An Immersion in Environmental History

Sabbatical Reflections

By Bonnie Christensen, Academy Social Studies Faculty

Time and intention. Those two words sum up the heart of my sabbatical experience, which adhered to a classic definition of sabbatical: a time for a teacher to take a break in order to intentionally pursue something beyond their normal range of work. My semester sabbatical in the fall of 2023 gave me a gift of time, which I used intentionally to reflect and research how to create an environmental learning curriculum at Punahou.

I had been thinking about developing an environmental history course for a long time before I decided to apply for a semester sabbatical. I had focused on environmental history and the history of science in my Ph.D. work at the University of Washington. In the 24 years since I completed my doctorate, I had made an effort to incorporate ideas of environmental history into my classes but had never offered a dedicated course focused on this way of thinking about the past. 

The daily work of teaching and grading left me little time to really stop and think about how and why I wanted to design an environmental history course and so I kept pushing it off as something I could deal with later. Then two years ago at a meeting of the President’s Advisory Council, Mike Latham outlined his vision for a Sustainability Fellowship Program at Punahou and I began to think about how I might contribute to this initiative by helping students to understand not just the science and technology aspects of sustainability, but also the complicated histories undergirding the processes by which governments and societies have developed the physical world we live in today.  Inspired by President Latham’s vision, I applied for, and was awarded, a sabbatical so I might find the time to intentionally create a new course that would inspire students to think about the world and nature in more complicated ways.

As I planned my sabbatical semester, I deliberately chose to use this time away from my regular routine to travel and experience new places and environments. I was drawn to New England for two reasons; for one, it was the setting for William Cronon’s influential environmental history book “Changes in the Land” which explores ecology through the distinct lenses of Native Americans and Colonists; in addition, I had a former colleague working at Middlebury College, professor Kathryn Morse, who had decades of experience teaching about environmental history.

Morse generously shared her classroom and teaching experience – and helped me tremendously as I wrestled with how to make such a broad field accessible to emerging scholars. Working directly with Morse and sitting in on her environmental history classes helped me understand more about the current state of the field while also offering invaluable insights into what elite colleges expect from high school graduates.  

In Morse’s first-year seminar, for example, she challenged students to think and write critically about the 1960s environmental movement by integrating thought-provoking primary sources into carefully crafted assignments and discussions. I saw a lot that encouraged me to continue my well-established practice of focusing on analytical writing. Morse’s class also inspired me to develop a senior-level elective at Punahou that similarly would focus on specific topics in environmental history as a way to get students engaged in thinking historically and analytically. 

In addition to visiting classes, I also had the time to dive into scholarly research and think more deeply about environmental justice and questions of human agency. As I read through dozens of newer academic writings about environmental history, it became clear to me that this discipline offered an exciting way to study the world that students would find engaging and useful. Environmental history purposefully puts the land and natural resources at the center of a study of people and communities, economics and geopolitics, war and trade. 

In an environmental history study of American transportation systems, for example, students would consider issues such as who made decisions to locate interstate highways through predominately African American neighborhoods. Such an investigation would ask students to consider not only the development of the physical landscapes of cities but also the contests between local governments and local communities over who would control the built environment. Building off what I learned from Morse’s classes, I would offer students tools to look at these histories in a variety of ways to encourage them to think about agency and power and competing, overlapping narratives.

My hope is that these courses will ground students in a general understanding of environmental history while offering them some key tools to think about issues 
of sustainability and climate change.”

— Bonnie Christensen

When I proposed my sabbatical semester, I was focused fairly specifically on developing a resource for students who wanted to pursue environmental history topics for senior independent research projects. Through my semester of study, observation and contemplation, I expanded my thinking and intentions. I now have two almost fully developed courses that I plan to present to the Social Studies department for consideration next year – an environmental history of Europe and an elective course focused on investigating the histories of current environmental issues in the United States. My hope is that these courses will ground students in a general understanding of environmental history while offering them some key tools to think about issues of sustainability and climate change. 

The benefits of these environmental history courses expand far beyond just learning about the history of the natural world. Using the interrogative tools of this discipline, students can learn to navigate the reality of our ever-expanding, complicated network of knowledge, information and misinformation. If there is one key lesson to learn from history, especially environmental history, it is that there are no easy answers, but there is always someone trying to sell easy answers. 

Because environmental history is so intersectional – it deals with almost every aspect of human life – it is an optimal field for teaching students about the complexities of the world and the need to look for multiple stories to explain any given topic. As historian William Cronon has observed, environmental history is “the story of how different peoples have lived in and used the natural world” and, as such, it is “one of the most basic and fundamental narratives in all of history, without which no understanding of the past could be complete.” 

I am grateful for the gift of time offered by my semester sabbatical. I loved having the space to read, think, observe and reflect while I intentionally worked to develop a curriculum that will enable students to be more engaged, thoughtful participants in our society.

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