As I finish teaching my first course ever (North American Environmental History), I have an opportunity to reflect on what I did and what I can do in the future to make the class engaging to undergraduates. Since nearly all of my students are Nebraskans, I made a special effort to touch upon (relatively) local history, such as the creation of the Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s hunts in Nebraska, and the environmental history of the Platte River “road.” This seemed to stimulate student interest, but I think that the History Harvest might generate an even more fruitful experience.
Many of the topics that I covered in this class readily lend themselves to the History Harvest initiative. Overland travel, the destruction of the bison, homesteading, the great cattle drives, the Dust Bowl, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam projects constitute just a few of the countless subjects that undergraduates might encounter when they work to uncover local history. Since many of my students are themselves native Nebraskans, we may very well find that their families possess rich collections of documents that can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of Nebraska’s past as well as environmental history in general. Challenging students to pursue such source materials and to put together local histories (whether those of their families, acquaintances, or total strangers) would be a great way to teach them how to “do” history even as they bring to light stories that might otherwise go overlooked.
Integrating the History Harvest into my North American Environmental History class would have the potential to give seemingly trivial relics historical significance. Such things as old photographs, maps, journals, letters, local newspapers, and even everyday items such as pieces of farming equipment are often important to families and communities, but they can help us to better understand broader historical events, trends, and narratives. Juxtaposed with a photograph of a farm, waterway, or cityscape taken today, one taken of the same thing 50 years ago can be used to highlight stories of environmental change and/or continuity. Letters and journals written 100 years ago in several parts of Nebraska can be presented and examined side-by-side to compare and contrast human experiences and environmental transformations. These are but two of many possible examples; the prospects are endless.
As I see it, the History Harvest can be used in such a manner as to help us better comprehend the past while at the same time producing and preserving materials for the benefit of those who follow in our wake. The Missouri River, as we know, has a long history of flooding. Only recently did we receive a reminder of humanity’s limited ability to conquer and control nature when near-record levels of precipitation in 2011 overwhelmed the river’s six major dams; water released to prevent overflows jeopardized many communities downstream. Although barely removed from “current event” status, this event presents students with an opportunity to interview, document, and archive before it fades into the past. The drought conditions of the past couple years represent another chance to grapple with the present for the purpose of better understanding the past and to document recent events for posterity.
Using the History Harvest as an instructional tool and a means of historical preservation in my environmental history classes would likely help students to better grasp the enduring legacy of the past. Encouraging students to explore such topics as recurring droughts and the periodic Missouri River floods would illuminate local and regional pasts that encompass decades of history in both rural and urban areas.
Adam Hodge is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln