STS.036 | Spring 2008 | Undergraduate

Technology and Nature in American History


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

The central question of this course is how technological and natural forces have interacted in the making of modern America. Beginning in colonial America and ending in the twenty-first century, we will consider how the visual and material world of “nature” has been reshaped by industrial practices, ideologies, and institutions, with a particular emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Through our lectures and readings we will visit a variety of landscapes—from small farms to suburbs, from Walden Pond to Yosemite National Park—in an effort to uncover not only the ways that technologies have shaped the landscapes around us, but also the ways that the natural world has resisted and redirected technological change. Topics include land-use patterns; the changing shape of cities and farms; the redesign of water systems; the construction of roads, dams, bridges, irrigation systems; the creation of national parks; ideas about wilderness; aesthetic responses to industrialization; and the role of nature in a “technological world.”

General Course Requirements

Students are expected to attend all sessions and to be active participants in class discussion. More than two (2) unexcused absences will have an adverse effect on your grade. As this is a Communication-Intensive (CI) course, students will be assessed on both oral and written work: students will be required to lead class discussion at least once during the semester, to participate actively in each class discussion, to write frequent 1-2 page informal reading response papers, to write three (3) formal papers of increasing length, and to submit a draft and revision of the final research paper.

Required Reading and Writing

The following books are required for the course. Additional articles and book excerpts will also be assigned and distributed.

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN: 9780826317247.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 2003. ISBN: 9780809016341.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and Technological Wild West. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004. ISBN: 9780142004104.

White, Richard. The Organic Machine. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1996. ISBN: 9780809015832.

Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]. ISBN: 9780195174885.

Please note that the reading assignments should be completed before class on the day they are listed.

Students will be required to write 1-2 page reading response papers in preparation for weekly discussions. Response papers will be graded. Please email me your response papers no later than midnight the night before our discussion so that I can circulate them to the rest of the class. Response papers have two purposes: to help you generate ideas and questions about the week’s topic, and to serve as a starting point for our discussion.

There are three (3) formal writing assignments in this class, as well as a revision of your final paper. I will distribute specific assignment descriptions for each paper as the course gets underway. Today is not too early to start thinking about your final paper, which can explore one of the course topics or a subject related to your other coursework or interests. I will help you design your topics and identify primary and secondary sources, and I will provide more specific research guidelines as you proceed.

Grading Policy

Students are expected to adhere to principles of academic honesty in their work. All written work must be a student’s own original work. (Collaboration on essay assignments is not permitted.) Any and all references to other sources within your own paper must be properly documented according to the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you have any questions about quoting, paraphrasing, or referring to the work of others, please ask! MIT’s Academic Integrity handbook is a valuable resource that I urge you all to consult.

Grades will be calculated as follows:

Paper 1 (5 pages) 20%
Paper 2 (5-7 pages) 25%
Paper 3 (10-12 pages) 40%

Class participation:

  • Reading response papers - 5%
  • Leading of class discussion - 5%
  • General participation in weekly discussions - 5%


Please note that late papers will be penalized unless you have made prior arrangements with me for an extension.

Course Schedule

Week 1. Introduction and problems of definition
1 Course overview and introductory lecture  
2 Discussion: defining Technology and Nature  
Week 2. Colonial American land use
3 A brief history of ecological change in North America in the eighteenth century  
4 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 3. Places and how we know them
5 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 4. Industrial America in the countryside
6 Imposing an industrial order on the antebellum landscape  
7 Discussion  
Week 5. The aesthetics of the industrial landscape in antebellum America

“Devilish iron horse” and “Aeolian harp”: artistic responses to industrialization

Paper 1 due
9 Discussion  
Week 6. Railroads and colonization

View film: The Iron Road. Directed by Neil Goodwin. PBS: The American experience, 1990, 60 min.

Final paper topic due
11 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 7. Making an agricultural landscape

View films: The Plow That Broke the Plains. Directed by Pare Lorentz, 1936, 25 min). (View and download at the Internet Archive.)

The River. Directed by Pare Lorentz, 1938, 31 min. (View and download (Part 1, Part 2) at the Internet Archive.)

13 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 8. Technological systems and the transformation of time and space in the late nineteenth century
14 Networking nation and nature: a case study of weather telegraphy, 1870-1891  
15 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 9. Creating American parklands
16 Conservation and the scientific management of nature Paper 2 due
17 Discussion  
Week 10. Water and the hydraulic society
18 View film Cadillac Desert. Directed by Jon Else and Linda Harrar, 1997, 60 min.  
19 Discussion Reading response paper due
Week 11. Labors of and in nature: rivers, energy, and work
20 Discussion  
Week 12. The landscape of postwar suburbia
21 Levittown and the building of the suburban family ideal Draft of final paper due
22 Discussion  
Week 13. The landscape of food
23 How food became fast, or, industrial agriculture in the twentieth century  
24 Discussion  
Week 14. Presentations of student research projects
25 Student presentations  
26 Student presentations (cont.) Final paper due

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments with Examples