This summer I will close up shop at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where I've enjoyed three years of uninhibited research time, and return to the life of teaching as Assistant Professor of Britain and its Empire at Brown University in Providence, RI. I'm immensely looking forward to the transition. Research time is fantastic, but teaching is generally where our best ideas and most rigorous thinking comes from. Students, even more than colleagues, challenge us to remain relevant, to take opposing points of view seriously, and to witness directly to voices from the past.
The History Department at Brown takes its undergraduates seriously, and I've been urged by my colleagues to offer courses that will attract non-majors from a variety of fields, and to overtly engage with my commitments to land and water use and the history of capitalism.
In my time as a researcher, I've visited leaders in land reform and international infrastructure investment and worker cooperatives who have emphasized how hard it is to find undergraduates sensitive to both ecology and governance, and how important the lens of history is to their work. In particular, I've found myself in conversations about the future of land use around the globe, which entertain the challenges of driving investment towards clean water and sustainable cities (consider this map of coming water crises
prepared by NASA). Investors, governments, NGOs, and community groups all need to hire students prepared to understand how flows of capital and participation have failed to serve communities in the past. History majors, far more than economists, political scientists, or area studies majors, are prepared to understand the wider shape of institutions, the long legacy of colonialism and bureaucracy in general, and the challenges of capitalism, both its potential to reform and its potential to exclude. I hope to raise up an army of undergraduates who understand how to look at contemporary crises, from the environment to economic breakdown, from the perspective of institutions in our shared past.
The traditional categories of the history discipline are at work here in an emphasis on the story of institutions, social movements, capital flows, how their nature changes over time, and what resources are necessary to understand them. The History of Britain and its Empire remains a subtext in the range of examples that will appear in both classes. Examples for the histories of cities and the rise of infrastructure and back-to-the-land movements and environmental and organic successes and failures will be drawn disproportionately from the realm of British historiography, which remains, for reasons of geographical spread and political innovation, an excellent place to examine transitions to modernity in all its forms. Digital history will be urged in the form of text-mining and mapping exercises, which will support student-driven explorations of aggregate movements over time, for instance, geoparsing World Bank reports with Paper Machines
to show how patterns of intervention in infrastructure vs informal development have progressed over time. There will be a lot of critical reading in the history of economics as well -- Adam Smith is almost always a figure on my syllabi -- and a good deal of recent reading in the history of recent flows of capital, likely including Nicholas Shaxton
and Wendy Wolford
among others. I hope to instrumentalize the traditional tools of historical analysis to look at the world around us now, to understand how it differs from the challenges of environmentalism in Rachel Carson's era, or the challenges of floods in the early modern Netherlands -- and to give students the confidence and tools to commit similar forms of analysis themselves.
Utopias and Other Wastelands
Advanced undergraduate/grad student seminar.
Radical thought has urged upon us a return to utopias and alternative geographies, both in the form of living movements like the MST (Landless Workers' Movement), World Social Forum, Occupy, or StrikeDebt, as they proclaim, “Another World is Possible,” and in the form of intellectual treatises affiliated with this movement that explore the agency of “heterotopias” or “Temporary Autonomous Zones” as geotemporal sites of utopian agency. In general, historians have been skeptical about the role of utopias to trigger social change, viewing them at best as escape valves for privilege during economic downturns, at worst dangerous experiments in surveillance. Yet from generation to generation, social movements have challenged the world around them, imagining the transformation of particular retreats, cities, and nations as a laboratory for experimentation with the future.
What factors are necessary for a social movement to grow? Where have international coalitions of reformers or rebels exempted themselves from the contemporary world system, or forged tools for reform and resistance, or carved out a temporary autonomous zone for critique? We will look at the international Progressive movement, appropriate technology, trade unions and cooperatives as examples of modern movements that, doomed in one nation, occasionally flourished elsewhere. Themes will include the esoteric and geographically isolated examples like back-to-the-land movements and psychological/sexual reform movements, as well as mainstream movements that began as utopian plans for remaking the world: democratic reform, scientific collection and curation of a more abundant or sustainable agriculture, Fabian socialism, and the welfare state. We will interpret the conservative utopias of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman alongside the radical utopias of Theosophists. Twentieth-century stories will trace the fates of these utopias through the rise of organic farming, cooperativism, civil rights, Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the Green Revolution, and human rights. We will be looking into the alliances of professionals, experts, national legislators, capitalism and the organs of world government, trying to understand the alignments of power that caused some of these movements to flourish and others to falter. The class will raise questions of agency, asking when individuals and collectives have the opportunity to change the world around them and how we measure their success across the grander sweep of historical time.
Land Use and Capitalism, 1350-2060
Undergraduate introductory lecture course, no prerequisites.
We live in an era of enormous storms, ecological genocide, evictions, and pollution. While all cultures interact with the territory around them, modern political institutions have developed the means to transform landscapes at an unprecedented scale for the purposes of political security and economic growth. How are the failures to relate to our environment continuous with those of earlier civilizations?
This course offers an overview of major traditions for analyzing landscape in political economy, theology, literature, and anthropology, asking how the imaginary landscapes of the mind become the material realities of farm and highway. Themes will include the rise of modern, surveying, engineering, cities, infrastructure systems, and land reform. It will ask how historic models of government have played out in an era of environmental disaster, famine, mortgages, and evictions. The course will explore tensions between political centralization and heterotopias, nomadic and settled people, peoples' movements and finance, exploring questions about the spiritual, economic, aesthetic, ecological, and political relationship of people to their territory.