David Vail, assistant professor of history, proves it is possible to know your passions at an early age—and find the job that reminds you daily why you love what you do.
Dr. Vail joined the Department of History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) in 2016. He specializes in environmental history, history of science and technology, agricultural history, and assists his department with public history. We sat down with Dr. Vail, who teaches courses both on campus and online, to learn more about his story.
What led you to become a history professor?
I've loved history most of my life, and I also really enjoyed teaching. Around grade school, I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life, so I earned my bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. all in history. I'm originally from Oregon, so spending time outdoors and thinking about the history of landscapes, the history of ecosystems, and going to national parks encouraged a sense of the past that I realized informs almost everything that I do now—teaching that and researching it. I also enjoy agricultural history, though I didn't grow up on a farm, which everyone is curious about. I started piecing all these things together when I was younger, and that passion has remained with me.
How can your areas of expertise in history be applied today?
Environmental history or the histories of science and technology have real application in STEM fields and not just in humanities fields. Engineers or people going into the corporate side of life can really draw from a past that gives them a sense of understanding about their field. History enhances critical thinking skills and a sense of civic knowledge. For example, are technologies useful or can they be problematic? What were the roles of early practitioners and pioneers of science, and how did that shape space exploration, for example, or the space program during the 1960s? There is also so much in the history of food and rural communities that matter—not just for people in Nebraska, but all over the country and the world. A daily understanding of where your past is and where things are going, and having a sense of civic engagement and usability of that is important. You see all these histories aligning. So I would say it’s important to be studying history in these contexts, and our department is really good at that.
How would you describe your interaction with students?
There are two things that I discovered about the relationships I have with students. One is they have a similar passion. They can be anywhere in the world, but certainly in the United States, and be part of our program. They have a passion for history, a passion for learning, a passion for critical thinking that is really powerful. I've taught a lot of students in a lot of different places, and they seem to be very passionate about those things here at UNK. Another thing I would say about my relationship with students is that I really have a heart for a teacher-scholar method. So I like to try and learn as much as I can from them, and hopefully they're learning from me.
What’s the most interesting thing in your office?
One of the most interesting things in my office is a first edition and first printing of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson was a biological scientist who wrote this book on the dangers and risks of pesticides, and DDT especially, in 1962. It was a widely acclaimed book and highly controversial book. Just think about the overlap of a woman in a science profession in the 1960s, with the growth of environmentalism and agribusiness overlapping that—being able to write that book in that time, and the power it’s had. Finding a first edition of that book is a very powerful daily reminder of what I’m doing as a historian. Carson is one of my heroes, so that’s one of the things that I look to every day.
Explore your passion through an online M.A. in History or online minor in history at UNK.
I Heart: Adventure Great Plains: How Mountain Biking the Great Plains taught me to love the region’s history, its landscapes, and its peoples.
Adventure Great Plains: How Mountain Biking the Great Plains taught me to love the region’s history, its landscapes, and its peoples.
By David Vail, Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska Kearney
I love the Great Plains, although I’m not originally from here. I grew up in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley where outdoor learning and adventures were part of everyday life. Mountain biking connected my passion for the outdoors and exercise, but it also taught me about interconnectedness. Relationships between wildlife, landscapes, development, and local communities all came into view as I rode the trails. I learned at an early age about the challenges, tensions, and benefits of using landscapes.
As I followed my passions for environmental and agricultural history to the grasslands, first to Kansas State University for my doctorate work and then, to UNK, I found a new joy in teaching, researching, and traversing the grasslands. Kansas’ Flint Hills offered a wealth of trails, beautiful vistas, and bison. Although challenged in elevation, riding paved and gravel roads and dirt trails placed me in the middle of Great Plains life: wind-whipped grasses; scurries of red squirrels; hunting bobcats; occasional red fox; distant humming of agricultural airplanes spraying fields of wheat or corn.
Riding the Great Plains also allowed me to have a more direct relationship with noxious weeds and pests. But poison ivy and loan-star ticks didn’t stop me. Then, at the end of a mountain biking day, the sunsets. To stop and see the sky and land meet in a beautiful array of colors renews my passion for the land even while I’m weary from the ride.
