Interdisciplinary Oceans with Jason Bell and Frankie Pavia

PPEH fellow Carolyn Fornoff and I recently took our visiting colleagues Frankie Pavia and Jason Bell on a tour of Mary Mattingly’s public art installation #WetLand: a houseboat retrofitted as an experimental space for sustainable living. On the boat, we chatted about Jason and Frankie’s pedagogical collaborations. Frankie, an oceanography Ph.D. student at Columbia, and Jason, an English Ph.D. student at Yale, are designing an interdisciplinary course tentatively called “Oceans in Science and Literature.” As Jason explained, the class “approaches the phenomenology of oceans as being both a product of scientific description and of different forms of cultural and social expression. We try to create a space where students are able to learn about scientific knowledge and the kinds of knowledges that are circulated through cultural and social expression without privileging one form or another.” Frankie added that they see the oceans as a source of “access points to connect those two perspectives and the two disciplines.”

Frankie and Jason’s course gets it energy from integrating very different disciplines. However, such collaborations can present major challenges for scholars trying to understand each other’s disciplinary languages. I asked Jason and Frankie, who are former roommates as well as academic colleagues, how they speak to each other about their work.

“We’re still kind of working through ways to talk to each other about what our work is about and why each of us ought to care about the other’s work,” Jason said. One of their strategies is simply to make reading lists for each other, providing orientation to their respective fields.

Recounting an experience in which a scientist was dismissive of #WetLand – indeed offended by the project – I asked Frankie, who had enthusiastically clambered all over the boat, if he could speculate as to why the scientist might have reacted that way. Frankie replied, “Scientists have this way of thinking that’s grounded in some kind of truth that goes beyond empiricism… It’s based on laws… that expand beyond what the eye can see. Science is about probing the invisible…. In a way what art is doing is taking that and turning it on its head, saying what is important is our sensory experience and our empirical view… and how we interact with what’s around us…. I imagine what’s going through this guy’s mind is that he didn’t imagine that this piece of art would lead to any sort of solution to a problem. He didn’t see any progression of it to something greater than itself. I can sort of see that… but I guess I also appreciate what they’re trying to do here. It’s just a different way of understanding the human interaction with the environment.”

I for one was excited that #WetLand could be a generative space precisely for these kind of conversations: where scholars tap into and reanimate each other’s different environmental knowledges. Scientists, humanists, and artists finding ways to talk is particularly pressing when it comes to environmental issues, whose scope and urgency demand interdisciplinary problem solving.


BY Brooke Stanley

English Ph.D. Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Fellow, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities