HSTRY 498 A: Colloquium in History

Winter 2024
T 10:30am - 12:20pm / RAI 109
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

Nature, Work and Labor: Methods in Historical Research


Instructor: Aditya Ramesh

Contact: ar90@uw.edu


Source: Dam rising, Grand Coulee Dam construction project, July 24, 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

Welcome! Together, we will ask in this course what the relationship between nature and humans? We attempt to take work and labor as central ways of understanding the natural world and its relationship to humans. We begin with two fundamental questions. First, what are the ways in which we can think about how labor defines the relationship between humans and the natural world? For example, does human labor inevitably modify and alter the natural world? Second, does nature labor? If so, in what ways, and if not, why not? From this more abstract form of thinking, we take these ideas to specific places and particular historical conjectures. We pay attention to how nature has historically been constructed as a racialized and gendered category.

The course can be understood as an amalgamation of three distinct methodological approaches. The first section deals with thinking about the body, both human and animal in relation to nature, labour, and work. The second section engages explicitly with environments, particularly water and forests, to understand the ways in which labor and work change places and spaces. The final section focuses on ‘things’ and resources, again thinking about how humans have engaged with and conceptualized the natural world. We pay specific attention to the material form of things, such as coal or rubber and their properties. We will understand in what ways these material forms affect how humans are able to harness and use nature.

Reading and Listening

Please attempt to do at least one reading in the week. There is no text-book for this course. All readings will be up on Canvas to ensure easy access. If you are finding a particular text hard, please come and see me during office hours. There are podcasts assigned to particular weeks. Even if you are unable to complete the reading in its entirety, please do listen to the podcast.

Equity statement

The classroom is an open space for us to read, listen and think with one another. We will learn from, critique, and disagree with each other but in kind and engaging ways. Regardless of age, gender, race, creed, caste, and class, we aim that everyone should be treated with respect and feel comfortable in the classroom. If you can’t be present in the classroom due to emergencies and/or other circumstances, please let me know, and I will try and accommodate other ways of ensuring that you can participate.




Grade percentage

Explanatory notes

Forum post


In the first week, right after we go through the syllabus, you will have some time in the classroom and outside to reflect on the weeks you are most excited by and the weeks you are least excited by, and why this might be so. This should translate to a short forum post (200 words maximum), and the instructor (me) will think about your feedback seriously and modifying the course. The forum post can also respond to one of your course mates’ posts.

Think piece


You will be required to produce one think piece (2 pages max), before week 5. The think piece has to engage with two or more readings at least, and try and understand why they might be linked, but also may be making different arguments. It does not have to take the format of an essay. However, the writing should have a sense of organization and structure.



Weeks 6, 7, 8 everyone presents on one of the more complex assigned reading for the week. Each student will be assigned a reading which will include but not be limited to the assigned readings. Your presentation is part of a way to take responsibility for the seminar and the learning of your peers. You should attempt to do three things at least (please feel free to do more!) 1) Provenance: who is the author, and how does the article/book fit into their trajectory of scholarship. 2) what is the main argument of the reading and what examples support the argument? 3) constructive critique: what would you have liked more on? Is there a flaw in the argument possibly?



Attending the seminar and being present is important. You will be graded on your thoughts on reading, engagement with your peers and furthering and critiquing their ideas with generosity.

Writing project


Your writing project should engage with the three themes of the seminar, namely nature, labor, and work. It isn’t prescriptive, but should be 15-20 pages. You could incorporate but you are not required to use primary sources. You might want to write for instance:

1)    An article on a single commodity for example rubber.

2)    A mapping project showing how maps work to construct nature and the kinds of human labor involved.

3)    A ‘historiographical’ paper focusing on how various historians and theoreticians have understood the relationship with nature and work.

4)    A regional/local example of how nature and labor have intersected.

