The last thirty years have brought a steady rise in the quantity of environmental historical scholarship and in the visibility of the field. Even with this enormous scholarly output and growing institutional presence, most practitioners would be hard pressed to define exactly what is meant by "environmental history." It is a field that is profoundly interdisciplinary, with many of its most recognized practitioners hailing, paradoxically, from outside of history departments, coming from geography, ecology, and anthropology. Whether environmental history is a subfield of history or a field unto itself is a question that quickly sparks heated debate. Even more heated is the debate over environmental history’s proper relationship to environmental science, policy, and conservation activism. As complex as these issues are for US environmental history, where environmental history emerged out of Western History and environmental activism, they are even more complicated regarding Latin American environment history, which traces its roots through the Annales School and the environmental sciences. These debates have been carried out on in the pages of prominent environmental history journals, most notably ASEH’s Environmental History and ESEH’s Environment and History, as well as in the pages of monographs and in academic conferences. The debates have focused on our efforts to conduct research within this rich field of inquiry. Rarely have the debates directly addressed the issue of how we are to teach the field to undergraduates, or how our teaching relates to our scholarship.
In May of 2004 Prof. David Newbury set out to address this problem. At Smith College he convened a three-day Mellon-sponsored workshop on the teaching of environmental history. Present were about twenty environmental historians from ten institutions. It was an inspiring event, and a great joy to share ideas with others engaged in similar endeavors. One of the surprising insights to emerge from the many enlightening, engaging, and impassioned discussions was how far apart the teaching of US environmental history stood from that of the teaching of environmental history in other parts of the world. As summed up in the minutes: "[D]iscussion was lively and ranged widely, both within each of the fields of US and global environmental histories, and between them. However, one conclusion seemed to emerge strongly: that despite their many inter-relationships (and some conversation between them), these two broadly-defined and internally diverse fields had developed largely along different lines; the two fields appear to be divergent, not convergent, in their current paths of development." What became clear was that those of us working on environmental histories of regions other the US were much more eager to engage in questions about how environmental history intersected with environmental sciences and policy issues, and that we had a more congenial relationship with the sciences and NGOs. The problem, however, is that there is no clear trajectory for how this concern about this interrelationship between history, science, and policy should be carried into teaching and institution-building.
With this in mind Amherst College is hosting a small two- day workshop. This focused workshop is not meant to exacerbate the division between US and "global" environmental historians. Rather, it will afford an opportunity for participants to think about our common task and its unique challenges, and also about the ways our work remains deeply interrelated with US environmental history and other related fields. The issues we might address include:
-the purpose of undergraduate education in Latin American environmental history and how this might be similar or different than graduate training;
-possibe teaching strategies, from course conceptualization to reading selections and writing assignments, to questions of how "historical" or "presentist" the course should be;
-the state of the field, current research agendas, and future directions;
-connections between our research and teaching;
-institutional program building, such as the creation of Environmental Studies or Latin American Studies programs.
List of participants:
Rick Lopez, Amherst College
Cynthia Radding, University of New Mexico
Lise Sedrez, California State University - Long Beach
Myrna Santiago, St. Mary’s College
John Soluri, Carnegie Mellon University
Chris Boyer, University of Illinois
Emily Wakild, University of Arizona