DEH Workshop: Summary of Day 1

September 27, 2013 7:02 pm
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DEH poster


In the morning we had a lightning round where participants talked about their environmental history research and projects. Here are some of the interventions:

Jim Clifford talked about a cool Digging into Data project that is doing light mining of a million documents having to do with Victorian commodities trade to the UK. He aims to explore the global consequences of industrialization and reliance on commodity frontiers.

Stéphane Castonguay is studying the differing patterns of ecological growth and development along the St. Lawrence River, with the aim of addressing the question of how cities transform with respect to their surroundings. He spoke of his project as a being a collaboration between historical and geographical research.

Michèle Dagenais talked about her tentative project concerning our perception of the Great Lake and St. Lawrence System in a historical context. In which circumstances did we think of this system as one entity? She explained how she needs the expertise of different disciplines to answer this question.

Cheryl Smeall spoke of her project “Mapping the Republic of Letters” in which she is applying various DH tools to data sets concerning the 18th century mathematician Algarotti. The ultimate aim is to create a visualization of his travels and publications. She mentioned the “Knot” tool that is proving to be useful for her work.

Brett Buchanan talked about continental philosophy and environmental humanities. He has been working in the area of animal studies. Specifically, he looks at how animals interact with their environment and the consequences of extinction in terms of losing modes of being. He is hosting an interdisciplinary symposium on the topic of extinction in November 2013.

Adrian Ivakhiv talked about how science and technology are not going to solve ecological problems alone. He then suggested there is a false tension between the environment and culture. We need the humanities to bring a historical and critical perspective to issues. He does ecomedia and/or ecocinema. He looks at media and cinematic representations of nature and the environment. He looks at how cinema imagines environmental futures and how understandings are constructed. He is interested in how visual culture shapes our perception of land, ecology and space, among other concepts.

Jill Didur talked about a neat locative game she is developing to explore botanical gardens. These gardens have interesting (colonial) histories. They also connect to gardening culture. Her game could help gardeners understand the histories of what they explore at a botanical garden. Having always loved botanical gardens in a naive way, I’m fascinated by her research on the botanical garden. Her game offers a narrative of exploration of Himalayan plants, with the player looking for hidden QR codes with the aid of compasses.

Ursula Heise is currently working on her project “Where the Wild Things Used To Be”, which aims to create a global biodiversity database, specifically focusing on endangered and extinct species. She mentioned the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and ARKive as sources of inspiration.

Susie O’Brien talked about the shift from thinking of nature as pristine (to be polluted by humans) to thinking of it as turbulent. Do we want to get away from talking about nature in decline? She then talked about unpacking ideas about resilience and the usefulness of resilience to postcolonial ecology. Resilience doesn’t deal well with issue of justice. Finally, she made an interesting point about scenario planning and how that has been taken up by all sorts of players. She is looking at that practice and how it understands risk.

Cheryl Lousley talked about the culture of justice and the environment. She is interested in how literary form and modes influence environmental politics. She talked about genres of environmental writing like the carnivalesque. She talked about her work looking at how ideas spread. Later she raised good questions about whether and how the digital humanities thinks about its environmental engagement.

Jaye Ellis talked about her work on law, economy and science. She made an interesting point about how groups form theories of other groups in their own language – how law incorporates/conceives of science? She asked how legitimate is the law if it is based on expert knowledge?

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox talked about her work looking at environment and health. She talked about a project that decided to look at stories as a way to find knowledge. The digital storytelling project created a digital media lab to help a community get a voice on climate and health in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. This digital storytelling initiative is an intersection between environmentalism and health.

Ismael Vaccaro talked about research about parks in Spain and Mexico. He was very interesting on who gets to decide which animals are preserved and re-introduced. Elk disappeared in 16th century, should they be reintroduced? He spoke of the issue of “designing” ecologies and how many political and aesthetical variables come into play. We create the ecologies we live in.

Renée Sieber talked about GIS work she does including creating spaces for citizen participation. She make an interesting point about how the virtual is now hybridized with the real. Walking around and using Google Maps you are in both the real and virtual. She also talked about how she tries to “interrogate” geo-spatial ontologies. Her work is focused on the issue of how geospatial technologies transform and construct urban and rural environments. She also mentioned the benefits of creating digital spaces for citizen participation.

Astrida Neimanis talked about her arts interventions. She encouraged us to think about feminist incubators and radical transdisciplinarity as a way of bringing together different practicioners around a set of questions. She mentioned the Symbiotica laboratory that she is involved in. Her book Thinking About Water will be published later this month.

Gisèle Trudel talked about the work the aelab she founded and is involved in. They do performative installations which sound really cool. They mix all sorts of input live. She sees her documentary and experimental media initiative as a connective space of art and technology.

Lisa Quinn is the Acquisitions Editor at the Wilfrid Laurier University Press that has a Environmental Humanities Series. She talked about publishing in the digital age and called herself a “metaresearcher” who is involved in research projects from the very beginning. These projects become an archive of knowledge as well as a base for future research. She spoke of the transition of the written word and open access initiatives.

