More Voices, New Sources: Using Historical Documents to Diversify a Survey Syllabus

By Dr. Bathsheba Demuth

I came to teach environmental history circuitously: trained as a Russian and American historian, the field was not part of my comprehensive exams. I was never a teaching assistant for an environmental history course—as close as I came was grading for a summer class on the history of energy. I read and wrote my way into the methods and questions of the field as I completed my dissertation.

As a result, teaching an environmental history survey in my first year out from graduate school was both exciting and daunting. Not only was it the first lecture course I’d ever taught, but it was going to cover over five hundred years of the global past. I didn’t have lecture notes from my advisers to use as a guide, like I would have for a standard Soviet or U.S. course. I had a lot to learn: about KoiKoi pastoralists in southern Africa, about Edo Japan, about Ming China’s need for silver and the tin smelting that connected South America, Canada, and Greenland during WWII, about environmental justice movements in India, and the Little Ice Age, well, everywhere. Writing lectures felt like prepping for that exam field I never took. My desk rapidly disappeared under piles of books and hastily underlined articles from Environmental History.

In those wordy heaps, I found plentiful guides through unfamiliar places and times. Some of them were classics I already knew, like Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange; others gave fresh eyes on key concepts like domestication, as in Marcy Norton’s “The Chicken and the Iegue.” Assembling a chapter here and an article there, they became the backbone not just for my lectures, but for readings on a syllabus without an obvious textbook. My students now love Gabrielle Hecht’s work on nuclear labor in Madagascar and the accounts of mules, mice, and miners in Thomas Andrew’s Killing for Coal. More than one person has credited Judith Carney’s Black Rice, William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness,” or Michelle Murphy’s “Alterlife and Decolonial Chemical Exposures” with changing how they see both the past and the present. The actual challenge revolves more around choosing which scholars to include, especially with new work published every year. Already I’m figuring out how to fit Elizabeth Hoover’s The River is in Us, Nick Estes’ Our History is the Future, and Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None onto the reading list next time I teach.

What I found more difficult, however, was supplementing over five hundred years of global environmental history with primary sources. Not having documents from the past left the syllabus feeling incomplete, both pedagogically—it’s a lot harder to explain how historians use sources if students don’t have any to read—and because the strangeness, difficulty, poignancy, and sheer diversity of human experience that historical documents convey was missing. But as there isn’t a textbook to cover those 500 global years from an environmental perspective, there wasn’t an obvious reader that covered both the temporal and geographical demands of the course. I used Carolyn Merchant’s Major Problems in American Environmental History for its excellent selection of sources—but that left most of the world. There were also useful excerpts hiding in readers for other fields: speeches by Gandhi, accounts of the Hiroshima bombing, parts of the Communist Manifesto. But I still felt the syllabus was weak, particularly for times and places where I lacked the background to find sources and translate environmentally-themed documents. I wanted to assign materials originally in Mandarin, Hindi, Portuguese, Japanese—and fine new, explicitly environmental documents from the British Empire and the United Nations, not to mention oral histories.

Partway through my first semester teaching the course, feeling woeful about the state of my syllabus, my wonderful colleague and mentor Nancy Jacobs suggested what would become a solution to the primary source conundrum. As she explained, she’d faced a similar issue in her African history courses in the past. So instead of teaching without primary sources or making do with the limited options available, she made finding more and richer sources one of the course assignments. As a class project, it taught key research skills while also giving students freedom to pursue specific topics of interest. It made clear not in a theoretical but a practical way how the dynamics of colonization and political power make some sources easier to access than others. And cumulatively, Nancy explained, it built up a store of sources year by year that she could assign to future classes. Eventually, some of them were incorporated into her book, African History Through Sources.

For the past two years, I’ve adapted Nancy’s assignment to my environmental history course. Students are asked to find a document or other kind of source from the past five hundred years, anywhere on earth, that relates clearly to environmental history. We spend sections discussing where and how to find sources, and how to excerpt them, as the assignment asks for a short, readable document of 1500 words or so. We also talk about translation, as students receive extra credit if the source is not in English.

Once students find their document, they write a 500-800 word contextual introduction supported with scholarly sources, followed by a short reflection on the research process and how they chose to excerpt the document, if doing so was necessary. Then they turn in the excerpted primary source (with a translation if it wasn’t originally in English), a PDF or scan of the original, un-excerpted source, and their introduction and reflection. With students’ permission, I use the best of these sources in subsequent years.

The results are inspiring to read—its work I don’t dread grading—and students frequently mention enjoying this assignment particularly in course evaluations. And it has diversified my syllabus in critical ways. This semester, one of my students found an account of how escaped slaves understood and used their knowledge of the Ohio River to flee north. I’ll add that to the syllabus next year. I’ll also add poems from Ho Chi Minh, which combine communist revolutionary ideals with mediations on nature—something I could never have accessed, with my language skills. Another student, who happened to speak Dutch, found an excellent source on early South African colonization. This year I taught a piece of a memoir about Mao’s Great Leap Forward, translated from Mandarin, and material on famine in India in the 1880s I would never have found. There are a whole new set of voices we’ll be discussing in section in coming years.

But the benefits go beyond what we read. This assignment—and again, all thanks to Nancy Jacobs—makes teaching this course an ongoing collaboration with my students. In a lecture of 80-90 students, I appreciate how this project feels like a team effort each semester, as we try to expand our views of the past not just for a grade on the assignment, but for other students in the future.

Dr. Bathsheba Demuth is an Assistant Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University, where she teaches courses in environmental history, energy history, and animal history. Her research focuses on the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic, an interest that began when she was 18 and moved to the village of Old Crow in the Yukon Territory. For over two years, she mushed huskies, hunted caribou, fished for salmon, tracked bears, and otherwise learned to survive in the taiga and tundra. Her first book, titled Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in August 2019. 

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One thought on “More Voices, New Sources: Using Historical Documents to Diversify a Survey Syllabus

  1. Dr Iain Stuart

    With all respect to the interesting approach taken by Demuth but I wonder whether perhaps the environmental history is actually written in the physical landscape and the evidence is examined in vegitation, physical geography and archaeological studies rather than nessecarily in documents. I was thinking of the work of Professor Susan Lawerance on the environmental history of water use in the nineteenth-century mining industry and the resultant pollution of rivers in North-western Victoria (Australia) as an example of that approach.

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