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Knowledge in Translation: Speaking Across Disciplines at the CHE Graduate Student Symposium

The first presentation of the 8th annual Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) Graduate Student Symposium turned on an artful phrase: “A serendipity attributable only to pagan gods.” By this, historian Kevin Walters meant the discovery of maladies and unique traits in nonhumans that, in often unexpected ways, help scientific research flourish. He described how the catastrophic loss of cattle due to mysterious hemorrhaging led to the discovery of Coumadin, a blood thinner. That serendipity—for the researcher, not the cow—led to over $300 million in profits for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

Kevin was among eighteen presenters, representing nine disciplines, who spoke at the symposium on February 4, 2015. CHE’s mission provided the unifying theme: “to investigate environmental and cultural change in the full sweep of human history.”

A historian, a geographer, and an ecologist walk into a conference room. . .

Sitting in the audience, I was struck by how many important debates about nature have taken place in UW’s Science Hall, where the symposium was held. In the 1990s, UW geographers William Denevan and Thomas Vale published opposing essays on the so-called “pristine myth,” debating the extent to which pre-Columbian American landscapes had been influenced by people.1 Their debate was an important chapter in “social nature” scholarship, which challenged the conceptual separation of nature and society. Around the same time, historian and geographer William Cronon wrote “The Trouble with Wilderness,” an essay that brought the social history of wilderness to light. All three scholars argued for greater sophistication in understanding how humans both impact physical environments and construct symbolic ones.

Their message has been heard. Symposium presenters described a dynamic world in which hydropower dams violently reshape the landscape; carbon serves as intellectual and material currency; migrants trace lines of desire across cities captured by neoliberal imaginations; economists try to value ecology; and land managers learn to translate environmental ethics into the language of money. They spoke in the languages of history, archaeology, education, ecology, environmental policy, sociology, literary criticism, geography, and art history. Their array of analytic perspectives painted a picture of a world in flux. Each talk offered a brief glimpse of the world as seen and constructed by an always partial perspective. Taken together, they offered a provocative commentary on how humans do and should live on Earth.

Symposium co-chairs Spring Greeney and William Voinot-Baron offered the day’s opening remarks. Together with a committee of other graduate students affiliated with the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, they organized the symposium. Photo by William Cronon. Click to enlarge.

“These woods are lovely, dark and deep, but they have fiduciary promises to keep.”

– Andrew L’Roe, Forest and Wildlife Ecology. With apologies to Robert Frost.

How does one value the contributions, complications, and lives of the nonhumans that make our world possible? This theme ran through many presentations. Geographer W. Nathan Greene discussed commodification and decommodification in terms of the resettlement of Laos’ citizens due to hydropower development. This resettlement, Nathan argued, introduced private property relations for the first time, while swidden agriculture was rendered invisible to economic valuation. Historian Grace Allen offered a strikingly different take on the commodification of nature, telling the story of 1960s camping culture in France, when summertime views of the Mediterranean became a widely consumed product. Sociologist Laura Alex Frye-Levine introduced the field of ecological economics with this provocation: can we ecologize the economy instead of economize ecology? Rather than attempting to place a monetary value on all natural resources, ecological economists work to define economics as one value system among others such as justice and sustainability. Meanwhile, geographer Erin Kitchell suggested that placing a monetary value on the services that nature provides—topsoil conservation, erosion control, water purification—may not be a straightforward act of commodification. Instead, it may translate normative ecological values into a quantitative language, making them easier to account for.

These talks all considered the complexities of valuation and consumption. Technical fixes such as monetizing ecosystem services or establishing carbon markets offer tangible solutions to environmental problems. Cultural analyses, by contrast, tell the story of how we’ve arrived at a point where nature as commodity is more understandable than nature as kin, spirit, or ethic. Told side-by-side, the different narratives underscored the need to address the climate crisis as an urgent technical issue and as a complex moral question that more readily reveals itself in gradual change across generations. This was interdisciplinary reflection at its best; cultural criticism and historical description were put into conversation with scientists’ best efforts to confront immediate material concerns.

“You can’t put diapers on pigs.”