Finn Jørgensen talked about his research at Umea. See
We then had a number of presentations about various portals.
Jim Clifford talked about the NiCHE site and its evolution. They started on Drupal and had too many features. He spoke of the detriment of getting technologically too far ahead of the community. They then had to simplify and deal with all the mini-sites and services that NiCHE researchers start. They are now reimplementing so that NiCHE can survive over time. This revamped WordPress-hosted version will be launched in a couple of weeks.

Jon Christensen from UCLA talked about Environmental Humanities Now site that they are building. It is based on the Digital Humanities Now idea of letting editors tag interesting posts and sites for curation. EH Now will be a platform that will facilitate and further discussions and conversations concerning EH.

Kimberly Coulter talked about the Rachel Carson Center in Munich and what they are doing with their Environment and Society Portal. She presented the open access portal with emphasis on the Arcadia project, multimedia library and the featured exhibitions.

Afternoon sessions:
After lunch, Veronica Poplawski presented the Canadian Environmental Humanities web site she has been building to aggregate information about the field and this workshop. See The site is meant to be a launching point for online tools developed for research in the environmental humanities. It was one of things we were there to workshop.

We had a breakout session after seeing the CEH web site about what might a portal do and whether we wanted one. It is interesting that just about everyone is now careful about committing to building another tool. There are now too many web sites all trying to become the “community portal” for an area. As a result we all experience having too many web site where we have to post information. It is getting to the point where if I write something original I then have to spend as much time again posting all over the place about what I wrote.

Anyway, there were a lot of questions around the point of a portal:
• What is the audience and purpose for an environmental humanities site?
• What is the audience and usage of tools?

We had a discussion about different models for what a web site/ portal can be.
• One reason to build a site is to tell people we are doing something. A web site becomes a form of internal advertising.
• A site can build an academic community. It can be a way of both recognizing and supporting a group doing interdisciplinary work together.
• It could be a way of connecting to other publics. We could use crowdsourcing to involve citizen researchers. We could create a site that is useful to the media.

We could create a compendium for schools and policy makers. This raises the question of how do we listen and connect to publics without just telling them what we think. The domain of EH is still not widely recognized nor accepted. The environmental humanities give us a strategic strength in relation to the environment and to the humanities. It connects the humanities to a site of relevance. What is the future of humanities in the 21st century? It is important to be aware of the strategic situation we are in.

Next, Ursula Heise spoke of different models of institutionalization and the issues surrounding this process. Heise talked about the emergence of X humanities (medical humanities, digital humanities, environmental humanities, urban humanities, etc.) as the humanities try to make themselves relevant to contemporary life. There is currently a lack of congregation of environmental humanists to begin with. According to her, we need a larger agenda that is recognizable to the general public.

Another issue she raised is how we institutionalize. How do you get formal support? How do you build the critical mass at a location? Do you try to build an institute or school? Heise talked about the possibility of creating an “Environmental Humanities” track or component to Environmental Studies. However, the focus is on science within this field. Another option is to establish an undergraduate Humanities major with different tracks, EH being one of them.

Heise was very interesting on the realities of institutionalization. “You want some of it, but not all of it.” In the life of an emerging field you get a group of people forming a “centre” because they want some identity. Then people move on and the university has to support these centres. For those working in the field you can end up spending more time maintaining institutions than doing research. A lot of creative energy becomes wasted in this process. Another issue that arises is the cross-appointment of researchers. For these reasons, websites and portals are good alternatives.
We ended the day with a breakout discussion of interdisciplinarity. Here are some of the opinions voiced:
• Interdisciplinarity isn’t a huge deal. Everyone is doing it in some fashion or another.
• There are already a number of researchers who do not have a discipline to begin with.
• Question of equity towards those who are interdisciplinary
• At the same time there are anxieties about interdisciplinarity within departments.
• Interdisciplinarity has institutional consequences. Many of the questions don’t line up with departmental boundaries.
• It is critically important to protect modes of inquiry
• “Our discovery happens in discussion” and this discussion should be promoted among humanists
• There is an issue of time – how do you keep up with research in more than one field?
• How do you teach people to be interdisciplinary?
• Environmental humanities challenge the centrality of the human in the humanities.
• Method can be a way of bringing together different traditions.
• Is the digital a useful framework?
• Issue of common language when working across different traditions.
• Opening or pleasure found when trying new practices.
• The reality of interdisciplinarity is that it often involves a phase of negotiating (arguing over) terminology and methods. This can be exhausting and sometimes the humanists feel like junior partners. Issue of “tokenizing humanists”
• That said, humanists can contribute to the understanding of concepts and their terms over time. How are metaphors deployed; what is the history of the ideas shared; and how are things represented in other media?
• The value of interdisciplinary work (the reason why you spend the time negotiating language and methods) is that you get an opening into other ways of thinking the questions through. You also help students when you expose them to interdisciplinary methods. Graduate students especially need to be exposed to a variety of discourses and methods.

Written by Geoffrey Rockwell, with annotations by Veronica Poplawski

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