Course Syllabus

HSTAA/ENVIR 221 Environmental History of the United States


Room: Anderson Hall 223                  Time: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:30-11:20


Instructor: Nathan E. Roberts

Office: Smith Hall 104C

Phone: 206 543 0729


Office Hours: Tues. & Thurs. 11:30-1PM and by appointment


Teaching Assistant: Jennifer Smith

Office: Smith Hall 214

Phone: 206 543 8921


Office Hours: Mon. & Wed. 9:30-11AM


Course Design and Goals

This course will provide students with materials and concepts to understand U.S. history from an environmental perspective. That is, instead of focusing on human actors and actions alone, this course will highlight some ways that the material, or natural, world established limits for human action and shaped historical changes. It will investigate U.S. politics, society, and culture by examining soil, insects, animals, trees, chemical compounds, and much more that makes up our natural environment. In addition, it will explore how Americans have defined, represented, and used their natural environment over time as well as what these definitions, representations, and uses have meant for U.S. history.


By completing the course requirements, students will learn 1) how to think historically about the material world and human actions within it, 2) how to analyze both primary and secondary sources as a core element of historical study, 3) some of the research methods and investigative techniques used by historians and social scientists, and 4) how to write a strong argumentative essay and how to revise and improve their prose.


Required Reading – You will be asked to read approximately 100 pages per week.

Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American  

   Conservation (Any edition)

Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES (2010)


*Additional required readings are available on the course’s Canvas website and designated on the class schedule by (C).


Recommended Reading

Writing is an essential part of history and you should use this opportunity to improve your prose. I recommend that all students, regardless of previous writing experience, consult Michael Harvey, The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (2003), especially chapters 1 & 2 on “Concision” and “Clarity.” These two chapters on posted in the course’s Canvas website.


This course does not use a traditional textbook. (The lectures act as the textbook!) However, if you would like to consult a U.S. environmental history survey text, see Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History rev. ed. (2009).

Assignments & Grading

Participation    20%

Quizzes           30% (4 @ 7.5% of final grade)

Final Exam      20%

Place Paper     30% (3 components listed below)

            Tangible Object Assignment   5%

            Paper Draft                             10%

            Final Paper                             15%


**Students must attempt each graded assignment in order to pass the course.



Organization of Classes

Tuesday and Thursday lectures will generally consist of lecture with a short break about halfway through the class. Some class time will also include analysis of primary sources, discussion, debate, and other exercises. These in-class activities often will require you to be prepared to discuss assigned readings. On four occasions you will take a short 30 minute quiz (see below). During the Friday sections, you will discuss readings and other course materials.




Participation is a large portion of your course grade because we value informed discussion. Two essential parts of good participation are 1) be engaged. This means being part of the class discussion through comments, questions, and active listening. Participation does not simply mean being present in class. You are expected to engage the course materials, instructors, and other students. We aim to foster a vibrant, respectful atmosphere for sharing ideas and working through the course materials. And, 2) stay rooted in the course materials. Opinions uninformed by the course materials can sometimes be relevant, but may also lead the discussion off topic. Much of this grade will come from your work in the Friday discussion sections, but also from the in-class activities that we have during lecture. Your TA may have additional criteria for evaluating your participation during Friday sections. It is essential that you show up to all class periods, but we will drop each student’s lowest participation grade.



Quizzes & Final Exam

Your ability to understand and synthesize the course lectures and readings will be assessed through four quizzes. They will include short answers, term identifications, image analysis, and other exercises.

The final exam will be an expanded version of the quizzes and it will be a comprehensive exam. I will provide you with study guides for the quizzes and the final exam.



Place Paper

The major paper assignment for this course gives you the opportunity to do environmental history. We ask you read a landscape and construct a history of a specific place based upon your observations and some light research. This paper assignment consists of three exercises. First, you will write a short “tangible object” paper. This paper is an entry into your larger project and it asks you to analyze an object that is related to your chosen place. Second, you will write a mandatory rough draft of your place paper. Third, you will turn in the final draft of the place paper after having considered your instructor’s revisions.

Late Papers & Missed Sections & Quizzes

Late papers will be assessed a penalty of 0.5 grade points per day. Quizzes may not be made up unless in the case of a documented illness. Missed Friday sections may not be made up.

Suggestions for how to succeed in this course:

  1. Take notes in lecture, study them with friends to fill gaps and clarify any confusion. Ask for clarity from the instructor. Ask questions in class! The whole class will benefit from your inquiries.
  2. Take notes when you read. Search for main ideas. Do not highlight entire paragraphs. Remember: if you highlight an entire paragraph, then nothing in it is highlighted.
  3. Keep up with the reading. Set a reading schedule for yourself and enjoy. These are good books!
  4. Start early on paper assignments. Meet with me to discuss ideas and bring drafts to me for comments.
  5. Come to every class prepared to engage the material and the other students.



Sundry Policies:


Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct, and ultimately it devalues both the person who engages in it and the broader learning environment in this course and the university. True intellectual work requires the free, open, and honest exchange of ideas.