My recent move to my dream job of teaching history at UNK has also led to new dreams about the beauty of Nebraska’s environment, agricultural landscape, and local communities. I am excited to ride Kearney and adventure beyond to other Nebraska places.
Hope to see you out here.
From "Silent Spring" to Earth Day and Beyond: A Roundtable Discussion and Documentary Film on the Book that Sparked a Movement
Environmentalism in Unexpected Places: The Strange Advocates and Unconventional Partnerships of Environmental Activism (Panel 5-F: Parkside [mezzanine level])
Chair and Commentator: Brian Allen Drake, University of Georgia
David D. Vail, University of Nebraska-Kearney
Dying Harvests: The Great Plains Agricultural Council’s
Efforts to Study Climate Change, Protect Crops,
and Solve the 1950s Drought
Amy Marie Hay, University of Texas-Rio Grande
Valley A Report to the Consumer: Ida Honorof and
Jinny A. Turman, University of Nebraska-Kearney
Self-Sufficiency Through…Federal Government
Assistance? The Back-to-the-Land Movement, Biofuel
Development, and the Department of Energy’s
Appropriate Energy Technology Grants Program
Thursday, April 712:00 pm - 1:30 pm
University Special Collections as Community Spaces
Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Public History
A discussion about how university-based special collections and the larger community intersect. This roundtable brings together five scholars and archivists to discuss not only the importance of creating bridges between university-based special collections and the community, but also introduces five distinct case studies that showcase how this is being done. Our goal for this roundtable is to share our work but also to critically examine sustainable ways we can create meaningful relationships between the community and special collections.
Commentator: Tobias Higbie
Please join me and other public historians March 16-19 at the NCPH 2016 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, MD. I will be participating on a roundtable for "Strategies for a New Public History of Agriculture and Rural Life."
I will be attending the North Central Weed Science Society's annual meeting in Indianapolis to give the keynote: “How the North Central Weed Control Conference Shaped Agricultural Aviation in the Grasslands.” Weed scientists, Historians, and Agriculturalists welcome.
"Learning from the Noxious Ones: The Rise of Chemical Agriculture in the North American Grasslands," Kansas State's Agronomy Invited Seminar Series, 2/4/15
I will be speaking at Kansas State University on Wednesday, February 4, about the relationships between pesticides, aerial sprayers, and agricultural scientists as part of the Agronomy Department's Invited Seminar Series. All are welcome to attend. See the flyer or more information.
David Vail, assistant professor in the Morse department of special collections, has won a prestigious research fellowship for Western American history from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University. He will conduct research for his second monograph project, "The Farmer's Iron Horse: Railroads and Agricultural Extension in the Twentieth Century American West."
Vail's work explores the history of agricultural extension by looking at the environmental, technological and political economy of agricultural science and railroad expansion in the early 1900s. This book-length study examines the shifting roles of railroads in farm production, rural education and the growth of agricultural science in the Great Plains, the Intermountain West and the Pacific Northwest. He argues that these farm-science trains encouraged a "mobile extension system" that formalized cultivation practices, endorsed research and reinforced market relationships.
During his trip, Vail also hopes to build relationships between the K-State and Brigham Young University Special Collections departments.
"This fellowship will be instructive in my research, but also in how I can provide access, generate interest and explore new ways to connect students and faculty to special collections at K-State," Vail said.
Vail is currently finishing the manuscript for his first book, "Chemical Lands: A History of Pesticides, Aerial Spraying and Health in the North American Grasslands," which is based on his dissertation.
Vail serves as public services archivist for the Morse department of special collections. He received his doctorate in history from K-State in 2012 and specializes in environmental history, agricultural history, history of the American West and Kansas history. In addition to humanities and heritage consulting for multiple historical societies and museums, he is also a member of the Kansas Humanities Council board of directors.
K-State Today (6/17/2014 by Sarah McGreer Hoyt)