I want my students to recognize that they can marry their interest in history with active political engagement in their roles as citizens. We are learning about the past to become more engaged citizens of today.

Claire Campbell

Professor Claire Campbell, history, eagerly anticipated childhood summer vacations when her father packed the family into a VW camper to drive across North America and tour national parks and historic sites.

"My dad taught high school history, geography and civics, and I learned that citizenship is bound up in place as well as heritage," says Campbell, a native of Toronto. "I learned how landscapes evolve because of who has been there before. As a result, teaching with images and maps is important to me. History happens in three dimensions and in topography. When we combine them, we can better understand how people acted in specific locations."

Campbell's research focuses on the environmental history of North America, particularly Canada; the relationships of regional ecosystems to regional histories; and connecting the lessons of history to current political and environmental debates. Her current manuscript, What Once Were You? Historic Landscapes in Canada (to be published by McGill-Queen's Press), is a comparative study of historic sites as places of environmental history, using L'Anse aux Meadows, Grand Pré, Fort William, the Forks of the Red River and the Bar U Ranch as examples. Her studies include how exploration in the north is affected by climate change, how a city reclaims its river from outdated industries, and how competing uses like ranching and oil-drilling confront each other – all questions that affect us now as well as then.

"I'm looking into how Canada developed and asking what each place can teach us about environmental history, or how humans have interacted with nature in the past," Campbell says. "Environmental change exists in the present, but we need to recognize that the environment has a long history with human interference. Understanding who and what came before us helps us understand current climate and ecological challenges and how we can respond more effectively. It also suggests how our social, economic and cultural identities were developed and breeds a certain humility in us, because we are not the first people to be in a specific place.

"People study history because they love it," she says. "I want my students to recognize that they can marry that real interest with active political engagement in their roles as citizens. We are learning about the past to become more engaged citizens of today."

Posted Sept. 29, 2014

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