Environmental history professor receives highest award in field
After decades of teaching, researching and writing in various fields of history, Professor Martin Melosi recently received the 2016 Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Society for Environmental History, the highest honor in his field.
The Cougar sat down with Melosi, who is also the director of the Center for Public History, to talk about the award and his career.
The Cougar: How did you end up at the University of Houston?
Martin Melosi: I was born and raised in San Jose, California. (After I met my wife,) we moved to Austin in 1971, where I intended to complete a Ph.D. in history at UT. In 1984, UH was looking for someone who had credentials in urban history to start their Public History program. I had moved into that area late in my graduate school education, but only had a broad notion of what public history might be. The job opportunity was so fascinating that I took the job in that year, and I have been here ever since.
TC: What is your position at UH and what does that position entail?
MM: I hold the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professorship in History, and I am the executive director of the Center for Public History. I teach and do research in my capacity as a professor and manage a rather sprawling center which focuses on public history training, public outreach and research in local history. We direct the CPH Lecture Series, publish “Houston History” magazine, manage the Houston History Archives, promote the Gulf Coast Food Project, house a variety of post-docs and much more.
TC: What does the Distinguished Scholar Award mean to you? Especially considering you are only the 8th person to win the award, and it is the highest honor in your field.
MM: I am quite humbled by this award. It represents a career commitment to a field that I love—environmental history. I have written quite extensively in the field, which really came into its own in the 1980s, and I have promoted its development in and outside the United States. The other recipients represent the pillars in our specialty, although I’m not sure I rank alongside them at this point.
TC: What exactly is your field of study and what sort of work does it require?
MM: Most of my work has been in the area of urban environmental history and the history of energy. I have devoted considerable attention to how cities grow, the environmental impact of that growth and the implications for the future. I have written extensively on city services such as water supplies, wastewater treatment and solid waste collection and disposal. I have also done some work on the origins of environmental justice. My work in energy history revolves around transitions from wood and waterpower to fossil fuels and beyond.
TC: How did you find out you were going to win the award? Did you know heading to the ASEH conference that you were going to receive the award or was it a surprise?
MM: I actually learned about it from the president of the organization a year earlier. It was tough keeping it quiet.
TC: Why do you think you were chosen for the award?
MM: I started working in this field in the early 1970s. I was one of the pioneers of the study of the urban environment. I have also written a substantial amount on various aspects of the subject. I believe longevity might be a big reason for the award.
TC: Moving back to your career at UH, what courses do you teach here, and how do they relate to your work?
MM: I teach a range of courses in environmental history, energy history, history of technology, film studies, and public history. I think all of my classes reflect my scholarly interests in some way. I try to provide insight into subjects based on my deep study of them. Since I have a vested interest in the subject matter, it is not difficult to transmit my enthusiasm for the work to my students.
TC: What are your goals for the future? Do you have any specific things that you hope to accomplish?
MM: I’m contemplating retirement soon, but I will continue to write at a furious pace. I am currently working on three or four book projects. I also plan to spend more time with my two wonderful young granddaughters.
TC: What do you consider the greatest achievement of your career so far?
MM: In my opinion, my greatest achievement isn’t actually anything I’ve done or accomplished. It’s that I continue to have enthusiasm for producing good scholarship and training good students.