Field Institute in Environmental & Borderlands History

2009 NEH Summer Institute
for University and College Teachers

June 14-July 11



Dear Colleagues,

There is no better time than the present to get undergraduate teachers into the field—and across borders—to learn about the cultural and environmental histories that connect the U.S. to Mexico and the world at large. Humanists have begun to devote increasing attention to the relationships that spill beyond the nation’s edge, arguing that we have become more global. And yet, we have only begun to understand in a concrete way what this means. Borderlands history and environmental history are in particularly strong positions to address this conceptual problem in two ways: they can help us to historicize our relationships to the world at large, and they can do so in a way that is uniquely grounded in a particular bioregional and cultural locale. They can help us understand how people and nature have been crossing borders for decades, if not for centuries—and they can teach us how such abstractions as the “global” take material shape, and how they work within complicated social, political and cultural contexts. This western borderlands region has long been a contested terrain, claimed and inhabited by a succession of different peoples, economies, and nations. Under pre-conquest, Spanish (1530s-1821), Mexican (1821-1854) and U.S. regimes (post 1854), the peoples of the borderlands, whether indigenous or newcomers, have shared challenging and complex environments.

As two fields of historical inquiry that are especially open to interdisciplinary approaches, borderlands and environmental history provide a rich array of questions and methodologies to help us interrogate this distinct, bi-national region during the summer institute. Alongside methods traditionally used by historians to interpret textual materials, we will draw on those employed by other disciplinary practices to analyze visual materials and the landscape itself. Consider the dreary creosote-dominated landscape that characterizes the southern Arizona/New Mexico border region, for example. Although usually perceived as “natural” by visitors and residents alike, it is largely the result of overgrazing during the livestock boom of the late nineteenth century. After reading landscape descriptions from the boundary surveys of the 1850s and studying the physical indicators of overgrazing, participants will see the landscape around them in a whole new light as a product of history, as much as of nature. At one level, our summer institute will help us develop such optics and will enable us to use them in our undergraduate classrooms—even in places that seem distant from the nation’s edge. At another level, we will build on larger intellectual discussions at the forefront not only of borderlands and environmental history, but of American history in general.

Indeed, scholars in both fields have had a long interest in the broader meaning and place of America. Borderlands history took shape in the early twentieth century, in an age of U.S. expansion south into Latin America—and in this context, U.S. scholars began to contemplate the nation’s historic place in the hemisphere at large. Borderlands historians such as Herbert Eugene Bolton urged colleagues to look south and link U.S. history to a greater American saga of European expansion, whereas later borderlands scholars (joined by Chicana/o historians, Native American historians, Latin American historians, and others) turned to histories of immigration, social movements, imperialism, and identity to examine what connected the U.S. to (but also demarcated it from) the rest of the Americas.