Thursday, April 17, 2014

American Environmental History

I sometimes teach a course in American Environmental History.  The course syllabus is below.   It's getting a little long in the tooth.  Any ideas for a fix-up?

Honors American Environmental History


This course covers how Americans have interacted with the environment from the contact period through the present. The course is thematic and covers the following topics: land, animals, food, water, and energy. In each topic we ask the following questions: How did people interact with their environment? How did they change it? How did it change them? How did those changes lead to other changes? We seek to explore the cycle described by historian William de Buys, “in adapting to the environment,” he argues “societies change it both purposefully and by accident, and in turn adapt to the changes they have wrought - sometimes by changing the environment still further...”.

The course materials

There are three required books for this course that are available for purchase at the school store: Changes in the Land, by William Cronon, The Dust Bowl by Donald Worster, and The Organic Machine, by Richard White. In addition to these materials, there are numerous handouts and videos. Because of the large amount of supplemental materials, if you know you are going to be absent prior to a class, please let me know ASAP so that I may get the relevant materials to you prior to your absence. When possible, videos and such will be available on line. If you miss class unexpectedly, any handouts will have your name written on it and will be placed in “the box.” It is your responsibility to pick-up materials out of “the box” when you return. We will also hopefully be bringing a number of guest speakers to class. You are expected to have a notebook dedicated to this class for taking both reading notes and classroom notes. You should always bring your notebook and the day’s reading with you to class.

Course expectations

You will come to class each day having read the assigned reading and thought about it. You will have annotated the reading either in the text or in your notebook. During class discussions, you are expected to participate fully as a speaker and listener. All work should be handed in on-time. Extensions are granted only before the assignment is due. Please re-read the section of your school’s handbook regarding senior extensions. Unless otherwise stated, all work to be handed in should be typed. Essays and outlines may be handed in via paper or electronically. Some other assignments may only be handed in electronically. If you need to hand something into me and you can’t put it in my hands, please leave it in my mailbox in the faculty room (near the library). Never leave anything on my desk. Items left on my desk or chair will not be counted as handed in on time.

Classroom Etiquette

You are expected to be ready to start class at the proper time. Should you arrive late please take your seat quietly and save notes or explanations for the end of class so as not to interrupt others. You are expected to be a diligent listener as well as an active participant. While spirited debate is encouraged, you are reminded that it is the ideas under discussion and not the character of your classmates.
Avoid personal attacks. Sexist, homophobic, and racist language will not be tolerated except as dictated by primary source material.

Example, correct use: "In the document, the author repeatedly uses the terms 'Japs' and 'Slants' to refer to the enemy. I think he does this so as to make them more hateable and thus easier to kill."

Example, incorrect use: "The dropping of the Atomic Bombs forced the Japs to surrender."

A note on plagiarism

Please familiarize yourself with the plagiarism statement in your school’s handbook. Please note that Springside maintains a subscription to an anti-plagiarism software package and by enrolling in Springside or CHA and this class you give me permission to use it. In addition, please be aware that plagiarism takes many forms, whether it be copying from the internet, a book or article, or another student. Because we encourage collaboration, some students become confused as to where the line is between collaboration and plagiarism. Some examples are below:

Acceptable collaboration: Student 1: “Will you read my paper?” Student 2: “Sure…, I find your thesis statement confusing.”

Acceptable collaboration: Student 1: “Will you read my paper?” Student 2: “Sure…, your thesis statement should read ‘The market economy destroyed the buffalo’ rather than ‘The buffalo were destroyed by the market economy’ so that the actor is the subject of the sentence.”

Unacceptable collaboration Student 1: “Will you read my paper?” Student 2 “Sure…, Your thesis statement should be, ‘The market economy destroyed the buffalo’ not ‘The buffalo nickel destroyed the buffalo.’”

Note how in the two acceptable collaborations, the peer editor does not change the meaning of the author’s work.


