E is for Environment

This coming weekend, March 4-6, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) will host E is for Environment: New Vocabularies for the Past, Present, and Future, a graduate student-organized symposium open to the public, featuring original research from graduate students and faculty from across North America. Edge Effects editor Rebecca Summer had the opportunity to sit down with CHE graduate students Kate Wersan and Brian Hamilton, the lead organizers of the event, to talk about the exciting collaborative engagement that attendees can expect. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

E is for Environment posterRebecca Summer: CHE hosts a graduate student symposium every year, but this year’s E is for Environment symposium is a much bigger event than ever before. For the first time, the conference is three days instead of one, includes scholars from across the continent representing 14 different disciplines, and includes talks and events open to the public. What were some reasons for the change?

Brian Hamilton: Like many academic organizations, CHE has to decide whether to devote resources toward its own members and building relationships and community among them, or toward serving the larger public and the production the knowledge in general. The CHE calendar is full of inwardly directed events, like our traditional CHE graduate student symposium, our annual Place-Based Workshop, and the biweekly colloquia, among others, that are really about CHE members being together and working together. We have also put on some memorable outwardly facing events, like The Anthropocene Slam or the Tales from Planet Earth film festivals. This year’s expanded colloquium, featuring presentations by about a dozen CHE grads and faculty and 17 visiting scholars, allows us to do both, and that’s really exciting.

Kate Wersan: The other big reason the larger symposium happened this year is that CHE has gotten a lot bigger since its founding in 2007, and there’s a lot more momentum for graduate students organizing something on a larger scale. For several years there had a been a sense that we could do something like this, and I think last year, especially with the success of grad-led projects like Edge Effects, there was a sense that in fact we really should. So there was a call for volunteers last spring, and a group of us got together and talked about whether or not we could put a larger symposium together. We came out of the meeting feeling like the grads did have the capacity and that there was a lot of momentum for it.

BH: We’re also using this symposium as a chance for us here in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to mark the centennial of its namesake: Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator, and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson—a beloved figure here in Madison, and a pivotal one in the political and environmental history of the 20th-century United States.

RS: In addition to being a bigger conference, this year’s symposium also has a theme: E is for Environment: New Vocabularies for the Past, Present, and Future. Can you talk  about why you chose this theme and what it means?

KW: E is for Environment came about through a series of meetings last spring where graduate students from many disciplines, with a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of a longer symposium, sat around a table, looked at each other and wondered, “What can we say to each other that is constructive and will help us in our careers but will also produce something that we can all use?” We stumbled around trying to figure out if there was some good general topic, and we realized that at root what we wanted to talk about was why we were all at the table. We’re all interested in the environmental past, but we define environment so differently. So maybe before we could have this bigger conversation about anything else, we needed to establish what was on the table. The name E is for Environment reflected the sentiment in the room.

BH: We also took inspiration from Nelson himself. When promoting the first Earth Day in April 1970, he gave speeches around the country, including here on this campus, in which he was emphatic that we should define environment broadly. Environment and environmentalist were words that were just coming into common parlance at this time, and he was especially mindful of critics, both on the right and the left, who were suspicious of environmentalism. Many on the left saw it as a potential distraction from the War in Vietnam and insufficiently attuned to pressing matters of social justice. Nelson insisted that environments were not just wild places and national parks—which, of course, he is famous for championing—but also the places where people live, and that poverty, hunger, and dilapidated housing were environmental problems.

KW: We wanted to take that move, too—not necessarily adopting Nelson’s definition because we all felt like we wanted to update it or change it or add to it—but to honor Nelson by redefining environment for ourselves.

BH: New definitions allow us to ask new questions about the past and to imagine new futures.

RS: What are you hoping will be some of the outputs, both informal and formal, from this symposium?

KW: One of the big outputs, something we’re hoping will live beyond the conference, is what we’re calling a glossary. We asked everyone who is giving a paper to submit a word, which is essentially his or her substitute for “environment.” So, if you couldn’t use the word environment in your research, how would you explain what it is you’re examining? Each panel of four presenters then has four definitions that go with it to spark conservation and debate. It’s been really exciting to see people working through those words and putting them together. For instance, Andy Davey, a Geography graduate student at UW-Madison, talks about “creation” in his work on environmental and religious education at North American colleges, while Jack Buchanan, another UW-Madison graduate student, talks about “process” in his work on trandisciplinarity. It’s exciting to see what “creation” and “process” can say to each other, and how two different words and two different ways of framing research help two projects that otherwise seem to have very little in common. Suddenly, they have a whole lot to talk about and to get into what it is they’re trying to say to the world.

In addition to the glossary, for me, another important output is the conversation it seems to be enabling, even before the symposium. We organized the symposium to be more than just the three days. There was Robin Kimmerer’s talk at UW-Madison in December about language and environment, followed by an interview with her on Edge Effects. Leading up to the weekend, we also interviewed Nancy Langston, one of the symposium’s visiting faculty scholars. Following the symposium, Edge Effects will feature interviews with the other visiting faculty, Scott Kirsch and Sarah Besky. Even people who can’t be there for the weekend can participate and the ideas feel like they’re percolating through the year.

RS: The symposium has a lot of extra events this year—paper workshops, a faculty roundtable, and a service outing to name a few. Which are you most excited about?

Kate Brown posterBH: While I can’t wait for all the papers and presentations, I’m really glad we included the service outing at the UW Arboretum. This is a small, intimate conference—by design. Our call for papers drew a fantastic response, and we were sorry to turn away so many strong submissions. But by inviting to campus only a select few, we stand a good chance of building long-lasting relationships. Nobody will be rushing to the airport after they give their talk. Everyone’s staying for all three days, and we’ll be together in all sorts of settings. Where better to really get to know someone than tromping about clearing brush in late-winter Wisconsin?

KW: I’m most excited about the welcome and keynote addresses. We’ve talked before with Edge Effects about Kate Brown, and her talk “P is for Place: The Nature of Embodied History” is going to be awesome. I think her work is fascinating, and she just received the John Dunning prize from the American Historical Association. I’m also really excited about Paul Robbins’s talk, “A Vocabulary for the Repressed: Native Presence, American Trauma, and John Muir’s Wisconsin,” in part because this is the first time that he is sharing this research with a wider academic audience, and we feel honored that he wants to share this with CHE.

BH: And that’ll be true throughout the symposium. No one’s on a book tour; there are no career retrospectives. We are showcasing works-in-progress by graduate students, the next generation of environmental scholars.

KW: One of the coolest things is the sense that the work presented at the symposium is cutting edge in many disciplines, not just, say, environmental history or geography alone. Here are 14 disciplines and people sharing what is coolest about recent research. It’s really neat that so many grads want to share that kind of work here with CHE—that this is a good place for grads to have difficult interdisciplinary conversations. I can’t wait to see how it comes together.

The full schedule and list of presenters for the E is for Environment symposium can be found at www.eisforenvironment.org. The event will be held March 4-6, 2016 at UW-Madison and is free and open to the public.


Featured image: Graphic design for the featured image and symposium posters by Garrett Dash Nelson.

Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” He is also the lead author of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental MovementContact.

Rebecca Summer is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is broadly interested in changes to the urban built environment and the implications for city dwellers. Her dissertation is about the history of alleys as public space in American cities and the role they play in urban development, social life, and neighborhood change. She has also researched the relationship between historic preservation and gentrification. WebsiteContact.

Kate Wersan is a graduate student in the UW-Madison Department of History where she studies early American environmental history and cultural history. Within those fields, she is most interested in microhistories of time-consciousness, land use, and agriculture. Contact.

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