Host: Dr Scott Slovic, University of Idaho, United States
Nikoleta Zampaki, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece (co-coordinator)
Julia Ditter, Northumbria University, United Kingdom (co-coordinator)
Vanessa Badagliacca, University of Lisbon, Portugal
Yvonne Kaisinger, University of Vienna, Austria
Stefano Rozzoni, University of Bergamo, Italy
Nicolai Skiveren, Aarhus University, Denmark
Kenneth Toah Nsah, Aarhus University, Denmark
On 6 April 2020 seven enthusiastic ecocritics from various countries in Europe joined Dr Scott Slovic from the University of Idaho to discuss the values, opportunities and challenges of capitalising on their research to become public intellectuals.
Scott Slovic opened the webinar with an introduction into the world of the public intellectual, a figure that is explored in depth in the writings we prepared for the webinar. Rather than letting ourselves be pushed to the side while scholars in the fields of economics, public policy, law and the natural sciences dominate public debate and thereby determine the decisions that are made, it is important that as humanities and arts scholars we recognise the value of our own research and find out how we can contribute our perspectives to the public conversation to benefit our fellow citizens.
In our work, Slovic pointed out, we often engage with humanitarian and ecological issues in much depth and the thoughts and ideas we develop in such research are immensely relevant to broader public conversations. Even though we might feel that the fundamental ideas about the meaning of human nature and other phenomena that pertain to civilisation as a whole may not appear pertinent to the daily urgent conversations in the news, our positioning within environmental studies urges us to acknowledge that we can contribute something by offering strategies and forms of communication that are crucially needed to deal with the concerns of today’s world.
The current and pertinent example that Slovic provided us with to think through our role as environmental humanities scholars within wider public debates is the global pandemic of Covid-19. To think about our role as scholars and/or public intellectuals at the current moment, in the middle of an enormous global crisis that clearly has ecological dimensions to it as well, he states, is both ironic and fascinating and urges us to think about possible pathways. Can we contribute any ideas arising from our research to the current debate around Covid-19? What do we have to say about the crisis – either directly or with relation to issues that are connected with it – from our perspective as experts in the environmental humanities? How and where can we communicate our ideas? What concerns may be pushed to the background now that Covid-19 dominates the headlines but that are still relevant and happening at the same time?
Referring to the webinar readings, Scott Slovic emphasised that not everyone may be comfortable with writing for the public. This may be due to a feeling that we are not properly trained, that we do not know where to start, or even that we may philosophically disagree with the idea that every scholar should also be a public intellectual. While the choice to write for the public is a personal one, those who decide to go down this path will find valuable advice in the readings of the webinar (listed again below). Two aspects were especially highlighted as central to the endeavour by Slovic: the primacy of relevance which requires us to find a hook based on current concerns rather than focusing on a broader and more timeless context, and the difference in length of op-eds that are very short compared to academic articles.
After Slovic engaged with the reading and elaborated on the examples provided in those articles, the other webinar participants joined the discussion. The topics raised included the following:
- How can we work out the relevance of our research for current public debate, especially if our research is situated within in smaller subdisciplines of ecocriticism such as ecofeminism, geocriticism, or geopoetics?
- How to avoid fatalism when talking to the general public about ecological devastation.
- How we can navigate our responsibility as public intellectuals, especially when many of the ramifications and outcomes of our writing may be unforeseen.
- As primarily literary scholars, how do we do justice to our expertise in literary analysis but at the same time maintain the relevance for the broader public?
- A discussion of examples that successfully combine storytelling, natural sciences and politics
- The relevance of sharing our terminology and concepts from literature, poetry, and even theory to the benefit of our fellow citizens
- How to start building our voice as public intellectuals and in which direction ecocriticism will develop
- How we can gain more support within academia at PhD level for public work when publication records of employment committees are focused on scholarly journals, and writing for the public may be seen as detracting attention away from our more important scholarly writing
- The discussion at the end of the webinar encompassed broadly the question of how to get started and find scholarly platforms that allow PhD students to practice writing op-eds and gain experience before approaching editors. Through the readings and the focus on both ethical as well as practical aspects of becoming a public intellectual, the webinar covered a lot of ground and generated ideas for our individual, and possibly collective, efforts to mobilise our research in order to engage with public debate.
Gasman, Marybeth. “Introduction.” Academics Going Public: How to Write and Speak Beyond Academe. Routledge, 2016. 1-7. (reasons for taking our research to the public and where to start, “Quick Tips” section for all chapters)
Heller, Donald E. “Writing Opinion Articles.” Academics Going Public: How to Write and Speak Beyond Academe, edited by Marybeth Gasman. Routledge, 2016. 21-37. (useful, practical advice on writing op-eds, how to structure an op-ed, what to be aware of in terms of length, tone, language)
Stein, Kat. “How to Write an Influential Press Release.” Academics Going Public: How to Write and Speak Beyond Academe. Ed. Marybeth Gasman. Routledge, 2016. 105-117. (useful, practical advice on writing press releases, for those who feel less comfortable writing an op-ed but would like to share their work with journalists who can then translate it into a journalistic article, the importance of storytelling)
Slovic, Scott. “Editor’s Note.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Volume 26, Issue 3, Summer 2019, Pages 513–517, https://doi.org/10.1093/isle/isz080. (discussion of a new, fifth wave of ecocriticism, that can be understood through Rob Nixon’s emphasis on apprehending environmental and social crises, the desire to go beyond ‘business as usual’ and contribute more widely to public debate)
—. “Language Matters: Environmental Controversy and the Quest for Common Ground.” Public Land and Resources Law Review (University of Montana, 2018): 1-21. (about the importance of language, storytelling and evoking emotions in environmental communication)
Examples of academics writing for the public:
Major, William. “Thoreau’s Cellphone Experiment.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 16, 2011).
Malamud, Randy. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” The Huffington Post (February 7, 2015).
Slovic, Scott, and Paul Slovic, “Climate Change Is Genocide for Island Cultures.” The EugeneRegister-Guard (31 July 2016). [LINK]
—. “‘Bright Words’: Finding Common Ground in Environmental Negotiations.”Transformations/OpenDemocracy (1 February 2019). [LINK] (especially in comparison with the scholarly article on this topic published as “Language Matters: Environmental Controversy and the Quest for Common Ground.” Public Land and Resources Law Review (University of Montana, 2018): 1-21.)
—. “The Arithmetic of Compassion.” The New York Times (4 December 2015). [LINK]
Danticat, Edwidge. “Poetry in a Time of Protest.” The New Yorker (January 21, 2017). [LINK]
Kunreuther, Howard and Paul Slovic. “What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change.” Politico (March 26, 2020). [LINK]
Nsah, Kenneth. „Comment Expliquer La Timide Mobilisation de la Jeunesse Africaine Pour le Climat?” The Conversation (July 1, 2019). [LINK]