Changing Course: Creative Adaptation Brings History 202 to Expanded Audiences

“An environmental lens on historical problems, and a historical lens on environmental problems” is an apt summary of History 202 (American Environmental History), a course offered by History Professor Bob Morrissey that was recently converted from an in-person class to an asynchronous virtual one using fresh, creative approaches—even a video game.

Professional headshot of Bob Morrissey
Bob Morrissey

Compared to other courses offered in the History department at the University of Illinois, History 202’s focus is unconventional. Instead of placing human affairs at the center of the story, this course navigates the natural world, and how human history shaped, and has been shaped by, nonhuman nature over time—from the Pleistocene to the present in North America.

Funding from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant that created HRI's Environmental Humanities Research Group (of which Morrissey was director) also supported the development of an environmental humanities curriculum. Morrissey recognized the opportunity to bolster the frequency and sustainability of History 202 as the core of this nascent curriculum.

Photo of Sarah Gediman outdoors in front of green foliage
Sarah Gediman

Morrissey consulted with colleagues and students whose interests lie in environmental humanities, meeting regularly to explore the possibilities for this area of study. In spring 2020, he hired a then-junior, Sarah Gediman (December 2020 graduate in History and Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability) and enlisted the Center for Innovation and Learning (CITL) to begin the work in earnest. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, CITL resources were understandably needed to assist instructors in ramping up quickly for online teaching, and the project stalled. “It was one step forward, two steps back,” said Morrissey.

This time proved beneficial, though, as Gediman observed from her own experiences in these new online classes, helping her to rethink what creates a successful online classroom. She also pulled from prior experiences as an intern in HRI's Environmental Humanities Research Group (2018–19). "As I was doing my research for the visuals and the slides, a lot of the conversations that we had in our seminar groups, and the readings that we tackled in our Mellon research group, informed how I went about that," she said.

Illustrated map of Walden Pond. Credit: Walden, a game screenshot, Copyright 2017-2021 Tracy Fullerton and the Walden Team
Still from Walden video game. (Click to view larger size)
Credit: Walden, a game screenshot, Copyright 2017-2021
Tracy Fullerton and the Walden Team

Indeed, the transition from a Socratic, dialogic-style class to an asynchronous one posed a big challenge. In a course where students would read from Walden aloud, and make visits in person to the library's Main Stacks, for example, how do you mirror that engagement for an online experience? Morrissey and Gediman knew they needed to move beyond just text-based lecture slides and sought out ways to offer interactivity.

Enter Walden the video game, created by the University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab and described as a "narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond." Once the game is completed, students write reflections about what they learned from their "visit" back to the seventeenth century.

In addition to the game, the course's online experience is enriched with prints, maps, watercolors and other art, and primary sources that Gediman compiled through extensive research in databases and digitized archives. Morrissey also credits Emily Forbes, instructional specialist with ATLAS, and Clark Young, formerly a video producer at UIUC, as essential to the course's top-to-bottom redevelopment.

"There are people all over our campus whose primary passion may be not necessarily to study humanities or take humanities courses, but they're here because they want to think about environmental problems," said Morrisey. As our world is faced with questions and solutions to climate change, he suggests that environmental history can be a valuable way in. Gediman agrees. “I really think that the ways that we will end up mitigating climate change will come from how people think about the environment and our relationship to the environment," she said. "Environmental history is a natural place to start because it's how we have engaged with the natural world​.”

The fully online History 202 debuted in the second eight weeks of the spring 2021 semester.

By HRI Intern Amina Malik (History '21) and Erin Ciciora