ARE THE ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES JUST FOR HUMANISTS? ON BUILDING AN EH PROGRAM

This post is co-written with Carolyn Fornoff and Brooke Stanley, both PPEH graduate fellows. 

On April 30, 2016, Frankie Pavia (PhD Candidate, Columbia, Oceanography) and Jason Bell (PhD Candidate, Yale, English) co-organized a lively symposium, Pedagogy and the Environmental Humanities. Frankie and Jason invited us to participate in the conversation, and to share some of the exciting work afoot at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. Our talk, "Are the Environmental Humanities Just for Humanists? On Building an EH Program," covered three topics: 1) a description of our current projects and engagements with PPEH, 2) the challenges and benefits of interdisciplinarity, and 3) balancing public engagement initiatives with more traditional academic work. Our presentation was followed by a panel of professors and lecturers who have taught environmental humanities courses at various institutions throughout New York City. That panel on "Teaching Environment, Teaching Crisis" featured Deborah Coen (Barnard), Jacob Cohen (CUNY), Jennifer Telesca (Pratt), and Rebecca Woods (Columbia).

After the panels, our conversation turned to the question of uncertainty. Frankie briefly explained the quantification of uncertainty in the natural sciences, wherein the level of uncertainty of a conclusion can be calculated, and asked how humanists quantify uncertainty. The shared response was that for many humanists, uncertainty is not quantifiable so much as pervasive, an all-encompassing feature of knowledge itself, related to subjectivity. 

Is uncertainty quantifiable? Does it matter if you are a quantitative vs. qualitative humanist or social scientist? Chelsea Wahl (PhD student in Sociology, Penn) argues:

"every social scientist, whether quantitative or qualitative, undertakes the same type of uncertainty. Uncertainty isn't quantifiable, because the problem is one of translating social experience into social data. It doesn't matter if you have a survey with categories such as black/white/Asian, or if you are iteratively drawing out categories from ethnographic observation. Whether your categories are a priori or a posteriori, the problem is in the leap from experience to data."

Thinking across these understandings of uncertainty from natural scientists, humanists, and social scientists, what emerges is the conceptual work "uncertainty" can do in comparing methods of inquiry across distant disciplines. Throughout the 2015-16 academic year, PPEH's Curriculum for the New Normal has pursued interdisciplinary conversations about the environment around content-oriented themes such as Resilience and Infrastructure. But perhaps more in line with our latest symposium on Engagement, "uncertainty" is a methodological site for orienting interdisciplinary inquiry.

Sometimes EH conversations create the feeling that we only speak about how to do interdisciplinary work on the environment, and never get to the step of actually doing it - perhaps because at the end of the day, we're still not totally sure how. But at this symposium, it seemed we had taken an important step in the direction of creating new methods. We found a concept - uncertainty - that produced some friction because it brought us closer to understanding each other's disciplinary methods and finding ways to compare them.

The other take-away from the symposium at Columbia was the sense that every time we get together, we are further assembling regional networks of scholars who are all grappling with questions of environment and ethics. While there have been a lot of recent productive challenges to the carbon footprint generated by conference travel, it is also important to recognize the value of face time for initiating community-building and laying the groundwork for future collaboration. We are hopeful that our upcoming Fall conference, Timescales, will further these efforts by bringing academics together from around the region to talk together about nonhuman time and the urgency of responding to imminent changes to our environment.