21H.421 | Spring 2011 | Undergraduate

Introduction to Environmental History


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Syllabus Archive

The following syllabi come from a variety of different terms. They illustrate the evolution of this course over time, and are intended to provide alternate views into the instruction of this course.

Spring 2011, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Fall 2008, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Spring 2008, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Spring 2006, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Spring 2005, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Spring 2004, Harriet Ritvo (PDF)

Subject Description

A historical overview of the interactions between people and their environments. Focusing primarily on the period after Columbus, the subject explores the influence of nature (climate, topography, plants, animals, and microorganisms) on human history and the reciprocal influence of people on nature. Topics include the biological consequences of the European encounter with the Americas, the environmental impact of technology, and the roots of the current environmental crisis.

CI Credo

Communication intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences should require at least 20 pages of writing divided among 3-5 assignments. Of these 3-5 assignments, at least one should be revised and resubmitted. HASS CI subjects should further offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression, through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation.

Written Assignments

There will be three papers (paper 1, paper 2, and paper 3), of at least 5, 5, and 10 pages, respectively. A proposal for paper 3 will be due several weeks before the paper is due. Specific assignment sheets will be handed out later in the term. The last assignment will also include an oral presentation. Either assignment 1 or assignment 2 (your choice) must be revised and resubmitted for a new grade. If you like, you can revise and resubmit both assignment 1 and assignment 2. See calendar for dates.

In addition, a single page (not hand written) of informal reflections on each reading will be due in class on the day it is scheduled for discussion (normally the second class of each unit).


Week #9 there will be an in-class exam, on the material covered up to that date in class and in the readings.

Things to Remember

Written assignments should represent original and individual work. The following link to the MIT Online Writing and Communication Center gives some suggestions about how to recognize plagiarism and how to avoid it.


All sources used in written assignments must be fully cited. This includes sources of information as well as direct quotations; it includes the assigned readings as well as other materials.

Assignments are to be handed in on time. If an extension becomes necessary it should be requested ahead of the due date. Otherwise, lateness will be penalized.

Attendance is important. Not all the material to be covered in class is included in the readings. Be sure to bring your copy of the readings to discussion classes.


Paper 1 10%
Paper 2 15%
Paper 3 (includes final oral presentation) 30%
Exam 30%
Class participation (includes response papers) 15%


Week 1 Introduction  
Week 2 The Columbian Exchange  
Week 3 Wilderness and Garden  
Week 4 The Disease Environment Session 2: Paper 1 due
Week 5 Science and Nature Session 2: Trip to MIT Archives
Week 6 Landscape and Agriculture  
Week 7 Industry and Demography Session 2: Paper 2 due
Week 8 Conservation and Preservation  
Week 9 Preparation for research paper

Session 1: Paper 3 proposals due

Session 2: In class exam

Week 10 Poisoning and Environmentalism  
Week 11 Current Events  
Week 12 Oral presentation of research papers Session 2: Paper 3 due, all revisions due

Course Info

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