21H.421 | Spring 2011 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Environmental History


Assignment 1

Length: Five pages

Select one of the readings from Mancall and explain the environmental assumptions implicit in its author’s response to the New World and his understanding of the possibilities it presents. These possibilities should include agriculture and natural resources, but may also extend to mercantile, military, and cultural issues. In addition, you should compare these early responses to the New World to a modern interpretation, either the one offered by William Cronon, or that of Judith Carney or J. R. McNeill (or a combination of the three, if you are feeling ambitious). In either case, don’t just offer abstract generalizations—be sure to refer specifically to the texts.

Be sure to provide references for all quotations and information. You may either use footnotes or parenthetical citations, with a bibliography at the end. It is essential to provide page numbers for every reference.

Assignment 2: Bibliographic Essay and Annotated Bibliography

Length: Approximately 5 pages, plus annotated bibliography and notes

What you will turn in:

  • Your 5-page bibliographic essay
  • Your annotated bibliography
  • Your research notes


For this assignment, you will choose a subject within the broad heading of exploration and environment, and write a bibliographic essay about it. What you write about for this assignment will also be the subject of your third assignment—a ten-page research paper—so you will want to chose your topic carefully. It should be broad enough to allow you to analyze political, cultural, economic and ecological factors, but narrow enough to allow you to construct a convincing and well-reasoned argument.

In a bibliographic essay the goal is to give yourself a sense of how previous writers have approached the topic you will research and write about, and to give your reader some idea of the outlines of this particular scholarly literature. To get an idea of what your final product will look like, start by reading the bibliographic essay in the back of William Cronon’s Changes in the Land. Since your essay will probably be shorter than his, focus on the section entitled “The New England Indians,” on pp. 238-244.

Background: Exploration and Environment

Exploration has already figured prominently in our class, from the early voyages of the Vikings to Greenland and Newfoundland, to the famous expeditions of Captain Cook. The adventures and travels of famous explorers have captivated historians and non-historians alike—combining the risk of the unknown, human courage, danger and drama, they lend themselves to heroic and exciting narratives. But as we have seen, human exploration throughout history has also had enormous impacts on social and cultural formations, on localized ecologies and global environments, on the production of knowledge about the natural world, on biodiversity and human economies.

Your task here is to choose a particular explorer, expedition, or theme within this field and analyze the motives and consequences of your subject, always bearing in mind the interplay between human actions and the environment.

Because this topic is broad, it may help you to choose your subject to think about some of the ways we can breakdown the field of “exploration and environment.” One option is to approach this idea through a famous character or characters—Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, Hernán Cortés, or Sakajawea, for instance. You might also think about exploration and environment by region—the arctic, North America, the Pacific, South America or the Far East—or in terms of groups of people involved. Not all exploration took place under the direction of one individual. Norse and Polynesians exploration are good examples of group exploration. Thinking in units larger than the individual will be helpful in cases where explorative people have not left copious written records, like the Polynesians, but be careful when choosing a subject of this nature that you will find enough material to write your essay. Another obvious category we’ve thought about in class is scientific exploration—here you have the likes of Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks, but also Alexander von Humboldt, the Forsters and many others. Thinking of maritime explorers is another handy way to parse this topic—Matthew Flinders, Abel Tasman, Juan de Fuca, and so on.

Most importantly, your topic needs focus—a region or a group, or even a well-known figure like Captain Cook or Charles Darwin, is a good place to start, but you will need to narrow your focus enough to be able to contain your analysis in ten pages for the research essay. If you persist with a topic that is too broad, you run the risk of a shallow analysis.

Of course, you should note that almost none of the above distinctions are mutually exclusive. Many of these categories overlap, and this will enrich your analysis of the social, political, cultural, economic and environmental motivations and implications of your chosen moment, figure or theme within the history of exploration. And don’t forget that this is a history course, and you will therefore need to approach your subject from a critical, historical perspective.

Finding the Sources

There are many ways to find sources for historical projects. In this assignment you are going to start in one of the MIT libraries and visit others as necessary. The MIT libraries contain many books related to the topic of exploration in general. You will probably need to consult books, articles, maps and other sources from other MIT libraries that you find using Barton. As you get deeper into researching your topic, you might also find useful materials at other local libraries. Other libraries around the Boston and Cambridge area may also hold resources useful for your project (http://www.mln.lib.ma.us/). Eventually, to find monographs and more specific material on your chosen explorer or expedition, you will likely need to request books through interlibrary loan (ILLIAD). Be sure to get started on this early, as delivery of books through interlibrary loan can sometimes take a while.

