American Studies Seminar - 2009

America's Environmental Histories

In this seminar for undergraduates at the American Antiquarian Society, students investigated the roles that both natural and built environments have played in the development of American society. Over the course of the semester the class moved from broad studies and images of America's environments to local histories of the Blackstone River Valley's natural and built landscapes. Over the first several weeks, the class discussed the "big ideas" — Wilderness and Landscape — that have shaped Americans' relationships with their many environments. The class delved into the history of landscape paintings and other forms of visual culture that disseminate ideas about natural and built environments; students will use the American Antiquarian Society's prodigious collection of graphic arts (including lithographs, city views, photographs, and maps) to assess dominant themes. At this point in the course, the class will narrowed its focus to New England. The class traveled to the Fisher Museum of Forestry and will welcome several guest speakers who work in the field of conservation. The last unit of the course focused on students' original research projects on the environmental histories of the Blackstone River Valley Corridor. Students chose either a "natural" space or an element of the built environment, using the collections of the American Antiquarian Society (Manuscripts, Graphic Arts, Historical Newspapers) to prove their arguments about the significance of this site in the history of the area. At the end of the semester, students presented papers as part of a Conference on the Blackstone River Valley's Environmental Histories. Throughout the course, students learned to see the environments they live in, walk through, and drive past in new and exciting ways.

The seminar was led by Megan Kate Nelson. She is the author of Trembling Earth : A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp.

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