Editor’s note: This is the fifteenth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Megan Jones, the History department chair at The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?
My path to teaching in independent schools started my first year in graduate school at the University of Delaware. I was drawn there by the strength of the museum studies program (a potential career option, at the time) and, frankly, the financial aid offered. I also wanted to study how women exercised political power outside of conventional politics, and I switched to the PhD track in my second year to pursue that topic. My dissertation explored the history of conservation and early environmentalism, women’s voluntarism, and student activism in the mid-twentieth century though an analysis of the Student Conservation Association.
Before I began researching and writing my dissertation, I spent several years as a teaching assistant in the History department. My students probably had little idea that their TA was woefully unprepared to grade their papers and lead their weekly discussions. This was trial-by-fire teaching! I learned very quickly, however, that I enjoyed working with students, sharing with them the skills of historical analysis that I was still acquiring and honing, and talking with them about their lives. One student told me she’d never had a teacher or professor who actually cared about her. She gave me a heartfelt note at the end of the semester and a pen with a fuzzy topper. I lost that pen many years ago, but I still remember it, and her.
Student-teacher relationships are at the core of all education, but especially independent school education. I found that I truly valued that one-on-one connection. I initially expected to end up at a small liberal arts college with a focus on teaching, in part because that was the kind of undergraduate experience I had had at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. During my four years there, I got to know my professors fairly well. I could show up during their office hours and they’d know who I was and would be happy to talk about my papers. I sought a similar working environment, but the job market in 2008 frightened me. I was finishing up my research and writing that year; I had applied to several jobs and landed one phone interview. I grew increasingly anxious about the paucity of job openings and the growing number of individuals with history PhDs, most of whom never actually land a tenure-track position.
One night, I woke up in a cold sweat and decided to reach out to a few local independent schools in New Jersey, where I was living at the time, to see if they needed substitute teachers. It just so happened that the Director of Studies at one school was married to someone who had earned his PhD in History from the University of Delaware. She called me in for an interview and we had an excellent conversation about teaching and my academic interests. Although I had no formal teaching experience at the high school level, she took a chance and hired me as an on-call substitute teacher. I worked at that school for three years, both as a regular substitute and a long-term leave replacement, teaching grades 9 through 12. In 2010, I applied to another local independent school (The Pingry School) as an Upper School teacher and was offered the position. I successfully defended my dissertation in 2011, taking a day off from teaching to do so. Upon my return, my students bought me an enormous bouquet of congratulatory flowers. We joked that I was now “Dr. Jones,” and plenty of references to the Indiana Jones film franchise were made. Then I told them to continue discussing the readings they had done on Rousseau.
What do you like most about your current position? What things would you change about it, if you could?
As the History department chair at The Pingry School, I teach U.S. Environmental History, AP European History, AP United States History, and occasionally Modern World history (not all at once!). My colleagues are all experienced history teachers with advanced degrees in history or education. Several have doctorates in history, and several more have masters’ degrees in history or social studies education.
I enjoy the freedom to develop my own curriculum within the core courses offered by the department. Independent schools in general allow their faculty considerable autonomy in curriculum design, which is something I particularly value. When I started work at Pingry, I wanted to bring insights from my graduate training to the school, particularly from readings in environmental history and material culture. I developed an environmental studies curriculum as a course proposal. Given the needs of the department, this eventually became a United States survey course that used environmental history as a thematic frame. We use Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth and Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature, in addition to excerpts from works by historians such as Patty Limerick, Roderick Nash, and Donald Worster. Pingry encourages its faculty to develop new courses each year, including global field studies courses that take students beyond the classroom.
I hope to shift my teaching soon toward more experiential kinds of learning. I have co-led a few international and domestic educational programs. In my experience, that type of teaching and learning produces the deepest understanding of a topic. During a 2016 trip to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, students sat on a hill and compared that vantage point with prints of that landscape from the Library of Congress. Once they could literally see how the land had changed over time, they were better equipped to understand why it had done so. On another trip to former Yugoslavia in 2018, students encountered people who had radically different views of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Nothing beats physically being in a place you are studying or teaching about, especially when you can arrange a tour or interview with a person who has first-hand experience of the issue at hand. One student remarked that she never really cared about history until she traveled with our group to Berlin and saw how people there told their history using public spaces and monuments.
