Seminar gives history seniors new environment-centered learning opportunities


History students are getting the chance to conduct oral histories in a new seminar directed at the St. Johns River.

The class, “Voices from the Stream: An Environmental History of the St. Johns River,” provides students with an opportunity to use applied skills to learn about the environmental history of a landmark in Florida.

Dr. Charles Closmann, associate professor of history, after the work of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, a private nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the environmental characteristics of the river, inspired him.

He said the work done in his class offers an outlet for new research opportunities that should be done.

“There has not been a lot of historical work done on the St. Johns River,” Closmann said. “And most of the work that has been done deals with a much earlier period of time.”

Prior to taking ‘Voices,’ history majors are required to take “Craft of the Historian,” a research methods class that prepares students for upper level history classes, Closmann said.

Students taking ‘Voices’ will conduct 20 to 30 interviews with sources around Jacksonville to compile an oral history of the St. Johns River. Students team up to research various topics of the river including pollution, environmental activism and Jacksonville-area commerce.

Students will then take the interviews and transcribe them into text form. The transcriptions will then be archived in the environment historians use the oral history method frequently, Closmann said. He wants students to develop strong skills in oral history work.

Students will use the oral histories alongside newspaper articles, textbooks and historical documents to provide information for a research paper each student must write for the course.

Jimmy Orth, executive director for the St. Johns Riverkeeper, said the organization may use the oral histories conducted in the class as part of a traveling public exhibit to educate people about the river.

Orth said he hopes the class will spark a new flow of interest in protecting the river from pollution.

“Our river’s not healthy right now, and that’s because of us,” Orth said.

In the classroom context, Closmann describes environmental history as the study of the historical relationship between human society and the physical environment over a long period of time. Students study how the river has changed over the course of time in terms of terrain and the cultural significance of the river to the surrounding people.

Closmann said the St. Johns River is a great and unique river to study. He hopes students can become more comfortable with conducting oral histories and help motivate people to become more aware of the environmental integrity of the river.

“It’s a beautiful river, it’s a long river, it’s a very wide river that flows through several ecosystems that really don’t exist elsewhere in the United States,” Closmann said.

Closmann received financial support in the form of a teaching grant from academic affairs, as well as an environmental seed grant from the environmental center.

He said the response to the class has been positive, and other faculty members have contributed in making the class a reality.

Dr. Alison Bruey, an assistant professor of history at UNF, assisted Closmann’s class by hosting workshops to prepare students for the oral histories – a methodology in which she has extensive experience. He said he could not have created the class without her help.

Closmann said he wants students to grow as environmental historians and learn how to conduct research. He said students learn to strengthen their skills as writers, as well.

“They’ll learn how to ask different questions about the society that we live in,” he said. “The field of environmental history gives you perspective on the current society you live in and the environmental problems and challenges you face.”

Jennifer Warren, a UNF history senior, is currently in Closmann’s class. History majors are required to take two seminar classes in order to graduate, and Warren said she felt the class would be beneficial to her. She said she found environmental history intriguing and wanted to learn more about the St. Johns River.

Warren said she hopes to become more confident in the fieldwork of history and actively using her skills to learn more about the environment.

“This is something that we’re creating on our own, this is us taking our classroom out into the world,” she said.

Warren will get the chance to interview some crab fishermen along the St. Johns River, and she said she gets to learn how the fishermen base their livelihood on the river.

“It’s more than just finding out what happened several years ago, it’s about finding out what’s happened now and how it relates to us now,” she said.