Neall W. Pogue
Environmental Historian

Approach to Teaching

Course subject matter should not be interpreted as a curiosity or a singular event, but continuously applied to gain a deep understanding regarding how and why people view the world around them and how they react to it.

We take such approaches in my environmental history course by comparing and contrasting what we are studying/discussing at the moment with ideas we considered during the first week of class. Thus, students are consistently building upon concepts to gain a firm command of a diverse range of understandings concerning the evolving relationship between humans and the nonhuman natural world. The foundational goal behind such a methodology is to develop informed citizens who are comfortable applying in-depth understandings of complicated environmental issues from a variety of perspectives as leaders and participants in settings that range from the professional to the ballot box.

The above goal is accomplished, for example, by studying the history of the pesticide DDT. Students begin by analyzing a variety of primary source documents written from 1944 to 2005. The documents include views from chemical company scientists, farmers, FDA scientists, conservationists, political commentators and everyday consumers. This exploration of course material permits students to place the importance of DDT into a historical context and evaluate diverse viewpoints as different perspectives weighed the insecticide’s value in response to its newly discovered environmental problems. As a class we additionally compare and contrast the issues raised by the case of DDT to ongoing environmental issues covered throughout the semester including NIMBY, environmental justice, the “tragedy of the commons” and the growth of the market economy. In this way, students engage with thematic material throughout the semester to gain a deep understanding of environmental perspectives.

Throughout this process, students are reminded of the benefits as well as the drawbacks of DDT. Even unto the present day, for instance, it is not scientifically proven that DDT causes cancer in humans and it remains an effective pesticide, which can lower the number of malaria cases in some geographic locations across the world. The chemical nevertheless continues to be lethal to certain animal populations. This complicated reality allows class debates surrounding, but not limited to, the following crucial questions: How valuable is human life in relationship to the nonhuman natural world? To what extent should the progress of science aimed at saving human lives be curbed when considering collateral damage to other living things? Beyond their benefit to people as contributors to an ecosystem, does nonhuman nature have a fundamental right to simply exist? Because DDT is no longer applied in the U.S., should concerned citizens engage in conversations with people in other countries that continue using it? Such questions can be modified at the thematic level and applied to other topics throughout the semester including anthropogenic climate change, waste disposal, green energy, and the relationship between big business and individual consumers.


Neall Pogue, Ph.D.,
University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Department of History
1747 South Chandalar Drive
Fairbanks, AK 99775