Environmental Theory | Interdisciplinarity | New Learning Technologies
I’ve had the pleasure of doing research in a fairly wide range of fields during my professional career—perhaps this is what happens when one studies geography, religion, and environmental engineering! The below quickly summarizes some of my current research areas of interest; for other research areas, please browse my publications.
If you google “environmental theory,” you’d read about Florence Nightingale, which is not exactly what I do. (Though there’s a connection: by “environment” she means surroundings/connections vs. nature…same here.) It could be argued that environmental scholarship is so generally un-theorized that the term environmental theory is an uncommon one. There are, for sure, related areas such as environmental philosophy, and theoretical work in environmental sociology, and theoretical ecology. But there is much less scholarship of a cross-disciplinary nature, and if anything, environment crosses disciplines.
My work in environmental theory began as a geographer studying environmental ethics. Then I moved more into epistemological questions about how the sciences know nature, and challenges to those claims. Then I moved into ways in which science and religion (both viewed in a plural manner) intersect with what we know as nature. Then I considered nature as a domain of epistemic and moral authority alongside others (e.g., science, religion, the state). Then I looked at our ecological utopias and dystopias (dreams and nightmares…think sustainability and global warming), and what they say about us. I’ve also thought a lot about environmental theory in the pedagogical context of learning environmental studies.
Current work involves writing more than empirical research (which I seem to do less as my career progresses), and builds on my background as a geographer and oversight of our Mellon Foundation-supported Situating the Global Environment (SGE) initiative at Lewis & Clark College. I’m interested in what environmental scholarship would look like if it were grounded in place (central to geography and our situated approach at Lewis & Clark) versus the far more ubiquitous nature. To many people, place means the local vs. global, or the experiential qualities of a location; but to me, place embodies a host of important contradictions—primarily between the reified realms of nature/culture, material/ideal, and near/distant—we need to wrestle with more successfully in order to do good environmental scholarship.
My undergraduate degree was in the humanities; one of my master’s degrees was in the physical/life sciences; and my Ph.D. research was broadly in the social sciences. This makes me, well, confused—especially when I hear intellectual conversations that faithfully paint between the constrained lines of a particular discipline. The really important contribution of disciplines, to me, is that they are a community of people who have asked the same broad questions for long enough to start to have some answers. The limitation of disciplines is that we can start to believe they reflect some separable domain of reality: biologists, say, study life, economists study the economy (stupid), and historians study the past, and any connections (ontological, methodological, etc.) between these realms can be seen as intriguing but, well, optional.
Here’s the challenge: interdisciplinarity—by which I mean any sort of discipline-blending, whether cross-, trans-, etc.—is easy to say, but really hard to do in an intellectually deep manner that yields new insights. I’m interested in finding ways to teach and do scholarship that address this challenge, which may necessitate rethinking certain foundational assumptions. Bruno Latour, for instance, has urged practitioners of the social sciences to reimagine the social around associations (including those with nonhumans), and it may be these sorts of basic shifts that help us do deeper and more credible forms of interdisciplinarity.
Current writing work in this area follows that noted above under environmental theory, though in the context of interdisciplinarity I’m interested in the extent to which a variety of disciplinarians—humanists, social scientists, natural scientists—can meaningfully contribute. If we wish to build new foundations for interdisciplinary scholarship (e.g., on the hybrid notion of place), we also need to build bridges so that a wide range of scholars can cross into this new territory. Much like the story of the blind sages and the elephant, a full spectrum of disciplinary concepts and methodologies are necessarily in play as we make sense of this world.
New Learning Technologies
Teaching environmental studies in a liberal arts college has given me plenty of opportunities to deepen my ideas on environmental theory and interdisciplinarity. It has also afforded me an opportunity to bring a variety of new learning technologies into the classroom and curriculum. Effective learning is ultimately a matter of pedagogy, not technology, but technologies are always implicated. And when the objective becomes (as above) to rethink some basic assumptions in environmental studies, or to cultivate a more interdisciplinary approach, newer technologies may play a key role.
Current work is being done at multiple scales. In our Environmental Studies Program, my oversight of the SGE initiative affords a key opportunity to deploy and evaluate a huge array of new learning technologies we have integrated in this initiative. In our College of Arts & Sciences, I’m heading up a new initiative in digital field scholarship to explore synergies between the SGE initiative and similar efforts being deployed elsewhere on campus. And at the national scale, I am working in 2012-13 with NITLE, the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, to oversee a multi-institutional “sandbox” in digital field scholarship.