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Environmental Humanities

I had just printed a few posters to announce the launch of an Environmental Humanities Center when a colleague from computational linguistics passed me in the hall. He studied the poster with sincere interest and declared that this was a new and unusual combination to him: Environmental + Humanities. He was not the last person to say this to me in the weeks leading up to the launch. The environment is not a subject commonly associated with the humanities, but with the natural sciences.

But current environmental issues are so complex that they need an interdisciplinary approach: the natural and social sciences and the humanities need to work together to approach problems in all their complexity.  As biologist Sverker Sörlin wrote in the journal Bioscience:

Our belief that science alone could deliver us from the planetary quagmire is long dead. […] It seems this time that our hopes are tied to the humanities. […] In a world where cultural values, political and religious ideas, and deep-seated human behaviors still rule the way people lead their lives, produce, and consume, the idea of environmentally relevant knowledge must change. [source]

Not only do the humanities have knowledge about the way cultural values, political and religious ideas shape our perceptions of the environment; also, a lot of disciplines within the humanities — such as literature, history, art, design, cultural studies, philosophy, archaeology, cultural geography —  use methodologies aimed at synthesis. They seek to connect different kinds of knowledge to grasp a complex system of relations, developments, processes – whether that is a historical period or the experience of living in a city. The current environmental crisis calls for such ‘ecological modes of knowledge production’ across disciplinary boundaries, as Owain Jones puts it:

The move to embrace interdisciplinarity within the environmental humanities reflects – or should reflect – the need to move towards more ecological forms of knowledge production and practice. Traditional disciplinary boundaries are a symptom of  enlightenment/modern knowledge’s drive  to divide, rule and exploit the world. This has been a disaster which we are still in the grip of today (as Bruno Latour has famously argued). Ecological forms of knowledge production seek to re-weave how we read the world – not least across the nature-culture, art and science divides. [Source]

Together with Sjoerd Kluiving, I founded an Environmental Humanities Center at my university. We are finding that the center answers a desire for the integration of humanities perspectives on the relations between natures and cultures, between humans and their environment — with students, researchers across academic disciplines, and local institutions. We hope to make this center grow into an inspiring, creative, and open-minded hub for all kinds of collaborations, also with other centers nationally and internationally.

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Sustainable scholarship

Metaphors we live by

In The Netherlands, academic work is often described in metaphors of competition rather than cooperation. In policy documents as well as in practical information sessions, an ‘excellent’ researcher is often compared to an elite sportsperson who is at the top of his or her [1] game. The grant system of the Dutch National Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has grants called Veni, Vidi, and Vici, named after Julius Caesar’s victorious message to Rome after slaughtering Pharnace’s army near the town of Zela in 47 BCE.

Encouraging relations of competition, the image of the elite sportsperson or the conquering emperor has isolating effects. Even if the format of the research grant proposal asks for the ‘embedding’ of their project, successful academics are encouraged to see themselves as entrepreneurs running their own businesses, or as generals leading their personal armies.

Fortunately, academics do not take the image of slaughtering their competition literally. But these metaphors of competition do work to shape academic practice: they are metaphors we live by. Practices of teaching, research, outreach, and service are shaped – not only by the structures and processes – but also by the language of the neoliberal university.

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About me

I am a lecturer and researcher in English literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My specialization is early modern English literature (1550-1700), especially theater. I work in the field of the history of emotions (first anger and revenge, now compassion). I received an NWO VENI grant for a project on the practice of compassion in early modern England. More recently, I have begun to explore the growing field of the environmental humanities and ecocriticism. I am interested in the role of literature and the emotions in perceptions of the environment in the Anthropocene as well as in the early modern period.

I teach subjects ranging from early modern English literature (Shakespeare and contemporaries) to contemporary dystopian novels, from gender theory to ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Teaching is one of my favorite things to do – to explore texts and ideas together with students, open our minds to new perspectives on the world, and to see students grow in understanding and self-knowledge makes it one of the best jobs in the world.

I am board member and founder of the Environmental Humanities Center at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; board member of the Benelux Association for the Study of Arts, Culture and the Environment (BASCE), and board member of the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-disciplinary Emotions and Sensory Studies (ACCESS). For all three organizations, I designed and maintain the websites. Also, I am a general editor of Cultural History, the journal of the International Society for Cultural History published by Edinburgh University Press.