Conference Recap: ASEH 2018



Sunset in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo Credit: Sara Porterfield

Erstwhile contributing editors Sara Porterfield and Caroline Grego write about their experiences at the American Society for Environmental History’s 29th annual conference, this year held in Riverside, California, from March 14th to 18th, in a dialogue format. In 2019, the conference will be held in Columbus, Ohio, from April 10th to 14th.


Caroline: At long last, I made it to the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH)’s conference. While I have attended workshops and smaller graduate student-oriented conferences before, I had not yet gone to any of the larger conferences—not the big two of the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and not more discipline-specific conferences like the ASEH. My lack of attendance has been a deliberate choice. Unless I was presenting, unless I was far enough along in my graduate career to give a talk on my dissertation research, and unless I could receive funding, I was not convinced that one of the big conferences would be worthwhile. This year, though, the ASEH met my three qualifications, and off I flew to Riverside, California.

At the conference, I presented an overview of my dissertation, “Hurricane of the New South: Disruption, Dispossession, and the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893” in a panel that I  organized, “Nature, Race, and Justice on the Edge of America,” which was decidedly in line with the conference’s theme, “Environment, Power, and Justice.” With the two other speakers on my panel, Dr. Hayden Smith and Dr. William D. Bryan, we discussed three important, transformative moments in the history of South Carolina’s Lowcountry: the 1790s, the 1890s, and the 1950s (roughly). Dr. Allison Dorsey, a professor at Swarthmore College, generously agreed to chair our panel, piqued in part by interest in how environmental historians approach the southeastern sea islands, given her own focus on Gullah women’s history and Sapelo Island.

Sara: Like Caroline, I had not attended ASEH before this year, though I have attended a wide range of other conferences including AHA, OAH, the European Society for Environmental History, and the International Water History Association. I found ASEH to be a welcoming environment where I was able to both connect with colleagues I knew and to easily meet new historians and expand my network. This conference was not as overwhelmingly large as AHA or OAH, nor was it as small and niche as water history conferences I’ve attended. While these both have their advantages, the ASEH was of a size that felt diverse and busy, with the potential for networking and learning about subjects quite different from my own research, yet small enough that events like the plenary talk and the Women’s Environmental History Network Reception did not feel overwhelming or intimidating.


Caroline: Environmental historians, as Dr. Sean Kheraj pointed out in his own wrap-up of the ASEH 2018, have embraced presentism—a fraught term, to be sure. However, in the case of environmental historians, they feel a moral imperative and an urgency to apply their historical insight and research to better understand the challenges of climate change, racial justice, indigenous sovereignty, and other issues with deep historical roots. Presentism, which I distinguish here from its pejorative use and see as a useful and animating tool, imbued the conference as environmental historians worked to make their research legible to present-day debates. The plenary talk “Imperial Technologies of Power, Border Walls, and Desert Landscapes in the Western U.S.” by Dr. Juanita Sundberg of the University of British Columbia and artist Oscar Romo at the University of California-San Diego, grappled with the contemporary meaning of the U.S.-Mexico border. A roundtable that I attended, “Makers of the Anthropocene: Bringing Human History to the Fore of a New Geological Period,” played with the term “Anthropocene” to explore human impact on the environment to the current moment. A panel that I sat in on, “Imaginaries of (Un)settlement in the Western Atlantic,” included a talk by Dr. Claire Campbell of Bucknell University “‘Where our story starts’: Canada’s Coastlines and National Conceits,” which analyzed how contemporary regional and national identity among settler Canadians leverages flawed historical narratives. A glance at the names of panels and other talks make it clear that presentism existed elsewhere, beyond what I was personally able to attend. While this is in part, I think, because environmental history tends to skew modern, I believe that historians as a whole are recognizing that they can and should deploy their knowledge and skills to help the larger public understand and examine our present.

Sara: The panel that I organized and presented on, “Running Wild: New Recreational Politics of Western Rivers,” engaged presentism head on. With Dr. Donald Worster as chair and myself, Dr. Marsha Weisiger, Dr. Annie Gilbert Coleman, and Dr. Yolanda Youngs as presenters, our panel discussed the history of river guiding in the American West and the implications of that history for guides today through gender, labor, race, and the power guides hold to shape Americans’ perceptions of riparian landscapes and the people who work there. Both myself and Dr. Youngs have worked as river guides for over a decade, and as such our Q and A session focused on how our collective research could be applied to the guiding industry today as it faces issues of widespread sexual harassment, exploitative labor practices, and charges of being the domain of an almost exclusively white and wealthy clientele. While our panel focused rather narrowly on river guides in the American West, I believe that it showed quite powerfully how history can inform present-day debates, particularly when historians and guides (in this case) are brought to the table together. Despite efforts at outreach (see below), our profession remains quite insular. Inviting a larger group of stakeholders into conversations about how the past informs the present can, I believe, greatly aid challenges the guide industry—among others—faces today.


