Last week, the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) held its annual meeting here in Madison. I originally intended to continue with my series of posts on the physical landscapes of river deltas, but after a fantastic program of paper sessions, workshops and roundtables, a mind-blowing plenary talk by Jenny Price, and much, much more, I feel like I can‘t not put together some thoughts on the event.
It was the first time I’d properly attended this particular academic conference and I was really struck by the energy and creativity of this community of thinkers and writers. One session titled “In Pursuit of the Natural: Nature and Bodies in American Environmental History” gathered scholars exploring some really rich intersections between human biology, laboratory animals, gender and environmental politics, disability, and ideas of labor and nature. I’m thinking of two papers here in particular.
Jessica Martucci gave a talk about the history of La Leche League (a breastfeeding activist organization started by young Chicago mothers in the 1950s) and fears around toxic breast milk that emerged in the latter 20th century.
Jennifer Seltz presented a fascinating piece on African clawed frogs and early pregnancy testing (many of these animals, after being harvested in South Africa in the 1940s and 50s, were shipped to doctors’ offices in North America and Europe where they were kept as living pregnancy tests. A female patient’s urine would be injected into a female frog. If the animal ovulated within a day, that signaled the woman was pregnant).
These two papers were, I think, emblematic of what I loved about the conference, and I’m not exactly talking about their content (though that was certainly very, very cool). Martucci and Seltz brought together scholarship from a wide range of disciplines in thought-provoking, and revelatory ways, all while telling really engaging stories. What’s more, it’s not hard to see how those stories can really matter for people outside the academy.
Digital Environmental History
That possibility of mattering beyond the academy brings me to what was by far the most inspiring event of the meeting. Yesterday, about seven or eight presenters (mostly historians, though certainly not all) packed a conference hall for a roundtable on “digital environmental history.” Work in the “digital humanities”—at least as I understand it—can range from simply blogging, to quantitative analyses of historic texts (e.g., a keyword analysis of Shakespeare’s collected works), to historic data visualization, to massively complex and interdisciplinary multimedia projects.
A lot of exciting stuff has been happening around the digital humanities lately and, especially since I’m no expert, I won’t try to summarize that field of scholarship here (for background, I recommend checking out Dan Cohen’s blog, Bill Cronon’s columns as president of the American Historical Association, and Digital Humanities Now). What I will say is that, in addition to being a set of tools and approaches, the digital humanities also have some pretty far-ranging implications for the academy and knowledge production. And those implications will seem familiar for anyone who has thought about the social and political transformations the web as a whole has engendered over the last two decades: new forms of public discourse and participation, massive challenges to copyright, the de-centering of expertise, new opportunities for communication and collaboration, etc., etc. etc.
Accordingly, the presentations at the roundtable were remarkable for the breadth of exciting, novel, and above all (at least for me) publicly oriented work they represented. Two examples are particularly illustrative:
Jessica van Horssen told us about how she had transformed her dissertation about the town of Asbestos in Quebec into a digital graphic novel as well as a series of EHTV episodes. Van Horssen’s work has created space not only for collaborations with researchers across disciplines (such as epidemiologists), but also for dialogue with members of Asbestos’s community.
Finn Ryan, meanwhile, showed us a fantastic short film from Climate Wisconsin, a multimedia project he directs and produces oriented toward community participation and education around climate issues in the state.
I’m not going to hold forth on the ways new media are creating upheaval in the academy. Far better thinkers and writers than I have been discussing the digital revolution with eloquence and insight for a while now. But I will say that van Horssen and Ryan’s work shows concretely just how much potential there is for the digital humanities to reach beyond the often-maligned ramparts of the Ivory Tower. It’s through these kinds of projects that I’m starting to see how digital technologies, paired with the work of creative, community-oriented and critically minded scholars, can facilitate important exchanges between the academy and broader publics.
And these media don’t only hold great promise in terms of producing work that better serves and is more accessible to the people whose tax dollars pay for scholarly research. They also create a space for envisioning new forms of scholarly production (like a graphic novel or short film) and new opportunities for interdisciplinary and community-based collaboration.
If you’ll permit me a metaphorical stretch to keep with the themes of this blog, I’ll suggest that digital environmental history holds the potential for making some long-standing boundaries around environmental scholarship—form, expertise, participation, audience, and so on—a great deal more porous.
Of course, since I really am new to thinking about all of these issues, I can’t claim to offer much critical or revelatory insight. Nor can I come even close to summarizing the most exciting developments in the digital humanities. Instead, I’d suggest taking a glace at some of the following resources:
Maria Bustillos’s essay on Wikipedia for The Awl
Bill Cronon’s AHA column about Wikipedia
Wilko von Hardenberg’s piece on the #envhist hashtag
A Journal of American History roundtable on “The Promise of Digital History”
Tools and primers
More people (and things) to follow
The #envhist hashtag on Twitter