The Grass Is Always Greener?: A Historian Teaching in Environmental Studies

Daniel Macfarlane's ENVS 1100 class at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Fall 2015

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I’m going to start by making an assertion: I prefer teaching in environmental studies over teaching in a history department. There are two main reasons: 1) I get to focus on environmental issues, many of which I think are the most important global problems we face today; 2) I still get to teach a lot of history, but I have many more pedagogical opportunities to illuminate how that history informs the present and the future.

I have a Ph.D. in History, and in the past have taught in History, Canadian Studies, Sociology and Globalization, and an interdisciplinary first year program. But now I teach exclusively in an Environmental and Sustainability Studies program. In an environmental studies class, we can focus on pressing topics like renewable energy and climate change. Sure, other historians have been teaching about those topics, but do they have the latitude to get into the current and future aspects, blending geography, political science, natural sciences, and political ecology? As history instructors, we only get a few token minutes at the end of class, or the last day of the semester, to hint at how we can apply historical lessons to our current situations and predicaments. In environmental studies, I can unpack the history, but then move to figuring out what it means for today, what we should do about it, and how we can make it sustainable.

Put another way, in the classroom I have more class time and freedom to be explicitly activist about current events since, by definition, history classes are supposed to be focusing on the past (perhaps with the exception of Michael Egan’s class on the history of the future!). This is quite satisfying, since I think that most historians want to make the past directly relevant to contemporary problems – hence the popularity of outlets like Active History or The Otter.

Granted, I was lucky since I was hired to teach about the scholarly area I’m most passionate about – water. I teach seminars on Great Lakes Water Policy as well as Freshwater Policy (which focuses on the US, but also covers local and global water issues), and the latter is a required course for our new major in Freshwater Science and Sustainability (shameless plug: there are also new majors/minors in climate change and in sustainable brewing). The Introduction to Environmental Studies (ENVS 1100) class, subtitled “Nature and Society”, that I’ve been teaching each semester isn’t as explicitly focused on water, though part of the course does center on Great Lakes issues, which resonates with my students since the majority grew up within an hour of one of these sweetwater seas.

thI am able to emphasize the development of most of the same skills that I hope my History students were acquiring, such as reading and writing critically. I require students to read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, an EH staple. I assign books like James Farrell’s The Nature of College, a fantastic resource about the environmental impact of a normal college student’s lifestyle that, though it has a lot of environmental history, probably wouldn’t work for a history class. A required part of the 1100 course is a camping trip. Along with naturalists who guide us, we go for a weekend to places like Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan (the largest freshwater dunes in the world and a place that has been named one of the most beautiful places in America).

I can do things like give my students an assignment on the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill, the largest inland oil spill in American history, which requires them to do historical research on the uses of the river (and to the average 18-year old, something that happened in 2010 might already seem like “history”) and then apply that knowledge to current and future policies (see screen grab below for an example).

Kalamazoo River Oil Spill website grab
Screen grab of a past ENVS 1100 website on the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

As much as I love chronology, and the sequence of cause-and-effect and change over time, I find it sometimes constricting in the classroom. Most history courses I’ve seen – aside of some thematic courses and seminars, or instructors who approach survey courses very creatively – follow a path of historical progression. The Canada since 1876 class will start with Confederation, or the modern US survey at Reconstruction or 1900, and then go until … well, whatever point we have made it to by the time the semester ends. In environmental studies, I have more freedom to teach thematically and to mix-and-match subjects. This wide scope makes it more difficult when first designing a course – relative to a history class with its more predictable evolution and need-to-teach subjects – because there are so many choices. What would be the ripple effects of covering technology before the Green Revolution, or climate change before environmental writers like Thoreau and Leopold? But now that I’ve taught my classes several times, I enjoy the flexibility with which I can rejig my syllabus.

An ENVS 1100 class doing an exercise at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore

That said, it is worth stressing that I’m not even in an environmental humanities department, but environmental studies; this means that I’m one of the few in my department with a PhD outside of the natural sciences (historians are still underrepresented in these types of departments). I was hired in spite of having a History PhD, because the position I was hired for was freshwater policy, and I had to prove that I had the political science chops for the job (I had strategically been publishing in in that field as well – EHers on the job market might want to follow the public policy implications of their research: publishing in policy fields, working in or with government, doing op eds and other media, etc.).

An obvious challenge that comes with teaching environmental studies is that I need to be able to effectively teach outside the humanities and even the social sciences. In Introduction to Environmental Studies, I’m expected to provide students with some entry-level ecological science. Because of the way the program is set up, many of my students are double-majoring in a science such as Biology along with enviro studies, though the single-largest joint major tends to be Geography, a subject area in which most environmental historians are probably somewhat comfortable. I find myself learning from my students quite a bit. To go back to climate change as an example, if I’m teaching about that, when it comes time to talk about the actual chemistry and climatology I often have students who know more than I do. And when I want to write about the impact of hydro dams on, say, sturgeon in the St. Lawrence or Niagara River, I can ask one of the fish ecologists down the hall (and there are opportunities to team teach as well).

I do miss teaching about Canadian content, but that is more function of working in the US (and it would be a lot worse if I wasn’t in a border state) than teaching in environmental studies. In the classroom I don’t get to address issues connected to Canadian history, aside of what comes with dealing with transborder Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin issues (though that is a good opportunity to smuggle in a good deal of Canadian content). Nor is there any opportunity to address the historical dimensions of many important contemporary Canadian issues, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Indeed, I sometimes do miss teaching about the fur trade, or the Cold War, or Quebec referendums.

toqueI have taken the pedagogical opportunity to teach my American students about an important cultural symbol of the Canadian environment: the “toque”. Inexplicably, Americans apparently don’t have a standardized word for a warm winter hat (no, “beanie” won’t cut it) so I had my class spend some time trying to agree on a word for it (this was more than a frivolous academic exercise since I had to make sure that they were all on the same page about what constituted sufficient head protection for the winter camping trip). For the record, they seemed content with “toque”.

On a more serious note, my university has a moribund Canadian Studies program that I’m interested in kickstarting. In the future I will hopefully be able to teach a course for that, and this would provide me the opportunity to scratch my Canadian content itch. There may also be opportunities to teach a class here and there in the Gen Ed stream or cross-listed with the History Department, or in the actual History Department itself.

I’ve observed that it isn’t as difficult to make my students care about environmental issues (environmental studies does tend to self-selecting for students who care about the environment, unsurprisingly), compared to the history students I’ve taught before; but I also have to work harder to make my environmental studies students care about history. Also, many of the senior students I encounter don’t have experience with the amount of reading and writing I’d like them to do for a capstone policy seminar. This creates some challenges.

As time goes on, I have a feeling I may start to miss teaching a history class more than I do now. But if my experience is any indicator, environmental historians (and historians in general) may find themselves very happy  in interdisciplinary settings, be it environmental studies, or other “studies” such as Canadian, American, Indigenous, Gender, Youth, or Labour, just to name a few. Indeed, historians have a unique sets of skills and approaches, both in teaching and research, that can enhance interdisciplinary programs – in turn, these settings also have much to offer historians.


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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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