Question: Chronology or Themes? Answer: Yes!

One of the most constructive critiques I got when I submitted my textbook proposal to Oxford USA was that I really hadn't made a firm commitment to writing either a chronological history or a thematic textbook. The editor who told me that was spot on. I hadn't. Still haven't, as a matter of fact. Which is one of the reasons I didn't send him a new proposal. The other is, I want it to be available this fall, not next fall.

My class begins with a very chronological presentation of prehistory, pre-Columbian America, the Columbian exchange, Colonial North America, the early industrial revolution, etc. Toward the middle I start talking about things that overlap in time, such as improvements in transportation technology and the development of first natural and then artificial fertilizers like green manure, guano, nitrate, and ammonia, which happened pretty much simultaneously over the nineteenth century. By the end I'm talking about specific themes like mines, water, energy, limits to growth, and finally individual action. It doesn't seem to bother my students, but I can see how it might be confusing for some readers. So how would I solve this problem of drifting from chronology to themes in a textbook?

combined_statistical_areas_of_the_united_states_and_puerto_rico_2013
This is another image I'm giving almost its own full page.

I don't want to abandon the chronology. One of my objections to the books that pass for textbooks in this field is that most of them aren't really about American Environmental History, despite their titles. They're more often about the history of environmentalism, the historiography of Environmental History, or special topics in Environmental History. But you don't necessarily come away from reading them with a comprehensive view of the broad sweep of American History from a perspective that includes the environment. You don't finish the book and understand what happened in American History in a new way.

I think as academics we often forget that for most people, one of the biggest questions answered by learning a little history is "What happened?" We know that stuff back, front, and sideways. We want to complicate rather than simplify the chain of causes and effects. We introduce contingency, and then, still not satisfied, we talk about subjectivity and culture. And yeah, of course those are all valid and important issues. The past is complex beyond human understanding.

And yet. For most people, the questions are, "What happened?" and "So what?"

My undergraduate class is a Junior/Senior level elective, but I teach it online through my university's Division of Continuing Education. That means most of my students are older than average. They're also rarely History majors, and very often they're in the final phase of completing their degree, taking the General Education credits they missed along the way. So maybe this influences my course design. I'd certainly spend more time on the historiography if I was lecturing to a room full of History majors or beginning grad students.

But I think the audience I'm writing lectures for affords me a special opportunity. Because, aside from needing the Gen Ed credits to finish their degrees, these are regular people from all walks of life. My classes are filled with regular people, with regular people's concerns and interests. So I tell them what happened. I don't assume they know too much history, beyond what we all got in civics and social studies classes. I tell them things they didn't know, and I try to make the class relevant not only to the course objectives but to their lives. My favorite types of evaluation responses are the ones that say things like;

"One of the few classes I'm really sad is ending, the subject matter is fascinating and Dan is a great guide to it. His approach should be required of all students attending UMass as it teaches an appreciation for a newer and better way of living." (2014)
and
"It is just a perfect course that I think should be mandatory if we want to save our planet and live responsibly." (2015)

I guess that makes me at best an activist and at worst a presentist. So be it. I don't make stuff up. I actually try to present the complexity of the history I'm telling, along with the idea that people often had limited power to choose and limited information on which to base their choices. But that doesn't mean we don't get to evaluate their choices and use them to inform ours.

So, to make a long story shorter, back to the original question. Chronology or themes? My answer is, both. So I've divided the textbook into two parts. The first part covers the chronology, from prehistory to the early twentieth century (specifically, the Dust Bowl). Part two covers farms and agribusiness, mines, energy, water, city life, country life, environmentalism, the question of limits to growth, and then concludes with an epilogue about individual action. People will be able to choose between them -- although my students will still have to do both. Hopefully everybody will want to read both (yeah, there will be a combined version at a bargain price), and the division will just make the books easier to lug around and easier for readers to get their heads around.