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Michael Egan, Ph.D. (Washington State)

Email: egan@mcmaster.ca
Phone: 905-525-9140 x.24134
Office: Chester New Hall 610

I am an associate professor and University Teaching Fellow in the History Department. I am trained as a US environmental historian. I was hired to teach the histories of science and technology. Much of my teaching and research involves global examinations of the recent past. I like to resist being pigeon-holed.

Teaching: My courses typically investigate how science, technology, and society have interacted across time and place, putting particular emphasis on society’s influence on the production and consumption of knowledge. I was the recipient of the 2012 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, designed to foster the connection between research and teaching by engaging undergraduate students in research. In 2014, I received the Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellowship, which afforded me the opportunity to develop a suite of digital humanities skills that I integrate throughout my undergraduate curriculum. My emphasis in the classroom is to facilitate student discovery. Instead of simply conveying course content and wisdom, my undergraduate courses typically invite students to be producers of knowledge rather than consumers.

My favourite courses: HIST 1EE3: Historical Roots of Contemporary Issues; HIST 3UA3: The History of the Future; and HIST 3CH3: Catastrophic History: Natural & Technological Disasters. I also teach HIST 2EE3: Science and Technology in World History, which was converted into an online course in 2016. Starting in Ancient Greece and finishing the day after tomorrow, it offers a vital perspective on the importance of science and technology to human societies in survey format. My undergraduate teaching encourages students to engage with the past on its own, historical terms. I stress methods of developing strong research questions and how to begin the inquiry process. At the same time, the courses I teach tend to attract a lot of non-history students. I tailor my classes to accommodate students who lack as thorough an historical background, while still permitting History students to advance their skill set.

Research: My first book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (MIT Press, 2007), explored the history of American environmentalism during the second half of the twentieth century. I expanded on my interest in social and environmental justice through a series of articles and an edited volume, Natural Protest: Essays on the History of American Environmentalism, co-edited with Jeff Crane (Routledge, 2008). In a nutshell, my work insisted that to examine the environmental movement removed from other social and political issues was to miss its broader historical significance and inspiration.

My current work is more focused on chemical pollution and its histories. I am juggling three book projects. The first is a history of “chemophobia,” which traces how toxic fear shaped the American 1980s. The second is a critical synthesis of the “Toxic Century,” the period between 1945 and 2045, where chemical contaminants have proliferated the planet and the popular and political responses to that phenomenon. Note the intended end date: this is a history that persists. Finally, I am working on a SSHRC-funded global history of mercury pollution since 1945. It blends the history of toxicology and international environmental politics to consider the struggle for epistemic clarity in and between science and policymaking. As these three projects near completion, I am beginning to pivot towards a new research interest in “catastrophic history,” which considers the centrality of catastrophe (literal and figurative) to the human condition and to historical discourse, particularly in relation to contemporary history. At the same time, I am developing an intellectual history of the idea of utopia in western thought in some vain attempt to counter-balance the depressing studies of chemicals, catastrophe, etc. Spoiler alert: it will probably just get folded into the catastrophic history project.

When I’m not working on my own writing projects, I’m the series editor of “History for a Sustainable Future,” a new book series with the MIT Press, which solicits short monographs on the history of contemporary environmental problems. You can also find me on Twitter talking History, teaching, and research: @EganHistory.

Graduate: McMaster is rapidly becoming an excellent place to pursue graduate studies in environmental history. I currently have four PhD students working on environmental history. Each year, I also welcome two or three MA students to our vibrant community. In addition to graduate course offerings, we hold informal seminars. I am always happy to chat with prospective graduate students.