Lessons on the Environment—from the Past

“The instructorship gives me complete freedom to teach far beyond what is normally taught in a history department and to design the courses, which is amazingly liberating,” says Keith Pluymers, Caltech’s inaugural Howard E. and Susanne C. Jessen Postdoctoral Instructor in the Humanities. Pluymers recently taught a course titled Rivers from Sumeria to Los Angeles.

“I could take time to read about parts of the field that I might not have read about otherwise, and it reshaped how I conceive of my own work,” he says.

“The instructorship gives me complete freedom to teach far beyond what is normally taught in a history department and to design the courses.”
- Keith Pluymers

The instructorship also has given Pluymers time to conduct research and write a book about how wood scarcity shaped English colonialism in Ireland and North America. Last year, he traveled to Gloucestershire, England, to pore through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents about the royal Forest of Dean. With his book, Pluymers hopes to push other historians to think differently about how the environment drives historical change.

“One of the things environmental history can do really well is make connections,” he says. “For Caltech students—specifically those studying things like geology, environmental science and engineering, and environmental chemistry—it enables them to put what they are learning in the lab into a historical context.”

Giving Priorities

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