- Citizen HumanitiesTeaching Life Overlooked as Interdisciplinary Ecology
"Literature, as I see it here, is the speaking and messaging of the species with which we share the soil and air and water. This is disturbing. It is intended to disturb."—Laurie Ricou, "Disturbance Loving Species"
In the Anthropocene, humans weigh on the earth in a manner that has profound consequences for all species. Despite abundant data underscoring the global scope and accelerating pace of species decline and extinction, many people do not have an informed or affective relationship with most animals (beyond companion animals) or with other species.
To address this problem and to think about sustainability and resilience on an increasingly human-dominated planet, this essay describes a pilot project conducted between 2013 and 2015 that was part of the Humanities for the Environment project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Arizona State University, in partnership with the University of Oregon and York University, Toronto, convened the second of the Humanities for the Environment workshops, Multispecies Relationships in the Anthropocene, in February 2014, to bring together key environmental humanities researchers to formulate and envision a new biocultural ethic. The outcome of this workshop, and the focus of this essay, was a pedagogical project titled Life Overlooked, which seeks to raise questions about the consequences of ecological transformation and control of urban and wild animals and plants. [End Page 96]
Three courses, with common elements, were taught at the University of Oregon, Arizona State University, and York University. Each course was designed from a common syllabus template, first drafted by Stephanie LeMenager at the University of Oregon and then revised by Cate Sandilands and Joni Adamson for their own specific course needs and student groups.1 One of the main components in each of these courses was the assignment to each student of the creation of a digital portfolio that would be built on an interactive WordPress digital platform specifically created for the Humanities for the Environment (HfE) project. To create this portfolio, each student was asked to conduct interdisciplinary "foraging" designed to collect components from the natural and social sciences, humanities, arts, education, and personal experience. Students would read and write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; take pictures; make drawings or other artwork; create short performances or films; and then pull these parts together to create a portfolio focused on one "species overlooked," defined by Cate Sandilands in her version of the syllabus as "any being that tends for the most part to fly (or swim or creep or crawl or tendril or flit or ooze or flagellate or sit apparently unmoving) under the radar of everyday human attention," clarifying that "the dynamics of attention and inattention will, of course, be a topic of class conversation, as well as what constitutes a 'life.'"2
This foraging methodology had many inspirations. LeMenager was inspired by the ground-truthing practice of investigating, photographing, and recording sites of interest that she had seen and participated in through the Center for Land Use Interpretation and by the social practice art of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers. Sandilands began with her great admiration for Laurie Ricou's work in addition to a commitment to thinking about multispecies biopolitics in deeply particular terms. And Adamson pulled from her experimentation with narrative scholarship—the subgenre of creative, ecocritical nonfiction she employed in her monograph—and her experimentation with face-to-face and online pedagogies. Although their specific paths into Life Overlooked vary, all three scholars acknowledge the pedagogical innovations and intellectual boldness of Ricou, an influential founder of the interdisciplinary approach to environmental studies now known as the environmental humanities. For many years, Ricou taught a graduate seminar called Habitat Studies at the University of British Columbia in [End Page 97] the Department of English, which he saw as disturbing conventional English courses by demanding attention to interdependencies rather than interpretations. Ricou's class offers a model for the portfolio design that became integral to Life Overlooked, a design that summons a deep ecosocial habitat by focusing intently on a single, overlooked species.
Building on the diverse methodologies noted above, the Life Overlooked pedagogical...