In 2017, Colby College received a four-year grant of $800,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop a campus-wide interdisciplinary initiative, Environmental Humanities: Interdisciplinary Research, Teaching, and Laboratory Learning.
The initiative is the culmination of many years of environmental humanities programming by the Center for the Arts and Humanities, the Environmental Studies department, the Colby College Museum of Art, and other departments across campus, which have been building interest and desire among faculty and students to address issues of global significance and forge a stronger link between the college’s traditional strengths: environmental science and the humanities.
The Center for the Arts and Humanities celebrates the pivotal role of the arts and humanities in the intellectual life of the College and the community, and it promotes the long-term benefits of the skills developed through humanistic research.
The Center’s programming centers on an Annual Theme, a campus-wide, interdisciplinary conversation exploring a particular topic through exhibits, speakers, performances, and course work. Faculty interest in environmental humanities led to the adoption of the 2015-2016 humanities theme, Human/Nature, which explored through interdisciplinary perspectives the relationship between humans and the natural world. Drawing its sponsors from Art, Cinema Studies, and Environmental Studies, Human/Nature became the first humanities theme led by faculty both within and outside the humanistic disciplines. The scale of the participation in this theme was also unprecedented. Fifteen departments, drawn from all four academic divisions, offered 63 theme-based courses to over 1,200 students; many of these courses were humanities labs. In the same year, the community was stimulated by over 50 different Human/Nature events: speakers, panels, film screenings, performances, exhibits, readings, symposia, and workshops. The success of the Human/Nature theme demonstrated that a coordinated approach acts as a force multiplier; faculty and students discover interdisciplinary connections and confront fresh perspectives as the theme prompts them to attend events outside their disciplinary areas of expertise.
The intellectual and academic core of Colby’s commitment to the study of the environment resides in the Environmental Studies (ES) program, an interdisciplinary program built from the natural and social sciences. The ES program has grown significantly over time, and is now the fourth largest major on campus. As an academic program focused on pressing global challenges evident in our everyday lives, efforts within the program have long tied academic training with experiential learning. Individuals associated with the ES program, both students and faculty, played key roles in building Colby’s campus-wide sustainability efforts (the construction of the biomass plant, reaching carbon neutrality, the establishment and hiring of a campus sustainability coordinator, the recycling and food waste reduction efforts, and the college’s recent commitment to a solar panel facility that will produce 15% of campus electricity).
Environmental Studies has been building a stronger connection to the humanities over the past decade. The Mellon Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies series at Colby has brought celebrated writers to campus and developed new collaborations with the Center for the Arts and Humanities. Distinguished Fellows included acclaimed nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, award-winning scientist, activist, writer Carl Safina, writer and food activist Francis Moore Lappé and noted writer and climate activist Bill McKibben.
The department also held a Community Culture and Conservation conference which brought together noted writers, scholars, performers, public officials, and community members to facilitate discussion, make connections, and seek solutions to economic and conservation challenges faced by communities in Maine, New England, the country, and the world. The conference was held in 2016 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service and the centenary of the establishment of Sieur de Monts National Monument, now Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi River and the first national park in Maine.
The significant expansion of the Colby Museum of Art in 2013 made it the largest in Maine and one of the finest college museums in the nation. In fall of 2015, the museum hosted a two-day workshop, in collaboration with the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, designed to develop innovative teaching strategies that connect the concerns of environmental studies, ecocriticism, and the sciences with the visual arts. The Mellon Curator of Academic Programs continues to work regularly with faculty across the college−from Anthropology and Biology to Religious Studies and Science, Technology and Society (STS)−who are incorporating images into courses on a variety of environmental topics.
The Museum has also brought notable artists practicing at the interface of the arts and the humanities and the environment. In the spring of 2016, in collaboration with The Center for the Arts and Humanities, the museum hosted acclaimed American architect and eco-artist Maya Lin. In her public lecture, Lin surveyed her art’s engagement with environmental materials and problems over the last three decades. She also introduced the audience to her multi-media project, “What Is Missing?” This project presents science-based artworks on a digital platform, documenting the ways in which human needs have negatively affected the planet’s biodiversity. Lin argued that ethical questions and issues of human rights are inseparable from confronting global environmental challenges.
Her messages echoed those of numerous scholars, writers, and artists who shared their views with the Colby campus in 2016, as part of the Human/Nature theme. But it was her presentation that illustrated most strikingly the collaboration of the arts and of digital research and scholarship in the project of building a more just world. Maya Lin’s presence on campus generated lively conversations in classrooms, labs, and green spaces at Colby that continued long after her departure. Faculty and students were energized by her visit, and looked forward to further engagement with artists like Lin who are motivated by desires to address environmental change through the humanities.
Cross-Campus and Cross-Institution Collaborations
The fall 2015 exhibition Tiny Giants: Marine Microbes Revealed on a Grand Scale featured artistic photographs created by scientists at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, which depict at large scale marine microbes that provide a foundation for life in the ocean and on land. It was installed in three locations on campus: Miller Library, Olin Sciences Library, and the Colby College Museum of Art. The museum displayed Tiny Giant #2, Canary in the Coal Mine, alongside the print Vorticity Field by American artist Terry Winters, in the museum’s Davis Curricular Gallery. This juxtaposition demonstrated how both artists and scientists use images to explore questions about the human relationship to the microscopic world.
For several years, students have been taking advantage of the superb research opportunities presented by Colby through the Changing Oceans Semester Program, a semester-in residence program at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. The fall of 2015 was the first time that students in a Studio Art course at Colby had interacted with the science-based program. The Center for the Arts and Humanities and Environmental Studies organized a field trip to East Boothbay to visit Bigelow and learn more about the microbes depicted in the photographs. At the same time, sculpture students at Colby read scientific texts to develop a greater appreciation of the critical role the microbes play in sustaining life. After a semester of inspired learning, these Art and Environmental Studies students presented their responses to the Tiny Giants exhibition at Colby’s Miller Library. Having created artworks of carved limestone in a wooden armature, the sculpture students entered into conversation with science students who had studied at Bigelow Labs for the fall semester; together they reshaped each other’s perspectives on the value of environmental art and science collaborations.
Colby Magazine launched the Colby Climate Project, exploring the ways faculty, students, and alumni are working on the overarching environmental issue of our time—climate change. Scientists, researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists are using Colby as a platform as they look for possible solutions to the climate challenge.
The college has also partnered with Up East Foundation, which is owned by the Wyeth family of artists, to use an island the foundation owns in Muscongus Bay as a learning laboratory. Colby classes travel to Allen Island to study the chemistry and ecology of the bay, create documentary films, and learn about the cultural geography of Maine. The Environmental Humanities Initiative also uses this resource for environmental humanities courses, projects and events, such as the Summer Institute in the Environmental Humanities.