History of Geological Thought

Fall 2013

Instructor: Mark Harris

Course Information

Useful stuff

Course objectives and design

This course will introduce you to the development of geological thought. The objective is for you to understand how observations, field practice and theory interwove to produce a constantly shifting mosaic of ideas. This fastinating history provides a useful perspective on how a uniquely geological perspective evolved. The inital focus is on the emergence of geology from natural history traditions as a distinct science by the early nineteenth century. The later part of the course will consider the growth of various sub-disciplines, particularly tectonics, and their integration within plate tectonics.

The course design is somewhat unusual. My plan is to have you read a summary of a day's topic (essentially my lecture notes) and a focused reading or two from a modern commentary or an original source. These will provide the basis for in-class discussions that will lead you to construct the conceptual framework needed for the course assignments (papers and a poster). This design reflects a basic problem: there is no really good textbook on the entire history of geology (although many are good on some topics). My goal is that you will develop your own understanding of this history.

This leads to a course structured as a seminar with a large amount of student participation. Each of you will bring your own questions and insights to a text because of your individual background and experiences. An underlying premise of much of what we will do is that we can more fully understand a topic by collaborating and sharing our ideas with each other. For this approach to work, you need to read the assignments before class and to have some time to reflect on their significance. As an incentive, past experience has shown that your papers will be much, much easier to write if you are engaged in our collective "working over" of the material.

Here are some comments on specific components of the course structure to help you anticipate what the semester will be like.

Readings and reading notes

The readings are a mixture of modern commentaries by geo-historians and original works. You should expect about 75-150 pages of reading per week. (I have not counted them up.) I admit that this is a lot of reading. The reason is that, as you will see, history is an interpretive exercise and there is no single source that does justiced to the range of interpretations. Most of the readings are available on-line through the campus "Desire to Learn" D2L website. Others are only available in hard copy in the reserve room or class room (because copyright prevents placing books on electronic reserve). I strongly encourage you to start the readings early so that you will be able to get access to the hard copies, and so that you can have time to reflect on the readings and prepare for class.

I have prepared "reading notes" that will provide a brief commentary on the reading assignments so that you will know what I hope you will get out of reading. The notes will generally include a few basic questions or directions about what information to have ready for class. These will be the basis of our work during our class meetings.

Group work

The formats for participation will vary throughout the semester and within individual classes. You should expect a mixture of small-group and whole-class discussions. All of you will be asked to keep notes about or present summaries of small-group discussions. At times, I will be asking groups to share "concept maps" that summarize their ongoing textural analysis. As we move through the material, you (individually or collectively) should feel free to ask me about specific points that are unclear - if needed, I can provide a "mini-lecture" to clear up confusing points.

Individual papers

You will notice that there are three papers distributed throughout the semester. You will be limited to 3-5 pages of text in these papers. I do this for several reasons: (1) I do not want to read and comment upon 10-20 page papers from each of you - I could not get them returned to you in a timely fashion; (2) we all need to learn to write concisely and there is no substitute for practice; and (3) my impression is that taking on a lengthy paper (usually late in a semester) will distract you from the ongoing course content. I plan to have the first two papers linked directly to our in-class analyses and corresponding concept maps.

There are a few things you should know about my expectations about papers. First, I expect you to turn in a good first draft on the due date. "Good" means a typed copy written in good English that presents a coherent argument (althought I expect that you know all that already). Second, I will comment on the papers at some length to help you with revisions. You will be expected to revise your paper and turn in a second, final draft. You will be graded on the second draft. Finally, I have posted some suggestions on how to go about preparing papers for me and an appropriate reference style. You should read both of these before (not after) you write the first draft of your paper.


You will also notice that the final major assignment is a poster presentation, probably using two-person teams. The main reason for using posters is that the poster format allows you to share the results of your work with your colleagues. I have also found posters to be less stressful than papers or oral presentations, particularly at the end of the semester. Finally, poster presentations are commonly used in the profession so you should start to develop your own presentation style.

Instructor expectations

Clearly, I am teaching the course based upon the premise that you will be actively involved and help each other learn. The class meetings will reflect this approach. You will need to come to class prepared to discuss the material and share your ideas. The course involves substantial reading as indicated in the course schedule. You should plan to start the reading at least a couple of days before class so that you have time to prepare for class discussions.


As you might guess, this course design leads to an assessment/grading approach compatible with the course objectives. My assessment (and your grades) will be based upon your success in a series of projects that will be based upon our class discussions and your interactions with your colleagues.

The specific components of your grades (revised 11/5) are:

Course Policy Notes