Written by Ayla Fudala
Each year since its reception of an Andrew W. Mellon Grant in 2017, the Environmental Humanities Initiative has funded a faculty seminar. Over the course of the academic year, a group of faculty share environmental humanities readings and discusses their opinions and research. The goal of the seminar, which is led by Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith Peterson, is to increase each participants’ knowledge of the environmental humanities, to facilitate cross-disciplinary discussion, and lead to the production of new courses and research in the environmental humanities. This year’s faculty seminar is the final seminar to be funded by the Mellon Grant, and it is the largest seminar yet, with 14 members.
In order to determine how the faculty seminar has influenced its participants, I sat down to interview Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian and German Rory Bradley, who has been part of the seminar for all three years of its existence. In his time at Colby, Rory has taught two Environmental Humanities courses: “Nature Philosophy’s Roots: The Legacy of German Thought in Environmental Humanities”, and “The Banality of Ecocide: Postwar German Environmental Humanities.” The former was created with the help of an Environmental Humanities course development grant. “Nature Philosophy’s Roots” focused on the roots of contemporary ecological thought in German philosophy and culture, and “The Banality of Ecocide” compares attempts to reckon with the genocide of the Holocaust in postwar German thought, literature, and art, to our current attempts to confront the ecocide and extinction happening around us today.
According to Dr. Bradley, the faculty seminar has influenced and improved his research and courses in a number of ways. First, he can use the seminar as a testing ground for new ideas. When in the early stages of formulating a new line of thought, he is able to benefit from the opinions, perspectives, and advice of his peers. This input steers his research (and eventually his courses) into new and innovative directions, and serves as a checking system to ensure that his work doesn’t veer off course into less productive or original directions. Second, other faculty seminar participants can recommend new authors to him, expanding his knowledge of the environmental humanities, and improving the quality and diversity of the readings he assigns in his classes. Some examples of texts which Dr. Bradley has been introduced to by faculty seminar participants, and which have subsequently influenced his research and classes, are the writings of ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood (who was recommended to him by seminar leader Keith Peterson), and texts on forest management in New England (which were recommended to him by fellow participant, Faculty Fellow in History Erik Reardon).
Finally, and most significantly, Dr. Bradley has found it extremely useful to be surrounded by different disciplinary perspectives, which have allowed him to step outside the bubble of his own discipline and see his research from a greater vantage point. “What’s important,” he told me, “is to really listen to what others are bringing, to hear the ways in which they can support, or critique, or understand, or even not understand, what you have to bring. You can learn as much from what others don’t understand as from what they do.” Being made aware of the aspects of his research which faculty from other disciplines don’t understand reminds Dr. Bradley that he has to speak to a broader audience than just those few people who share his discipline, and who have had similar experiences to himself. There are a vast array of perspectives and disciplines, and this is just as true of students as it is of faculty. By working with faculty from different disciplines, Dr. Bradley has found ways to make his research and teaching more universally understandable and compelling.
Dr. Bradley went on to speak in more depth about specific disciplines which have affected his research. He cited philosophy, which he says has “deepened and sharpened” the way he interacts with German literature. He also mentioned environmental historians and English ecocritics, who help him by providing “comparative angles” on the work he’s done. Then there are the sciences, often classed in a dualistic system as opposing the humanities. Working with scientists in the faculty seminar has been a truly enlightening experience for Dr. Bradley. Like many humanists, he originally believed that science’s “managerial approach” to environmental issues was inadequate, and that science continues to operate within the same deeply flawed cultural and intellectual space which originally created it. This space, and this scientific vision, seem to create a stark division between human and nature, a division that is at the root of human devaluation and exploitation of the environment. However, the scientists Dr. Bradley has spoken with have challenged these assumptions about scientific practice, arguing that this division is a fiction, and that that isn’t how they view their work at all. Dr. Bradley concluded that he needed to be more precise in his critiques so that he didn’t further entrench the difference between the sciences and the humanities. It is the social paradigm that needs to change, not scientific practice. Instead of exacerbating the divide, he believes that we should be created a partnership between the sciences and the humanities. And indeed, this is the overarching purpose and modus operandi of the environmental humanities—to unite the two disciplines which are often seen as opposites, to take the most positive tools from each, and unite them to devise more effective solutions to environmental crisis. As Dr. Bradley told me, “We each have a piece of the puzzle, which may yet come together to solve the bigger problem.”