As you work through the assignment, you are going to be organizing your search by systematically trying different methods of searching.

  1. Reference librarians. Asking a librarian about resources for your specific topic is almost always the best way to get started.
  2. Encyclopedias and Dictionaries. These come in two varieties: general, like Encyclopedia Britannica, and specialized, like the Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather or the Encyclopedia of Ephemera. Make notes on what you find. If there are important people you should know about, check the entries in the Dictionary of National Biography or the Dictionary of American Biography. To find reference books on a particular topic, librarians often turn to First Stop: The Universal Index to Subject Encyclopedias or the Guide to Reference Books. All of these resources are in the MIT Library system. Some reference works, like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, are accessible online through Vera.
  3. Subject Headings and the Library Catalog. The next step is to find out how sources that you might be interested in have been cataloged. In most of the branches of the MIT library, you will find the Library of Congress Subject Headings. This work will help you figure out what subjects to search under when you consult Barton. Make a list of relevant headings and keywords.
  4. Shelf Browsing and Call Number Scanning. The system that MIT libraries use to organize their books is known as the Library of Congress Classification. Books are arranged so that those on similar subjects tend to be near one another on the shelf. What this means is that you should always look at the books on the shelf near the one that you are actually looking for, because they may be relevant for your project. You can also do this electronically. Make a note of any books that you find by shelf browsing or scanning call numbers.
  5. Indexes to Journal Articles. Besides books, you will also be interested in finding articles in scholarly journals. These are not cataloged in Barton, but do appear in other indexes. Depending on your topic, you will want to check the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, the Social Sciences Index, the Humanities Index, Historical Abstracts, and Lexis-Nexis. There are also more specialized indexes which might be of use. Make notes on the articles that you do find.
  6. Keyword Searching. At this point it is time to go online. Start at the MIT libraries website (http://libraries.mit.edu/) and choose VERA. From there you can get to any number of electronic journals and databases. A good place to start in VERA is with the “Find Articles” tab. From here, you may need a more specialized approach with something like Historical Abstracts or the Web of Science database, which will help you find recent journal articles. Many of them will be available electronically through VERA. Conducting a search on Google or Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) with the keywords that you have come up with so far may turn up additional articles.
  7. Citation and Related-Record Searching. The Web of Science database allows you to do two further kinds of search. First, if you have an important book or article, Web of Science can help you find many articles which cite that source. Second, if you have an important article, Web of Science can help you find articles that are similar to it. Take one of the articles that you have found and try both citation and related records searches. As always, keep track of what you find.

Keeping Track of Your Work

As you search for sources, it is crucial to keep track of your work. Whenever you find out about a potential source, make a note of the following:

  • Author/Editor
  • Title
  • Publisher
  • Date
  • Page numbers
  • Call number
  • Physical Location or URL
  • Way that you found out about the source
  • Whether or not you looked at it
  • Additional notes

Many people like to use 3x5 cards to keep track of this stuff, but you can also write it on a pad of paper or enter it into a database on your computer. You should also make a list of things that you checked that didn’t work out. For example, if you looked in a specialized encyclopedia but didn’t find any relevant articles, make a note of that. If you looked for a book and it wasn’t on the shelf, make a note. Keep all of your notes, as you will need to hand them in with your assignment.

Making an Annotated Bibliography

After you have done your research you will have dozens of sources, not all of them relevant. Go through your sources and pick out about ten that seem particularly relevant or interesting. Go to the library and get copies of those sources (or read through them at the library). You are not going to read every word, but you are going to skim through each source. As you do, make notes. What is this source about? How might it be used to write an environmental history of exploration? What are some the things the author concentrates on? What does she or he ignore? How do you think you will use it in your research essay? (For your research paper, you may want to go back to the sources you don’t mention here.)

