Looking Back at History

This page authored by Jim Farrell, St. Olaf College
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Initial Publication Date: September 15, 2010 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017


The first weeks of American environmental history introduce students to the Columbian exchange, and to the changes in the land caused by the environmental practices (agricultural and cultural) of the European settlers, as they displaced Indians in the habitats of North America. This assignment lets students examine those changes in some detail, using a single species and/or commodity as a focus.

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Learning Goals

This assignment, given early in the semester, is designed to help students move away from a strictly anthropocentric view of American history. It's intended to help them understand the idea of intellectual play, and the importance of imagination in the practice of history. Because it's done in groups of three, it's also intended to help them understand the idea that academic life is, in many ways, community life.

Context for Use

This assignment works well in American environmental history, but I can imagine adaptations (focusing on non-human actors) in lots of other classes.

Description and Teaching Materials

Looking Back at History: An Environmental Perspective

In your groups, choose a non-human organism in American environmental history, and write a first-person narrative from that character's perspective in 1800. Looking back at history, what changes and/or continuities have they seen or experienced? Although you should write first person papers, you can use Jim O'Brien's essay on beaver as an example of the kinds of issues you might address: culture and nature, ecological communities and ecological niches, habitat and boundaries, commercialization and commodification, environmental impacts and carrying capacity.

Here are some possibilities (among many):

  • a deer
  • bears
  • cattle
  • horses
  • pigs
  • a smallpox germ
  • a white pine tree
  • tea
  • sugar
  • cod
  • topsoil
  • wheat
  • corn
  • rice
  • dandelions

This project will probably require some research, but you should also be imaginative and speculative. Essays should probably be about 5 pages double-spaced.

Teaching Notes and Tips

For students whose main encounters with history have been names and dates and factoids, this assignment can be a shock, but it's almost always pleasurable, and the group support for this adventure is very helpful. Students post their papers on our Moodle site, so they other students can read them, and so that they can be a part of the midterm exam.


Because the assignment involves substantial risk for students, I'm a sympathetic reader. But it's easy to see in the essays which students have really taken the assignment seriously, and how they've connected their organism/commodity to larger themes of the course.

References and Resources

Citation: Jim O'Brien, "A Beaver's Perspective on North American History," Free Spirits (1982), reprinted in Major Problems in American Environmental History, ed. Carolyn Merchant (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005)