BA History and Sociology

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Natures Past. Reading Environmental Change

Unit code HIST21221
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? No


The climate crisis is the defining challenge of the twenty-first century. Across the globe, communities are confronting the break-down of ancient ecologies, witnessed through deforestation, erosion, air pollution, water toxicity, and the vanishing of thousands of plant and animal species. It is a catastrophe we have been able to see coming for a long time. This module places the contemporary climate crises in a long historical perspective. Harnessing digital methods to learn new ways of reading textual sources, we will develop a better understanding of environmental change and crisis from the seventeenth century to the present.

Please note: no technical skills are required for this unit.


  • Introduce students to key texts that have shaped and continue to influence our understanding of the environment
  • Explore the use (and abuse) of digital text mining and distant reading in the humanities
  • Introduce students to key debates and readings in environmental history and environmental literary studies
  • Guide students in thinking critically about the role of digital technology in assessing historical representations of the environment
  • Give a practical overview of the main tools and approaches used for distant reading, including printed and handwritten text recognition, corpus collation, text mining, and annotation
  • Develop interdisciplinary working practices, and to use these to help develop innovative approaches to literary, historical, and environmental study
  • Foster skills of interpretation and argumentation, and of oral, written and digital self-expression in English through seminar discussion, secondary reading, essay writing and digital skill building

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Knowledge and understanding of the role of distant reading in modern historical and literary studies
  • Critical thinking about the relationship between literature, history, and the environmental humanities
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the opportunities and limitations of close and distant textual analysis.
  • Identify questions amenable to digital distant reading and use appropriate techniques and concepts to answer them
  • Decide when a form of textual analysis can be useful for specific questions in their subject area.
  • The capacity to use distant reading in text analysis, and to think critically about how and why we make and use digital technologies in the humanities
  • Incorporate digital methodologies into the study of their degree programme

Knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an awareness of the opportunities and limitations of distant reading in the humanities
  • Evaluate different types of projects undertaken in the environmental humanities, distant reading, and text analysis
  • Recognise how distant reading can both enhance and limit our understanding of different questions in the humanities
  • Articulate the key debates in the environmental humanities

Intellectual skills

  • Critically reflect on how data selection and analysis choices influence the interpretation of textual data
  • Apply skills and concepts learned in class to plan, develop and present a digitally-enhanced essay
  • Engage in discussion and critical evaluation of various digital reading technologies, and decide when and how distant reading can be useful for in textual analysis
  • Think critically about the relationship between texts and non-literary environmental data
  • Present a good understanding of the texts core to historical environmental studies

Practical skills

  • Learn to use some of the most important tools currently employed in distant reading and develop a deeper proficiency
  • Identify a question amenable to distant reading and explore the use of different techniques and concepts to answer it
  • Collect, manipulate, and analyse different types of text
  • See a digital research project from inception to completion
  • Present an argument through visualization and narrative, combining short texts, supporting graphics, figures, and tables
  • Negotiate interdisciplinary practices and channel these towards meaningful interpretations of written sources

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Demonstrate practical skills using a range of different digital applications
  • Present information and arguments orally, verbally and visually with due regard to the target audience
  • Think creatively how to develop and communicate their work
  • Demonstrate the ability to think flexibly about their subject and approaches to it
  • Assess the relevance and importance of the ideas of others
  • Effectively manage a small independent research project

Employability skills

-Become familiar with digital technologies that are used across the creative industries. -Demonstrated how historical concepts can be applied to present and future challenges. -Developed an understanding of how to integrate digital methods into interdisciplinary scholarship.
Oral communication
-Be able to present information and arguments orally, verbally and visually with due regard to the target audience
-Enhanced their computational abilities in order to complement their general humanities skill set. -Become familiar with digital technologies that are used across the creative industries. With its combined focus on environmental challenges, digital skills, and critical thinking, the course allows students to develop skills and the confidence needed to thrive in a variety of non-academic workplaces, including marketing and communication, journalism, digital media, libraries and museums, and environmental policy makers.

Assessment methods

Presentation: Short presentation on one of the themes and/or digital methods


Creative reflection on a past or current environmental issue




Feedback methods

Oral feedback on intermediate project requirements as they are completed


Essay workshop in last seminar. 1 hour per week training and feedback on how to incorporate digital technologies into research.


Moreover, students are encouraged to seek formative feedback during seminars and in consultation hours.


Detailed written feedback on final collaborative project and essay, designed to include advice on improving future performance.


Recommended reading

Jonathan Bate, Song of the Earth (2000)

Diana K. Davies, The Arid Lands: History, Power, Knowledge (2016)

Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019)

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (2016)

Richard Grove, Green Imperialism (1994)

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (2016)

Andrew G. Kirk, Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing (2017)

Jonathan Krammick, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness (2018)

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018)

James Lovelock, Gaia (1979)

William Viney, Waste: A Philosophy of Things (2014)

Richard White, The Organic Machine (1995)


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Joanna Taylor Unit coordinator
Luca Scholz Unit coordinator

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