Grading is on a total points system in each quarter. There will be at least 7 graded items in the quarter including class participation. Major graded items are announced in advance. Reading quizzes (aka surprise quizzes) may not be announced in advance. Major assignments include items such as quizzes, tests, idea maps, google tours, essay outlines, essays, graded discussions, and anything else I can think of.

Research Projects

There are two research projects.  One small research project on where do cities get their water from and a second more major project on where food comes from that you will work on over both quarters.  Details on both these projects will be given at the appropriate time. 

Course Outline

Introduction (1 week) What is Environmental History? What is a landscape? What do I see when I look around? What does it mean? Key terms: Landform, landscape.

• J. B. Jackson – “The Term Itself” from Landscape in Sight
Activities and Graded Items
• Map exercise
• Vocabulary quiz
• Walk in the Wissahickon and response paper

Land How did Indians and colonists perceive the landscape of New England differently. What changes did colonization bring?

• William Cronon Changes in the Land
• Primary documents of Puritan sermons on wilderness.
Activities and Graded Items
• Visual representation of Indian and puritan landscapes.

Animals What caused the extinction of the buffalo? Other species? How are species saved?

Isenberg and Flores on the Buffalo extinction
Manliness and Civilization selections
• Jenny Price “When Birds where Hats” in Flight Maps
Activities:  Graded discussion

Food The Dust Bowl

• Donald Worster, The Dust Bowl (selections)
• James Gregory American Exodus selections
• The Grapes of Wrath (selected movie scenes)
Activites and Graded Items
• Listening party Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl songs

Water What role has water played in the development of the American West? Who controls it and how?

• Marc Reisner Cadillac Desert (selections)
Activities and Graded Items
• Google tour:  where your water comes from.
• Policy position statement advising President Obama on water policy

Energy What work does nature do? What work should it do?

• Richard White The Organic Machine
• J. R. McNeil Something New Under the Sun (selections)
• Changes in the Landscape: Energy Development in Western New Mexico
• Richard White “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” in
Activities and Graded Items
• Listening party Columbia River songs by Woody Guthrie
• Essay on The Organic Machine
Graded discussion. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Happy Bloggerversary to Me!

I started blogging a year ago.  Since then:

I've written 24 posts (2 a month give or take in any particular month). 

I've been linked to by an outside blog which quoted from one of my posts at length.  That post was read in whole or in part by around a thousand people.  It was largely spread via twitter and by an outside blog.  At this site, over three hundred people read it.

My second most popular post was spread primarily via facebook.  Here many of my former students were influential in making sure it got read.

My personal favorite was the first post on technofuturism and technoskepticism. 

In that first post, I also thought I'd be writing a lot on education and teaching.  But only about half the posts have been directly about teaching and the most widely read posts only indirectly so. 

And now, gentle readers, what do you want to read more of or see me mouth off on?  Let me know in the comments below. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mandatory reading

We have to ask the difficult questions of technology, even those of us who consider ourselves advocates of technology.

Go read the whole thing.  Once young British guitar freaks covered the walls of London with "Clapton is God."  In a just internet, "Audrey is almighty" would be everywhere.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The People, Marked and Unmarked

One of the pet peeves of most history teachers is when students use the term "the people."  As in the following imaginary exchange:

Me:  Why did the American Revolution happen?
Student:  Because the people wanted change
Me:  [Controls deep rage, smiles]  Could you be a bit more specific?  Which people wanted change?  The Loyalists?
Student:  Well, no not them. 
Me:   So, who then?

And then we go back and forth and still a month later I'll be writing "which people" on somebody's essay and a month after that "which people" on somebody else's test and so on, for ever, and ever ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

But hey, I'm a history teacher, I signed up for that gig.  That's my job.  Hopefully some of the students, most of the students, maybe if I'm lucky, all the students will stop using the phrase "the people." 