Formatting Your Bibliography

It is imperative that your bibliographic essay be properly cited, and that your annotated bibliography be properly formatted. Your bibliographic entries must follow the conventions of a recognized citation style such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Be sure to consult a style guide when formatting your bibliography. Each bibliographic entry should be single spaced, as should its annotation (your essay is the only part of this assignment that should be double-spaced). There should be one space between each entry, as well as between a given entry and annotation. Offset your annotations by one tab. If a bibliographic entry is longer than one line, offset the second line by one tab also. Here’s an example of how an entry should appear in your annotated bibliography:

Hansen, Dagny B. “Captain James Cook’s First Stop on the Northwest Coast: By Chance or by Chart?” Pacific Historical Review 62, no. 4 (1993): 475-484.

This article concerns competing claims between Britain, Spain and Russia for possession of the Pacific Northwest north of California and its lucrative fur trade. Specifically, the author examines recently-uncovered evidence that the British knew about Spanish explorer Juan Pérez’s mooring in Nootka Sound before Cook’s departure for the north Pacific in 1776. Dagny’s article will be useful for understanding the political context in which Cook’s exploration of the Pacific Northwest took place, and some of the economic motivations for European possession of this region, especially regarding the fur trade.

Writing the Bibliographic Essay

Once you have made your annotated bibliography you are ready to start the final part of this assignment, writing your bibliographic essay. Pick a nice descriptive title (or think about one as you write). Organize your material so that you have an introduction, some paragraphs about the sources that you have chosen to write about, and a conclusion. Unlike Assignment 1, the bibliographic essay does not necessarily need to have an argument, but it should have a coherent organizing frame. This might come naturally from the sources you’ve found (for example, many of them might fall clearly into distinct interpretive approaches) or you may have to impose a chronological or thematic logic that allows you to move your discussion from one source to another. Still, this is a type of essay; it is not enough to hand in your annotated bibliography. If you are writing about Juan de Fuca, for a reader who knows nothing about the political competition between Spanish and English maritime expansion in the sixteenth century, for example, where is the best place to find background information? Which books or articles have good information about chronology? Which sources provide good visual images?

What You Have to Hand In

To construct your bibliographic essay you went through a process of finding a lot of stuff and gradually refining it. We would like to see your rough notes for the project (be they index cards, database printouts or handwritten notes). You also have to hand in your annotated bibliography (which should be alphabetized by the author’s last names) and, of course, your five-page essay.

Student Samples

Patrick Varilly (PDF) (Courtesy of Patrick Varilly. Used with permission.)

Michelle Tiu (PDF) (Courtesy of Michelle Tiu. Used with permission.)

Joanna MacKay (PDF) (Courtesy of Joanna MacKay. Used with permission.)

Danielle Gilbert (PDF) (Courtesy of Danielle Gilbert. Used with permission.)

Tyler Callahan (PDF) (Courtesy of Tyler Callahan. Used with permission.)

Tyler Callahan: Annotated Bibliography (PDF) (Courtesy of Tyler Callahan. Used with permission.)

Kelsey Byers (PDF) (Courtesy of Kelsey Byers (student). Used with permission.)

Kelsey Byers: Annotated Bibliography (PDF) (Courtesy of Kelsey Byers (student). Used with permission.)

Assignment 3: Exploration and Environment

Part I: Bibliographic Essay and Annotated Bibliography (Assignment 2)

Length: 5 pages plus annotated bibliography and research notes

Part II: Paper Proposal, Bibliography and Brief Oral Presentation

Length: 1-2 pages plus revised bibliography

Part III: Research Paper and Oral Presentation to Class

Length: At least 10 pages

Presentation: About 10 minutes

For Assignment 2, you choose a topic related to environment and exploration—whether it was a particular theme, figure, or expedition—and you began researching its history and the kind of scholarship available about it. In this assignment, you’re going to build on the research you’ve begun to write an environmental history of your chosen topic.

In planning your paper, you will have to make a number of decisions, some of which you’ve already done. You’ve already chosen the subject upon which you will base your essay (if you’re not happy with this choice, you may still change your mind, but it will mean repeating many of the steps you’ve already taken): now it’s time to focus in on some aspect of your topic and how it relates to the environment. How did nonhuman environments shape or impact the expedition or explorer you focus on? How did a particular moment in exploration change the way people understand the natural world, or the way we live in it?