Caroline: Perhaps my favorite event was a pedagogy roundtable, “Integrating Race and Gender in Environmental History Courses: Instructional Design Charette,” presented by the ASEH Diversity Committee. Chaired by Dr. Graeme Wynn, the ASEH president, the discussion featured Dr. Michelle Berry, Dr. Mary Mendoza, Dr. Paul Sutter, Dr. Brinda Sarathy, and Dr. Jennifer L. Derr. The participants discussed a variety of strategies for designing undergraduate courses that veer away from more traditional narratives of white outdoor explorers going out into untrammeled wilderness (what many students seem to expect in environmental history courses) and towards histories of environmental justice. A few panelists described redoing course reading lists with monographs and articles by people of color, women of color, and white women. Another, Dr. Berry, is in the midst of an experiment this semester. She began with some classics of environmental history and subsequently introduced students to authors who critique those classics and weaved in histories of people of color or minoritized identities that those giants of the field excluded. The panelists also dealt with challenging issues: how to help students in the classroom open themselves up to critical thinking about themselves and their identities and how to foster dialogues of learning and understanding around fraught topics. The thoughtful, informative discussion provided food for thought that I will be carrying over into my own future course designs. I am always glad to see historians discussing tools and strategies in ways that can enrich their and their colleagues’ pedagogical approaches. The roundtable struck me as timely, too: deeply considered, carefully planned historical teaching and learning at this moment, when historical narratives can be used as weapons in political discourse, is more needed than ever.

Sara: I too very much enjoyed the “Integrating Race and Gender in Environmental History Course” panel and found much in it to inform my own teaching as well as conversations in other arenas (there are, for example, very similar conversations happening in the outdoor industry today). My other favorite panel—and one in a similar vein—was “Bridging the Divide: How Can Environmental Historians Better Engage Our Students and the Public?” chaired by Dr. Cody Ferguson and including Dr. Lincoln Bramwell (historian for the U.S. Forest Service), Dr. Mark Madison (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service historian), Dr. Bonnie Lynn-Sherow (Director of the Chapman Center for Rural Studies at Kansas State University), and Dr. Catherine Christen (of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute). The panelists discussed how they work as historians outside of academia to bring historical knowledge, insight, and analysis to different organizations and to the public, and what the role of history is in public education and policy-making. In the discussion, Dr. Patty Limerick of the Center of the American West at CU Boulder asked if the panel members thought of themselves as mavericks and outliers, or as forerunners and harbingers of something new. Their answers were mixed, but I do think that making these career paths more visible to and attainable by graduate students will go a long way towards making such careers valued by academia and making historical knowledge and skills valued by the public.

Efforts at Support

Caroline: The ASEH provided a number of opportunities for professional development and support for graduate students, beyond the pedagogy roundtable I discussed above. The Women’s Environmental History Network Reception on Thursday evening was a great opportunity to meet and talk with other women in the field. The Graduate Student Caucus organized a writing workshop for graduate students with former ASEH president Dr. Stephen Pyne in which we discussed pre-circulated short pieces written by participants. And while I did not attend these other events, the Water Archives Workshop; “People, Place, and Voice: Oral History Basics,” a workshop hosted by Dr. James Lewis and Dr. Donna Sinclair; a CV and resume workshop organized by the Advisory Board on Professional Development and Public Engagement and the Graduate Student Caucus; and a three-minute dissertation “slam,” among others, demonstrate the ASEH’s commitment to fostering professional development.

Field Trips & The Region

Caroline: I admit that I was not expecting much of Riverside. I assumed the town would be surrounded by an arid, brown inland valley and that the area around the convention center would appear sprawling and uninteresting. Instead, Riverside was set in a valley defined by lovely green mountains and bright flora flush with the greening that California sees in the spring. Downtown, a refurbished and carefully planned pedestrian corridor, with the fascinating, strange, and gorgeous historic Mission Inn at its heart, made the area walkable and relaxed. I also went twice, and would happily have gone a third time, to a Mexican restaurant with really delicious food, the Taco Station. That said, one of the big limitations of Riverside was its relative lack of connectivity. The considerable expense of flying into the Ontario airport and the dearth of public transportation made access to the venue and surrounding areas difficult and expensive, especially on a graduate student budget.

Sara: As a native of Southern California, I was not particularly excited to spend a long weekend in Riverside. But, like Caroline, I too was pleasantly surprised with the walkability of the quarter around the Riverside Convention Center, as well as the abundance of good food in the immediate area. However, Riverside remains part of the larger car-dependent southern California/Los Angeles area, and had I not had family and friends in the area I would have been forced to spend a great deal more money on transportation—a difficult position for a graduate student, adjunct faculty, or other early-career scholars.

Similarly, the conference offered an array of interesting field trips for attendees, but, as appealing as they were, they represent another expense for which graduate students are too often not able to pay. I did appreciate that the Friday afternoon of the conference did not have any scheduled sessions so that participants could attend field trips without missing out on scholarly conversation, and I think that the relationships forged on these more informal outings are necessary and valuable to the health of our scholarly community. I was fortunate that a colleague and friend of mine who was also attending ASEH had driven to the conference, and that he, another colleague, and I were able to take the afternoon to visit Joshua Tree National Park for some hiking, climbing, and time with one of my good (non-academic) friends. The ability to visit the surrounding landscapes, whether on an organized field trip or informally with friends, is one of the strengths of ASEH’s annual conference. The highlight of the conference for me was sitting on the sun-warmed granite in Joshua Tree, soaking up the scenery and building relationships with colleagues old and new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s