- A Primer for Teaching Environmental History: Ten Design Principles by Emily Wakild and Michelle K. Berry
In 2011, Duke University Press released Antoinette Burton's A Primer for Teaching World History, the first book in its series "Design Principles for Teaching History." With Burton as editor, the series promised numerous helpful volumes for those teaching various aspects of transnational and global history. Like a tree with an irregular fruiting cycle, however, the series did not bear any new books for a while. But 2018 proved a bumper crop, yielding Trevor Getz's primer on African history, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks and Urmi Engineer Willoughby's A Primer for Teaching Women, Gender, and Sexuality in World History, and Wakild and Berry's environmental history volume. [End Page 232]
With a quarter of a century of teaching experience between them, Wakild and Berry have taught environmental history in high schools, graduate seminars, and most everything in between. This book's goal is to help instructors, whether old hands or novices, design new courses or infuse environmental history into existing ones. From that perspective, the book succeeds admirably. It makes a case for the pedagogical and political importance of environmental history, suggests and breaks down numerous engaging texts and classroom exercises, offers concrete advice on assessment strategies, and urges instructors to take seriously the tools and student learning environments of the digital age. Readers of this journal will find the specific topics and case studies, frequently derived from the authors' global environmental history courses, particularly helpful, although I suspect not everyone will agree with all of their pedagogical imperatives.
The first part of the book, titled "Approaches," contains four chapters that lay out a range of topics and learning objectives. The first examines how to make environmental history relevant to students' lives by linking it to their lunch. The focus is on food history, and the authors offer staples such as bananas, corn, and wheat as particularly useful and ubiquitous products to engage students in the history of plant domestication, agriculture, trade, and capitalism. Such an approach, they have found, pays "big dividends as your students begin to see nature and networks in everything" (p. 25).
Chapter Two, "The Seed," sets out a list of learning objectives to help build a course. In line with the pedagogical theories emanating from university education departments, Wakild and Berry advocate prioritizing skill acquisition, such as locating and evaluating sources, over content knowledge. Those who take this stance frequently employ the "everything is on the internet" argument to downplay the importance of content. Wakild and Berry do not go this far, but their heavy emphasis on learning objectives and skill acquisition is nonetheless contestable. One can also make the case that well-presented content is vital to engaging students' initial interest in a subject and that skill building is more effective once this interest has been fully engaged. Furthermore, Wakild and Berry's discussion seems predicated on small classes in which instructors have the time and wherewithal to deeply immerse students in small group activities. Over the past decade, I have taught a first year global environmental history course with over 150 students. Wakild and Berry's intensive skill-oriented approach sounds like it would be difficult to implement in large classes; in my experience, a content-driven approach is both more realistic and more likely to hook students who might subsequently [End Page 233] enroll in smaller upper level classes where instructors can devote greater emphasis to skills and methods.
The chapter on integrating animals into history is one of the book's highlights, reminding us how historians frequently neglect the lives of other species. In keeping with Levi-Strauss's famous formulation, animals are "good to think," Wakild and Berry cogently demonstrate how the interdisciplinary insights of the "animal turn" can undermine anthropocentric histories while at the same time offering compelling material for lectures and discussions. For those wondering how to integrate such material, the authors offer a chapter titled "The Hatchet," a set...