Teaching the Environmental History of the Colonial Americas: Challenges, Prospects, and Future Directions

AHA Session 273
Conference on Latin American History 62
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Heidi V. Scott, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Gregory T. Cushman, University of Kansas
Eleonora Rohland, Bielefeld University
Cameron Strang, University of Nevada at Reno
Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, McGill University

Session Abstract

The environmental history of the Americas, as numerous contributions to The Oxford Handbook of Environmental History (2014) illustrate, is by no means a new field of inquiry. Nevertheless, the past two decades have experienced a remarkable expansion in the thematic angles and methodological approaches pursued by scholars in this field, as well as in the temporal and geographical foci of their work, just as environmental contexts and themes have gradually gained visibility in “mainstream” historical research.

The recent flourishing of environmental history for the Americas is apparent not only for the modern era but also for colonial times. If disease and demographic collapse in the wake of conquest, landscape and ecological change produced by ongoing European colonization, and the construction of natural historical knowledge have been focal points of study for many decades, an array of previously neglected themes now receive sustained attention. The social and political repercussions of climatic extremes and natural disasters, climate history more generally, as a new approach to understanding early colonization of the Americas, the environmental costs of colonial mining and other forms of resource exploitation, the historical role of varied wild and domesticated animal species in shaping colonial societies over time, the varied meanings that human inhabitants of that world attached to them, and the role of the colonial phase of the Americas as a pre-history of the Anthropocene are examples of newly prominent areas of inquiry.

In what ways and to what extent are these scholarly trends currently reflected in the classroom? This roundtable seeks to explore the challenges and opportunities involved in incorporating environmental historical scholarship on the colonial Americas into undergraduate teaching, as well as to reflect on future directions for teaching on this area. The specific colonial-era focus of the roundtable is by no means a disavowal of continuities between colonial and modern environmental histories or of the ways in which much scholarship bridges these boundaries. Rather, we seek to provide a coherent temporal focus for the discussants, while also acknowledging that distinct questions and challenges are likely to arise in researching and teaching the environmental histories of the colonial era.

In addressing the broad theme sketched out above, discussants are invited to engage with the following questions. What particular hurdles and opportunities have the speakers experienced in locating and using historical sources in teaching colonial environmental history in undergraduate settings? What kinds of sources, resources, and approaches have been found to foster student engagement with “colonial environmental history”? In what ways might environmental themes be woven in to form a truly integral part of (for example) survey courses on colonial history? To what extent can and should the teaching of colonial environmental history involve a decentering of human experiences and perspectives? How might the imperial and territorial divisions which tend to structure courses on the colonial Americas be transcended and disturbed in fruitful ways? And how could teaching colonial era environmental history of the Americas be creatively connected with digital humanities approaches?

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