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Course Syllabus
Cultural History of Water in the USA
Fall 1996


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Number: 51.4962-01
Location: Sage 4112

  • Class:
    • Tuesdays 6:30-9:20 p.m.
    • plus roughly one extra hour per week TBA
  • Office:
    • Tuesdays and Thursdays 12:30-1:00 p.m.
    • Thursdays 2:00-4:00 p.m.
    • and by appointment

P. Thomas Carroll ([old email address deleted])
[obsolete office address and office phone deleted]
[obsolete address of faculty home page deleted]

Prerequisites (any one of the following):
  • Any 49/51 course
  • AP standing in American history
  • a major in environmental engineering or environmental science
  • or permission of instructor

N.B. This course carries social science credit only (4 credit hours).
This course also qualifies for credit as an advanced-placement (AP) American history course.
To track down Carroll, or for grades and other course information, contact Patti Mugrace (, Sage 5116, 276-6444.
How have humans encountered, evaluated, and used water in the United States and in the colonies that preceded it? Traditional accounts by American historians have stressed how humans have increasingly mastered and controlled water over time, while more recent treatments have concentrated upon human follies along the way as they have questioned the assumption that humans should master and control water. The scholarship on the subject is still rudimentary, though, and few have explored very fully how the people in a given culture ascribe meaning and value to this plentiful substance and integrate it into their lives. In part, this is because water is so ubiquitous that we don't even notice its presence. Inspired by Rensselaer's strategic initiative in energy and environment, this course is arguably the first in the country to focus specifically on the history of water as an aspect of American culture. In an attempt to make us conscious of things we normally take for granted, we will explore together the range of the topic and the emerging themes in its study. To a certain extent, we will attend especially to the relationship of water to engineering and scientific professions. As we develop the topic, we will also give each student an opportunity to develop proficiency in oral expression and expository prose.
Course texts (available in Rensselaer Bookstore; each will be used extensively):

Edward H. Carr, What Is History? (New York: Random House, Vintage Paperback V391, 1967).

Ivan Illich, H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness: Reflections on the Historicity of "Stuff" (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1985).

David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968; second Touchstone paperback edition, 1987).

Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986; paperback, 1990).

John McPhee, The Control of Nature (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989; paperback, 1990).

Ronald E. Shaw, Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790-1860 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990).

William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd ed., with index (New York: Macmillan, 1986).

Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985; paperback, 1992).

Assignments and grade. The grade in this course will derive from seven different indicators of your performance: two short surprise quizzes on the readings; a four-page typed essay; a simple research project; a midterm; a final; and class participation (which will include special preparation for one discussion class, performance as an editor of a classmate's draft essay and draft research report, and weekly ungraded written reflections).

Unless the class as a whole is not at all average, grading will be adjusted to a normal curve with a mean of Bminus. Collaboration with classmates is downright encouraged except where explicitly prohibited; there is to be no collaboration in the taking of quizzes or in the drafting of essays, research reports, exams, and weekly reflections. Essays "recycled" from-or jointly submitted to-other courses are not acceptable for the essay assignment, even if they are your own work, without the advance permission of the instructor, and your research project must be your own work only, conducted solely for this course. Cheating on any part of the course will constitute grounds for failure of the whole course. In particular, to avoid the charge of plagiarism, place all phrasing not your own, however trivial, within quotation marks, and cite a source for all passages or ideas not your own; failure to do so constitutes one form of cheating. Consult the Rensselaer Handbook for further information about academic dishonesty. Weighting of the various components of the grade will be as follows:

05% Quiz (higher score)
10% Quiz (lower score)
20% Four-page essay
10% Research project
15% Midterm examination
20% Final examination
20% Class participation
The quizzes will be given in class on unannounced dates. They will be simple tests of your diligence in keeping up with and comprehending the assigned reading. The essay, a four-page typed, double-spaced (ca. 1,000 words) discussion of a topic assigned by the instructor, will serve as an exercise in analytical prose and critical historical interpretation. One of three possible due dates will be assigned to you randomly. A handout of pointers about how to write an essay will be distributed shortly after the semester begins. The research project will be a simple, structured exercise in finding and interpreting primary historical materials; full instructions will be handed out early in the semester, and the research reports are due in not later than 03 December. The midterm and final will be tests of your ability to integrate the materials of the course into your own critical historical interpretation. They will be in-class, open-notes, closed-book exams. (If a majority of the class wishes it, the final will be handed out in advance, and a take-home option may be added for it.) At the instructor's option, students with exemplary scores near the end of the semester may be exempted from the final examination. The best preparation for the exams is full and responsible participation in class discussions, which provides an opportunity to subject your ideas to public scrutiny. This is such an important element of history that class participation is factored materially into the grade. Indeed, the success of the course depends critically upon each student attending class religiously, completing the readings before class, and participating actively in the discussions. I do not require class attendance, but if you choose to skip class without cause, you risk missing a quiz and you lessen the cumulative total of your opportunities to earn a good class participation grade.

