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ASEH 2015, Day 4: It’s what you DO.

From my perspective, the final session day of the 2015 American Society of Environmental History national conference connected general threads of conversation, rounded the jagged edges of exchange, and ultimately set us up for new work this year. National conferences are fantastic because clearly they function as the literal meeting ground for wide-scattered scholars. Colleagues who worked together for decades “caught up” socially and professionally, while newbies like me met other graduate students and season veterans, and we cherish these connections. The sessions I attended today seemed to tie up loose ends and touch on topics that might be on the periphery, but also topics that hold a continual place in academic conversation.

This was a long week and the morning sessions materialized early. Early. Normally a morning person, there was a real struggle to get out of the hotel bed. I was glad I did, though, because the EnviroTech breakfast was well worth it. I had the opportunity to talk with numerous ASEH members – professors and graduate students alike – which is extremely valuable in my book. I encourage anyone who attends ASEH in the future to sign up for this event, as proceeds go to support scholarship opportunities.

Briefly, a few of the day’s sessions:

“Stoking a Fierce Green Fire: How Filmmakers and Environmental Historians Work Together to Inspire and Educate,” Gregg Mitman (moderator, University of Wisconsin-Madison), Mark Madison (US Fish and Wildlife Service), Susan Flader (University of Missouri), Jessica Plumb (DC Environmental Film Festival)

The DC Environmental Film Festival happened to occur at the same time as the ASEH. Unfortunately, because I was so busy with panels (and then writing in the evenings), I had little time to go to a show. In fact, the festival continues this week and if you are in the area, I encourage you to attend. Luckily, the ASEH scheduled a roundtable so we can have some conversation about film and environment. I wish there was more people present at this session. The topic is incredibly relevant to the broader environmental discussion because – guess what – people love watching movies!
The broad questions for the panelists were:
– How do we recognize an environmental film when we see it?
– How can environmental film festivals push the boundaries of what people think of environmental film?
– What do we think of when we think of an environmental film?
– How can we push the boundaries of an environmental film?

Dr. Plumb asserted that when we think of environmental film, often we think of it as only an “issue” product. Importantly, though, these kind of texts reach out beyond the boundaries of documentary film “to engage in the intersection between journalism, art, entertainment, and scholarly endeavors.” Additionally, “It is an opportunity to explore the relationship between humans and everything else.” I found these statements brilliantly profound. This opens the door to many more possibilities beyond the traditional notion of an environmental film. As a part of this discussion, one panelist noted that his students often state their “favorite” environmental film is Avatar (2009), to which the statement received a few snickers from the audience. But, in reality, this is how an audience can think about film. While not directly environmental, the 3-D entertainment provoked the students to think about the world in a different way. Dr. Flader, an Aldo Leopold scholar and producer of a film of the same subject (Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic of Our Time), told of the difficulties in creating a documentary without any “real” skills in filmmaking. This was fascinating because of her clout as a scholar and the discussion illustrated the ways (1) that scholars continue to learn and (2) that successful people just “do.” [Or, at least that was part of my take on it!]

At the end of a wide-ranging discussion on film and filmmaking, Dr. Mitman provided his awesome list of the “Top 10 Environmental Films of the Last 100 Years.” Here it is for your reference:
Nanook of the North (1922) – first environmental film
The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936)
The Birds (1963) – dystopian, nature fights back
Silent Running (1972) – isolated habitat
Never Cry Wolf (1983) – field biology
Last of the Mohicans (1992) – disappearance of a native people group/a type of landscape
Winged Migration (2001)
Being Caribou (2005)
Grizzly Man (2005)
King Corn (2007) – humor & a message, great for students

[Honorary Mention]
Return of the River (2014) – directed by Jessica Plumb

“Listening to Nature: The Sounds of Conservation,” Jeremy Vetter (chair, University of Arizona), Aaron Allen (University of North Carolina-Greensboro), Alexandra Hui (Mississippi State University), Ann Warde (Cornell University)


