Teaching Environmental Humanities

Workshop Report, 22–23 November 2019, Rachel Carson Center, Munich

How should we teach a discipline that is still evolving? This question brought together more than 20 practitioners and scholars from five continents, all involved in teaching within the broad field of environmental humanities (EH). Convened by Christof Mauch and Anna Antonova, the workshop created a space of mutual learning and the sharing of thoughts and experiences. It also marked the beginning of the Volkswagen Foundation’s support for the RCC under their University of the Future scheme.

*Featured image: Anna Antonova. Some of the participants strolling through the park.

By Kerstin Kessler

Friday

In the morning, Gesa Lüdecke presented the RCC’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program and we watched an online contribution from the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. This provided a good start for our discussions on the importance of interdisciplinarity and finding ways for the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to work together. In the round of introductions after the presentation, participants highlighted some shared experiences and challenges. Many worried about the importance and visibility of EH, or were more immediately concerned about literally staying “dry” in a changing climate. At the same time, one inspiring overlapping element was participants’ shared enthusiasm for and engagement with their students. After listening to participants describe their inter- and transdisciplinary, international, flexible, and creative programs—whether existing or planned—our guest for the first session, Jane Carruthers remarked: “This is a major moment in scholarship.”

This apt statement led us perfectly into the first main session about educational philosophies and goals in teaching EH. Participants paired up to think about “Headlines from the future”: an exercise in imagining our students in the future and the skills they would be equipped with. Some ideal qualities emerged: environmental consciousness; the ability to approach complexity, to think critically, and problem-solve; we envisioned students as collaborative, just, creative, and affectively engaged with their kin; and as resilient and prepared for disaster. Participants imagined their ambitions for students on different scales: from students as local activists, to humanists reforming various environmental, political, and academic institutions. One group’s headline read, “Secretary of the UN, an RCC graduate, walks barefoot around the world solving environmental issues.”

Some key questions emerged, as well: Do we see students as activists or as reforming academics? Do we want our students to be the elite? And what role, and how, can EH play in the Anthropocene? These issues lead to some debate. In response to the first question, participants noted that being an academic should be different in the Anthropocene, and bridge gaps between sectors. Consensus was also reached regarding the “elite”: we understood it not in the light of elitism but in the context of leadership and responsibility. By wanting our students to be the elite, we agreed that we want to go beyond capitalist training and inspire ethical community engagement. We also wanted our students to recognize that cooperation also means conflict, and to understand how to navigate that constructively, furthering complexity and a solution-oriented discourse. The debate around the role of EH remained open. We asked what the humanities can do alone, if we were creating a bubble by only focusing on them? We agreed that students need to know the basics of the natural sciences and link their own knowledge and expertise to them. We noted that EH can be a model for engaged research through teaching EH inside and outside campus. But we did not resolve Christof’s final questions: “Do we own activism? Do we need to be revolutionaries?”

teching eh discussion
Participants listening to Gesa Lüdecke’s presentation. Image: Anna Antonova

After a walk through Leopoldpark to digest these questions, the following session focused on  what teaching EH should not be about. Brainstorming “bad ideas,” participants noted that programs should not be too local or too global, too revolutionary or too conservative, too applied or too neglectful of outcomes, problem solving skills, and employability. We observed that it would be fatal to leave no space for creativity, to neglect conflicts, to be reductive, to always teach inside, to have no interdisciplinary integration and no common ground at all. Our list of bad strategies ranged from romanticism and paternalism through the recreation of colonial structures to the neglect of emotion. Further problems were framed as excessive nicheness, ecological ignorance, and untranslatability. We also raised some practical bad traits, from lack of diversity in teaching style through lack of communication with students about program outcomes, to constraining the program temporally and thematically and giving students no agency in shaping their education.

The discussion raised larger questions. One concerned grading: is it a bad idea to grade students if you long for a democratic program? There may not be a choice, if students want to continue a PhD at a later stage; but what grading criteria can we use and still encourage students to be brave and explorative? Another key question asked how to prevent students from getting lost in an interdisciplinary program. Participants agreed that a teaching core was necessary: for example, a broad introduction core module transmitting crucial knowledge and providing a strong methodological grounding. The discussion also touched on combining disciplinary specializations with interdisciplinary training. Finally, the group thought about the importance of taking outcomes and job concerns seriously. We finished the day thinking about the extracurricular value of our dream programs: how could they be useful to both society and our students?

Saturday

The morning of the second day started under the headline “build your own perfect program.” Meeting in small groups before coming back together for a general discussion, participants came up with several common traits for the perfect EH program. Everyone favored creative forms of teaching, including co-teaching and team-teaching. Participants also agreed that field seminars should be incorporated, not only as a means of framing interdisciplinarity, but also as a way of co-creating knowledge with communities, ensuring students become affectively and locally engaged, and affording them opportunities for public output and future employment. All groups thought that scientific literacy was essential. Most groups also emphasized the importance of engaging with different forms of knowledge, including feminist theory and decolonizing processes—or at least teaching an awareness of “living with the ruins of our colonial past.” Participants agreed that teaching communication and indeed translation, in the broadest sense of the word, were important. Many groups’ “perfect program” combined creative elements or outcomes with critical or scientific components. Our discussion emphasized the ability to create a student cohort that can engage different formats and audiences.

After lunch, we discussed shared challenges and opportunities. One point of discussion concerned the sustainability of teaching programs in the context of increasing academic precarity. Participants noted that course continuity depends on teaching capacity. Jeffrey McCarthy shared positive experiences from the University of Utah: even when a program lacks its own teaching base, he told us, it can attract and retain committed faculty by creating an exciting intellectual community and home for them, especially by supporting and celebrating faculty research.

In our final session, participants brought up the possibility of setting up exchanges in program elements, syllabi, and students/staff between the different programs, as a direct result of the workshop. Some suggested we create a global digital forum, perhaps as a student project. Others proposed that we set up new Erasmus+ programs or joint summer schools and field seminars. Participants also named opportunities for different funding schemes, like COST actions, AHRC/DFG funding, and German exchange grants. There were also several concrete suggestions: Shaul Bassi (Universitá Ca’ Foscari, Venice) offered Venice as a meeting point, particularly articulating the Biennale as an interesting time and frame, envisioning an ecotopian pavilion (or even an EH Biennale?). Jenia Mukherjee (Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur) offered to organize workshops in Indian landscapes. Tafadzwa Mushonga hoped to be able to invite participants as guest lecturers to the University of Pretoria. Evi Zemanek (University of Freiburg) suggested that the group can organize pedagogical workshops and mentioned a teaching workshop in Freiburg she will organize in 2020 or 2021. Finally, we discussed opportunities for digital exchange, including through co-producing massive open online courses (MOOCs). As an immediate next step, the RCC team committed to adding all participants to a moderated listserv of EH leaders in research, teaching, and practitice, as a platform for discussing future initiatives.

In summary, both days of discussion within this diverse and engaged group resulted in a “firework of ideas” in a collaborative atmosphere. In the last moments, participants expressed their excitement for a yet undefined field, their belief in the humanities, and their commitment to the importance of supporting and defending them in the future.

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