Interdisciplinary Matters: The Questions of Environmental Studies

What does it mean to teach interdisciplinary methods to prospective practitioners of the field? Does it assume that the instructor herself is an expert in approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities? Must environmental studies students be trained in all three approaches? Is knowledge about the environment only legitimate, even “true,” when derived from interdisciplinary inquiry?

When she was first assigned “Research and Analysis in Environmental Studies,” Dr. Sarah Jaquette Ray imagined the course as an introduction to methods of environmental studies. But she quickly realized that her introductory students needed to ask questions about environmental studies as a field. It is not sufficient to simply expose students to a smattering of disciplinary approaches—to learn how to design a survey, get IRB clearance, or count something. For environmental studies, as an interdisciplinary field, is concerned with more complex and fascinating questions. What “counts” as an environmental problem and who gets to define it? Whose way of knowing is privileged in defining that problem? Who benefits from potential solutions? What different definitions of nature are assumed? Covering an arbitrary range of qualitative and quantitative methods misses an opportunity to engage students in questions of power/knowledge when thinking about “nature.” As one student reported in an end-of-the-term evaluation, “we have to be very careful with the questions we ask and how we go about finding the answers.”

The objectives of the course are for students to 1) gain a critical perspective of the role of research in determining what counts as knowledge and truth about the environment, 2) explore critiques of academic research and analysis through lenses of power and privilege, and 3) become critical consumers of environmental messages as they prepare to become producers of such messages. Students are asked to investigate the how and why of environmental claims, not just the what. Because the curriculum asks majors to synthesize ideas from courses in a range of fields, students need to understand how different disciplines approach the world, and why they are different. Otherwise the coursework can feel incoherent; they are doing algebra in “Environmental Economics,” interviews in “Environmental Problem-Solving,” and Foucauldian discourse analysis in “Ecofeminism.” ENST 395 allows students to understand why different fields approach environmental concerns in such different ways.

Sarah teaches the course as a seminar, with an emphasis on reading and discussion, to help students recognize the extent to which dominant knowledge about nature is mediated through culture. The course reading list helps students explore the interplay between power, knowledge, and epistemology; critiques of science (so students learn that scientific claims are situated); the value of interdisciplinarity in environmental studies, and as a critique of academia’s investment in colonial knowledge production; situated knowledges; traditional ecological knowledge; and media and environmental communication. To showcase interdisciplinarity, Sarah invites her ENST colleagues to visit class sesssions. A final essay assignment asks students to draw on the readings and wrestle with the core questions of interdisciplinary work: What is gained or lost in drawing from multiple academic disciplines?  How do we weigh empirical approaches of the natural sciences with, say, oral traditions of subsistence communities, or subjective, embodied, situated knowledge.

Because claims of truth—especially about nature—are typically framed as scientific fact, students come to the major uncritical about how such knowledge is constructed and situated.  By the end of the semester, however, Sarah’s students will have difficulty accepting environmental arguments uncritically. Following Robin Grove-White, they recognize that environmental issues are more than simply physical. They are also inescapably philosophical, ethical, political and cultural. The particular ‘objective’ environmental problems and issues which society recognizes at any one moment are shaped and determined by processes of human judgment and social negotiation, even in their very definitions.(1997, 109; cited in Foster 1999, 361)

Students in “Research and Analysis” in Environmental Studies learn that every claim about the environment—whether it emerges from the natural or social sciences, the humanities, or the media—is embedded in social structures, reveals a particular way of knowing, and relies on rhetorical devices, all of which will help them as they put their interdisciplinary training to work in the world.

Sarah Jaquette Ray has a PhD in Environmental Sciences, Studies, and Policy from the University of Oregon. She was Assistant Professor of English and Program Coordinator of Geography and Environmental Studies at University of Alaska Southeast from 2009-2013. She is currently Assistant Professor and Program Leader of Environmental Studies at Humboldt State University.