Developing a digitally inflected teaching exercise

The class I would probably teach is HST 391: Environmental History of North America which is primarily a lecture-based class run every spring. As an environmental historian, this class would be a delight to teach. Since it is a 300-level class, it will not be a large class. To me, this represents a great opportunity to try two kinds of digitally inflected teaching exercises. The first would be a group assignment, along the lines of the one described by Ulises A. Meijas[1] i.e. getting students to create and use Wikis as a group assignment while the second would be a lightening round of individual research project presentations on Twitter. The first assignment would be the midterm assignment while the second would be the pre-final presentation.

Mid-term assignment: Building a Wiki

Developing and editing a Wiki page around an important environmental event in North America. The starting point for the assignment will be an important environmental event that may or may not have been given a lot of attention by historians. This environmental event could be purely human-induced such as a pollution spill or a less-human induced event such as a smog or a more natural event such as a dry fog that students will find information about in a primary source. The event could easily be a recent event, the only stipulation is that there be primary material around it, so students can analyze it. Students will choose the event after consultation with me.

As a group, students will analyze the primary sources and upload the sources (after getting permission to do so from the relevant copyright holders, if any). To analyze the source, they will work individually and together as a group. Each student will have their own independent analysis that will be uploaded, as well as a group reflection.

This exercise will make students realize that history is collaborative as well as iterative. Furthermore, in analyzing a primary source document, they will be able see firsthand the challenges of working with historical material.

Students will also be required to use and cite two course readings as secondary material in conjunction with the primary sources in their analysis.

Pre-final presentation: Twitter lightening round

Through the course of the semester, students will develop the components of a research project centered around environmental history. While the mid-term was a individual and collaborative effort where students would have conducted important primary source analysis, in the Twitter lightening around, they will be presenting their final projects through a series of tweets. Brian Leech, an environmental historian recently tried this exercise for his junior (I think) class. He created a twitter handle for the class, publicized it, and each participant had about ten minutes where they presented their work, received feedback, and answered questions. The entire exercise for the class took about two hours—the running time of the session—and gave students incredible exposure to fellow students as well as faculty inputs from wide and far. There were also community participants. In their pre-final presentations for HST 391, students will follow a similar format. I will set up a twitter handle for the class, publicize it. On the day, each student will have ten minutes to run the handle and receive feedback on their work. I do not have a no-social media-no-laptop policy in my class, so I will encourage students to engage with their colleagues via twitter.

Developing and justifying a #hashtag syllabus

It is an open secret that environmental history has been largely blind to communities of color, as well as class and gender. Unsurprisingly, a group of women have begun to create a collaborative Syllabus Project. This syllabus is a great starting point for a #pollutionsyllabus and/or #climatechange syllabus. Both sets of syllabi would be relevant to present issues and enjoy a growing volume of scholarship. New work on environmental disasters such as Radiation Nation which investigate the relationship between environmental disasters and nationalism seeks to rethink the rise of the Right in recent US history. Works such as this also highlight the connections between environmental issues and race, class, and gender. The syllabus I would create would a #pollutionsyllabus which would include primary and secondary sources. It would also be a broad based syllabus, covering geographies outside North America.

I would use the Syllabus Project as a starting point to listing out sources. I particularly like the idea of developing a shared tagged Zotero library that would allow scholars to have open access to sources. A starting place for my hadhtag syllabus is as follows:

Order labor into nature, and the state into nature

Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang: 1995)

Matthew Evenden, Beyond the Organic Machine? New Approaches in River Historiography, Environmental History, Volume 23, Issue 4, 1 October 2018, Pages 698–720.

The Great Depression and The New Deal

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 2. ed., new Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008. Introduction and chapters 3, 4 and 5

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Introduction, Part 1 and 2

Suggested readings:

Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Penguin, 1993)

Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: : The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Boston; New York: Mariner Books, 2006)

Terkel Studs, Hard Times: An Oral History if the Great Depression (New York: New Press, 1970)

Labor, race, class

Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Catherine Fennell, “Are We All Flint?”  Limn, Issue 7: Public Infrastructures/Infrastructural Politics, July 2016. Available at https://limn.it/articles/are-we-all-flint/ last accessed: December 21, 2018

Toxic Bodies and Silent Springs

Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2011

Disasters in the making?

Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.  Prologue, Chapters two and three

Spencer Robins, “The Bigger Picture: Competing Visions of the Los Angeles River’s Future.” February 20, 2018. Available at: https://www.kcet.org/shows/earth-focus/the-bigger-picture-competing-visions-of-the-los-angeles-rivers-future

DH teaching and learning: Reflections

I have long wondered about DH teaching, not because I am dismissive of it but because I wonder how to balance pedagogical biases about digital learning with desired student outcomes. One of the larger questions I have about DH teaching is about platforms of communication. As someone who has ‘taught’ online classes at MSU, I am unsure about what and how I feel about digital learning simply because I am unsure about nimble digital teaching environments can be and often are. Much like classroom teaching, online teaching is idiosyncratic in that the instructor decides course load and deliverables. Yet, unlike classroom teaching establishing a feedback loop with students is difficult and challenging. I am sure there is no easy fix to this but I do think when t formulating DH teaching practices, it is important to keep student feedback and participation as a top priority. There is also the question of access. At smaller, less elite institutions where students may not have access to digital tools at ease, DH teaching and learning have further challenges to confront. I guess the question for me is if technology is truly democratizing. As someone from the developing world, I view technology as a double-edged sword. Easy access does not necessarily mean greater democratization. In terms of DH learning, the digital is often touted as an easily accessible platform for knowledge. But given the infrastructure needed to be digital, I am not convinced it is easily accessible. There are always gatekeepers, and haves and have nots. I personally think DH learning and teaching is VERY important and has great potential. Yet, I am unclear about my own pathways into it and its ultimate efficacy, given challenges. I think digital tools allow greater access to materials and sources. Yet these are not always open and often mediated by elite institutions. I think digital tools allow greater collaboration and iterative scholarship. Yet, I am also aware of the haves and have nots these tools create and normalize.


[1] Ulises A. Meijas, “‘How I Used Wikis to Get My Students to Do Their Readings,’” in Learning Through Digital Media: Experiments in Technology and Pedagogy, ed. R. Trebor Scholz, The Politics of Digital Culture Series (New York, NY: The Institute for Distributed Creativity, 2011), 99–107.

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