Reporting on the ANU Environmental History PhD Workshop

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timthumb.php_In which our “OhCanberra!” recipient goes undercover in the land down under.

Since 2002, the Centre for Environmental History at Australian National University has hosted a workshop for PhD candidates in the late stages of their dissertations. The sixth biennial event was held in May of this year, when seventeen students and six faculty members gathered together in week-long seminar at the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society for discussions, presentations, social events, and support in various aspects of the writing process. Thanks to a travel grant from the Network in Canadian History & Environment and funding assistance from the ANU School of History, I participated in the seminar as a doctoral student all the way from UBC’s Department of Geography in Vancouver. I also played the role of a not-so-covert double agent: as a representative of NiCHE, I was paying close attention to the organization of the workshop and thinking about whether (and how) a similar event could be held for environmental historians here in Canada.

ANU professors Tom Griffiths and Libby Robbin were the main coordinators of the workshop. Tom is an environmental historian and a writer. His initial interests were in natural history collectors and in Australian forests, but much of his present work concerns Antarctic exploration, and he has a particular interest in the ice as a record of climate and historical consciousness. Libby is a historian of science interested in the connections between environmental knowledge and imaginations of territory and nationalism; she also works at the National Museum of Australia. We were joined by Heather Goodall from the University of Technology in Sydney, and international guest of honour Sverker Sörlin from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Sverker’s presence reflected how fostering international dialogue on environmental history was a cornerstone of the workshop. Other participants arrived from China, the UK, Philippines, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, and once in Canberra we met students from history departments across Australia. Encountering scholars from these different backgrounds imparted a sense of what ‘national’ schools of environmental history are concerned with. Many of the Australian students were writing on environmental changes brought about by insects, plants, and the modification of ecosystems, on the work of natural scientists and conservationists, or on the construction of nature in landscapes of tourism and commemoration. Lots of similarities could be found along a Canada-Australia axis, where EH is both an exploration of historical environments and a critique of Anglo-European cultures of nature persisting in (post)colonial liberal states.

As anyone who has visited a seminar room will know, productive dialogue depends on participants being willing to speak comfortably which often rests on having established a good basis for providing each another with constructive feedback. The coordinators offered no directives on how participants should relate to one another. Rather, through the organization of the conference they enabled an academic community to emerge organically. The seminars began early in the morning and ended each day around 2:00 pm, allowing the participants lots of time to explore the city or conduct archival research if they needed to. The result was that no single day felt like a marathon session, and the next morning everyone arrived fresh and with stories to share about his or her adventures through the capital city. Every day three students were allotted time to present on their research. Unlike the traditional conference model, however, workshop participants were challenged to ‘perform’ their dissertation in non-conventional ways. This technique was adapted by Tom Griffiths from the esteemed Australian ethnohistorian Greg Dening, whose own research on the theatre of history in the South Pacific developed the idea of performance as both method and practice. Not only did this get participants thinking differently about research and writing, but it influenced the social aspect of the workshop: taking away notes and the podium made the presenter/performers more vulnerable, but also showed how it was incumbent upon their colleagues not to let them fail. (Fortunately, the organizers were not too demanding – not everyone tried the performance!)

The final aspect of the Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop that distinguished the event and suggested that such a gathering would be worth convening in Canada was the social activity planned (and unplanned) in the evenings. Among the most interesting were Sverker Sörlin’s ANU-Swedish Embassy address on “Global Change, History and Planetary Futures: Stories from Sweden’s far northern Edge” and the discussion that followed. However, the most memorable occasion was at the home of Bernadette Hince, Arctic and Antarctic islands historian, who had past and present workshop attendees to her house for a huge home-cooked ‘family’ dinner. We then retired to her large private library for a set of intimate readings from popular writings by Sverker, Libby, and our host.

Oh Canberra! A very memorable workshop with many good designs to keep in mind – diverse participants and, importantly, lots of time to engage one another outside the seminar room. As the resident geographer, the only thing I noticed missing was a field trip. As a final word, I should probably give some advice to any future PhD students whom NiCHE might help visit the Canberra seminar in 2014. First of all, bring a coat – it’s winter down under while the flowers bloom in Canada. Second, it’s expensive – even though our currencies exchange on par, you’ll be paying $10 for a pint of beer (try the Malt Shovel Brewery’s James Squire Ale, named for the convict turned police constable who was also Australia’s first brewmaster). Third, talk to everyone you can and try to see as much as possible – it’s a long way to go!

Matt Dyce is a doctoral candidate in Geography at UBC in Vancouver supervised by Graeme Wynn. His dissertation research looks at environmental science, archival knowledge, and state formation in Canada from the 1860s to the present.


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