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A Water’s History of the United States


Admission requirements

This course is part of the MA North American Studies, and shared with the MA History / PCNI). Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Water physically shapes the contours of the United States: The Great Lakes up in the North, the Rio Grande and the Gulf in the South, as well as the two oceans in the East and West delimit the country’s continental boundaries. But historically, water has played a role in the definition of the US as a nation that goes beyond mere geography. Water, indeed, has been the main instrument through which the US power has been projected and executed overseas. The control of waterways, straits, and canals has been crucial to the building of a global empire, and so has been the conquest of marine environments such as islands, archipelagos, and chokepoints. Similarly, water has defined the development of American democracy at home, determining its outputs and its limits, and representing a crucial proving ground for both its institutions and inclusivity. The ways in which access to water resources has been managed and granted and the ways in which water has been treated for urban, agricultural, and industrial purposes have all contributed to shaping and continuously negotiating notions of citizenship and rights in the United States.

Situated at the crossroads of environmental, social, and political history, and grounded on a blue history approach that moves the point of observation away from the land and places it on water, this course will offer students an original overview of US history. Through the lenses of water and water-based dynamics, students will appreciate the evolution of American democracy, the expansion of the federal government, and the growth of American power on a global scale not as independent historical phenomena but as part and parcel of a process of exploitation, anthropization, commodification, and progressive deterioration of the planet’s hydrological systems. From the use of water as a source of energy to the depletion of water as a consequence of hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal turns, students will engage with the existential relationship between America’s national identities, politics, and power on the one hand, and water environs on the other.

By the end of the course, students will gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of those historical processes that lie at the roots of our contemporary environmental and climate challenges.

Students will also be asked to produce, in small groups, a podcast based on an interview with scholars or activists working on pertinent environmental subjects of topical interest.

All the students will have to write an original research paper based on both primary and secondary sources and on a clearly identifiable historical case study.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtrack as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;

-in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student will:

  1. develop a deeper understanding of US and global environmental history.
  2. investigate the origins and developments of the Anthorpocene, and in particular of the so-called “great acceleration,” that is that period roughly comprised between 1945 and today in which irreversible human-made changes to the earth’s bio-geochemical systems have occurred at an unprecedented pace.
  3. historicize and problematize current issues of international and public debate such as climate change and environmental justice.
  4. critically analyze American historical and literary texts and place them in a cultural and historical context
  5. explore the theoretical and methodological overlaps between American Studies and Environmental Humanities
  6. develop the ability to judge the relative merits of academic opinions and arguments about contemporary developments in North American Studies and their connections with environmental themes;
  7. develop teamworking, digital skills, and intercultural skills through group assignments (podcast);
  8. (ResMA only – learn the methods, conceptsm and challenges of blue history as an approach aimed at reckoning with the interplays between (national) social, cultural, and political histories and water.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. Students who are unable to attend are required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-17

  • Oral presentation/ Teamwork – Podcast: Students will be asked to produce, in small groups, a podcast based on an interview with scholars or activists working on pertinent environmental subjects of topical interest)
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 17-20


  • Written paper: 70%

  • Oral presentation/Teamwork: 30%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

  • Textbook: Martin V. Melosi, Water in North American Environmental History (London: Routledge, 2022)

  • Additional Readings:

  • Tom Andersen, This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) an history of water in early America

  • Martyn Doyle, The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade Its Rivers (New York: Norton, 2018) on US and river history

  • Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) on water management in NYC

  • Jeremy J. Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity (New York: New York University Press, 2017) on water management in US history

  • Thomas Ruys Smith, Deep Water: The Mississippi River in the Age of Mark Twain (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2019) on the Mississippi River in US southern culture and identity

  • April R. Summitt, Contested Waters: An Environmental History of the Colorado River (Louisville: University Press of Colorado, 2013) on the Colorado river

  • Jessica B. Teisch, Engineering Nature: Water, Development, & the Global Spread of American Environmental Expertise (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011) on a Water and US global projection of power


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.

General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal.


Not applicable