Week 1 Introduction: Nature, Work, and Labor

  • Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (Hill and Wang 1996), Ch.1 [“Knowing Nature through Labor”]
  • Jason W. Moore, “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy: Commodity Frontiers, Ecological Transformation, and Industrialization”, Review (Fernand Braudel Center), vol. 23, 3 (2000): 409-433 [This is a complex reading, so please attempt to read it, but I will go through the concepts in detail in the classroom]

Additional reading

  • Thomas Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010)
  • Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power (1986)

Week 2 The body, reproduction, and its environments

  • Silvia Federici, The Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia 2004), [Ch. 2 “Constructing Difference in the Transition to Capitalism”]. There are many editions of this book, feel free to use any.
  • Jennifer Derr, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt (2019), Chapter 4 [Cruel Summer Environmental Labors and the Scales of Subject Making]

Additional Reading

  • David Silkenat, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South (2022)

Week 3 What is Animal Power?

  • Alan Mikhail, ‘Unleashing the Beast: Animals, Energy, and the Economy of Labor in Ottoman Egypt’, American Historical Review 118, 2 (2013): pp. 317-48
  • Jason Hribal, “‘Animals are part of the working class”: a challenge to labor history,’ Labor History44:4 (2003) 435-453

Additional Reading

Week 4 Nature and the ‘Work’ of Maps

Additional Reading

  • JB Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (Johns Hopkins University Press 2002)
  • Matthew Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019)
  • Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographic Construction of British India, 1765–1843 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997)

Week 5 Working in and on Water

  • Tamara Fernando, “Seeing Like the Sea: A Multispecies History of the Ceylon Pearl Fishery 1800–1925’, Past & Present 254,” 1 (2022): 127-60
  • Gregory Rosenthal, ‘Workers of the World's Oceans: A Bottom-Up Environmental History of the Pacific’, Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 3 (2016): 290-310

Additional Reading

  • Rohan D’Souza, ‘Water in British India: The Making of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’, History Compass 2006
  • Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002) ch. 1, ‘Can the Mosquito Speak?’
  • Emily O’Gorman, Wetlands in a Dryland: More-than-Human Histories of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin (2021)
  • Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019)
  • Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History (2018)

Week 6 Subterranean Histories

  • Matthew Shutzer, “Subterranean Properties: India's Political Ecology of Coal, 1870–1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 63:2 (2021): 400–432
  • Randall Packard, White Plague, Black Labor: Tuberculosis and the Political Economy of Health and Disease in South Africa (University of California Press 1989), Chapter 3 [Black mineworkers and the production of Tuberculosis]

Additional Reading

  • Thomas Klubock, Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951 (Duke University Press, 1998)
  • Pratik Chakrabarti, Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity (JHU Press 2020)

Week 7 Commodity Frontiers

  • Gregg Mittman, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia (The New Press, 2021), Chapter 1 [America should produce its own rubber]

Read UW faculty Danny Hoffman’s review of Mittman’s book here: https://www.africasacountry.com/2022/11/the-imperial-forest

We will also watch parts of Mittman’s film ‘Land Beneath Our Feet’ in the seminar: https://www.thelandbeneathourfeet.com/

  • Michitake Aso, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897-1975 (2018), Chapter 6 [Decolonizing Plantations]

Additional Reading

  • Arnab Dey, Tea Environments and Plantation Culture Imperial Disarray in Eastern India (2018)
  • Nandini Bhattacharya, Contagion and Enclaves: Tropical Medicine in Colonial India (2012)
  • Nitin Varma, Coolies of Capitalism: Assam Tea and the Making of Coolie Labour (2016)

Week 8 King Coal

  • Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (2010)
  • Andreas Malm, “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Historical Materialism 21:1 (2013) 15–68 [Long, slightly complex article, which we will go through in detail in the classroom.]

Additional reading

  • On Barak, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization (2020)
  • Victor Seow, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (2022)
  • Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016)

Week 9 Petrochemical life

Additional Reading

  • Adam Hanei, “Petrochemical Empire,” New Left Review (July/August 2021)
  • Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (2006)
  • Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford University Press, 2019)

Week 10 Conclusion: Minerals in a Technological World

Additional Reading

  • Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (2012)
  • Kathryn Morse, The Nature of Gold: An Environmental History of the Klondike Gold Rush (2003)
  • Iva Peša, (2022) ‘Mining, Waste and Environmental Thought on the Central African Copperbelt, 1950-2000’, Environment and History 28, 2 (2022): 259–284.




Catalog Description:
Each seminar examines a different subject or problem. A quarterly list of the seminars and their instructors is available in the Department of History undergraduate advising office.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated:
December 7, 2023 - 2:42 pm