The Environmental Humanities Reading Group acts as a support group, a voluntary seminar, a cool kids club, whatever you want to call it, that brings faculty from various departments together with a common interest in holding intellectual discussions concerning the environment.
The Environmental Humanities Reading Group presents that there is an equal role that Humanists play alongside natural and social scientists in the study of the environment. Arts, philosophy, classics, religious studies, history, and other departments in the humanities all have a role to play that is not only important but incredibly necessary. As Professor Stuhl and Professor Campbell disclose in the interview, a humanist will paint you a picture of a place whether through words or brushstrokes, illustrating the importance it has in a person’s life, in our society, and in the world.
“What does a place mean to you”? What is the emotional, economical, familial, or historical investment that you have in a place, and how will you contribute for that place’s survival.
The following is an interview with Professor Andrew Stuhl who started the group, and Professor Claire Campbell who is a member.
Rachel: What does the Environmental Humanities Reading Group entail?
Claire: There’s a group of, on average eight or ten people that come from departments like history, environmental studies, religious studies, comparative humanities, philosophy, and classics. And the idea is that in our separate departments we all work on the relationship between people and the environment in some capacity. But we tend to be a minority in our departments, and yet collectively, we make quite a sizable presence on campus. So we wanted to be able to come together and talk about how we as humanists approach questions of environment and sustainability and what we have to contribute. A lot of the discussion about how to go forward with projects of sustainability tends to be scientific in language and scientific in program, and we think that you have to understand human impulse and human need as much as those of the natural world to really have a constructive result. And so what we do is we either hear from people in the group who are working on a certain project, like Andrew who presented on his work on the Artic, or we do some shared readings. We did a week where we looked at issues of race in environmental history, and we talk about them and we bring our ideas to the conversation. As a historian I look for this pattern or a philosopher might say, well my big question as a philosopher is to ask this, and its encouraging and thought provoking and I think those two things were what we were looking for.
Andrew: I think that sums it up perfectly. It’s kind of a support group for faculty.
Rachel: So it’s mostly composed of faculty?
Andrew: Right now it’s completely faculty.
Rachel: Would you want student involvement in the group?
Andrew: I think we see ourselves engaging with students more and more as we build our own sense of who we are and what we want to accomplish on campus. Of course we engage students in our own coursework. I think we also have talked about briefly in our reading group what is the presence of environmental humanities in terms of courses that are offered on campus. And how can we bring exposure to that; lets folks know that and make that more cohesive to the view that students have of the course catalog and opportunities here. So in that way, we definitely think about students all the time. I think we also kind of crave a meeting among faculty to talk about; hey I have this research proposal, I have this research question, or I have this research grant, can you help me think through that. Not that students wouldn’t be helpful in those ways but we just thought that kind of experts in these other fields would be the voices we want to hear first.
Claire: It’s like a voluntary seminar. I think that part of your experience as an undergraduate is to literally find yourself. You’re literally to discover by the end of it, what you’re passionate about and what you’re skilled at. And what we hope what bringing environmental humanities greater attention will do is introduce to people who sort of naturally feel themselves to be interested in the humanities and the arts fields, if they also care about the environment. If they also are passionate about dealing with environmental sustainability, they can pursue that through history and English and religious studies. And so, as students sort of unearth that or carve that out for themselves over the course of their four years, if they were drawn to a discussion group of likeminded people, I think that would be ideal.
Rachel: Cool. So, what are the opportunities that exist through the group?
