Canals and State Power

Interpreting Primary Sources

Lesson Plan from “Floating on Water, Stuck in Mud” Syllabus

Royce Novak

Quick Description of the Class

This lesson plan is specifically designed to fit within a global environmental history class on wetlands and deltas, but could also be used for teaching a history class on modern Southeast Asian or the Vietnam Wars. It is particularly suited to two or three hundred level classes in which students have likely had some exposure to historical writing and are learning to interpret historical sources and imagine the perspectives of historical actors. This lesson plan, especially set in the context of a class on deltas and wetlands, is relevant not only to students focused on history, but those interested in environmental science, engineering, international relations, or visual studies.


Learning Objective(s)

1) Understand that natural and constructed environments are created and interpreted through the interaction of multiple stakeholders with often various conflicting and overlapping interests.

2) Develop critical thinking skills to analyze and interpret images as historical sources by demonstrating how once image can produce multiple interpretations as well unpacking the power relations behind their production.

3) Relate postcard images of French Indochina to various historical viewpoints represented in David Biggs’ book Quagmire

Course Plan


This lesson plan is specifically intended to be taught in the second class of the tenth week of a course titled, “Floating on Water, Stuck in Mud: Deltas and Wetlands in World History.” At this point in the semester, students will have already attended classes and completed readings on key concepts such as basic wetland and delta ecology, the role of mapping in producing state knowledge and legibility, deltas and wetlands as particularly “illegible” spaces, and have taken a map quiz identifying key wetland and deltaic environments globally. It follows a lecture on canals as a means for a state to exert control over the environment and landscape.

Related Reading

Click image for a review of this book.

David Biggs. Quagmire. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010: pp. 23-90.

Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 53-84.

Student-Centered Activity

This lesson incorporates active learning to develop historical image interpretation skills and encourages students to cultivate a “historical imagination.” Students will attempt to interpret postcard images of water infrastructure in French Indochina through various historical perspectives and then, from the perspective of a historian, attempt to explain why so many different interpretations of a single image coexist, as well as interrogate the power behind the creation of the image.

Materials Needed

Twenty-five colonial postcard images of French Indochina depicting scenes related to development and people’s interactions with colonial infrastructures (see appended file). The top half of the of an 8.5×11” paper should include the image and the bottom half a set of legers divided by a center line, in emulation of a postcard. All images have been sourced from digitized collections in the public domain. See example below:

Student Postcard Instructions PDF


In order to prepare for this activity, a lecture should be given on the content and themes presented in David Biggs’ Quagmire, most significantly waterway development in the Mekong Delta of French Indochina, with particular emphasis on the multiplicity of stakeholders’ viewpoints on the canals as well as their role in creating and/or utilizing them. The material represented in Quagmire can be put into excellent dialogue with concepts from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, especially legibility. Revolving around legibility, the lecture will demonstrate how the canals made by the French government made the Mekong Delta more legible and thus governable, while also creating opportunities for resistance. A particularly productive point of comparison would be between Haussmann’s plan of Paris and the canals.

Before launching into the activity, the instructor should show a slide with a postcard from French Indochina in order to walk students through the task of interpreting the image, following the steps outlined below. The instructor should take care to emphasize the environment, the complexity of the social landscape surrounding it, as well as the power behind the production of the postcard.

Directions for Students

For clarity, the instructions should be either posted to a slide visible throughout the activity, printed on a separate handout, or printed on the reverse side of the postcard (Instruction handout appended to end of lesson plan). Also, outline strategies for interpreting.

  • Pass out postcards, divide the class into groups based on an assigned perspective (revolutionary, capitalist, peasant, government official). Ask students to examine the photograph, and considering Quagmire and themes of the lecture, ask the student to write a caption explaining the image from their assigned perspective. Students should only use half the space and should strive to be brief but substantive. 10 minutes.

*NOTE: As many of the images may be unfamiliar, it may be necessary to caption the images ahead of time or let students know ahead of time that they should not hesitate to ask if they are unsure what they are looking at! Also, “perspectives” can be assigned a number of ways; for smaller classes, it may make sense to divide into sections or have students count off by four, while for larger classes it may be most expedient to put a “perspective” right on the postcard.

  • Once the student has written their “perspective” on one side of the postcard, the student should “send” the postcard to a neighbor, ensuring that the recipient was originally assigned a different perspective and image. The student should then write a caption in the remaining space explaining the new image from their original assigned perspective. 5 minutes.
  • Once finished, students should divide into groups of 4-5. Discuss the group of images as if looking at historical documents. What kinds of differences in interpretation can you find on the postcards? What are the historical implications of these differing interpretations? What conclusions can you make regarding the relationship between people and infrastructure projects in French Indochina, especially regarding water, based on the images and captions? Who produced the images and why? What broader implications may this have for interpreting histories of wetlands and delta environments in general? What have you learned about interpreting and analyzing historical images and primary sources in general?
  • Students come together as a class. Broader discussion about conclusions. Ask what kinds of conclusions can be made regarding the interpretation of primary sources.


The broader class discussion at the end of the lesson, facilitated by the instructor, should try to tie students’ observations and experiences during the activity together so as to lead to the following take-away points:

1) Primary sources, such as images, can be interpreted in a number of ways, often radically different,

2) Various interests and perspectives impact the way societies interact with environments,

3) Interpret why certain images are produced as artifacts and what power relations underlie them  4) Pictures indeed speak 1000 words but you have to listen carefully to hear them all

Lesson Plan DOWNLOAD

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