Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s five-year anniversary this week! Like in previous years, we’ll be celebrating all week long by featuring exciting work every day to mark the occasion. Today, we’re bringing you this conversation between Tools for Change co-editors Anna Guasco and Ramya Swayamprakash about “doing environmental history.”
This post starts off our new ‘Doing Environmental History’ series: from practicalities of research to pedagogy to big ideas about connection and collaboration, in this interview-style conversation, Ramya shares with Anna what doing environmental history means to her.
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AG: To start, I’d like to ask you what seems like a simple question: how do you do environmental history?
RS: It is a very tricky question as you know. I think I do environmental history the way I do life: with respect, an open mind, and so many questions. I have always been super interested in relationships between things and was obsessed as a kid with figuring those patterns out in everything. As a historian, I continue to operate like that. I try to figure out relationships but also behave relationally.
AG: I really like the way you’re thinking openly and curiously about relationships, both in terms of the relationships between yourself and your community of study and the relationships between the phenomena you study. On a practical level, what do your methods end up looking like on a daily basis?
RS: So, one of things I do now more intentionally is trying to understand the positionality of the actors I study. What are they truly saying and thinking? By that token, who am I not able to listen or see in my archival material? I wrote my dissertation based on archival sources from smaller archives more than the larger collections. Part of that choice was dictated by the pandemic and being map-trapped, but the more serendipitous part was that material from these smaller archives was quite local, which let me get a richer picture of how people saw each. In a borderland like Detroit and Windsor, how people related to each other played out on the river and the myriad “improvements” underway. I did lean into some urban design methods I learned on my way to the PhD, specifically, using maps. As part of my MA in Urban Design, I had geo-rectified a series of archival maps (mostly available easily) to track the changes in the shoreline as well as growth of urban agglomerations. While these did not necessarily make their way into the dissertation, they did inform the way I understood change over time.
I also created a detailed timeline of events along the Detroit River for the last four centuries, as best I could, and visualized that against the amount of sediment dredged out starting in the 1880s. Just seeing those two trajectories in the same place helped me think/probe connections. For instance, in my last chapter I claimed that dredging and island making was an important part of implementing the New Deal in Michigan and was a cause of tension between Michigan and Ontario. While this was based on archival records, I first thought of probing this based on the timelines. I of course consequently forgot about this and then thanks to some probing from my supervisors, I revisited the timelines and discovered I had sources to back up this claim. I am a visual thinker so I need to see things and connections, and laying out the context visually drew out the connections for me.
AG: Thanks so much for sharing this—and particularly for sharing what didn’t make it into the final products of research. It’s not always something that’s highlighted, but, importantly, research isn’t just where we end up but how we got there. Relatedly: how did you get started in environmental history and/or when did you start considering yourself to be an environmental historian?
RS: Gosh. Over three decades ago (yes, as my child points out every day, I am old), in middle school (maybe?) I became interested in water and human-driven climate change when I learned about the water cycle and the hole in the ozone. I obviously wanted to change the world with my ideas on how to plug that hole. But then, I became more interested in how we got there in the first place. So I guess that’s when I became interested in the process and change over time. I think I may have begun to consider myself to be an environmental historian after I was credentialed, so perhaps last year. But I sound unsure because I am. I do not know exactly when I began to call myself an environmental historian, but it feels like I have always been one, if that makes sense.
AG: That really resonates for me, and I would imagine it does for others, as well, especially in terms of the tensions between doing environmental history and formally calling what you do “environmental history.” Certainly, a lot of important environmental history work is also happening outside of traditional or formal boundaries, which complicates more traditional labelling or categories. Additionally, we may think of “doing” environmental history as research but “doing” environmental history includes many forms of practice—including teaching. How does teaching factor into your practice as an environmental historian?
RS: I think massively. And not just because I am currently at a university where we take teaching seriously. I have always wanted to teach and can’t imagine doing much else. Sparking interest/annoyance/questions in students’ minds is the biggest perk of my job. There is much I need to learn about teaching but I enjoy co-learning with students and trying to upend their inherited lingua franca and pushing them to challenge things and people (especially me). I firmly believe that as an educator, I need to help my students gain the confidence to ask different questions so we can get different answers which will hopefully help me become better stewards of the more-than-human-world.
AG: What do you think environmental history as a field should be doing differently? Do you see any promising signs or avenues where this kind of change is taking place?
RS: I think as a newbie, I have many ideas that I think are cool (with the full acknowledgement that I am definitely more naïve than I can even fully acknowledge). To me, environmental history needs to take the lead in asking different questions. We have long been interested in chronology and materiality. But perhaps we need to rethink how flat our questions are rendered with this adherence to chronology. Are there other ways of thinking, being, and imagining that we can showcase? If so, where might we find them? How can we foster different questions if we are unwilling to look at different places that prompt questions? How can we be better storytellers and narrators who push readers and students to be more involved citizens and humans?
AG: What advice do you wish you had heard about getting started in environmental history?
RS: Make bold connections and chase them. When I look back at my graduate career, I entered the PhD program with more set ideas than I should have. I think I put myself in a silo when I need not have been in one. In hindsight, I wish I had taken different classes, meandered a little more. Because now, I am in the middle of launching a website that analyzes the Underground Railroad along the Detroit River with an environmental lens, an idea that I came up with in the fall of 2016 but one that I quickly glossed over because I was scared about making the connections and chasing them.
The other advice I have is: collaborate, co-author, build community. I am VERY lucky to have landed into the EHN community among others and am so grateful for that. I know this kept me sane through personal battles and professional imposter syndrome. But we don’t talk about building community nearly enough. We can and must lift everyone together. We cannot undo the past but we must learn from it.
AG: Related to the theme of connections and collaboration, I saw that you and NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment) executive editor Jessica DeWitt are convening a session focused on doing environmental history differently for the World Congress on Environmental History (WCEH) in 2024. That sounds exciting—what can you tell us about that?
RS: So exciting! I don’t think I have met Jessica in person, ever?!? So I am truly looking forward to that! Jessica is a legend in every way possible and frankly an inspiration. I do not want to speak for her but for me, the inspiration for the session stems from asking the fundamental question: what is environmental history? It can be some things or it can be many things. Furthermore, if we can expand our thinking about what environmental history is, perhaps should we expand how we do this history? Can we think more collaboratively? Co-author pieces? And what is the future of history as a discipline but also as a practice? As you can see, I am most excited about discussing my existential angst with brilliant colleagues!
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For anyone who’s interested in joining the panel mentioned above, ‘Pushing the Envelope: Doing Environmental History Differently’ panel, check out the Call for Papers. Ramya is chairing the panel, with EHN outreach coordinator Emma Moesswilde as co-convener and Jessica DeWitt as discussant. The deadline is upcoming: September 18th! Here at EHN, we look forward to additional potential collaborations between NiCHE and EHN on doing environmental history differently.
“Doing Environmental History” is a new feature of EHN’s Tools for Change series. We will be accepting submissions to this series on an ongoing, rolling basis. For more information, please see the initial call for contributions or contact Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Cover image: Evening on Detroit River, year unknown. Detroit Publishing Company Collection. Courtesy of the Newberry Collection.
[*Cover image description: Vintage-looking postcard or illustration of a steamship moving toward a hazy city in the distance. The sun is setting and reflecting on the water.]
Edited and reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.