As an emerging field of study, the environmental humanities bring environmental historians, environmental philosophers, cultural anthropologists, geographers, environmental literary critics (or ecocritics), and other humanities scholars together with scientists, social scientists, and the public for cross-disciplinary conversations that can be revelatory — but are not always easy.
At their best, the environmental humanities allow academics, scientists, and the public to understand the human and cultural dimensions of the environment and environmental problems in new ways. My involvement in the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2008 to 2014 showed me how vibrant and intellectually transformative such an interdisciplinary community of faculty and students can be.
As postdoctoral fellow for the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on the Environmental Humanities at UCLA in 2014-2015, I helped foster cross-disciplinary dialogue about the environmental humanities on a campus that did not yet have a center or institutional home for it. The seminar series brought historians, philosophers, anthropologists, geographers, and ecocritics from around the world to campus to discuss their work in progress.
I publicized and coordinated the nine monthly seminars, each of which featured three to five visiting participants. A core group of faculty and graduate students attended the seminar regularly. Though the seminar required an RSVP and substantial reading in advance, attendance was usually between thirty-five and fifty-five people. I maintained the seminar’s website, designed and managed print and digital publicity, and built a mailing list of over four hundred contacts.
I also organized and facilitated an environmental humanities reading group that met about a week before each seminar. We read and discussed classic scholarly work in the environmental humanities as well as previous work by some of our visiting participants. This smaller group gave graduate students and faculty in history, English, comparative literature, anthropology, and urban planning a chance to meet environmental humanists from other disciplines and begin to develop the community necessary to maintain a long-lasting interdisciplinary conversation.
In the fall of 2015, I taught a general education course, “Introduction to Environmental Humanities,” that was cross-listed in the English department and the Institute for Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. The course fulfilled a general education requirement in arts and humanities and had an enrollment of sixty-five students.
The course consisted of three units, (1) Wilderness and Garden, (2) Environmental Justice, and (3) Extinctions and Futures, and focused on teaching students how to identify and analyze common tropes that structure conversation about the environment, including wilderness, the pastoral, apocalypse, progress, decline, and techno-optimism.
We studied work by scholars in environmental history, cultural geography, anthropology, philosophy, and ecocriticism as well as literary texts. Lectures and assignments were designed to give students low-stakes opportunities to participate orally and in writing, and students were required to draft and revise their analytic essays.
Here is the full syllabus: Niemann Syllabus M30 Introduction to Environmental Humanities