Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 30

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
(Cross-posted by permission of John Fea’s blog *The Way of Improvement Lead’s Home*)
I’m just wrapping up final exam number two of three—it’s an historiographical essay on a topic of my choosing. I’m finding it very difficult, however, to write historiography after I’ve done my own research this semester. There is something energizing in the creative process of piecing together a thesis and of tracking down the material necessary to build and support an argument. The historiography essay, although a necessary and useful, seems tedious when compared to the projects in my other two courses. To me, historiography is something like a puzzle (and I’ve never been one for puzzles). The task is complete when you can situate each book in relation to one another, knitting the monographs together into a larger, coherent tapestry that tells us something about a particular field or theoretical framework. For the purpose of this final, I wrote about Environmental Justice (EJ). Although EJ’s roots only go as deep as the 1980s, I was able to draw upon authors who might not consider themselves part of that tradition to show how inequities related to the human-to-environment relationship in America go back as far as one could possibly see—when one person could control another.

To start, I used William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and Pekka Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire. Cronon and Hamalainen brought my essay into the nineteenth century. Then Andrew Hurley’s Environmental Inequalities and Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis allow for a better understanding of urban EJ (and on the flip side environmental injustice) in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The rest of the books come from sociologists, the scholars who traditionally pay closest attention to EJ. Robert Bullard, the “father of Environmental Justice,” David Naguib Pellow, and Eric Klinenburg provided more layers of analysis and unique lenses of interpretation. I feel confident in the essay I put together, and the project allowed me the opportunity to explore a topic I had yet to investigate. However, I still felt a tad stifled during the entire process. I felt chained to my secondary sources. Without them, I would not have completed the assignment, but the freedom in actualizing my own thoughts and ideas is far more exciting than piecing together someone else’s puzzle.

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