This stinking panel! This session spoke volumes to my personal research. I also believe that this is a tremendously important topic for environmental historians. It was also surprisingly diverse. I do not know about most attendees, but sometimes in the business of the conference I do not always read the titles of the papers presented before I decide to go. In my mind, I assumed that the panel would comprise of ecomusicology papers. While the first by Dr. Allen certainly met those expectations, the following papers by Dr. Hui and Dr. Warde exceeded assumptions. Allen provided an excellent analysis of nineteenth-century Italian periodicals written about the opera, but which focused primarily upon the natural elements within the operas discussed. Themes include stories of nature, (literal and metaphorical) beasts in the opera, and the obsession with animals as symbol. His conclusion is that though environmental history, as a discipline, began in the twentieth century, “ecological sensibilities of culture began well before this.” Hui was unable to attend the conference, but had a dedicated graduate student present her paper and then Hui was available via-Skype for the final discussion. Her research was fascinating. She determined that the dramatic presentation of nature sounds through the platform of radio programing in the early-to-mid part of the twentieth-century allowed Americans to engage with the natural world in new ways. Using technology, audiences connected with “sonic snapshots of nature” through Cornell Radio Talks, for instance. Her conclusion that “the sonification of nature through radio was a way to foster a new awareness for nature” could be enjoyed in a new location: the comfort of one’s home. Finally, Dr. Warde received an enthusiastic reception from the audience with her analysis of the history of the discovery of whale sounds by scientists in the mid-twentieth century. She explained that a new understanding of communication, perception, and use of technology helped spur new awareness for the protection of these large marine mammals.

“Jobs for Environmental Historians: From Tenure-track to Alt-Ac,” Bathsheba Demuth (moderator, University of California-Berkeley), Bartow Jerome Elmore (University of Alabama), Laura Kolar (US Department of State, historian), Joshua Howe (Reed College), Gregory Rosenthal (SUNY-Stoney Brook)
…or as I call it, the “How to get a job panel.”

There were high hopes for this session. While the panelists delivered on many points, there were a lot of questions/concerned that remained. They clearly had the experience to relay wisdom to those of us in the throes of graduate school. Though Joshua Howe insisted that his experience is limited because he “got one post-doc, one job, and has one book published” – Dr. Howe, that is good enough for me. Here I will list some points made in the discussion:

– Find a mentor who will teach you the practical aspects of finding a job.
– Simulate that experience. Practice the interviews. Write cover letters. Etc.
– While the institutions interview you, you also interview the institutions. This is where you will spend your life, perhaps, and you must enjoy the people you work with.

– Look for jobs outside of academia, there are often other options.
– Look into student career programs at the state or federal level.
– Pursue academic journal writing.

– Academia is not a meritocracy. (though this sparked some discussion at the end with questions concerning “ivy leaguers” and those from less well-known institutions)
– Doing what makes you happy will help you find a “fit.”
– Think about academia decisions with “rank” in mind (aka – what is most important to you and when?)
– Tell the truth when interviewed. Do not try to be someone else.
– Think about other things that could also make you happy.

– Search committees really want to see experience. Branch out. Develop your CV to display a wide variety of interests and skills.
– Look for work in unusual places – this shows diversity.
– Pursue causes that you are passionate about.

Ok. I will admit that a few of these points were not overtly stated, but were translated by me during conversation. Rosenthal in particular had a few really interesting points and I encourage you to visit his website.

The reasons that this roundtable was slightly problematic is that many of the attendees assumed that there would be more talk about alterative academic jobs, when in fact most of the conversation revolved around how to get that tenured position. Yes, there are many graduate students who see this as the ultimate goal. I know that it is certainly on my list. However, many of us (including myself) see the academic world imploding (ok – “implode” may be too strong a word) and want advice on other options for Phds. Additionally, the panelists, though highly skilled and with great advice, seem to be speaking to their Ivy League counterparts. As a Penn State student I did not feel entirely out of the loop, but I heard comments from attendees who felt they were not able to pursue the same routes as the panelists due to their academic home base. Now, this is a pretty controversial idea. I do not necessarily agree that one is locked into a certain trajectory because she or he goes to a state school versus Ivy League. Yes, often “who you know” makes a big difference, but it is also what you do. If you attend a small school but pursue publishing, attend conferences, make connections, and pursue the goal, you have a good of a chance as anyone. Additionally, as Howe also suggested, you cannot rely on the brand name of your institution to get you a job (the worst advice given to him: “The Stanford name will carry you.”)

I am not sure what attendees were looking for in this panel. I know that there is a weirdness and uncertainty that covers the future like a blanket for those of us in graduate school right now. I am sure this is no different than previous generations, but we seem to point to a ton of factors to explain the unease: the economy, the job market, MOOCS, the crisis of the liberal arts education, etc. No one will give us the answer just as no one will hand us a job. It is our responsibility to work toward whatever goal we have in mind. There are various routes to take. Yet, the one clear idea that emerged from this panel is that often the track is serendipitous.

Tomorrow I will post final thoughts on the conference, taking a broader stance than previous posts.

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