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This assignment functions as the capstone task for my course AMS 159: Nature and World Cultures, and it asks students to use textual analysis, external research, and creative teamwork to produce installation material for the SJSU Thompson Art Gallery’s upcoming event series “Protecting Home: Sustainable Fire Management and the California Environment.” Throughout the third unit of my course, students are reading Stephen J. Pyne’s book Fire: a brief history. This assignment tracks with our reading of that text, and asks student teams to select a topic, facilitate classroom discussions of a chapter related to their topic, and then use research to compose a piece of installation material on their topic. Alena Sauzade, Director of the Thompson Art Gallery, is actively involved in this project as both a client and a consultant. She will visit our class on 10/19 when the assignment is delivered to students, and she has expressed her excitement and commitment to integrating student work into the gallery opening in 2022. Students working on this project will also take advantage of the Fire and Culture bibliography that I designed as part of the Thompson Art Gallery’s AEPG (Artistic Excellence in Programming Grant), which offers a curated set of resources on the topic of fire and culture in California.

Publication Date

Fall 2021

Document Type


Assignment Category

Analytical Scholarship


AMS 159: Nature and World Cultures




Fire Science and Firefighting | Sustainability

Explain how your assignment addresses Sustainable Futures.

This project offers a reading timeline along with a set of research, writing, and analysis activities that expose students to interdisciplinary and transcultural studies of fire: both as an environmental/scientific phenomenon, and also as a cultural technology. Along with helping students understand global shifts in humans relationships to fire, this unit and its accompanying assignments ask students to distill their learning into a set of installation tiles. Topic covered include the following: the colonial disruption of prescribed burning by indigenous societies, the disappearance of domestic hearth fire, the disentanglement of combustion from visible fire, the emergence of mega fires, and the emergence of global warming as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. Along with learning to better understand industrial, world-historical, and environmental histories of fire and culture, students in this unit have opportunities to deepen their knowledge of the California context of fire and mega fire as they explore contributing causes and potential solutions to California's intense and extended fire seasons. This unit both offers a nonconventional approach to thinking about climate change, and it also asks students to reckon with the local and human histories that have produced California's current precarity--including fire exclusion policies started by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930s, colonial mandates agains Native burning regimes, and residential expansion into Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) zones, such as the region occupied by Paradise.

Explain how your assignment is robust, innovative, or active engagement of students.

This assignment uses multiple methods to engage students' thinking about the historical, environmental, and cultural dynamics of fire, while also guiding them along a scaffolded journey toward designing a piece of art gallery installation material. On the textual level, the classroom assignments that support this project range from documentaries and scholarship to comics, podcasts, journalism, science studies, and environmental history. The voices students are exposed to include those of scholars, fire management specialists, journalists, indigenous feminists, and wildfire survivors. The scaffolded activities that make up this project begin with a meeting with the Alena Suazade (the Director of the Thompson Art Gallery) to learn about the project. From there, students begin reading a shared text on the environmental history of fire while they form project teams, facilitate classroom discussions, conduct individual research, pitch their group's installation idea, and workshop drafts of their installation tile with the rest of the class. Throughout, the stages of the project offer a balance of individual and group work, as well as structured submission dates that support students in making steps toward readiness, revision, and completion. As you can see from the details of the installation material itself, one of the most innovative and engaging aspects of this project is that it invites students to compose and polish installation materials that they can see posted in the Thompson Art Gallery on campus as part of an event series of fire, culture, and California landscapes.

Explain how your assignment might be used outside your own discipline.

Though this project is adapted from a particular class session and reading schedule in American/Environmental Studies & the Humanities, the format is modular and can be recalibrated to meet different disciplinary and curricular goals. Along with offering a full view of the unit that surrounds this project (by sharing my reading schedule, assignment prompts, etc.), I have also included a bibliography of sources on fire and culture that give other instructors a curated and annotated archive of texts they can swap our or in. These texts include journalism, sociology, documentary film, visual art and storytelling, feminist and indigenous studies, and environmental history. Because "Elemental Relations" starts out as an interdisciplinary capstone project, it is possible for people working in disciplinary modes to use the bibliography to carve their own path through these texts and resources. In particular, there is strong support here translating these resources toward classes on English & Creative or Technical Writing, Journalism & Mass Communications, Art, Design, Creative Arts, History, Religious Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, and Native/Indigenous Studies, among others. Though this sample project is constructed around an installation that will appear in the Thompson Art Gallery in the Spring of 2022, fire is and will remain a pressing topic at SJSU (and in CA) for the foreseeable future. This assignment can easily be adapted toward different circumstances and outcomes--such as having students create a website, a series of storymaps, a zine, a podcast, or some other kind of installation.

Describe the purpose and benefits of the collaboration with your cross-disciplinary collaborator.

Though I authored this project on my own, I have had invaluable support from Alena Suazade of the Thompson Art Gallery, who has supported my desire to bring this project into my classroom. And who has served as a professional consultant and client for students who can expect to see their hard work exhibited in the Gallery as part of a semester-long series of events.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Elemental Relations: Fire & Culture