Andrew: As Claire mentioned, there is a shared reading that we do. A selection of readings on a new concept called the anthropocene that a lot of different scholars are kicking around. And that concept says geologically humans have left an imprint on the earth such that in the future historians and geologists will be able to take some soil off the top of that land right there and say, oh yeah this is the time the humans lived because we can see all the pollutants in it, we can see all the chemicals in it. And so, thinking about that term from an arts perspective or a humanities perspective, how do you communicate the human relationship with the environment through a term like that? So we do some readings and we push that idea around. Do we like it, do we not like it. Do we think it helps in our teaching, does it help frame “what the environment is”? Another opportunity is when we want to take this research that we’re doing, that I’m doing personally, in a new direction and I would like to hear feedback on it. It’s really helpful to take someone else’s brain for an hour and say will you think on this question with me? And that’s immensely helpful for a lot of us. Other things that we’ve talked about that are kind of in the works are an undergraduate research conference focused specifically on the environmental humanities that might happen over the course of the summer, where we invite students from the region or nationally to come here and share the work that they’ve been doing with faculty members in literature and religious studies, philosophy, history, and the arts. Another kind of opportunity that we would like to pursue at some point is a lecture series. I think we imagined it as two faculty or two leading thinkers on a topic that their thoughts might actually come in direct conflict or tension. Like animal rights. Take a philosopher and biologist and tell them to talk about that. And do that in a public venue, in front of an audience. Show how civil discourse can take place and how people can present ideas and disagree with one another that goes beyond a “like button” or a comment, which we’re kind of getting much more familiar with in life. Those opportunities are on the horizon and as I mentioned before we take all of what we do in this reading group back to our classes and share them with our students. So, even though it’s not a formal opportunity there are lots of opportunities for students to be engaged in this conversation in their classwork.
Claire: I have to teach two new courses next semester and both of them should engage with issues of race and migration and it was a way of thinking about environmental history that I was thinking, I don’t know what kinds of questions to ask in the classroom, and I don’t know what students would respond to. And so this was a chance for me to ask other experienced teachers at Bucknell, how do you deal with often fairly contentious and difficult dimensions of environmental humanities? What works, what doesn’t? The concept of best practices is something that you know you might as well learn from other peoples experience and so we get to exchange as teachers as well as scholars and that’s really constructive.
Andrew: I think also that in terms of an opportunity that could be described as such, I think all of us faculty who are engaged in this reading group, we do our own research. And so I think if students find themselves drawn to this realm of thinking about the environment that always includes people and includes historical dimensions, ethical dimensions, then those students should feel like they can approach us and work with us on our research and that will bring students to a much different area of learning on campus with, how do you develop a research question, how do you interview somebody about their past, how do you learn about that trees history out there and what that tree means to someone who is not from Bucknell. So, those opportunities are always present even if we don’t promote them as widely as we typically do in the sciences for undergraduate research or lab research or something like that.
Claire: I think that’s a really good point, it reminds students and our colleagues that who we are in the classroom is part of and is shaped by also what we do outside the classroom. And we want students to come with us outside the classroom into this other conversation that we’re having as researchers as well as teachers and again we tend to see that model much more in the life sciences but to say to students hey you get really jazzed about life in the artic as a topic, it turns out Professor Stuhl does research on this so come along and see the kinds of questions he’s asking when you’re not in class together. And you’ll also get a better sense of why he is that way in class. I think it humanizes the Professor a little so I think that is valuable.
Rachel: How did this group start? Who started it and when did it start?
Claire: (Gesturing towards Andrew Stuhl) It’s all his fault.
Andrew: There was a big bang. (Laughs) There has been a rich history of environmental humanities at Bucknell. I came to campus in June of 2013 and as soon as I got here I was talking to the people who were already here. There’s a long history of environmental studies having a human component, not necessarily environmental policy or environmental biology or geology but English, literature, history, ethics. And so I think that for this question about origins you have to go back to the 1970s and 80s to see wow, there are teachers teaching about the environment in departments that are not biology or anthropology well before 2013. There are also really strong research programs that are centered in this area, led primarily by Alf Siewers and Katie Fall on stories of the Susquehanna -which is the title of that research program. But you already see that they are privileging the narrative form as a way to communicate what this landscape means, what this watershed means, which is different from using a chart of soil chemistry or using a satellite image of the valley. If you’re telling stories you’re already suggesting that the landscape means something in a human way. So those kinds of things fed into a discussion that we had last summer. We’re all doing these things, and there were a number of us who were recently hired and brought to Bucknell. And with that we should try to take advantage of this strength in a way that’s really necessary, formal but regular and scheduled and intentional. And so we decided that rather than plan a huge thing or a big event of some sort that we would start by sitting down around the table like we are now, just talking and bringing some structure to that with hey lets all read the same thing and would you present on your ideas. And I think that’s really how it got together.
Claire: I think its kind of … do you read Harry Potter?
