Identity, Community, and Environmental History

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Editor’s note: This is the fifth post in an occasional series called Eddies, in which Tina Adcock chats with fellow NiCHE editors on a topic (or topics) of their choosing that’s been on their mind lately. In this post, Blair Stein reflects on her personal experiences of constructing identity and finding community within the field of environmental history, both as a researcher and teacher. You can find all the series’ posts here.

Tina Adcock: So, Blair, what’s been on your mind lately?

Blair Stein: I don’t have any new research brewing at the moment. Being in my first year post-PhD and on the tenure track, and also doing distance learning has sort of depleted all that energy! So mostly I’ve been thinking deep questions about myself and my obligations to my students.

I’ve been reflecting on who I am as an environmental historian. There’s lots of time in New York’s lockdown for self-reflection! You and I, from what I understand, came to environmental history in similar ways, sliding into it through the history of science, so I’d love to hear how you grappled with this too. I didn’t take any environmental history classes during my undergraduate degree, or in either of my MA programs. It was my “outside field” for my PhD, and so I didn’t really feel like an environmental historian until I started contributing to NiCHE circa 2015. All this really speaks to how communities of scholars get formed and how those communities self-identify, you know?

The grounds of the University of Oklahoma. A statue of a "seed-sower" on a pedestal on a green lawn, with decorative architecture to the right.
The “Seed Sower” statue on the South Oval taken on my first day at the University of Oklahoma, July 2012. Was I an environmental historian then? —Blair Stein

Tina: Yes! In my case, it also speaks to how those communities identify others. It sounds glib to say that I became an environmental historian because people I met were increasingly describing my research in those terms, but that definitely was one factor. My external characterization as an environmental historian was also partly a matter of timing. I began attending conferences in North America at the same time that a new generation of environmental historians and historical geographers studying the North—Liza Piper, John Sandlos, Arn Keeling—were embarking on tenure-track jobs there. So the association between northern history and environmental history became naturalized in people’s minds, at least in North America. Like you, I began to inhabit this persona more fully once I got involved with NiCHE around 2011–12, and especially after I began teaching environmental history courses in 2014.

To be honest, although I now call myself a cultural and environmental historian for the sake of convenience and legibility, I still don’t feel like a “real” environmental historian. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that I’m a cultural historian of region and place, much like our colleague Edward Jones-Imhotep describes himself as a cultural historian of science and technology. I’m occasionally called a historian of science, but I’m not comfortable with that label, either: you need special training to claim it, which I don’t have! I took a course at University College London once with a historian who compared himself to a crow, because his approach to methodology was essentially grabbing shiny things that happened to attract his attention from all over the place. That’s me, too: I’m a cultural historian who pinches ideas and approaches from environmental history, the history of science, and historical geography.

Blair: I feel exactly the same way about identity as you do. I was “coming up” in the second generation of “envirotech” folks, I would say, and so hitching my wagon to that star or whatever meant that I needed the “enviro” and the “tech.” I too call myself a cultural and environmental historian of technology for the sake of convenience and short pithy descriptions for job application letters. How we describe ourselves in grant applications or cover letters or whatever is a very deliberate political act! I took a year of environmental history seminars and directed readings in the second year of my PhD, because I realized I had the “tech” down but not the “enviro.” That was when someone (Dan Macfarlane, I think?) reached out to me about blogging for The Otter. Doing graduate-level study in environmental history and envirotech trained me in these subjects, but I’ve absorbed so much more about what it means to be an environmental historian from NiCHE. I wonder what it is about environmental history, in particular, that lends itself to these permeable borders in ways that (perhaps) other subfields may not? Are military historians, or intellectual historians, or whoever, having the same “big tent” debates we are? Take history of science, for example. My PhD is from a discrete history of science department, but I don’t think folks who write dissertations on history of science topics from non-history of science departments aren’t historians of science. Nor do I think I’m not a “regular” historian (whatever that means) because I have a specialized degree. This may point to a larger picture about gatekeeping—who gets to decide who identifies as what?—but that’s too big of an issue to address, I think, in these weird times.

What I really like is that “crow” description you used. Aren’t we all just crows, grabbing stuff that looks good to us to build our nests? Using what we already know, our backgrounds, our deeply held connections to place and belonging, to choose how we look at the past?

A Canada goose on a set of concrete steps at night.
On the day I met this goose, I was asked if I’d like to be a contributor to NiCHE. Toronto, April 2015. Was I an environmental historian then? —Blair Stein

Tina: This is all so interesting to think about. I’m curious: what, exactly, has participation in NiCHE taught you about being an environmental historian? I think I feel similarly, but I’d struggle a bit to put it into words. Maybe it is, in part, the kind of tacit knowledge that Ann Stoler terms common sense—“habits of heart, mind, and comportment that derive from unstated understandings of how things work in the world, the categories to which people belong” [1].

Blair: It’s very much about finding a community, as you (and the inimitable Ann Stoler) describe. Like all graduate students, I felt very much an impostor, very much unsure of myself and my abilities, so to have someone say that they’re interested in you or what you do means a lot. In a strange way, it’s almost like imprinting on a baby bird. The first thing they smell or see or whatever—can you tell I know a great deal about birds? —is what they are attached to. It doesn’t hurt that NiCHE and the environmental history community in general is very open and very online. I’m very interested in the idea of “belonging” in my research and teaching, and so I often get introspective about how I belong to communities. I brought this up before, but I truly wonder what this sort of introspection feels like to intellectual historians or military historians or queer historians. Is this a result of mucky job market situations, where we’re all trying to brand ourselves in ways we think will appeal to hiring committees? Is it about what conferences you go to? (If it is, COVID is certainly going to affect that!) What hashtags we use? The disciplines our PhD advisors trained us in? I’m not sure.

Tina: Well, as you said, these are weird times. Frankly, they’ve proven the straw that’s forcing a lot of us camels to confront how academia’s entrenched systems are breaking our backs, in admittedly very uneven and unequal ways. Are there any things in particular that this moment has clarified for you, about how you regard your work or the way you move through the world as a scholar?

Blair: All things considered, I feel fairly lucky. I currently have a full-time academic job. I have enough of a research backlog that I won’t need to travel to an archive any time soon. (As a historian of air travel, though, my book is going to have one hell of an epilogue!) My students this past semester were all absolute superstars and extremely understanding of the strange times we’ve been living in. I have some audio-visual training, so I wasn’t intimidated by the process of making videos of lectures and whatnot. However, what this has crystallized for me is what “the academy” is for. Our conversation has been about identity and belonging. The way universities, especially in the United States, have responded to this pandemic, both in terms of a March shutdown/fall re-opening and engagement with the concerns of staff, faculty, and students, reminds me that not everyone thinks so critically about belonging. “The university” as a place, as an identity, and as a community is going to change radically in the coming year or so. I don’t know what that means, necessarily, but it is going to be a seismic shift in what we imagine colleges to do for us. It’s not only about funding, or tenure clocks, or whether or not students live on campus. It’s about what intrinsic value we assign to “the university.” I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I remain hopeful that, at the very least, by revealing the deeply entrenched inequalities in academia, the COVID pandemic may help us build a better university. I hope this isn’t naivete.

A blue, pink, and yellow sunset over a river. Telephone wires cross the upper third.
On this day in September 2019, I signed on to teach my first environmental history class, Potsdam, New York. Am I an environmental historian now? —Blair Stein

Tina: On that note, you said at the beginning of this conversation that you’d also been thinking recently about your obligations to your students. What form have these thoughts taken?

Blair: I’ve been thinking a lot—this semester, especially—about what environmental history can do for students who haven’t ever taken, or won’t ever take another history class. I taught my first environmental history course, “Introduction to Environmental History,” this past semester —yes I came up with that title myself, thank you thank you! The university I work at has a small humanities presence in a largely engineering setting. I find myself teaching historical literacy in general a lot of the time, so I’ve been reflecting a lot on how to build an “intro to a field” class that blends “what is history and how do you do it?” with actual historical content.

Tina: Okay, I’ll bite—how do you build an introductory course that strikes a good balance between historical concepts/skills and historical content? Or how have you been trying to do it, so far, and what have you learned?

Blair: I really don’t know. It’s something that’s always at the forefront of my teaching philosophy, especially since I teach so few humanities majors. My experiment in my environmental history class was to look at the production of history texts as an engineering project. I’ll probably do a post about this at a later date, but we’ve been using the primary sources that the historians whose work we read used as a way to see how history gets written. I always like using primary sources in my teaching because they do that work of teaching “facts” while also teaching “skills.” I’ve also gravitated towards thematically-organized courses rather than chronological ones because it gets us away from the names-and-dates approach that non-majors can sometimes associate with a “history” class. I was just about to write “I’m jealous of my colleagues who teach in big history departments with lots of majors because they can assume a certain level of knowledge…”, but I don’t know if I am! I kind of like having the power to reveal over and over that history is 1) not just memorizing stuff; 2) is dynamic and always in conversation with itself; and 3. tells us things about our present.

Tina: Ha! I teach in a history department that’s bigger than yours, but that has no prerequisites for courses—something that also lends itself to the kind of creative engagement with the past that you describe.

What have you found interesting or surprising so far about the ways in which non-History majors have responded to your classes, either in terms of content or skills? Do you think they’ve taken on board the message that environments and technologies—and the larger systems in which they’re embedded—have histories, too, and that those histories matter today?

Blair: What’s been most surprising to them (I hope) is that these things have a history, and that the history they have can be gathered, processed, analyzed, and disseminated in different ways. For example, in one of my history of science classes I have students read some travel accounts of “native” activities written by 16th- and 17th-century European explorers, and ask them, “Did this really happen?” They’re often surprised when the answer is, “It doesn’t matter if it happened or not. What matters is that this account became a way that certain people in certain places and times understood the rest of the world.” What’s been most surprising to me is how quickly students are willing to let go of their science-and-engineering-minded way of seeing the world as having singular truths. For students whose understanding of history comes from memorizing dates in high school, being faced with argument and interpretation and analysis can be quite a shock. I’m always so proud when they come out the other side much more critical of the world around them than they were before.

Tina: I can imagine! I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thanks so much, Blair!

Feature Image: The “Seed Sower” statue on the South Oval taken on my first day at the University of Oklahoma, July 2012. Was I an environmental historian then?

[1] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009), 38.
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Blair Stein

I am Assistant Professor of History at Clarkson University in northern New York State. I teach history of science and technology and environmental history, and I write about the links between geography, technology, and modernity in twentieth-century Canada, with a special interest in aviation.

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