Frank Van Nuys is Professor of History and will be the interim Department Head for Humanities & Social Sciences in Spring 2022.
What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?
I would say that I am a generalist in the history of the American West and not particularly comfortable claiming expertise in any area within that field. I am more confident saying that I am conversant in a variety of areas, including the West, of course, but also environmental history. The nature of my job here at Mines accommodates being both a generalist and having some latitude to develop and teach courses that interest me. Of late, in addition to the surveys in American history and Western Civilization, I have been teaching Westward Expansion of the U.S. and Environmental History of the U.S.
My focus earlier in my academic career was on race and immigration, so, for instance, I did my Master’s thesis on so-called alien land laws in California, which were designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing agricultural land in the early 20th century. My first book, Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930, looked at the Western part of the nation as an important driver in immigration restriction and the Americanization programs of the 1910s and 1920s.
After that, my fascination with wildlife issues and the attraction of a deeper engagement with environmental history shifted my focus. Controversies over mountain lions re-populating the Black Hills about fifteen years ago provided the impetus for my second book, Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West, which was published in 2015.
What’s one of your favorite courses, topics, or specific texts to teach? Why?
Beginning a few years ago, I took on our POLS 407 Environmental Law and Policy course, which is one of my favorites to teach even though it’s not a history course, per se. One of the fundamental truths about studying the history of any people, region, nation, process, etc., is how unavoidable it is to grapple with law, policy-making, bureaucracy, and everything that accompanies those realities. Relatively well-organized human societies, from the Mesopotamian city-states onward, are always bureaucratic and bent on creating legal and policy structures to serve the interests of different stakeholders, usually the most powerful. Even those who profess to be anti-government or anti-state or adhere to a rhetoric of limited government will invariably hew to the administrative structures they inherit if and when they gain power.
In my research projects, I’ve tried to understand how things were designed by law and policy to work and to what extent they actually functioned according to plan. A major problem in our current state of affairs, I think, is that so few people understand how things actually work – elections being a good example. So, much of what is satisfying in POLS 407 comes down to seeing students reckon with the complex interplay of government, industry, interest groups, activists, and others with vested interests in either the success or failure of environmental law. Many of our students are going into career fields that require direct relationships with government agencies charged with monitoring enforcement of environmental statutes and their own policies. Having some working knowledge of the history and progress of, for example, the Endangered Species Act will hopefully prepare them for professional challenges coming their way.
What’s something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
Helping raise a daughter who is a decent, smart, and strong young woman. Lots of people assisted along the way, but I think my wife and I should get most of the credit.
Tell us about a book you’ve read recently, a movie you’ve seen recently, or another work of art or media you’ve engaged with recently that you really enjoyed and would like to recommend.
This isn’t going to go deep or be particularly noteworthy in an academic sense, but we’ve gotten into a habit of watching crime dramas from various parts of Europe over the past few months on Netflix. It really picked up momentum with Money Heist, the Spanish series which was something of a global sensation this past summer. That was brilliant, like Ocean’s Eleven on steroids and with class tensions. Then it was Broadchurch, an older detective series from England that has Olivia Coleman in it, followed by a slew of dark and brooding Nordic detective shows – Bordertown and Deadwind from Finland, The Valhalla Murders from Iceland, and The Chestnut Man from Denmark; and then Lupin from France. We just finished the first two seasons of a really good French series called Black Spot, which has a creepy supernatural element involving ancient Celtic animism in an out-of-the way mountain village right out of Deliverance.
What is attractive about these shows, as opposed to all those millions of American crime procedurals, is, first of all, the acting is really good. It’s refreshing to have no idea who any of these actors are, which seems to help the viewer just sink into the characters and not get distracted by celebrity. Also, the production quality, settings, cinematography, and other technical aspects are extraordinary. Admittedly, almost all of these series serve up a fair amount of predictability in terms of the narrative arc. You can pretty much count on a deeply troubled protagonist (i.e., lead detective) who is a workaholic and a lousy (usually single or widowed) parent who is constantly entering dark, vacant warehouses, alone and with no backup on the way, and gets knocked out and chained up at some point as well as taken off the case but stubbornly continues investigating it anyway. There is always an ethically dubious or evil political or corporate side plot weaving its way through as well. Even when we know what’s coming, though, it’s still awesome.
Tell us something about yourself outside of work. What do you enjoy doing? What’s a detail about you that your students might not already know?
Two years ago, my wife and I started playing this game called Pickleball. It’s basically like playing table tennis as if you were running around on the table. What’s been great is it has given the two of us something fun to do together that is also great exercise. The pandemic dealt a blow to being able to play as much as we wanted just as we were learning the game. It’s been pretty constant since we got vaccinated, though, and I’d admit we’re both kind of addicted.