The Ecocriticism and Environmental Humanities group is actually a forum, one of the first wave of new MLA groups to be created after a structural reorganization that did away with the divisions and discussion groups that had been in place since 1974 in favor of a more democratic and dynamic forum structure.
This group is innovative not only because of its participation in this new reorganization and its subject matter but also because of its use of MLA Commons as a platform for conversation and collaboration beyond the annual convention. In the week since one of the group’s members, Cristin Ellis, first suggested that she’d “love to see this forum become a place where we can brainstorm classes and resources for teaching”—drawing attention to members’ roles as pedagogues and peers rather than just as presenters—others had posted no fewer than seven syllabi for discussion. From Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s grad seminar Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies to Karen L. Raber’s upper-level undergraduate course Animals in Literature and Stephen Siperstein’s Introduction to Climate Change Fiction, a course for nonmajors, the syllabi are a fascinating insight into a wide-ranging and timely subject.
We asked the group’s executive committee—Sharon O’Dair, Stacy Alaimo, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Stephanie LeMenager—to talk to us about their shared interest in ecocriticism and their plans for the now official forum.
If we asked you to define ecocriticsm in layman’s terms, what would you say?
Ecocriticism as a scholarly practice within English studies includes a vast range of topics, theories, methodologies, and historical periods. Two things pull the field together: (1) it usually addresses something having to do with the concepts of ecology, nature, the environment, or nonhuman life and (2) the scholarship is motivated by ethical and political concerns for the environment, nonhuman animals, and environmental justice.
Were you using the Commons to talk ecocriticism / environmental humanities before? Did you belong to any groups that discussed the field?
Not all of us were using the Commons before the new ecocriticism and environmental humanities forum was developed. Some have been members of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, since its beginning in the early 1990s and active on their LISTSERV for many years; others are more recent members of that organization. It has been exciting to see ASLE become a large and vibrant collective. We are grateful for the many people who have served in leadership roles for ASLE, who have done a tremendous amount to establish the fields of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Without ASLE and the work of many, many scholars working in the field, this MLA forum would not have been possible.
When did you realize there might be enough interest in ecocriticism to start an official MLA forum?
Because of our work in the field, our affiliations with ASLE, and our work with undergraduates and graduate students, we knew interest was strong and growing. Work in this field is exciting, complicated, and important. MLA’s development of a new forum structure offered an opportunity to put together a proposal, which we were delighted to be able to do. And delighted to see approved!
Now that there is an MLA forum, what are you looking forward to doing with it?
At the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver, we hosted a happy hour / brainstorming session that drew about seventy people. As the new executive committee walked through the crowd, we saw founders of the field of ecocriticism and environmental humanities, people who’ve been working for twenty years in these fields, talking with graduate students who attended because they were curious and wanted to get involved. Social gatherings that foster new professional connections are as crucial to our forum’s mission as are the innovative roundtables we plan to sponsor year after year. The MLA draws such a diverse group of scholars—many teaching in languages and literatures other than English—and we’re interested in bringing that diversity of fields and methods across languages and historical periods toward ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Although both ecocriticism and the environmental humanities aspire to be interdisciplinary, historical, and theoretically varied pursuits, representation of languages other than English, of periods before the nineteenth century, and of the most contemporary theoretical turns hasn’t always been strong. The MLA forum offers an excellent opportunity to build strengths and scholarly community in these heretofore underrepresented areas, complementing the work of ASLE, the ASA, and other professional organizations where ecocritical work is done.
Any particular ideas about how you’d like to use the Commons for the forum?
We are already using the Commons as an easily accessible space in which to discuss topics like what sessions to offer at the next MLA convention. Suggested by the membership and surprisingly popular so far has been the uploading of files to create an electronic shelf where we can exchange syllabi with one another. Such teaching resources are invaluable for inspiring those who have not taught ecocriticism previously to integrate environmental studies into their classroom and for challenging those of us who have been in the field for a while to think about other ways of constructing our courses. We want the Commons to be a place for conversation, collaboration, future forging, and the sharing of resources.
Any advice for emerging scholars and graduate students interested in learning more about the environmental humanities?
Graduate students and emerging scholars interested in the environmental humanities should consider crossing the divide between the sciences and the humanities, learning to engage with both academic and popular scientific accounts. With new materialism and other nonhuman turns, it has become even more important that the environmental humanities not remain within the traditional domains of the humanities proper but that it cross over and consider science, as nearly every topic pertaining to the environment has had and will have a scientific dimension. The question of how humanities scholars should engage with science remains a thorny one and thus is a potentially rich area for emerging scholars. Talk with scientists, sit in on a class, attend lectures—on the other side of your campus. We also encourage interested graduate students to spend more time on “their” side of the campus, but with scholars in other humanities disciplines—history, philosophy, art history, religious studies, and so on. While ecocriticism has been practiced primarily as literary and cultural studies, the environmental humanities asks for a more broadly interdisciplinary humanities to emerge around specific environmental crises, such as global climate change. It also assumes a public humanities outreach that may emerge through new kinds of publication, such as blogs and social media, or in interdisciplinary collaborations that result in curated events, such as performances or museum installations. We share an interest in the collaborative, multimedia, and public models of scholarship and are eager to highlight those in our forum activities.