It's a good habit to get into, because there is a certain preciseness in learning how to mark who it is you are talking about.  And in our culture certain people get marked more than others.  There's history and then there's "women's history" or "black history".  Very rarely do you here somebody talk about "men's history" (although more people are starting too).  It's important to mark who you are talking about, because if you don' the default assumption is that you are talking about white folks, or more specifically white men of a particular class.  Their experiences are then defined as "the normal experience" and everybody else's experiences are defined as different or deviant.  Now that's a problem because it's simply untrue.  White men (even if we include all white men, not just white men of a particular class) were never a majority of the population in the United States.  They may have been a plurality, maybe, at some point in time.  But even then, if we account for things like the moving borders of whiteness (Hey, Irish folks in 1840 you aren't white yet! Protestant Germans you are!  Catholic Germans, we haven't made up our minds yet, how much did you say you drink a day?), I think you'd have a hard time finding a time when what we think of the normative experience (white, male of a certain class)  in the past was, well, normal.  

And if we are going to get past that line of thinking in the present, it's important to not get in the habit of thinking of certain experiences as normal and, when you are writing about white guys, to say out loud, I'm writing about white guys and not just assume that a) everybody understands you are writing about white guys because you didn't say otherwise and b) you aren't assuming that everybody's experience was essentially the white guy's experience.

Which is why I have what is turning into a long running issue with Damon Linker, most recently exemplified by this piece.  Now first a few caveats.  One, Damon Linker and I have met virtually.  We are in an email group run by a mutual acquaintance.  Although we have a long running disagreement on the group, Damon has been civil, and even generous to me, even though we have never met and I've been pretty darn critical of his ideas.  I'm a schlub high school teacher and he's a bona fide public intellectual.  He'd be perfectly within his rights to ignore everything I write about him.  Yet,  as far as I can tell, we come from similar backgrounds, economically and socially and, I was surprised to learn, I'm older than he is but not by much.  As Damon would point out (has pointed out to me, in fact), if you were ever to say "white guys of a certain class think this," all you would  have to do to disprove it is ask Damon and me our political opinions or history preferences and you would get very different answers.

That said, Damon and I share a love for 70s pop culture.  I think his taste in the linked to pieces is fantastic.  The movie choices are excellent.  If you haven't seen them, watch them.  The music choices, too, are fantastic.  I love Paul Simon's American Tune.   I love Jackson Browne, I loved Billy Joel until I got sick of him (growing up on Long Island one can o.d. on the local boy).  Yet I really don't like the article. 

By now you can probably guess why.  Damon's arguing that a certain pessimistic inward turn informed the 70s pop culture as exemplified by singer-songwriters and certain film-makers and genres.  The artists and works he focuses on are all working out a certain set of issues that were the concerns of white guys of a certain class in the 1970s.  What does the sexual revolution mean to us?  What does our whiteness mean anymore?  What does it mean to be a man?  When Damon says, "Similar themes resonate through the pop music of the era, especially in the plaintive songs of the singer-songwriters who rose to prominence early in the decade."   He's really talking about male singer-songwriters but he's universalizing their experiences to talk about "the experience" of the 1970s instead of one set of experiences.   How do I know this?  Because he spends a whole bunch of time talking about some great Jackson Browne albums that didn't sell and ignores the best selling singer songrwriter of the 1970s, Carole King.  King's album, Tapestry, was a chart topper for two years straight.  It won just about every major award it could.  And it's held up.  It's got some serious optimism mixed in with the sadness.  The singer-songwriter inward turn veers into a celebration of sexuality (unleashed by the Pill and the women's movement) in songs like I Feel the Earth Move and Natural Woman.  And of course if we move beyond King, Disco was a music of optimism if there ever was one.  Gloria Gaynor belting I Will Survive will make you feel better no matter what.  Taste, however, is taste.  You don't have to like Carole King, or Gloria Gaynor, or Jackson Browne.  However, if you are going to write about the 1970s crisis of white male masculinity, you kind of owe it to all the people in the 1970s who didn't share in that crisis, not to universalize the experience of the white guys.  You owe it to the people of the past, and the readers in the present to be straightforward about whose experiences you are talking about.  It's a good habit to be in.  It's an honest habit.  It's respectful.  And ultimately, it's kind.  Because it invites the next question.  If a lot of white guys thought this?  What did other folks think? 

