Performing our Belonging: A report back from ANU’s 7th biennial Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop

Photo by Cameron Muir. Workshop participants visit the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

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In late May, I travelled to a place on earth almost antipodal to my home in Kingston, Ontario: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia. I embarked on this lengthy journey through space and time, across the Pacific Ocean and the international dateline, to spend one week learning from some of Australia’s foremost environmental history writers.

ANU’s 7th Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop brought together nineteen PhD students, two workshop alumni and five faculty members for five days of learning and developing our craft. Among the majority of Australian scholars, there were at least five international participants including myself, two students from Germany, one from Sweden and the international guest of honour, NiCHE’s own Dr. Alan MacEachern.

The workshop was an opportunity to get feedback on our work from experienced and emerging Environmental Historians and to think critically about the discipline of Environmental History itself. Our discussions centred around five significant themes of Environmental History; environment, history, time, place, and species. Together, we explored strategies to address these themes in meaningful ways for our imagined audiences.

An important lesson emerged from our discussions: a fully imagined audience is key to good writing.  Cameron Muir, workshop alumni and post-doctoral fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, said that as writers, we must take the responsibility to know our audience. We should resist the drive to frame our relationship to our readers in market terms and instead imagine ourselves as part of a group of people who are interested in similar things. The purpose of the Humanities, workshop co-organizer and faculty member Dr. Libby Robin reminded us, is not to pitch science and research to policy makers. Nor is it to find acceptance with a general audience. Alessandro Antonello, PhD student at ANU’s School of History, characterized the specific network of scientists and diplomats surrounding the Antarctic Treaty System as an important and meaningful audience for his research to engage. So much more than gathering and communicating facts, writing environmental histories is enacting our connection to a group of people who share our interests and concerns. To write is to perform our belonging.

Dr. Tom Griffiths, workshop co-organizer and faculty member, encouraged us to approach our writing as a performance of ideas. As part of the preparations for the workshop, students were asked to prepare a 15-minute “performance” of our research for the group. The use of the word performance, rather than the much more comfortable and familiar presentation, seemed to produce some added self consciousness in the students, each of us now forced to attend to the most interesting ways to communicate the importance of our research. Before this exercise, we may have been content to stand behind our PowerPoint and let the facts speak for themselves.

Students responded to this challenge in a variety of ways. Some reconstructed historical monologues from archival material and delivered them in character, some animated their own bodies to amplify the visceral elements of their story, some paid masterful attention to narrative arc, timing, and transitions, but all the performances had one thing in common: they highlighted the personal connections we all have to our respective research projects. These personal connections make the importance of our research understandable, not just for ourselves, but also for others like us. By understanding and articulating the personal importance of our work, we define our audience. By finding our voice, we can also find our community.

If we need to know ourselves to know out audience, then we must be self-reflexive. On the disciplinary level, this means we cannot focus only on the history of physical landscapes without attending to the history of concepts, like environment, history, and place, on which we rely. We might assume these concepts are eternal and ubiquitous, but historically situated actors with specific intentions and interests have carefully constructed them. For example, Dr. Robin’s forthcoming work on how the “environment” concept emerged out of post-war internationalism highlights the relatively short history of this oft taken-for-granted word and the partial perspectives it embodies.

Troubling our everyday language can open up new ways of thinking. Similarly, shaking up our ideas about writing can help to break down academic conventions that stifle our creativity. The workshop gave me the confidence to resist the “disabling metaphors of the university” and the permission to re-imagine my research process on my own terms. This does not mean, to be sure, I can eschew rigor and scholarliness. It means that I can make writing central to all stages of my research rather than a lamentable chore left over once the real work of research is done. By incorporating writing into all aspects of my academic life and allowing personal connections to come to the fore, I am able to connect with like-minded individuals and my experience as a doctoral student is enriched. By imagining my audience as a community to which I belong, rather than the consumers of my research products, the solitary act of writing becomes a performance of social connection based on a shared sense of urgency and importance.

I would like to thank all the organizers and participants of the workshop for an enriching and intellectually challenging week and for making me feel welcome in a strange land. I would also like to thank NiCHE for providing the travel grant that allowed me to attend the workshop.

You can see more photos from the event here.

Photo by Cameron Muir: Participants of the 7th Biennial Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia, May 30 2014.
Photo by Cameron Muir: Participants of the 7th Biennial Environmental History PhD Writing Workshop, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia, May 30 2014.
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Christine Grossutti

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen's University. I research the history of ecology within UNESCO and its Man and Biosphere Program (MAB) and current practices of sustainable development within MAB's Frontenac Arch Biosphere Reserve. I am especially interested in the the way hiking trails are related to different ways of understanding ecology and place.

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