Course Description & Objectives (aka, “What will I learn in this class?”)

From the arrival of the first human beings in the Western Hemisphere to the present, the history of American civilization has always been shaped by the environment. Humans, in turn, have used technology to alter their natural environment, often with largely unanticipated consequences.

This course examines the role played by nature as a historical agent in the course of American history – that is, how the environment has presented constraints that limited human choices, as well as opportunities that expanded them. In addition, it seeks to illuminate the ways in which Americans’ thinking about nature and the environment has changed during the past several centuries. By bringing nature into the study of human history, we will begin to see the connections and interdependencies between the two that often go unnoticed. Such historical thinking can also give us a more informed perspective on environmental issues that we face today.

We will examine changes in thought and behavior during three periods: a “contact” period focusing on the ecological, economic and cultural ramifications of Old World-New World interconnection; a “development” period focusing on the rise of a market-based, urban-industrial society during the nineteenth century; and a final “reform” period, characterized by the growth of movements to conserve and protect nature, and the increasing emergence of globalization as an economic and political force. In each period, we will trace changes in production, labor, and consumption patterns; transportation, manufacturing, and other technologies; science, knowledge, and planning; disease, health and medicine; cultural understandings, political debates, and place-making strategies



You are expected to come to class having completed all assigned readings and also prepared to discuss them. Not only will these be the basis of our discussions, but you will be expected to utilize these readings on course assignments:

  • Steinberg, Ted. Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History. 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN: 0190864427
  • Hurley, Andrew. Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-1980. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Selected readings (available on D2L) – see reading schedule for these readings



Assignment Guidelines All assignments must be submitted to the appropriate dropbox in D2L – no emailed papers, please. All papers should be typed in a standard 12-pt font, double- spaced, with 1” margins.

Attendance Student participation is an essential component of this class; attendance will be taken at every session. You are spending a substantial amount of money to gain an education; it makes no sense to not maximize your return on investment by being in class at every opportunity.

That said, I recognize that the circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic may introduce factors that make attendance more challenging than in normal circumstances.  PLEASE DO NOT COME TO CLASS IF YOU ARE SICK. Should extended illness or other extenuating circumstances arise, please contact me as soon as possible and we can discuss arrangements.

There are no excused or unexcused absences for this course. See the “Grading” page for how attendance is incorporated into the course grade.

Accommodations If you require classroom accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you must register with the Office of Disability Services, phone is 724-738-4877. I am happy to provide all necessary accommodations.

Additionally, if there are aspects of this course that prevent you from learning or that form barriers to your inclusion, please let me know as soon as possible. Together we’ll develop strategies that can enable you to succeed in the course.

Any student who faces challenges securing food or housing and believes these obstacles may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the SRU Student Support office at (724)738-2121 or Furthermore, please notify me if you are comfortable doing so – telling me will enable me to provide any resources that I may possess.

SRU COVID-19 Policy

The Slippery Rock University community was notified on August 16 that all students, faculty, staff, and visitors are required to wear a face covering inside all University buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

Wearing a mask consistently and properly is one of the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 and insure that we continue to be able to meet in-person.  Please review the FAQ below.  If you have further questions, please refer to the SRU Student COVID-19 Resource webpage


What counts as a “mask”?
Acceptable face coverings include masks that cover the mouth and nose at all times, or plastic face shields.

I’m fully vaccinated – do I still need to wear a mask?
The university’s mask policy applies to everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

What if I am medically unable to wear a mask?
In very rare instances, individuals may have a medical condition that prevent mask wearing. In these cases, students must receive an accommodation letter from the Office of Disability Services (ODS) detailing that they are exempt from the masking policy.

Can I briefly remove my mask to drink a beverage or eat?
Eating and drinking are prohibited in all classrooms across campus.

What if I forget my mask?
Mistakes happen!  If you forget your mask, simply go directly to the nearest department office, where disposable masks are available.  Supplies are limited, however – so please do not abuse this courtesy.

What if I refuse to wear a mask?
Failure to wear an acceptable face covering, or improperly wearing an acceptable face covering, will be considered disruptive classroom behavior and is subject to sanction under the Student Code of Conduct. 

Any student not following the masking policy in this class will receive a polite verbal reminder.  Failure to comply after this reminder will result in the student being asked to leave the classroom.


Participation This is a class based on collaborative discourse. As such, being prepared to participate in discussions is a course requirement. This entails having read, annotated, and thought about the complete reading assignments carefully before class starts. 

Reading Annotations Using the tool, students will annotate and discuss texts assigned for the class each week. Full instructions and a how-to guide will be provided on D2L.

Short Analytical Essays (4) 750-1000 word responses that ask you to synthesize material from class, including lecture, reading, and primary sources into an analytical essay.. These will be assessed for clarity, specificity, and depth of thought. Detailed guidelines and due dates will be distributed in class.

Local Environmental History Project (Optional) A research project that will give you an opportunity to explore aspects of the area’s environmental history. Further details will be distributed early in the semester.

Academic Integrity

All assignments must be your own work. Plagiarizing or other academic dishonesty will not be tolerated.

Plagiarism can be defined as:
1. Submitting another’s published or unpublished work, in whole, in part, or in paraphrase, as one’s own without fully and properly crediting the author with footnotes, citations or bibliographical reference.

2. Borrowing extensively from a source material’s language, even with proper citation, without indicating the use of said language with quotation marks.

In short, don’t claim the ideas or words of someone else as your own. Always give explicit credit when you use anyone’s exact thoughts or language, whether paraphrasing or quoting them.

Intellectual work is about developing and sharing your ideas, and it’s about taking note of and giving credit to other people who have shared good ones with you.

Academic dishonesty can take other forms as well; please read SRU’s Academic Integrity Policy closely for further examples.

Students committing any of these violations of academic integrity will receive a “0” on the assignment in question, and the incident will be reported to the university for further action.

Course Schedule

For each week’s topic, reading, and due dates, see the course page on D2L.