Along with another of our “Student’s Corner” bloggers, I wrapped up my final paper last week for a guinea pig class at U of R this semester. The class was called “Literature and the Modern Environmental Imagination” and was taught by a professor who was also new to the school, Leila Nadir. As both an English major and an Environmental Studies-turned-social-sciences self-designed major, I have always seen the importance of interdisciplinary studies. However, environmental issues aren’t often considered in the light of the liberal arts, as was evident by the beginning class sessions in a room mixed with natural science, social science, and liberal arts majors. Environmental Science and Environmental Studies majors, for example, take classes primarily (almost exclusively) in the natural science departments. Given the lines of work they will probably end up doing, this is entirely logical. Yet we must not forget about the human faces behind environmental degradation and catastrophe.
Professor Nadir works with digital media and art studies, environmental art, literature, and a new wave of critical analysis called “ecocriticism,” along with many other innovative combinations of art and environment. Despite my agreement with her emphasis on the liberal arts side of environmental issues, I was still surprised by the wealth of environmental information that I had not noted before in literary works I had previously read, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Thoreau’s Walden, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. We read lesser-known works as well, one of which was Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place about the destructive nature of the capitalist powers of colonialism and tourism in her small home island of Antigua. This moving work in particular–which was written primarily in the second person narrative, pointing literary fingers at the first-world tourist–drove my final paper into the realm of environmental justice, which incidentally broke down any and all barriers of environmental academia for me.
Environmental problems cannot be surveyed on a purely scientific basis. The U of R’s new minor in Sustainability shares this mindset, with requirements in the departments of Philosophy, Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. Still, academia must continue to find connections where there are pre-established disconnects (as in categorized and strictly departmentalized education), especially in the realm of the environment. Such disconnects in environmental terms can turn a blind eye to nonscientific but equally relevant parts of problems that are interdisciplinary by nature (no pun intended). Environmentally-minded literature provides a voice for too many of those who may be silenced in politics or in academia. Let’s hope that the U of R and more institutions like it continue to explore connections and overlaps amongst schools and departments, as it is vital in our ever-connected environmental world.
(On a different note, for a cool example of the fusion of graphic design, technology, and environmental thought, check out the Android app called “Indeterminate Hikes +“–a work of Leila Nadir and artistic partner Cary Peppermint.)
Written by Kathleen Shannon, Class of 2013