Have a Question? Contact the Humanities Office or an Academic Unit

HISTORY 1FF3 ExploringHistInSmallGroup

Academic Year: Winter 2017

Term: Winter

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Michael Egan

Email: egan@mcmaster.ca

Office: Chester New Hall 610

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 24134


Office Hours: By appointment

Course Objectives:

Introduction to history HIST 1FF3 is geared towards fostering historical inquiry skills in a small group setting. This seminar will deliberately engage with ideas about what history is, how history works, what history is for, and how to do history.

Introduction to environmental history Environmental history is a relatively new sub discipline of history, which demands that we take the physical environment seriously as an historical actor. Students will be encouraged to pair this approach with more traditional forms of social, cultural, and political history.

Development of historical inquiry History is a way of thinking and a way of understanding the world around us. We will concentrate our energies of learning its methods and practices, foremost among them: how to ask good historical questions.

Promotion of mindful learning One of the greatest challenges facing undergraduate students is that nowhere are they taught to learn. This seminar will promote mindfulness exercises as a means of concentrating their energies toward the work at hand.

Close reading A big emphasis in this seminar will be to develop good reading and working practices.

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

E. H. Carr, What is History?

Donald Worster, Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance

Method of Assessment:

Participation:                     20%

Reading Quizzes:              10%

Student Collaboration:       10%

Student Syllabus:               10%

Group Assignment:             10%

Culminating Project:            20%

Student Blog:                       20%

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Deadlines are firm. Because computers and printers and bandwidth connections invariably tend to crash at exactly the point when assignments are due, students are strongly encouraged to avoid waiting until the last minute. Technology glitches do not constitute a satisfactory excuse for late submission. The same applies for the reading quizzes. Since the syllabus and course schedule are available to students in advance, I recommend that you begin readings early in order to avoid any untimely illnesses or other misadventures. A 10% per day penalty (to a maximum of 20%) will be levied against late assignments. Late assignments will only be accepted within two weeks of the stated deadline. Late assignments will be graded without comment.

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at www.mcmaster.ca/academicintegrity

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at mcmaster.ca/msaf/. If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail sas@mcmaster.ca. For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Thursday, 5 January: Welcome to HIST 1FF3

    Notes     Syllabus & course overview

        Introduction to environmental history

Thursday, 12 January: History & the Cult of Facts

    Notes    On Doing History: How to Read & What to Look For

        Mindfulness as Skill Worth Acquiring

        Wordpress site must be registered and link submitted to Avenue DropBox by                 noon on Monday, 16 January 2017

        First blogpost, on “The Historian & His Facts,” should be submitted by noon on             Wednesday, 18 January 2017


    Worster, “Gatsby’s Green Light”

    Carr, “The Historian & His Facts”


Thursday, 19 January: Abundance as Historical Theme

    Notes    On Doing History: How to Get Distracted

        What are These Facts? And How Do I Get Some?


    Worster, “The Discovery of Natural Abundance” & “Many Revolutions Follow”


Thursday, 26 January: Does Place Matter in History?

    Notes    On Doing History: How to Get Excited About History

        Primary Sources & How to Engage With Them

        Second blogpost, on “Society & the Individual,” should be submitted by noon on             Wednesday, 1 February 2017


    Worster, “Ultimately Stability” & “Nantucket”

    Carr, “Society & the Individual”




Thursday, 2 February: Empathy & Nature

    Notes    On Doing History: How to Ask Questions

        What is Our Vantage Point, & Why Does That Matter?

        Third blogpost, on “History, Science, & Morality,” should be submitted by noon on             Wednesday, 8 February 2017


    Worster, “The Watershed” & “Land of Coal & Steel”

    Carr, “History, Science, & Morality”


Thursday, 9 February: Resources, Resourcefulness, & Causation in History

    Notes    On Doing History: How to Answer Questions

        What Do We Know About the Past?