Your bibliographic essay from Assignment 2 is a good starting place, since you will already have familiarity with the sources. Think about the primary sources you found—which will be at the core of your analysis? Think about the secondary sources you found—how have other scholars interpreted your topic? How will your essay build on these interpretations, or depart from them? If you found a lot of primary sources about your subject, now is the time to go in search of secondary scholarship that will help you put it in context. If you came across a lot of popular biographies, start searching scholarly databases like Historical Abstracts and JSTOR to look for more rigorous, scholarly analysis. You will need many more resources for your final paper than you used for your bibliographic essay.

Be aware that if you choose to switch topics, you will first have to go through a process similar to what you did for the bibliographic essay, becoming acquainted with the relevant primary and secondary sources.

Whatever topic you develop, it is best to be as focused as possible: you probably can’t write a ten-page history of eighteenth-century British naval exploration, but you can write a ten-page paper about the scientific contributions of Matthew Flinders.

In order to help you manage the process, this assignment is divided into three stages: In Part I, you made an annotated bibliography and wrote an essay describing those sources. In Part II, you will do research in more detail, prepare a revised bibliography, and write a brief synopsis of your topic, research strategy, and a possible argument or the set of questions that your research will address. You will turn in your proposal and revised bibliography, and give a brief presentation of your topic.

As always, we will be happy to meet with you at any point to discuss your topic, research strategy, draft, or any other part of the process, so feel free to arrange a meeting at any point. Part III will consist of your completed paper, including footnotes and a full bibliography of your sources. Each member of the class will give a ten minute presentation on his or her research during the final week of class. The final paper is due in class on the last day.


Aside from the bibliography, you must provide footnotes or endnotes to document the research for your paper. The first time an item appears in a note, you must provide the full and complete citation for it. Whenever the same item appears in later footnotes, you should use only the author’s last name and an abbreviated title, along with page references for the specific point you are either paraphrasing or quoting. The abbreviated title may be as short as one word or as long as a phrase. Sometimes you will want to cite an item in its entirety, without specifying particular pages or chapters. If you are quoting directly from a source in the body of your text, then your footnote must include the specific page number on which the quotation appears. Multiple sources in a single footnote (for example, when the point you are making integrates information from several sources), should be separated by a semicolon. The point is that the form of your footnote should allow your reader to identify uniquely the source(s) you are citing for the purpose you are using them in your text. Notice how the footnotes are indented and punctuated in the following examples. It is OK to use an alternative citation style that you have found in a reference guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, as long as you are consistent throughout your paper.


  1. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), chaps. 2, 3.
  2. White, The Organic Machine, 37.

Chapters in Edited Volumes

Michael McMahon, “‘Publick Service’ versus ‘Mans Properties’: Dock Creek and the Origins of Urban Technology in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia”. In Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things From the Colonial Era to 1850. ed. Judith A. McGaw (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), pp. 114-147.

Journal Articles

Susan Scott Parrish, “The Female Opossum and the Nature of the New World,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Ser. 54: 3 (Jul 1998): 475-514, quotation on 488.

Manuscripts, Images, and Unpublished Material

Images, including prints, maps, photographs and other types of visual evidence, must also be cited. If you have found an image in a book or other published source the guidelines are the same as above (though you should include the name of the artist if known). There is no universal rule for collections of unpublished or rare materials but your citations must give the following information: title and date of the item, series title (if appropriate), name of the collection, name of the depository, and page numbers (if appropriate). Here is an example of a letter archived in an archival collection of a local library.

John Ebbets to John Jacob Astor, 11 January 1811, v. 33 f. 1, docs. 1788-1812, John Jacob Astor Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

Online Sources

You must give the complete URL and date you accessed information from online sources.


The format of your bibliography is just as important as the format of your footnotes. It should provide all relevant information, should be organized alphabetically by last name, single-spaced, and above all, it should be consistent.


White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Chapters in Edited Volumes

McMahon, Michael. “‘Publick Service’ versus ‘Mans Properties’: Dock Creek and the Origins of Urban Technology in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia.” In Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things From the Colonial Era to 1850. Edited by Judith A. McGaw, 114-147. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Journal Articles

Parrish, Susan Scott. “The Female Opossum and the Nature of the New World.” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series, 54, no. 3 (Jul 1998): 475-514.

Multiple Volumes

Von Humboldt, Alexander. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. 5 vols. Translated by E. C. Otte. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2011
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments with Examples