Claire: Okay so you know how there are the death eaters and the order of the Phoenix, and they’re not recognizable to either the Muggles or the Wizards at large so they have to be revealed? That’s sort of like I see us on campus. We’re out there in significant numbers but we don’t uncloak ourselves in public, but yet if we were to, it would be pretty noticeable how pervasive humanist interest is in issues of the environment. But that’s not where popular ideas of environmental studies go, they tend to go to native gardens or tracking water levels and those kind of things so it’s like we’re this secret society which should maybe be a little more open about how important the humanist contribution is to actually getting any traction politically and in terms of opinion about making a difference in environmental practice.
Brandn: One of the things I observed was that the environmental humanists were the largest single block of faculty who were explicitly self defined as working on environmental issues. And it was hidden. There were way more environmental humanists than environmental social scientists or even probably people who do work in the natural and physical sciences who then self identify as environmental. Because you can study water and not identify as an environmental person you’re just a dude who does water. And so what to do with that reality I think is one of the parts of this discussion.
Rachel: So, what is the role of the Humanities in the study of the environment and why is it important for students?
Andrew: I think it’s good to think about this if we’re asking the question about disciplines or disciplinary views. What does the humanities offer generally that natural sciences and social sciences don’t offer? And then we can apply that to the environment. I’m not a natural scientist, I’m not a social scientist, I’m kind of out of my realm in saying what they do and how they do it but if we were walking down the Susquehanna River right now and you brought a natural scientist with you, they would probably take a water sample and then they’d bring it back to a lab and use really amazing technologies to break that water down and tell you what’s in it. And then the social scientist might say, okay well I can tell you all the legal structures that determine who can live on this bank of the river over here and how this water is regulated. But a humanities person might take you to that river and say, I’m going to paint you a picture where words are actually a canvas of what this river means and what it has meant to people; that will last a thousand years. So any one of those is a really great way to learn about the river. I don’t think you could say that one is better than another. So that’s kind of the disciplinary views. When we apply to the environment I think that we can say that the first two views of the lab approach to the river, and the legal approach to the river have been the dominant ways of thinking about the environment whether it’s on a college campus or whether it’s in a community as they deal with a river issue. And so what we’re saying in the environmental humanities is not that we have a better view or better understanding, but one that contributes equally and should contribute equally as the natural and social sciences. And even more when you put all three of these together, what does a picture of the river look like then? And how does it help people make meaning of their lives and also address problems that might arise of that river. So I think that’s kind of what we’re looking for. A better sense of interdisciplinarity, a richer picture of the river, and using the tools we have in the humanities and set of disciplines as a very long history of asking questions about the human experience on earth.
Claire: I think that’s basically it. I’d add two things. One, because we have often objectified the environment, either by using or attempting to protect it, by sending out regulations on top of it or identifying the resources we want to harvest from it, it has allowed us to distance ourselves from any sense of responsibility or role that we in fact play. So the environment isn’t the non-human. The environment has to include people dealing with the non-human. And if you’re incorporating the environmental humanities, that’s asking people to take responsibility for their value systems, for their life choices, for their economic priorities, for their legal systems. So it in some ways fuels any real commitment to sustainability because it asks people to take a more critical look at themselves as part of the system, as part of the problem, as part of the solution. I think the other dimension to it is that by asking, how as Andrew characterized it, I’m going to tell you a story of what the river has meant to people. If we want the environment to kind of hook or get traction as a political priority with voters, then you have to make people conscious of why nature matters to them. Again, not as something out there, not as polar bears drowning in a very remote and abstract sense, but what does – and this is why place studies is valuable – what does a place mean to you? And once you recognize you have an emotional and an economical and a familial and historical investment in a place, presumably you’ll be more committed to that place’s survival. And so you recognize both your responsibility, and your own value system in the world around you. And I think that’s something that the humanities brings that needs to be more at the fore of the conversation along with the biological diagnostics and the legal frameworks.
Andrew: Yeah there’s that saying, “think globally act locally” that’s been really popular in environmental thinking in North America since the seventies. But there’s a missing piece because you can’t necessarily just think about the whole picture and then know how to act locally. There’s a middle ground of understanding globally and applying locally. And I think that the humanities has a role in that.