What is Gained and Lost in Translation? Part 2

Willoughby Beach north of Norfolk, VA (Credit: Billy Fleming).

Willoughby Beach north of Norfolk, VA (Credit: Billy Fleming).



'How to Talk About What You Do at Family Gatherings' was a Penn graduate student workshop several years ago. Its title evokes the recurring need to imagine our work within a context of information asymmetry, and to search for tactics and language that could bring our work out of the disciplinary weeds and into a more public consciousness. In the Environmental Humanities, we find ourselves in a similar frame – searching for the language and the tactics necessary to bridge the divide between this field’s disparate intellectual disciplines.

If the notion of interdisciplinarity is viewed reductively, this search might terminate in a transfer of methods across disciplinary boundaries. For Billy, this might mean writing poetry about the cultural loss and ecological change wrought by sea-level rise in coastal cities as a compliment to his ethnographic research. For Kaushik, this might mean giving his study of fictional naïveté a behaviorist turn in a laboratory setting. This approach is, in essence, an intellectual casserole: each discipline’s simplest ingredients thrown together, lightly seasoned, and baked into a superficially satisfying serving of comfort.

But this seems like an insufficient response to such a critical problem. What if the Environmental Humanities were less about an amalgamation of methods and more about a gathering of concerns: concerns for, but also crucially of communities, refugees, and species? In this way, we believe that our work can be less focused on objectification - and more on process, action, and transformation. As we negotiate the uncertain terrain of this year’s PPEH curriculum, we will continue to seek out spaces – real and imagined – where we can all come together.