In the short term, I would like to focus more on local environmental history. A friend who founded a student travel group is going to help me plan a trip to New York City and the Gowanus Canal this coming spring. I am particularly excited to think about how we can use that place to help students better understand the legacy of industrialization and commerce in NYC, as well as the role of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in various localities. Next year, a colleague and I hope to adapt a New York Historical Society exhibit on the Hudson River for a short intensive course on the history of the river’s usage over the last 500 years.
Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position?
I actually received no formal training in this field. The University of Delaware only offered one graduate course in environmental history while I was doing my coursework. For some reason that I can’t remember, I didn’t take it! I first encountered environmental history when assigned William Cronon’s Changes in the Land in a material culture class. After reading it, I was hooked. I had started my undergraduate studies as an environmental science major. I was intrigued to discover a type of history that allowed me to combine my naturalist and scientific interests with my study of the human past. I then read widely in this literature as part of my preparation for one of my minor fields. Attending the ASEH’s annual meetings, perusing book exhibits there, and reading Environmental History helped round out my self-guided education.
I still rely heavily on the skills and contacts I built in graduate school. The readings I did in graduate courses, in preparation for comprehensive exams, and while I was researching my dissertation still inform how I frame my courses and lessons. They also inspire my ideas for experiential education: one global program I conceptualized was sparked by a graduate course on national identity. I even assigned students (extremely shortened) excerpts of my course readings by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Benedict Anderson, and Walker Connor. I keep in touch with my fellow UD graduates on social media. Until very recently, I also attended at least one academic conference each year.
What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?
As a teacher, I need to design courses with discrete units, effective assessments, and engaging lesson plans. None of my graduate training formally prepared me for this type of work, so I needed to learn it entirely on the job. Most people who plan to be teachers go through a history education program, which includes many of these skills. But even if I hadn’t become a high school teacher, I would have ended up teaching some university-level classes. I think any graduate program needs to recognize that its graduates will often be educators, whether in the traditional sense (university teaching) or the nontraditional sense (high school teaching, public history, and so on).
Translating the work of historians, which can often be esoteric, to the greater public can be quite difficult. For example, students often struggle with the readings by Benedict Anderson that I assign as preparation for my course on nationalism. Once they are in a place and primed to look for symbols and displays of nationalism, however, they will better understand the constructed idea of a nation. Students may understand theoretically that landscapes do not look the same as they did 200 years ago, due to foresting, agriculture, water management, and so on. But if you take them to a place and show them historical images or have them read historical descriptions of the same location, they will more deeply comprehend how it has changed and what that has meant to people who live there, then and now. Graduate school models how to teach concepts, theories, and historical thinking skills within a university or college classroom. But graduate schools should also teach students how to translate the readings they do for seminars into formats or iterations that the general public or younger students will be able to comprehend.
I used to think that historians were neutral observers of the past. I don’t any more, because of my work with students and a more widespread recognition of the idea that “neutral” history doesn’t really exist. I do think, however, that graduate schools should help their students understand that historians can and should serve the public. That service can be rendered in multiple ways, but I would argue that our training and ways of thinking should absolutely inform how the public understands the past. There are myriad examples of how history has been used to implement an agenda, the erection and then preservation of Confederate monuments in the United States being one recent popular example. I believe that historians can do great good by teaching the public about the past in ways that construct a positive vision for present-day society.
What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?
Go to the ASEH’s annual meetings whenever you can. This community of scholars was very welcoming to me as a graduate student, particularly one who was studying environmental history at a school not known for that field. I learned so much from those I met at these meetings and continue to do so. Of these people, I will always be particularly grateful to Scout Blum, Kate Christen, and Graeme Wynn.
I’d also encourage graduate students in environmental history to think about how their work can inform public understandings of the past or public policy. The beauty of environmental history is that the field can encompass and inform many other fields; it is, by nature, interdisciplinary. What is your mission, or your purpose? What do you enjoy doing? Can that become an occupation? Look outside the typical career tracks and send out inquiries cold. You never know—you might find that someone has heard of your graduate program and decides to give you a chance to prove yourself in a career you may not have initially considered!