        Building Bibliographies & Library Skills

        Fourth blogpost, on “Causation in History,” should be submitted by noon on                 Wednesday, 15 February 2017


    Worster, “The Resourceful State” & “Imperial Valley”

    Carr, “Causation in History”


Thursday, 16 February: Progress & its Opposites

    Notes    On Doing History: 

        Word clouds

        Fifth blogpost, on “History as Progress,” should be submitted by noon on                 Wednesday, 1 February 2017

        Design Your Own Course Syllabus due by noon on Monday, 20 February 2017


    Worster, “Plunder & Plenty” & “The Wolf at the Door”

    Carr, “History as Progress”


Thursday, 23 February: Midterm Recess 


Thursday, 2 March: The Environmental Limits & Their Histories

    Notes    On Doing History:

        Students Design the Syllabus

        Sixth (and final) blogpost, on “The Widening Horizon,” should be submitted by noon             on Wednesday, 8 March 2017


    Worster, “Earth’s Boundaries” & “Athabasca River”

    Carr, “The Widening Horizon”


Thursday, 9 March: TBD

    Notes    Students Design This Week


    Students Select Readings


Thursday, 16 March: TBD

    Notes    Students Design This Week


    Students Select Readings


Thursday, 23 March: TBD

    Notes    Students Design This Week


    Students Select Readings


Thursday, 30 March: TBD

    Notes    Students Design This Week


    Students Select Readings


Thursday, 6 April: How to Finish a Course on History, Abundance, & Scarcity

    Notes    Earth History, Environmental History, Human History

        Final Draft: The Rules of History

        Culminating project due by noon on Monday, 10 April 2017


    Worster, “Life on a Blue Planet”

Other Course Information:


In this intimate seminar, students will be introduced to environmental history, an historical approach that takes seriously the notion that place and physical environment provide crucial insight into our past. As a special focus point, the course will concentrate on ideas surrounding abundance and scarcity and how these tensions have driven so much of human history, especially in its modern context. We train our lens on the New World and the myths and histories that it inspired. Class time will be devoted to discussion of course readings and investigations into historical practice and analysis.



One of the great pleasures of a small seminar is the creation of a safe space in which to engage with course readings. One of the great responsibilities of a small seminar is that the onus is on every member to contribute. This means that attendance is more or less mandatory.

Participation is just that. While there will be opportunities to engage in classroom and small group discussion, participation also implies the deliberate investment in active learning. Class activities require student buy-in in order to realize success and self-discovery. This component of the overall grade evaluates student attendance and assumes that students will come to class prepared to discuss the assigned readings and to take on the outlined tasks. 

Participation also insists that we will all respect each other, even when we disagree. (I will not tolerate aggressive contributions that discourage others from participating; such behaviour will be reflected in a low grade). In addition, participation assumes that we will bring our knowledge, ideas, and commitment to class, including ideas from lectures and the readings. Think about counter-arguments and questions to ask.

Participation does not mean perpetual contributions. It also involves cooperation and listening. And it demands active attention in the class and to its discussion. When giving a participation grade, I consider the relevance of students’ remarks to the readings, critical skills, depth of analysis, understanding of material, amount of participation, and clarity of thought and expression. Often, the best participation grades are awarded to students who ask questions that take us beyond the immediate scope of the readings and/or connect their thoughts to other topics previously raised. I do not mark simply on quantity. Nor do I expect students to agree with me. I do expect that we will engage in thoughtful, sometimes robust, debate and discussion. These are the criteria for marking class participation. Finding it difficult to speak in class is not an acceptable excuse for lack of participation; students are encouraged to integrate themselves into the culture of the class and find ways to contribute in smaller group settings.

Reading Quizzes: 

A series of reading-related, multiple choice questions are posted on the course Avenue to Learn site. They pertain to the weekly chapters of Worster’s Shrinking the Earth as a means of ensuring basic comprehension ahead of class discussion. These must be completed prior to the class in which the readings are listed in the syllabus.

Build Your Own Class:

After we complete Worster and Carr, students will design our lesson plans for the month of March to further their learning interests in environmental history. In effect, they will be tasked with outlining a course that they would love to take. This probably means doing research of the kind that students might do for a short term paper, looking at bibliographies, and other sources for texts and ideas. Building a syllabus requires original, deep, problem-posing research and creative, original thinking into what a course on “An Environmental History of Our Time" could be. Students will write a course description and goals, select readings for each class meeting, create the assignments and activities for each course, and design a final project. Think about reading and viewing assignments (try to keep to our 50-60 page weekly maximum unless everyone agrees on an exception).

