As part of the Global Ecologies – Local Impacts conference at University of Sydney, myself and my fellow ASLEC-ANZ postgraduate representative, Emma Davies, convened a workshop for postgraduate students and early career researchers on ‘Pathways in the Environmental Humanities’.
We were very pleased to be joined by Professor Iain McCalman, Professor Joni Adamson and Dr Thom van Dooren for a Q&A session offering useful strategies and advice to scholars pursuing a career in this fledgling field.
Some of the advice is specific to the Environmental Humanities, but much of it could apply to any humanities or social science field. I’ve summarised the bits I found most useful below.
Know your home discipline, and be an expert in it. While there are a growing number of interdisciplinary Environmental Humanities institutes around the world, the current reality is that most scholars operate from a departmental base such as history, literature or geography and pursue their EH interests from there. This means that you should not expect or aim only to apply for roles with EH in the title or position description. Being an expert in your home discipline first and foremost is key, as while your EH speciality may be an attractive add-on to employers, it is unlikely to be the primary requirement for many roles. Thom recommended adopting a ‘two-track’ strategy, pursuing conference and publication opportunities in both your home discipline and in the Environmental Humanities simultaneously.
Publish. It is one of the most begrudged aspects of academia, but quantity matters. Discuss publication opportunities with your supervisor early in your degree, and try to come up with a plan to carry you through to completion and beyond. Target the leading journals and book series in your field, respond to calls for special editions or edited collections, and plan to present at at a least a few conferences that publish peer-reviewed proceedings. And, when turning up for your first academic job interview, be sure that you are ready to discuss your publication strategy.
Be visible online. There are many ways to do this without becoming a complete social media fiend. Start by setting up an Academia.edu profile and ensure you keep it up to date. Create a blog to share short versions of papers you’ve presented or expound on the bits you can’t fit in your thesis. Set up a Twitter account and follow the leading academics in your field – then feel your sense of satisfaction (and perhaps trepidation!) grow as they follow you in return. Of course, this suggestion comes with the usual caveats – think about how your message might be received before you post to social media, and use and understand the privacy settings on Facebook and Twitter to control the aspects of your profile that are publicly visible.
Interdisciplinarity: blessing or curse? For many, the interdisciplinarity of the Environmental Humanities – the openness and willingness to share ideas and research with scientists, geographers, artists and more – is one of the most appealing aspects of the field. But working across disciplines comes with its own host of challenges. Which discipline will be the primary funder of your research? Will they expect more of your time and research outputs in return? Will the expertise of both disciplines be valued equally in the research, or will one way of knowing take precedence? (No, humanists are not just there to communicate science to the public!) There is certainly a growing enthusiasm for interdisciplinary projects at universities, and the logistical challenges should become easier to navigate as the projects become more widely accepted. For the moment, it pays to recall point 1: don’t underestimate the importance of being an expert in your home discipline first and foremost.
Consider ‘outsider’ roles. Finally, it is worth considering roles outside the university as well as inside. As the wide-scale social and cultural impacts of anthropogenic climate change become more widely recognised, there is a growing need for humanities scholars to be a part of conversations about mitigation and adaptation. While, thanks to the internet, there are now a great many more opportunities for academics to act as ‘public intellectuals’, these opportunities must always be balanced alongside the formal demands of an academic career (recall: publish or perish). If you want to devote more time to public engagement, pursuing a career outside the university may be the answer.
This is a brief summary of a much longer 90 minute discussion. There were many more pieces of advice and suggestions that I could include – like the importance of having a ‘champion’ on your supervision committee who you know will have your back if things go pear-shaped; or the benefits of collaborating with colleagues with shared interests.
It was, on the whole, a very positive session, which painted a bright picture of opportunities for aspiring EH researchers and practitioners – opportunities that will hopefully only increase as the Environmental Humanities further establishes itself as a recognised field.