ACS Postdoctoral Fellow
“Environmental history is the ideal way for me to combine my experience working in nature with my passion for trying to make sense of the past,” says Drew Swanson, who received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Georgia in 2010. Drew is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental History at Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi.
Ph.D. History, UGA, 2010
Emphasis on Environmental & American History
M.A. History, Appalachian State University, 2004
B.S. Naturalist/Biology & History, Lees-McRae College, 2001
What made you choose to do your Ph.D. at UGA?
“Georgia has an incredibly strong history faculty, especially when it comes to southern history. And the department provided generous financial aid and an encouraging atmosphere; the importance of liking the place where you spend so much of your time for five or more years can’t be over-emphasized!”
What were some of the highlights of your experience at UGA (including any honors or awards)?
“The interaction with faculty was a highlight. The professors know what you are researching, they care about your progress, but at the same time they treat you like an adult. I also had a wonderful advisor, Paul Sutter - now at the University of Colorado - who taught me much of what I know about what it means to be a historian.
I was fortunate to receive several awards while at UGA, including departmental and graduate school teaching awards, and the William Jennings Bryan Award for the best article written by a department graduate student. I also received a couple of national awards, including the Theodore C. Blegen Award from the Forest History Society for the best article on conservation history and the Southern Historical Association’s C. Vann Woodward Prize for the nation’s best dissertation on the American South. A wealth of research and travel grants along the way, both external and from within the university, also made life and work much easier.”
What was the topic of your dissertation?
“My dissertation is an environmental history of tobacco in the South. I look at the crop in a particular region to explain why nature mattered, as well as how agriculture influenced social, cultural, and racial relationships.”
How did you become interested in environmental history?
“Slowly! In all seriousness, I think my interest stemmed from my background. I grew up on a small farm, and so I always carried an appreciation for living and working in close connection with the environment. My undergraduate degree was in the life sciences, and while I pursued a master’s degree I worked full time as a natural resource manager in western North Carolina. Environmental history is the ideal way for me to combine my experience working in nature with my passion for trying to make sense of the past.”
What are your current research interests?
“I am currently turning my dissertation on tobacco into a book. I also have an advance contract from the University of Georgia Press for an environmental history of southern Appalachia, and I am researching and writing on that project at the same time. I do a little foodways writing on the side, so I manage to stay pretty busy.”
How did you learn about the ACS Postdoctoral Fellowship?
“My UGA advisor made me aware of the program when it began, and I had kept an eye on the position openings while I worked on my degree. Millsaps is actually my wife’s alma mater, we had just moved to Mississippi for her work, and I had a great deal of respect for the postdoctoral program and William Storey (the position mentor at Millsaps), so you might say that getting the job was a bit of a perfect storm.”
What have been some of the highlights of your postdoc experience?
“There are two that leap to mind. First, it is a rare treat to work closely with William Storey, who is both an important environmental historian and a genuinely wonderful person. Second, Millsaps seems blessed with a wealth of engaged and interested students - they have been nothing but fun to teach.”
What do you enjoy most about teaching at an ACS/small liberal arts college?
“The small class sizes are a joy. In some ways they are a greater challenge than a lecture hall of three hundred, where you have a script for the class and keep to it; small discussion groups can take twists and turns that lay your careful planning in ruins, but you so often end up learning new things from the journey. It is also nice to be able to have at least a passing relationship with virtually every other faculty member at the college, something unheard of at a large research institution.”
The University of Georgia Press recently published your first book. Could you tell us more about it?
“My first book came out in March: Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape (Georgia, 2012). It is a history of a particular piece of the Georgia Lowcountry near Savannah covering three-hundred years. In the book I try to use this plantation-turned-park to begin to explain why we preserve certain portions of the coastal South, while developing others without restraint.
The book came out of a wonderful opportunity that my advisor brought to my attention. I spent my last two years at UGA working as a research fellow for the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History, based in Savannah. I created a land use document for the institute that focused on Wormsloe State Historic Site’s environmental history. When I completed that work, I realized that I had a topic worthy of a book, and developed it from there. Finishing the book while completing my dissertation proved a challenge, but it was also a great lesson in how to effectively manage my time!”
In September 2008, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) $3.5 million to create an Environmental Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Drew Swanson is one of 24 Postdoctoral Fellows in environmental studies teaching at an ACS campus for two years between 2009 and 2013. The ACS Environmental Fellowship Program helps prepare new PhDs for successful careers as interdisciplinary teachers and scholars. The program pairs each Fellow with one or more well-regarded professors at their ACS school, who serves as a mentor throughout the postdoctoral experience. The ACS is currently seeking funds to continue the Environmental Fellowship Program beyond 2013.