The pedagogical premise for this exercise is multifarious. First, the course design is geared towards inviting and encouraging students to take ownership over their learning and education. Second, each student in the room is a valued contributor, possessing a rich background and unique skill set. Handing the keys to the course to students aims to highlight these abilities, and help them to link new learning with their existing backgrounds and interests. Third: the foundation of effective learning stems from discoveries made independently. While I hope that the portion of the class that I have designed inspires a rudimentary interest in environmental history, the real goal is to pursue those interests independently and more deeply. This final suite of classes is designed to do just that.

Each student will produce a syllabus (due 20 February). The syllabi will be shared with the rest of the class for everyone to read. On 2 March, we will devote the second half of the class time to synthesizing the multiple syllabi into a single plan for the final three weeks of the semester. This will involve me leaving the room—the exercise is yours, as is the class.  The goal is to ensure that everyone is represented in this class, so try to ensure that each person’s individual syllabus is represented somewhere, at least once, in the group syllabus. And you will already be changed and have learned from reading the individual syllabi you’ve each constructed.

Students will receive an individual grade for the quality and caliber of their own syllabus (10%). Students will also receive another 10% for their collaboratively designed syllabus and the course execution over the four weeks in question. Finally, within their shared syllabus, students will need to conceive of and produce some kind of a project that reflects the learning goals that they have outlined. They can determine the deadline for this assignment. It, too, is worth 10% of their overall grade.


The major portion of the students’ evaluation in HIST 1FF3 will be their development and maintenance of a blog that they should keep active over the course of the semester. The main objective of this exercise is to foster a mindful record of the students’ growing relationship with history. Students are required to register a Wordpress page (this is free) for this purpose early in the semester. The blog’s primary task is to reflect on and respond to E. H. Carr’s What is History?, but students are encouraged to broaden the blog’s scope by taking ownership over their presentation of the material. Students are invited to blend their interaction with Carr’s classic work with an autobiographical voice and approach. How have the readings, but also the class discussions, enhanced their understanding of historical inquiry? How has history featured in their other classes? Does this kind of inquiry alter the manner in which they think about contemporary events or the world around them? The artful student will weave these kinds of reflections into their cogent analyses of Carr’s work.

Brass tacks: students should submit six posts of no more than 500 words each. The deadline for each post is noted in the course schedule below. Note, too, that students must have registered their Wordpress site and posted the link in the appropriate Avenue to Learn DropBox by noon on Monday, 16 January 2017. Successful completion of this simple task is worth 1% of the overall grade. Each submission should be posted to the blog, and students should paste the link into the appropriate Avenue to Learn DropBox by the stated deadline. Beyond the six required posts (one for each chapter of Carr’s book), students are invited to post more regularly and other course-related themes.

Culminating Project:

The culminating project in HIST 1FF3 is a narrative assignment intended to spur students’ enthusiasm for a topic pertaining to the course material. Students will be required to identify a topic early in the semester so that they can develop their research question and analysis in class as the semester progresses. The final paper, due by noon on Monday, 10 April, should be no more than 3000 words, and should draw on multiple primary and secondary sources. The essay, which should have an argument that is coherently argued and adhere to academic formatting, should be written for a popular audience. Clarity is key. We will discuss writing and audience throughout the class.

Final Exam:

There is no final exam in HIST 1FF3.

E‐mail Communication:

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all e‐mail communication between students and instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from their official McMaster University e‐mail accounts. This policy protects the confidentiality and sensitivity of information and confirms the identities of both the student and instructor. History Department instructors will delete messages that do not originate from McMaster e-mail accounts.

Please do not contact me using the Avenue Mail. I will occasionally send a message to the entire class through that medium, but I do not check my Avenue mail frequently. Instead, send me an e-mail to my regular McMaster address (egan@mcmaster.ca) from yours.

Note, too, that I mean to keep fairly strict e-mail hours. Do not expect a reply to your e-mail between 20.00 and 9.00. And do not expect to receive an e-mail reply on weekends. Which is to say: if you have a pressing question or concern, do not leave it until 21.00 on Friday evening to send me a message. I endeavour to reply to e-mails promptly—especially those that are time sensitive—but I apologize in advance if it takes more than a couple of days to reply.