Spinning His Wheels

Five questions with Douglas Sackman, professor of history

With his legs pumping and lungs screaming, Doug Sackman was inspired. He was 19 years old and biking home to Sacramento, Calif., from Reed College in Portland, Ore., where he had just completed his sophomore year as a political science major. He followed the rainy and hilly Pacific Coast for more than 600 miles that trip and wrote a poem about the experience. Now, decades later, his research and teaching interests can be traced back to the main themes of that poem—how people live on the land and with each other in the West. And he still finds that his riding and writing are inextricably linked.

Q: You’re a historian, but your interests and research lie in the field of environmental racism. How are these topics intertwined?
A: Environmental historians believe that history doesn't happen in a vacuum. Understanding the ways through which people and nature influence one another is key to understanding history itself. In this country, racism—Jim Crow segregation, "whites only” signs, and the like—is part of the history. That can be seen woven through our country’s policies. For example, one of our nation’s founding myths is that an abundant nature—misconstrued as “wilderness” in order to take that nature away from Indigenous nations—allows every American to live and breathe free. But the reality is that American nature has been retrofitted with an infrastructure of racism, one that gives some people access to land, clean water, and good air while constricting that access for others.

A photo of one page from the Reed College newspaper, where Sackman's poem, written during a 600-mile bike ride home from campus, was published
A photo of a page in the Reed College newspaper where Sackman's poem, written during a 600-mile bike ride home from campus, was published. Photo courtesy of Doug Sackman

Q: On your faculty page, you pose a question: "Do I look like a professor? Ask yourself, who else looks like a professor?" What do you mean by this?
A: I’m sort of Hollywood’s notion of a professor from central casting—white dude with a beard and, on occasion, tweed. But in reality, professors come in all shapes and sizes, and all genders and identities. The stereotypical images close people’s minds; in our learning community, we’re all better off if we open our minds to who a professor might be.

Q: What can students expect to do in your classes?
A: My hope for all of my classes is that knowledge and understanding are things that we all can build together in the classroom. I bring my passion for looking at history from different perspectives and angles, and hope to engage students to share with me these passions and the excitement of discovering new things—whether we are analyzing a primary document from a newspaper or archive, discussing the perspectives of a historian, or unpacking a painting, photograph, or film looking for ways they might tell us about the experiences of people who went before us.

Q: How has the shift to remote learning presented opportunities for creative teaching?
A: The spring jump to Zoom was an unexpected interruption for all. We recalibrated courses with an emphasis on care, flexibility, and empathy, and doing the best we could to continue as a vibrant learning community. We were able to directly incorporate some readings and engagement with the crises that have rocked our world. Using the amazing book written by our colleague Nancy Bristow, we compared the current pandemic to the flu pandemic of 1918. That’s what historians do: historically contextualize events. Rarely do we think that we’ll be living through such intense history ourselves.

Q: You’re an avid cyclist and do some of your best thinking in the bike seat. Any favorite memories?
A: I was doing a charity ride on Vashon Island, where I live, called the Passport to Pain. You gain 10,000 feet of elevation over the ride and go through 18 checkpoints where volunteers stamp a "passport." I barely made it up the last hill to the last checkpoint and was slouched over my handlebars. Then I hear a cheerful, “Professor Sackman!” Cat Shank ’20, who was a first-year student in my Ecotopia class, was volunteering. I was dead, but put on a smile, and she helped put colorful streamers on my bike for the last few miles. I guess you can take that as a metaphor for teaching and how students keep me going.


Doug Sackman is the author of Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America and Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden, and serves as editor of A Companion to American Environmental History.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Nov. 15, 2020