The Committee on Academic Conduct in the College of Arts and Sciences has defined plagiarism in the

following way:

  • Using another writer's words without proper citation.
  • Using another writer's ideas without proper citation.
  • Citing your source but reproducing the exact words of a printed source without quotation marks; or, borrowing the structure of another author's phrases or sentences without crediting the author from whom it came.
  • Borrowing all or part of another student's paper or using someone else's outline to write your own paper.
  • Using a paper writing "service" or having a friend write the paper for you.


The obligation to properly cite the work of others applies to internet, oral, and written sources.

The key to avoiding plagiarism is to show clearly where your own thinking ends and someone else’s

begins. For additional resources on avoiding plagiarism and appropriately citing various types of sources, please see the link on the course website.


If plagiarism is discovered, it will be treated very seriously. A paper in which significant portions have been plagiarized will be forwarded to the Dean’s representative on Academic Misconduct. If plagiarism is confirmed, the student will receive a 0 for the assignment, and may also receive a failing grade in the course.


Personal technology:

Laptops and tablets will be allowed only so long as they are used for course note-taking and are not disruptive of the learning environment. Many students find it distracting when people around them are checking Facebook and surfing the web; please consider that, and perhaps download a web-blocking program if you need to. If students are observed using laptops in class for other purposes, or if I receive any complaints about laptop misuse, additional restrictions will be placed on their use in this course.


Cellphones may not be used at any time during the course except during the break.

Class Schedule


Week 1

Th Sept 28      Environment, History, and Native America

                        READ: Local Native Stories (C)


Fri Sept 29      READ: Cronon, “Kennecott Journey” (C)






Week 2

T Oct 3           The Columbian Exchange

READ: Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” (C)


Th Oct 5         Environment and Economy: The Fur Trade  


Fri Oct 6         READ: Three Histories of Indians and Environmental Change (C)






Week 3

T Oct 10         Changing Ecologies of New England and the South                                        Quiz #1


Th Oct 12       Capitalism and Consumer Society                              DUE: Tangible Object Assignment


Fri Oct 13       READ: De Tocqueville, excerpts from Democracy in America (C)

                        READ: “Abby’s Year in Lowell” from The Lowell Offering (C)

READ: Stewart, “Rice, Water, and Power: Landscapes of Domination and Resistance in the Lowcountry, 1790-1880” (C)





Week 4

T Oct 17         Western Resources and Manifest Destiny


Th Oct 19       The Rise of Cities

                        READ: Primary Sources on Urban Spaces and Reform (C)


Fri Oct 20       Place Paper Clinic

READ: Basso, “Quoting the Ancestors” (C)

READ: Glassberg, “Place and Placelessness in American History” (C)



Week 5

T Oct 24         Sublime Landscapes and Romantic Notions                                                   Quiz #2


Th Oct 26       Views on Wilderness: Preservation and Parks

READ: White, “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?” (C)

READ: Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness…” (C)


Fri Oct 27       READ: Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 1-78 (Introduction – chapter 3).






Week 6

T Oct 31         Progressives and Environmental Management                                              

                        READ: Primary Sources on Conservation (C)


Th Nov 2        Imperial Visions: Foreign Landscapes and Peoples

                        READ: Report of the Forestry Bureau of the Philippine Islands (C)


Fri Nov 3        READ: Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature, 81-146 (chapters 4-6).






Week 7

T Nov 7          Depression and Unruly Terrain                                                                      Quiz #3


Th Nov 9        New Food and Energy Regimes: Agriculture, Dams, and Atoms



Fri Nov 10      NO CLASS Veterans Day






Week 8

T Nov 14        Suburbia                                 


Th Nov 16      Consumerism and Waste                                            DUE: Rough Draft of Place Paper


Fri Nov 17      READ: Langston, Toxic Bodies, 1-47 (chapters 1-3).





Week 9

T Nov 21        READ: Langston, Toxic Bodies, 48-82 (chapters 4 & 5).                              Quiz #4

READ:Neil Prendergast, “Raising the Thanksgiving Turkey: Agroecology, Gender, and

the Knowledge of Nature” (C)




Fri Nov 24      NO CLASS THANKSGIVING BREAK                





Week 10

T Nov 28        Nuclear Proliferation                                                                                      


Th Nov 30      Silent Spring and 20th Century Environmentalism

                       READ: Carson, Silent Spring, 1-37. (1962) (C)

READ: Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (1949) (C)


Fri Dec 1         READ: Langston, Toxic Bodies, 83-111 (chapter 6).





Week 11

T Dec 5           Toxic Chemicals and Environmental Justice                  DUE: Final Draft of Place Paper


Th Dec 7         “Sustainability” and Environmental Change in Our Lives                             


Fri Dec 8         READ: Langston, Toxic Bodies, 112-151 (chapters 7 & 8).





Finals Week

Final Exam: Wednesday Dec 13 10:30-12:20 in our regular classroom

Course Summary:

Date Details Due