Students are required to submit a page of reflections on the current week's readings at the beginning of class for weeks 2 through 13 (see Schedule below), and they are encouraged to write an anonymous one-paragraph evaluation of the week's work at the end of the last class for the week. A handout of pointers about how to write a weekly reflection will be distributed shortly after the semester begins. The number of one-page reflections submitted will be factored into the class participation grade, but their content will not be graded; they provide writing practice for the student, encourage the taking of notes that will be useful for the exams, and allow the instructor to monitor progress in the course. As time permits, the instructor may or may not write comments on all the submitted reflections each week.

The instructor will be the discussion leader of last resort, but once during the semester, each student will help the instructor direct the weekly discussion by being a discussion assistant. In most weeks, after the instructor says a few words, the discussion assistant or assistants will launch the discussion period with brief opening remarks, provocative questions, and an attempt to draw out analysis from others, starting with an attempt to establish the main arguments of the assigned readings for the week. During the ensuing discussion, they will serve as agents provocateurs, asking further questions, correcting classmates, and challenging the interpretations of the readings, the students, and even the instructor. A handout of pointers about how to be an effective discussion assistant will be distributed shortly after the semester begins. You will pick your week for this assignment on 03 September.

Essays and research reports will not go straight from student to instructor. Instead, each student will be paired with a classmate who will serve as her or his editor, and the editor will get the submission first. It will be the editor's job to supply the student with constructive marginal comments concerning the style and the content of the submission. This procedure both gives students experience at editorial criticism and makes it possible for the instructor to make this course more writing-intensive. Editors may also review other submissions, though this is optional. Guidance will be provided to editors in class, there will be a handout of relevant writing tips, and the assigned text by Strunk and White gives pithy, timely advice, for which you will be held responsible in your written work. A sign-up sheet for editorial pairings will be available on 03 September. Write your name at the end of each draft you edit for your partner, and staple the edited draft of your own work to the back of your polished essay, or research report, when you submit it for grading. When your graded essay or research report is returned to you, be sure to show your editor the instructor's comments about the editing job.

If you are unhappy about your grade on any component of this course, please let the instructor know so that mistakes and misunderstandings can be minimized. The Rensselaer Handbook explains grade appeals that go beyond negotiations between the instructor and the student.


Will will add roughly one hour of class per week, though these hours may be bunched into multi-week chunks rather than spread out evenly over the semester.

Readings from sources other than the texts will be on reserve in Folsom Library.

1. August 27--Definitions and objectives; truth versus good judgment.


  • Carr, chapters 1 and 4.
2. September 3--It's not just the universal solvent.


  • Illich, entire.
3. September 10--Aboriginals and Europeans interact.


  • William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), chapter 4.
  • Theodore Steinberg, Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), chapter 1.
  • McEvoy, chapters 1 through 3.
4. September 17--Improvements I: Canoes, canals, and covered bridges.


  • Shaw, chapters 1 and 2.
  • Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), chapters 1 and 2.
  • McCullough, chapters 1 through 3.
5. September 24--Improvements II: Regional control of plentiful water.


  • Shaw, chapters 4 and 5.
  • Sheriff, The Artificial River (see week 4 above), chapters 3 and 4.
  • McCullough, chapter 4.
6. October 1--Fountains of industry I: The desert's golden bloom.


  • Worster, chapters I through III.
  • McCullough, chapters 5 and 6.
7. October 8--Fountains of industry II: National canals and national disasters.


  • Shaw, chapters 6 and 7.
  • Sheriff, The Artificial River (see week 4 above), chapter 6 and epilogue.
  • McCullough, chapters 7 through 9.
October 15--No class.

October 22--Midterm examination (in class, open notes, closed book).

8. October 29--Fountains of industry III: Business, water, and the law.


  • Steinberg, Nature Incorporated (see week 3 above), chapters 2 through 4.
  • McEvoy, chapters 4 and 5.
NOTE: Group 1 essays go to editors.

9. November 5--Mechanized water I: Wet desert.


  • Worster, chapters IV and V.
NOTE: Group 2 essays go to editors.

NOTE: Revised Group 1 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 1: TH

10. November 12--Mechanized water II: Shrunken ocean.


  • McEvoy, chapters 6 through 8.
NOTE: Revised Group 2 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 2: HT

NOTE: Group 3 essays go to editors.

11. November 19--Mechanized water III: Captured river.


  • McPhee, chapter on "Atchafalaya."
NOTE: Revised Group 3 essays due. Coin tosses for Group 3: HH

12. November 26--Trouble in paradise I: Water power revisited.


  • McPhee, chapter on "Los Angeles against the Mountains."
13. December 3--Trouble in paradise II: Ecology and freedom.


  • McEvoy, chapters 9 through 11.
  • Worster, chapters VI and VII.

December 18--Final examination (in class, open notes, closed book), 9:00 a.m.-12:00 noon, Sage 4112.