Special thanks to Damon Linker for encouraging me to write up this response. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Fantasticks, me, and rape culture

My two oldest children and I ventured up to NYC today to see a Broadway play.  We played the TKTS lottery and came up with The Fantasticks.  Technically, we did not see a Broadway play, because although the Jerry Orbach theater is located steps from the actual street Broadway on 50th, it is an off-Broadway production due to the small size of the house (among other factors).  This is a show I have a long history with.  I saw it twice at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and was in a production in college.  I was a little worried about seeing the show.  Back in the 80s, the show felt dated.  How could it still hold up.  But hold up it did, primarily because of the efforts of Samantha Bruce, who gave the Luisa character a depth I hadn't really seen before.  She played the 16 year old with a charming mix of naivete and burgeoning sexuality that was both comedic and believable.  My parents weren't much older when they married around the time the play was written so it's not totally unrealistic for a 16 year old to marry.  It's an incredibly difficult job and she was extremely successful at it.  Pierce Cravens (normally the mute) made for a pleasing romantic lead as an understudy fill-in and was a very believable 20.    Jeremiah James (maybe you saw him in Oklahoma as Curly or heard him as part of the theater singing group Teatro) was a knowing El Gallo:  attractive, worldly, and just a bit dangerous.   The rest of the small cast was filled with accomplished Broadway veterans.  The show seemed fresh and alive in a way no 50-year old show has a right to be.  My kids loved it and I found new layers of meaning that I couldn't appreciate in my teens.  (Luisa's keepsake, her mother's necklace, is a symbol for her virginity and she gives it willingly to El Gallo?  Ohhhhhhhhhhh.)  Although the first act is the stronger in terms of music and action and laughs,  the moral is in the second act: that the romances that Matt and Luisa fed themselves on are lies, that there is no teacher like experience, that it can be good, and maybe even necessary to fight pirates and swim naked in mountain streams, but one doesn't build a life doing those things, that romance is child's play but love and living are very serious and grown up businesses and if they are somewhat boring they are ultimately rewarding.   

Of course, the show has been updated somewhat.  The book and lyrics have been altered (by the original team) to minimize the use of the word rape.  In the original, El Gallo arranges the abduction (or rape in the classical sense of the word) of Luisa with the help of Henry and Mortimer.  He does so because the Fathers of Matt and Luisa have staged a feud to make the two fall in love and now must create a happy ending wherein Matt will rescue Luisa from El Gallo and his accomplices.  This was controversial enough in 1986 that my college production got booed the first time El Gallo mentioned the word.  The changes were mostly minor and barely noticesable.  Most often, the term raid was substituted for rape.  But this is why the character of Luisa is so difficult to play.  She has to be someone who is secretly thrilled with the idea of being abducted and even charmed by El Gallo himself, but ultimately someone in charge of her own sexuality.  When she gives El Gallo her mother's necklace, she does so willingly.  And although she regrets it, it's a necessary step in her own education.  I suppose when people talk about rape culture, they are, in part, talking about the trope that filled Luisa's mind:  being swept off her feet by a knowing, handsome, exotic stranger skilled in love and conquest.  Hell, almost everybody. male or female, has had that fantasy at some time or another.  Mrs. Robinson, El Gallo, it's all the same.    When people talk about rape culture, my mind goes to cultural artifacts that glorify abduction and shows like The Fantasticks that appear, at least on the surface, to condone such abductions.  There is a reading that suggests Luisa wants to be raped.  I think that's the wrong reading.  I think The Fantasticks is actually a critique of that reading.   But doing the kind of cultural work to get to the point where most people can critique the abduction fantasy even if they have it from time to time is hard.  To get to the point where we note the difference between fantasy and reality and where the line is, that's a lot of work right there.  Maybe a generations worth of work.  Maybe more. 


This past weekend, for the second time, a former student contacted me because she was a victim of an attempted sexual assault and her college was failing her.  First some background.  The first student who contacted me, Michaela Cross, ended up telling her story rather publicly. You can find it here on CNN where over one million people read her account of being sexually harassed in India.  It touched off a firestorm both here in the US and in India.  But sometimes lost in the discussion was the fact that Michaela's target wasn't India.  It was the University of Chicago that refused to take her complaints seriously and didn't make appropriate treatment options available upon her return.  Like Michaela, the student that contacted me wasn't raped.  She got away.  But she hasn't slept through the night since October.  And her school's psych services department doesn't want to hear it. She feels like she has no place to turn.  She doesn't want to be a "victim" and she doesn't want to leave her school.  But she wants to feel safe again.  I did what I could, made the standard suggestions of finding the women's survivors group on campus, figuring out who had the local knowledge to navigate the bureaucracy to get the right signature on the right form to see the right doctor.  But it shouldn't be that hard.  It shouldn't be that hard at all.  And that's something that's got to change.  That should be easy to change.  Why doesn't it change?

Updated to fix grammar errors. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Context Matters: Or How to Fisk the Hell Out of Stupid People (History Edition).

Spring is always a busy time here in history-teacher land.  There are classes to teach, papers to grade, and people that are wrong the internet who need to be corrected.  So we have to kill two birds with one stone today and talk about an important history skill and correct somebody who needs more correction than all the spelling mistakes in a second-grade classroom.  Fasten your seat belts, folks; it's a two-fer Friday!

Today's important history skill is context.  Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke identified Context as one of the 5 Cs of Historical Thinking along with Change Over Time, Causality, Contingency and Complexity. (If you haven't seen that article before, read the whole thing, I'll wait).   Context means, among other things, understanding a primary document within it's time frame and how both the author and the audience derived meaning from it.  It means putting aside your agenda, and trying to get into the minds of the people of the time.  It's a really important skill for historians and history students.  And apparently Christina Hoff Sommers missed all the classes in it, or forgot them when she wrote this tripe for Time magazine. [1]

Philosophers, it should be noted, are not known for liking context, having a preference for the universal and timeless.   Maybe that's why she baselessly claimed that Free To Be You and Me was created as a piece of media propaganda designed to create a genderless world.  Sommers was born in 1950 which means she's old enough to remember Free to Be when it came out but too old to have been in the target demographic.  I was born almost two decades later, and not only was I in the target demographic, I practically was the test audience.  Free to Be started as a column in Ms. Magazine called Stories for Free Children.  I know because my mom carefully clipped them out of her issue every month and gave them to me and I read them all (or she read them to me).  And I liked them.  In 1972 if you were a boy who was skinny and uncoordinated, there wasn't a whole lot out there in boy culture for you.  Stories for Free Children helped fill that gap.  They were funny, they were touching, and they never talked down to you or preached at you.  They were just stories about people trying to be themselves and the moral was usually just that:  be yourself.  So when Free to Be appeared on TV with it's iconic theme song (a song so influential college post punk bands would cover it twenty years later and if anybody can score me a copy of the Walt Mink version have at it). 

So let's look at how Sommers misreads the context of Free To Be.  First there is the assertion that Free to Be's main goal was to create gender-free children.  For evidence, she points to a dialogue between two babies wherein the boy wants to be a cocktail waitress and the girl a fireman.  Except she neglects to mention that the babies are voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas and the skit is clearly played for laughs.   (Watch it here if you don't believe me).   She also targets Ladies First, which is not about destroying concepts femininity but about pulling your own weight and acting appropriate in a given context.  And again, played for laughs.  She somehow ignored Carol Channing's tour de force takedown on housework.  These stories used comedy and exaggeration to challenge stereotypes - not advocate for a genderless world.  Let's remember what school looked like in 1974. Around 1974, my gym teacher told me girls couldn't be captains for choosing sides in gym (mom called the principal).  In 1974, most girls had extremely limited opportunities to play sports at all.  In 1971, less than 300,000 girls played sports and comprised less than 1% of varsity athletes.  In 2012-13 over 3 million girls played sports in high school and comprising about 40 percent of high school athletes.   That's a pretty hefty increase. But hey, that's just sports, right?  What about the real world?  In 1970, only 10 percent of doctors were women, now it's a third.  In 1970, only 5 percent of lawyers were women, now it's a third.  Women, weren't in those professions in part because of sexism in admissions, but in part because people actively discouraged women from joining those fields.  That's why we needed Free to Be You and Me.  So that

"every boy in this land, grows to be his own man
every girl in this land, grows to be her own woman...

to a land where the horses run free
to a land where the children run free
where you and me are free to be you and me."

It wasn't about making girls play with trucks or making boys play with dolls.  It was about letting kids make up their minds and exercise agency over their lives.  It was about the ability to dream your own future and try to bring it into reality.  It was an important and valuable dream then.  And it still is now.  Sommers does real violence to the past when she claims that Free to Be was something that it clearly was not.  And she diminishes the very real impact the show had and the real change it helped effect.  Sommers is a bad, bad historian.  And she's a bad historian because she doesn't understand context.  But that's ok, the most popular track from the album can help her out.  Take it away two-time pro-bowler, member of the Fearsome Foursome, dude who captured RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan and all-around general bad-ass and needlepoint god Rosey Grier: 

[1] Sommers, you might remember, is the former Philosophy professor who managed to single-handedly set back media attention on problems in boys' education by blaming feminism rather than (as she later admitted in the new edition) misguided policies often framed as "zero-tolerance".

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


So this post got under my skin in the way that only "a right topic, you couldn't be more wrong" post does.  It's a link to encourage students to change the way they do citation.  Yay!  I'm all for getting students to do better citation practices in the digital age.  And it points out that modern technologies, like prezis, might require us to change the way we do citation.  Well, of course they do.  Duh.  But the solution proposed is very least common denominator.  Clickable links?  Really?  That's the very bottom baseline of what would be acceptable.  A clickable link doesn't tell me a whole lot just looking at it, and I don't even know if I want to click on it.  I can't assess reliability by looking at a bunch of tinyurls.  Did you find that Jefferson quote in a secondary article?  Reading the Notes on the State of Virginia, or from a "Jefferson Quotes" website? So when I assign a project where students might be doing something with unguided internet research or images that they find on the internet I now require three levels of citation:

  1.  what the heck is it originally:  here I want to see the author's name, date, original place of publication etc. if it's a document.  For an image, I want artist, date, venue it first appeared in if commercial art etc.    Anything that helps me understand the context of the original piece needs to be represented.  
  2. where did you find it:  here you can give me a website if you have a clickable link.  But remember not every URL is clickable. Make sure you are using a stable URL. 
  3. if it also exists as a print source in a collection or database, I need that knowledge too.  If you found it in ABC-CLIO, or JSTOR, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I might want to search it myself.  Because the first rule of finding stuff in research is that where you found one thing, you will probably find more.  Using other people's footnotes and bibliographies is pretty much a junior-senior year of college thing.  But it doesn't hurt my students to make them aware of this practice for later.  Sometimes, they even get to use it now. 
So make sure you've got all three levels of citation going on with your online projects, people!

PS.  Don't even get me started on e-texts that don't have clickable footnotes/endnotes that pop up next to the notation when you click on it.  What's the point of having a digital text if not to make things easier for readers?  Yet does anybody do this?  Anyone?