different regions provided “insight to how consumer habits can affect the responsiveness of different agencies to oil spills, technological progress, and the publicity of environmentally destructive events.” For Denger and many others, the simple act of comparing and contrasting exposed the complexity of global history.

The format of the Places & Events entry worked to the advantage of student learning in a final direction: making most advantage of the combination of text and image. Especially because of word limits, students found that the summary and description were but two components of a larger whole, and not the only mechanisms for conveying information. Rather, these pieces of the entry combined with the title, the links, and the selected readings to produce a more comprehensive effect. Students writing essays, articles, and monographs can learn this too, through careful meditation on the mainstays of traditional historical scholarship: tables of contents, chapter titles, footnotes, and subheadings. In the context of the Places & Events entry, though, students structured their work with a different use in mind—rather than incite the reader to turn a page, students thought about how to get the user to connect their Place or Event to other interesting phenomena, through clicks. Like other digital history, then, the Places & Events entry has embedded within it the potential for more than one kind of reading. Users can explore a Place or Event in relation to scholarly knowledge on it, current media coverage of it, or political responses to it. These aspects of the entry allowed a synopsis of one isolated moment in global environmental history to feel much more developed and integrated than a few hundred words might ordinarily allow.

 

For the same course Tommy Smith contributed a Places & Events item on the Ukrainian Famine "Holodomor": Natural Disaster or Genocide (1932). http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/map#/content/interactive_display_item/search/holodomor/

For the same course, Tommy Smith contributed a Places & Events item on the Ukrainian Famine “Holodomor”: Natural Disaster or Genocide (1932). http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/map#/content/interactive_display_item/search/holodomor/

 

New Tool, Same Principles

Above all, the Places & Events entry assignment works in a Global Environmental History course because the principles between the two are the same. Both, at base, are about transforming fine details into broad patterns and big arguments. In terms of the student experience, the entry wraps these principles in attractive packaging. Not only does it build from an exciting digital interface, but it also provides a genuine audience. Students relished the chance to translate their own work in the classroom into meaningful scholarly contributions in the public domain. When student-produced entries went live, there was a heightened sense of accomplishment among a cohort who had scarce prior knowledge of environmental history or the historian’s craft.

These aren’t just my words—this is what students said. Senior Tommy Smith, an Environmental Studies major whose entries documented global environmental injustices, was one of a handful of students who evaluated the Places & Events entry this way. “I think this was a very enlightening experience,” he wrote. “The more people know about past atrocities the more we can do to stop future acts of injustice or genocide from occurring. I think it is important that their often ignored stories are given a voice.”

Recently, the Environment & Society Portal has paused development of the Places & Events database to evaluate its utility and alignment with other in-house activities. Given how the database fosters student engagement, it would be wonderful to see this particular project continue. If a new tool for historians can inspire students as it did mine—with such appreciation for people, nature, the past, and the future—it is a very powerful tool indeed.

 

Andrew Stuhl is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Bucknell University.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Adam Sundberg Reply

    Great piece, both in its insightful reflections on digital pedagogy and innovative use of the Places and Events Database.

    I want to second your call for the Portal to continue supporting this useful tool. Few equivalent opportunities exist for instructors to engage students in project-oriented, public facing research, especially in environmental history. Undergraduate research efforts tend to focus on upper level history majors, but Stuhl’s example demonstrates the tools’ versatility and value as an entry point to historical thinking beyond the majors (it’s use of digital methods and EH subjects are added benefits). I for one would love to have the Events and Places tool available the next time I teach Global Environmental History.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *