HL90 EP: A Global History of Pests

More HL90s! While we normally run the other way from rats, mosquitoes, and cockroaches, Sam Dolbee has us reconsidering with his class, “A Global History of Pests” (at least when it comes to learning about them!).

So we’ve got to know. What made you want to teach a class about pests?

When I lived in New York and spent a lot of time waiting at subway stations, I could never stop myself from watching the rats crawling along the tracks…even though I’m terrified of rats! I’m generally spared from this dilemma now, though not always (i.e., have you ever looked closely at the planters in Porter Square?). So that strange mix of fear, intimacy, and infrastructural connection is one reason I find thinking about pests compelling. And another is the richness of what pests can tell us about the world. Part of what’s disconcerting about them is how they repurpose the human world in unexpected ways, with impacts both mundane and momentous. Pests can reflect economic organization, and they often amplify structural inequality and racism (as do the sometimes carcinogenic pesticides aimed at them). Pests also operate as a powerful symbol, used both to protest these dynamics and, sometimes, to denigrate others. In the process, they bring together histories of capitalism, environmental history, history of medicine, and history of science in compelling ways. And just like my experience on the subway platform, once you start seeing them, it’s hard not to keep looking for their traces. Whether DDT in Fanon or vampiric figures in Marx, you notice the resonance of pesticides and pests almost everywhere.

Tell us something weird about pests!

You can fight pests and also be fashionable, at least according to this community clean-up flier from Milwaukee (circa 1970) featuring a bell-bottomed figure pitching in to make the neighborhood less hospitable to rodents.

Do you have any assignments you’re excited about?

One assignment I’m excited about is for students to look for evidence of pests or pesticides in their daily lives, and write about them in relation to the broader structural perspectives brought up in class. Here, for example, is a photo I took while on a research trip in Paris of a pesticide-selling store whose distinctive design stood out quite conspicuously from surrounding staid apartment buildings. The shop sold various means of killing pigeons, rats, mice, cockroaches, slugs, and, yes, snails (escargots), as well as repellents for dogs, cats, moles, weasels, and wild boars. The range of creatures targeted opens up questions about how cities or other human infrastructures create spaces for other life forms to flourish outside of human control. Meanwhile the products being marketed to kill the pests or keep them away invite questions about what impact these substances might have on humans.   

What can the class help students understand about the present?

This is not a class about the pandemic, but it does address a number of historical themes connected to it, including questions like: How do small, sometimes unseen forces shape people’s lives? How do new scientific understandings shape the definition and management of threats? And how does all of this get refracted through social inequality and difference?

For more information, you can check out the course’s Canvas site, where there is a copy of the syllabus and readings, as well as a link for a Zoom information session on the course set to meet on August 19 at 6pm. You can also email Sam with any questions.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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