Learning to Integrate: Exploring Environmental Humanities During My Mellon Fellowship

By Catherine Fairfield, Doctoral Student in English and Women’s Studies

For the last eight weeks, I’ve been taking part in the Rackham Mellon fellowship entitled was “Connecting with Environmental Humanities”. This involved working with the University of Michigan Library to develop strategies for the library to support the community of environmental humanities at our institution. The primary goal was to lay the groundwork for making a space in which scholars from different corners of UM who share an investment in environmental humanities but might not necessarily connect themselves to that full network of colleagues. As an inter / multi / trans-disciplinary field that isn’t housed in any single department, interactions between participating faculty don’t always happen organically. The university library is stepping in to help facilitate these interactions because collaboration is crucial for integrating cultural, artistic, and scientific approaches to environmental scholarship. Additionally, I was needed to conduct research on what the field of environmental humanities currently looks like, including where it is headed and what it needs to succeed.

Catherine Fairfield, Doctoral Student in English and Women’s Studies

My fellowship supervisor and I came up with a series of mini projects for me to provide the library with guidance and resources for building their support for the environmental humanities community. The projects might seem disparate at first glance. They range from writing a literature review to mind-mapping to developing active learning activities, with some professional networking and report writing in between. As I began delving into them, it became apparent how much they spoke to each other, and what that represented to me about the discipline itself. Working in the environmental humanities requires your head to always be in multiple spaces, wearing many different hats, as the expression goes. Whether your scholarly perspective is from the corner of environmental history or literary eco-criticism, you must be thinking about how the products of your research will engage with the corresponding science being done on your topic, or how to make your research accessible to the communities taking action against environmental injustice. If, as the institutions documented in my research assert, environment humanities scholarship is truly devoted to applying the tools of the humanities to practical, real-world change and problem-solving, then the environmental humanist must be on the pulse of scholarly trends and social needs simultaneously.

To achieve this kind of practical action, collaboration isn’t just needed between faculty and colleagues. What I have come to realize through my exploration is we environmental humanists need to begin by collaborating with our own work – that is to say, the work that we undertake on one platform should speak to, and with, the work that we turn to the next day somewhere else. We need to allow ourselves to build greater connections between the many different projects that as academics we juggle throughout the year. Teaching is a clear example of where research can be “tried out” and used to make an impact on others. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop there, though. The scholarship emerging from the field of environmental humanities demonstrates the groundbreaking potential of theory – meets – science – meets – activism – meets – art – meets – community action and more, with those connections happening both in the individual scholar’s research and between collaborative engagements.

The most successful and satisfied academics who I have encountered are those whose research investments extend beyond the institution and beyond their publications to include community engagement, departmental service, activism, art, and more. Likewise, in my research for the fellowship, I found that the environmental humanities programs that are well-established and coherent exist in institutions that have integrated environmental stewardship into their ethos across the board. Several “environmental colleges”, such a Sterling College and Green Mountain College, shape all facets of their academic community through environmental literacy, action, and leadership, all of which promote ways of being in the world that promise a safe and sustainable future. Scholarship, service, social spaces, and every segment of the institution’s structure speak to each other through the commitment to environmental responsibility that plays out differently from each of those directions. This is a great model for building sustainable scholarship, demonstrating the consistent impact and value of the environmental humanities, and maintaining integrity in your own work.

During the fellowship, I got to try my hand at an integrative and collaborative approach to my working process. Moving from independent research to creating platforms for informing the university more broadly about the environmental humanities felt like puzzle pieces notching into place around how a career in environmental humanities could really look. Like the tendency of environmental writing to always be looking backwards, forwards, and keenly into the present at the same time, the environmental humanities is looking inwards, outwards, and around itself to be changing the game for effecting sustainable solutions in our communities and our environments.




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