Magical Infrastructures

2020 Visions for Environmental History

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This is the third post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa MighettoAlan MacEachernArielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.

Lisa Mighetto and Alan McEachern both talked about the sustainability of conferences and conference travel in the previous posts in this series: I’d like to open this discussion up to talk about sustainability in academia more generally. At the Rachel Carson Center—which our fellows have sometimes nicknamed Nirvana, or referred to as a magical place for academics—where I work as managing director, we have had many opportunities to both refine and redefine our vision for the future, and sustainability has been at the heart of this. We have always called ourselves a center, though this is a bit of sleight of hand, at least from an infrastructural perspective. In the terms of the university landscape (and according to our funders, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research), we are a large research project. And it is this word ″project″that has become more and more a source of worry as we’ve moved through our 12-year tenure (we turn 10 on 1 August 2019, if anyone is counting). Research projects in Germany, and probably in many other countries, have clear start dates, and clear end dates. They are not built to be sustainable.

Yet from the very beginning, we have always run the RCC in a way that implies perpetuity. When you’re part of a magical place, it’s only natural to engage in a little bit of magical thinking about the future. From a resource perspective, it seems scandalous to pump millions of euros into staff, fellows, libraries, publications, and infrastructure—fellowship programs, research projects, cutting-edge research—and then to just turn off the lights because the ″project″ has ended. The RCC is currently in transition towards what we hope is a sustainable future and we’ve been contemplating for several years now what the best route to this will be. Should we fund more fellows? Should we have more students? Should we publish more peer-reviewed work? Do more digital outreach? These questions are rooted in both conceptual ideas about where our field (environmental history/environment & society/environmental humanities) is going, and in issues of structure. What canwe get funded? What will the university pay for? What staffing, programming, and space do we need to keep going? What exactly isour magic, and how can we continue to reproduce it within greater constraints?

We’ve been thinking about digital and virtual avenues as methods of growth and sustainability for the RCC, along similar lines to the ideas sketched out by Alan MacEachern and Lisa Mighetto in the two previous posts in this series. Not just for environmental reasons, although we of course completely share the concern about the carbon emissions that result from academic conferences, but also for reasons of financial sustainability.

How do we make magic sustainable? Photo Credit: Rachel Carson Center

The fellowship program is based on real-world physical encounters between an incredibly diverse (international and interdisciplinary) community of people, but since the departure of our first groups of fellows, our alumni have been clamoring for ways to stay in touch, ways to keep up the RCC magic. We have tried to find ways of doing this — a lot has happened, digitally and virtually, in the last ten years. The RCC has made attempts to keep up and provide digital networking for our fellows: we’ve spent years trying to develop the best possible alumni database/virtual networking platform: this is still a work-in-progress, as social media and technical innovation shift around us. 

In other ways, the RCC is already practiced in using digital tools to the benefit of our community — we have been extremely successful with our Environment & Society Portal, our open-access publications in the journal RCC Perspectives, and our social media, including this blog. The most recent generation of fellows have been making further strides with taking the RCC home with them (credit Astrid Bracke), with digital writing group sessions and online Works-in-Progress meet-ups.

Now that the funding system is changing and the system that has facilitated so much for us and for fellows is no longer an option, we need to think clearly about the future. What are the lessons that have facilitated the RCC magic, and what is really important to us as we work towards 2020 vision for the coming years?

  • Digital infrastructure is necessary, but not necessarily easy, cheap, or truly accessible to everyone. When implementing digital tools, we need to consider carefully the purpose — what is this tool supposed to facilitate? Then invest in the best available and possible for the budget, and pay for the experts — or even the grad students who are being asked to run these systems. For these to work, they need to be well-funded. Perhaps plundering today’s travel budget for tomorrow’s digital infrastructure is going to be the way forward. 
  • Diversity is essential but does not happen on its own. You have to actively cultivate diversity, and this is the same on digital platforms and meeting places as it is in real life. We need to critically assess the ″standards″of excellence that we use, and consider how the standards themselves might carry bias with them. We need to acknowledge privilege whenever possible, and structure committees and governing bodies so that many different kinds of voices are represented. 
  • Time is worth more than most things — and is the most difficult resource to commit. We are victims of our own acceleration. One of the key ingredients of the RCC’s success has been the time that we offer our fellows — if we want to continue to lead the field in the future, we will need to find a way to provide for ″slow research″ and time for conversations and informal networking digitally as well as in person. Supporting slow research takes many forms—lobbying for different academic structures, pushing for more job-sharing models, providing more grants and funding for scholars, and using technology in the best possible way — but it will be the key to creating the infrastructures of the future. 
  • We shouldn’t forget the magic! Scholars need to enjoy what they are doing — and future infrastructures, whether digital, financial, or structural — need to facilitate enjoyment along with everything else. 

Keeping the RCC going in the future is going to involve pulling a decreasing number of rabbits out of a smaller set of hats, but keeping these guiding principles close will hopefully allow us to keep going. Creative solutions and magical thinking when it comes to infrastructure have got us where we are now, and I’m excited to see how we can sustain the magic in the future.

You can read the first post in this series by Lisa Mighetto here, and the second post by Alan MacEachern here.

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Arielle Helmick

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