Section outline

  • Instructor: Karl Hall

    Time: Friday, 10:50-12:30

    Place: QS D107

    Zoom: If some or all of us need to connect online, please use this link.

    Number of credits: 2 (ESP/ETCC students may apply these credits toward their stream curriculum total.)

    Course level: MA

    Prerequisites: None: no background in environmental history or history of science and technology is assumed. 

    Course aims:
    This course provides an opportunity to study how "energy" has become the ultimate fungible concept in the modern age, crossing domains and rendering previously incompatible "resources" within a common analytic framework over time. For the scientist and engineer it may be obvious that energy flows are essential to how we conceive of interconnected systems. It is all the more important for the historian to learn to recognize some of these patterns when approaching general questions of economic, social, and cultural development at diverse temporal scales up to the recent past, while also offering historical critiques of taken-for-granted energy concepts and practices in the present day. We will use these topics to draw ourselves outside the usual spatial and temporal frames that dominate political, social, and in some respects even economic history. While we will interrogate the global and universal nature of energy-related concepts and practices, this will not be an exercise in world history, but rather an opportunity to study passages between local, national, regional, and imperial in the Habsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern empires and their successor states. Where possible, we will employ Russian, German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian sources when discussing course themes, though we do not limit ourselves to Central and Eastern Europe.

    For students from other departments who have contemporary energy-related interests, the course provides an opportunity to see how "energy" came to perform these unifying functions in agriculture, the age of coal and steam, new fossil-fuel regimes, and on to atomic power in the twentieth century. By pursuing various scales of historical understanding through the lens of energy, we can interrogate our own modes of narrative and explanation, steering between the Scylla of energy as the ultimate structural determinant and the Charybdis of energy as a contingent externality whose explanatory function is marginal compared to epidemics or volatile human whims. Recent debates in environmental history will inform some of the topic selection, as will history of science and technology, with each inviting the other to keep producers and consumers in the same historical frame. The end result should also open up new perspectives on certain aspects of social and cultural history, as well as urban history. How we organize energy flows past and present can indeed tell us much about the relation between humans and Nature, and also how various dichotomies between the two have been constructed in service to energy imperatives. Energy has been both deeply utopian and elusively mundane in different times and settings, and its protean meanings have become interwoven with more conventional conceptions of power in the modern age. By tracing these interconnections we can better understand the internal structures of modern sociotechnical systems and their relation to political and economic factors. 

    Learning outcomes: Students will build up a historical repertoire of human energy-use patterns ranging from early modern agriculture and mining to modern industrial capitalism, including the enabling intellectual frameworks that have grown (and sometimes ebbed) along with them. No prior assumptions are made regarding familiarity with scientific and social scientific analyses of so-called energy transitions, but the course will provide complementary and supplementary conceptual and empirical materials that will help students bind these transitions more effectively to more complex political, social, and cultural settings, especially in urban spaces. General history students will in turn learn to interrogate some of the historiographical conventions of political, social, cultural, and urban history through the study of energy practices.

    Assessment: Class presentation: 20%; class discussion leader (twice, usually in combination with other students): 10% + 10%; review essay: 50%; general class participation: 10%.

    Presentation: Maximum 15 minutes class time. An opportunity for students to connect one of the course themes more explicitly to their personal research interests, where applicable.  

    Review essay: 8-9 double-spaced pages (12-point font, no fiddling with the default margins; Chicago Manual of Style, full notes). Topics chosen in consultation with the instructor. 

    Deadline for review essay: April 6

    Workload: The rule of thumb for this seminar is that two hours of preparation are needed for each hour of class time.