What does the term “environmental humanities” mean to you?

For many of us in North America this week marked the start of the academic year, a good time to think about teaching and pedagogical issues. The launch of Planetary provides an exciting new venue for this type of dialogue, and I thank Anthony and the rest of the editorial team for inviting me to participate.

I’ll start by posing a basic question: what do we mean when we talk about “environmental humanities” in the classroom? Courses on nature writing are, perhaps, the first thing that spring to mind. But what about other courses in the humanities that do not necessarily have words like “nature” or “environmental” in their titles? What are some strategies for teaching from an environmental humanities perspective in these courses?

I teach art history and visual culture and have had a couple of opportunities to teach senior level special topics classes with titles like “Landscape & Photography,” but for the most part my courses need to have a broader focus in order to fit into the curriculum of the various departments I have taught in. On the surface, these are not courses that appear to have an environmental humanities focus. If I were to ask incoming students to jot down their expectations of an introductory course on 19th century art, for instance, few would list “discussion of environmental issues.” However, when we stop to think about how cultural representations of space and place both inform and are informed by the world around us this connection becomes a lot more apparent. I often use writing exercises in order to get students to think about why a particular artist may have chosen to represent a landscape (including urban landscapes) in a particular way.

I’m interested to hear how others approach these themes in the various courses they teach. What kinds of exercises or models have you found to be particularly successful?

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5 thoughts on “What does the term “environmental humanities” mean to you?”

  1. This is an excellent question. “Environmental humanities” is a strange term. The idea of the humanities, as opposed to the natural and social sciences, seems to exclude nature or environment in cultures that oppose nature and culture. So it’s a way of saying “disciplines that study human cultures as they relate to nature or environment” even though “human” is supposed to exclude “nature.”

    For me, in practice, the environmental humanities are humanistic disciplines that now include practitioners trying to bridge the nature/culture gap. Environmental philosophy, literary studies, history, but now also art history and so on.

    It’s a term in progress. If someone suggests a better term, I’d be happy to alter the subtitle of this here blog.

    Anthony

  2. Thanks, Keri. I like it too, but I recognize that a lot of folks I would call environmental humanists would have trouble with the adjective, preferring something like “eco,” and with the noun, since “humanism” sounds too anthropocentric to some. There’s a great book by a biologist called THE ARROGANCE OF HUMANISM that makes this case. We’ve gotta start somewhere, though. We need an umbrella term for people like us who would otherwise be totally separated by the modern system of academic specialization.

  3. Anthony– Thanks for beginning this conversation. This term I’m chairing a committee to bring an environmental studies program to Wofford. From the moment of inception I’ve hoped that we might be able to create an interdisciplinary program where science, social science, and humanties are equally engaged. This discussion will help me think that through.

    Lately I’ve been considering whether the “environmental humanities” has some method at its center as central as the scientific method. We spent the first day of the combined freshman science/humanities learning community talking about the scientific method. We designed an experiment and carried it out. That same day I assigned a short paper on a novel they had to read over the summer. I’ll mark them up and return them on Monday. Is that “the humanistic method” I was employing?

    John Lane

  4. I opened my Environmental Humanities classes this semester with this very question: What is environmental humanities? We broke it down so the questions became first, “What is humanities?” and then, “That being said, what does it mean to qualify humanities as ‘environmental’?”

    I am in a unique situation; my classes are connected to a service-learning project in which my students learn about the Florida Panther and then engage in a project teaching local 4th and 5th graders about the Panther. Because of this connection with children, I have incorporated “childhood studies” into the class to give my students some contexts regarding what they are doing with their elementary school “mentees.”

    With this project in mind, I discussed with my class why “childhood” is an issue approprite for humanistic study. We are reading Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and drawing from his argument to explore our own experiences as children in nature.

    So, I guess my point in outlining this part of my curriculum is to suggest that environmental humanities can completely reframe what goes on in the humanities classroom. Traditional humanities classrooms have priviledged certain forms of cultural production (literature, art, etc.), but maybe environmental humanities will elevate or even uncover other forms of cultural production (like childhood) for (eco)critical study.

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