Alice Kaplan Institute adds programs in environmental humanities

Darby Hopper, Reporter

The Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities has added workshops in the environmental humanities to its programming starting next month, aiming to apply a “humanistic” approach to environmental issues.

“It’s important to recognize that terms such as ‘nature’ have changed over time and been imagined in vastly different ways in different cultures,” Wendy Wall, the director of the Kaplan Institute, told The Daily in an email.

History Prof. Keith Woodhouse and Chinese literature Prof. Corey Byrnes will lead discussions and workshops on campus about environmental humanities, which Woodhouse loosely defines as combining scientific data with how people think about these problems.

“Part of our goal is to help figure out what exactly the environmental humanities mean,” Woodhouse said. “The idea is that environmental issues and environmental problems and environmental concerns, which are often thought of in fairly technical terms, actually always have a more humanistic component.”

The only date set for the new program thus far is Nov. 4, when Byrnes and Woodhouse will discuss the subject with faculty and graduate students. Woodhouse said feedback is already greater than expected: He anticipated receiving 10 to 20 responses, and roughly 50 people have signed up for the email list.

The Kaplan Institute’s events, including speakers and art shows, will be open to all Northwestern students starting in January. Woodhouse said he is close to confirming with three speakers for Winter and Spring Quarters: Dale Jamieson, author of “Reason in a Dark Time”; Nicole Shukin, author of “Animal Capital”; and Ursula Heise, a University of California, Los Angeles professor whom Woodhouse called a leader in the environmental humanities field.

Woodhouse pointed to a lack of action on climate change as an example of why these academics approach environmental issues in this way.

“There are reams of data on the facts and conventions of climate change, and yet the science has only very slowly moved the nation’s administrations and international bodies to take political action,” Woodhouse said. “(Political change) has as much to do with people’s attitudes and how people think as it does with what we know scientifically.”

Woodhouse, who researches American and environmental history, said that when it comes to issues of climate change, having backgrounds in different cultures helps fuel the discussion of responsibility across countries, societies and socioeconomic classes. Byrnes approaches the subject in the context of Chinese society.

Weinberg freshman Calvin Anderson, a current Kaplan Scholar, said he is interested studying environmental issues through this lens.

“Environmental issues and humans and the humanities are inherently linked … it’s important to acknowledge that,” Anderson said. “Finding new ways to look at it, to inspire people our age to actually act on it and make change, it is really important.”

The Institute identified the environmental humanities as a field to create new research on campus a few years ago, Wall said.

In the fall of 2014, the program hosted a talk called “The Humanities in the Age of Ecological Catastrophe” in its annual dialogue series. That September, Kaplan brought on its first postdoctoral fellow in the environmental humanities, Sheila Wille, who specializes in environmental history. Woodhouse said Wille will contribute to the environmental humanities workshops through her contacts in the field.

“We’re not just translators,” Wille said. “These are new ways to talk about environmental issues.”

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