William Barnett

Professor of History


+1 630 637 5319

I teach a wide variety of courses in American history and I also teach Environmental Studies.  U.S. history has been my main focus since I was an undergraduate at Yale University.  I taught high school for three years, and then got a Master’s degree at the University of Texas-Austin, where I studied the American West, environmental history, and African history.  I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where my main focus was American environmental history.  My dissertation was an examination of three U.S. seaports and their changing geographic orientations and environmental relationships, so it combined regional analysis of the West and the South with urban and environmental history.

City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago's Environmental History was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in Fall 2020.  I co-edited this book with Ann Keating and Kathleen Brosnan.  It is a collection of essays by urban and environmental historians on the interactions between people and nature in Chicagoland from before the arrival of Europeans settlers to the 21st century.  I wrote the introduction and one of the concluding chapters, a case study of environmental activism in Chicago's suburbs. 

My teaching and research interests continue to be interdisciplinary, revolving around questions of place, region, and changing human interactions with nature.  I enjoy offering thematic courses like the American West, American Environmental History, African American History, and U.S. Social Movements because the narrow focus allows us to dig deeper, and because they offer students a new way to conceptualize U.S. history.  I co-founded the Environmental Studies program here, and I have taught three different courses in that interdisciplinary major.           

I recently developed and taught a seminar on Public History and Local History designed to introduce students to the field of public history that is based around visits to museums, archives, and historic sites in the Chicago area.  I also taught a new course titled History and Hollywood Films that analyzes the ways that films about the American West and American South have shaped popular understandings of U.S. History.  Combining travel and history is one of my passions, and I was the co-leader for three spring break trips with students to Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee in recent years to examine the role that student activists played the Civil Rights movement and to evaluate the ways that museums and historic sites commemorate these events.

Selected Scholarship

Kathleen A. Brosnan, Ann Durkin Keating, and William C. Barnett, editors, City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago's Environmental History.  

Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in their History of the Urban Environment series in Fall 2020.


Local History Research Project:

May Theilgaard Watts and the Origins of the Illinois Prairie Path

Courses Taught

HIST 112: African American History

HIST 114: History of the American West

HIST 118: United States in the 1960s

HIST 208: History and Hollywood Films

HIST 224: U.S. & Illinois From 1865-1945

HIST 226: U.S. & Illinois Since 1945

HIST 248 / ENVI 248: American Environmental History

HIST 315: Public History and Local History

HIST 320: U.S. Social Movements