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Teaching natural resource history in Beijing

August 8, 2015

Much of this summer I’ve devoted to teaching a summer course that I was invited to give at Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing. This university each year invites a hundred or so foreign scholars (well, about half of them are Chinese scholars who normally teach abroad) for the Renmin University International Summer School. Some 3,000 students participate, most of whom are obviously Chinese students. But by organizing courses in English about Chinese history and culture, the university also seeks to attract foreign students to this quantitatively impressive event. The strategic objective is obviously to boost the university’s internationalization in a variety of dimensions and also to strengthen Renmin’s prestige and reputation – both domestically and abroad.

My course dealt with the history of natural resources in global perspective. It was organized in cooperation with the School of History, but as it turned out, only 1 of my 30 students in the course actually had history as her major! The other students comprised a fantastic blend of disciplines, from statistics, biology and chemistry to law, economics, and sociology. For me, this mix formed an ideal interdisciplinary point of departure for discussing natural resource histories not only for their own sake, but above all in relation to present-day challenges and burning issues in the world.

Ten natural resources were at focus in this course: water, wood, salt, sand, iron, coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and aluminum. For each resource, we discussed a set of common themes: practical uses of the resource; spiritual and symbolic significance; resource scarcity and abundance; shifting geological patterns of extraction; local and global conflicts over resource extraction; and environmental aspects.

Some students complained that the course was demanding. Apart from the challenge of having to read and write a lot in English, they were particularly confused about STS-inspired notions such as natural resource scarcity as socially constructed (a topic that my PhD student Hanna Vikström is developing in a forthcoming journal article, and which I used in this course). But most of the students did well in the end. In their final essays they came up with a host of interesting arguments about everything from the role of Confucius in defining ancient China’s salt policy to the rise and fall of tens of thousands of small-scale coal mines in Shanxi Province during the Mao Zedong era.

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