The CHE symposium also presented challenges particular to interdisciplinary spaces. It’s difficult to evaluate or fully take in such a wide range of scholarship. For example, I’m a geographer with a penchant for social theory. My ear tunes into some arguments and struggles to do justice to less familiar languages. As David Callenberger, a graduate student in the English department, spoke about the violence of accumulation by dispossession in a fictionalized 1990s Cape Town, my imagination readily followed his descriptions of the highly defined, yet always transgressed, geographies of race, class, and global economics. David and I speak different dialects, but they’re close enough for understanding. However, I sometimes ran up against the limits of my own knowledge and linguistic capabilities. When Chloe Wardropper, a PhD student in the Environment and Resources program at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, spoke about the difficulties of demonstrating the effectiveness of a novel water quality monitoring program, I latched on to an offhand comment. In the Q&A following her talk, she quoted an area farmer as saying, “you can’t put diapers on pigs,” referring to the limits of any management program that deals in live animals. When I asked her to review my comments in a draft of this essay, Chloe graciously replied, “This wasn’t actually the main message of my talk.” Turns out she wasn’t talking about diapers, she was talking about how to prove compliance with the Clean Water Act. Indeed. As a listener on the hunt for metaphors, I was poorly positioned to meaningfully attend to technical matters.

These issues of language, perspective, and skills trouble interdisciplinary spaces. PhD training gives scholars the tools to deeply investigate the world with a lens narrow enough to sharply focus on our topic of choice. It also means that much of the world remains a poorly defined, colorful blur swirling around our specializations. The interdisciplinary “CHE space” challenges us to soften our pinpoint focuses in order to understand how others study environmental change and how they might speak to our own work. This humbling endeavor confronts us with the limits of the specialization that we nevertheless work so hard to achieve.

In addition to formal question-and-answer sessions, discussion about the day’s presentations spilled over into lunchtime and happy hour conversations. CHE members consider this informal community building to be invaluable. Photo by William Cronon. Click to enlarge.

“A school within a school.”

Michael Goodwin, founder of the Concord River Institute in Concord, Massachusetts, gave the symposium’s keynote address. Goodwin has developed a semester-length, interdisciplinary high school program. Dubbed a “school within a school,” it seeks to dissolve disciplinary boundaries and focus learning on key questions that students pursue through a combination of art, history, math, and the sciences. Arguing that disciplinary divisions create the illusion of a world divided into many discrete pieces, Goodwin focused on educational coherence. His dynamic presentation, which ranged from Walt Whitman, to Bobby McFerrin, to Annie Dillard and artist Andy Goldsworthy, sparked discussion not only about disciplinary boundaries but also about the need to make learning a social endeavor.

Perhaps CHE’s key contribution to the university community is, in fact, its facilitation of learning as a social endeavor. Social as in “go sledding together during the symposium lunch break,” but also social as in “develop knowledge through the negotiation of varied epistemologies, methodologies, and narrative frames.” By coming together to give and hear such wide-ranging talks, CHE members practice the value of a broad education across the humanities, social sciences, arts, and natural sciences.

This might be an unremarkable conclusion were it not for the current political climate in Wisconsin. The office of Governor Scott Walker released a proposed state budget shortly before the symposium. In addition to $300 million in cuts to the university system, the Walker administration also narrowed the University’s mission from cultivating “heightened intellectual, cultural and humane sensitivities” to meeting the “state’s workforce needs.” Commentators across the nation cried foul and the changes were dropped. The cuts remain. This vision of the University as a technical school precludes the breadth of thought that the CHE space provides. In this context, it seems more important than ever to face the challenges of disciplinary translation and to spend a Saturday immersing ourselves in the diversity of approaches to researching environmental change. Doing so reaffirms our own commitment to education as a moral endeavor, not just mastering the skills of a discipline. Long live the Wisconsin Idea.

Featured Image: Attendees included students and faculty from across the campus as well as community members. Presentations included three formal panels, Michael Goodwin’s keynote address, and short “3×5” talks, in which students briefly introduced research projects in three minutes and with five slides. Photo by William Cronon.

Charles Carlin is a PhD candidate in the department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also works as a wilderness guide. Charles studies the use of wilderness spaces in education, psychotherapy, and spirituality. He holds an M.A. in Counseling & Psychology from Prescott College. Contact.

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  1. See Thomas R. Vale, “The Myth of the Humanized Landscape: An Example from Yosemite National Park,” Natural Areas Journal 18 (1998): 231; and William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992): 369-85. 

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