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Digital Environmental Humanities Network

These are my conference notes on a Digital Environmental Humanities Network workshop. This workshop was help Sept. 7th and 8th, 2013 in Montreal and organized by Stephanie Posthumus and Stéfan Sinclair. These notes are being written on the fly with poor network access so bear with me.

There isn't a web site for the workshop, but there is a web site for the emerging area, Canadian Environmental Humanities.

Some of the other neat web sites mentioned include:

Saturday, Sept. 7th

In the morning we had a lightning round where participants talked about their environmental history research and projects. Here are some of the interventions:

Jim Clifford talked about a cool Digging into Data project that is doing light mining of a million documents having to do with Victorian commodities trade to the UK.

Brett Buchanan talked about continental philosophy and environmental humanities. He has been working in the area of animal studies.

Adraian Ivakhiv talked about how science and technology are not going to solve ecological problems alone. He then suggested there is a false tension between the environment and culture. We need the humanities to bring a historical and critical perspective to issues. He does ecomedia and/or ecocinema. He looks at media and cinematic representations of nature and the environment. He looks at how cinema imagines environmental futures and how understandings are constructed.

Jill Didur talked about a neat locative game she is developing to explore botanical gardens. These gardens have interesting (colonial) histories. They also connect to gardening culture. Her game could help gardeners understand the histories of what they explore at a botanical garden. Having always loved botanical gardens in a naive way, I'm fascinated by her research on the botanical garden.

Susie O'Brien talked about the shift from thinking of nature as pristine (to be polluted by humans) to thinking of it as turbulent. Do we want to get away from talking about nature in decline? She then talked about unpacking ideas about resilience and the usefulness of resilience to postcolonial ecology. Resilience doesn't deal well with issue of justice. Finally, she made an interesting point about scenario planning and how that has been taken up by all sorts of players. She is looking at that practice and how it understands risk.

Cheryl Lousley talked about the culture of justice and the environment. She talked about genres of environmental writing like the carnivalesque. She talked about her work looking at how ideas spread. Later she raised good questions about whether and how the digital humanities thinks about its environmental engagement.

Jaye Ellis talked about her work on law, economy and science. She made an interesting point about how groups form theories of other groups in their own language - how law incorporates/concieves of science? She asked how legitimate is the law if it is based on expert knowledge?

Ashlee Cunsolo Willox talked about her work looking at environment and health. She talked about a project that decided to look at stories as a way to find knowledge. The digital storytelling project created a digital media lab to help a community get a voice on climate and health in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. See

Ismael Vaccaro talked about research about parks in Spain and Mexico. He was very interesting on who gets to decide which animals are preserved and re-introduced. Elk disappeared in 16th century, should they be reintroduced?

Renée Sieber talked about GIS work she does including creating spaces for citizen participation. She make an interesting point about how the virtual is now hybridized with the real. Walking around and using Google Maps you are in both the real and virtual. She also talked about how she tries to "interrogate" geo-spatial ontologies.

Astrida Neimanis talked about her arts interventions. She encouraged us to think about feminist incubators and radical transdisciplinarity as a way of bringing together different practicioners around a set of questions. She mentioned the SymbioticA laboratory that she is involved in (

Gisèle Trudel talked about the work the aelab ( she founded is involved in. They do performative installations which sound really cool. They mix all sorts of input live.

Lisa Quinn is the Acquisitions Editor at the Wilfrid Laurier University Press that has a Environmental Humanities Series. She talked about publishing in the digital age and called herself a "metaresearcher" who is involved in research projects from the very beginning.

Finn Jørgensen talked about his research at Umea. See

We then had a number of presentations about various portals.

Jim Clifford talked about the NiCHE site and its evolution. They started on Drupal and had too many features. They then had to simplify and deal with all the mini-sites and services that NiCHE researchers start. They are now reimplementing so that NiCHE can survive over time.

Jon Christensen from UCLA talked about Environmental Humanities Now site that they are building. It is based on the Digital Humanities Now idea of letting editors tag interesting posts and sites for curation. Jon's colleague Ursula Heise gave a fascinating account of the institutional issues one needs to deal with when creating a

Kimberly Coulter' talked about the Rachel Carson Center in Munich and what they are doing with their Environment and Society Portal.

Afternoon sessions

After lunch Veronica Poplawski presented the Canadian Environmental Humanities web site she has been building to aggregate information about the field and this workshop. See The site is meant to be a launching point for online tools developed for research in the environmental humanities. It was one of things we were there to workshop.

We had a breakout session after seeing the CEH web site about what might a portal do and whether we wanted one. It is interesting that just about everyone is now careful about committing to building another tool. There are now too many web sites all trying to become the "community portal" for an area. As a result we all experience having too many web site where we have to post information. It is getting to the point where if I write something original I then have to spend as much time again posting all over the place about what I wrote.

Anyway, there were a lot of questions around the point of a portal:

  • What is the audience and purpose for a environmental humanities site?
  • What is the audience and usage of tools?

We had a discussion about different models for what a web site/ portal can be.

  • One reason to build a site is to tell people we are doing something. A web site becomes a form of internal advertising.
  • A site can build an academic community. It can be a way of both recognizing and supporting a group doing interdisciplinary work together.
  • It could be a way of connecting to other publics. We could use crowdsourcing to involve citizen researchers. We could create a site that is useful to the media. We could create a compendium for schools and policy makers. This raises the question of how do we listen and connect to publics without just telling them what we think.

The environmental humanities gives us a strategic strength in relation to the environment and to the humanities. It connects the humanities to a site of relevance.

Heise talked about the emergence of X humanities (medical humanities, digital humanities, environmental humanities, urban humanities ...) as the humanities try to make themselves relevant to contemporary life.

Another issue she raised is how we institutionalize. How do you get formal support? How do you build the critical mass at a location? Do you try to build an institute or school? Heise was very interesting on the realities of institutionalization. "You want some of it, but not all of it." In the life of an emerging field you get a group of people forming a "centre" because they want some identity. Then people move on and the university has to support these centres. For those working in the field you can end up spending more time maintaining institutions than doing research.

We ended the day with a breakout discussion of interdisciplinarity. Here are some of he opinions voiced:

  • Interdiscplinarity isn't a huge deal. Everyone is doing it in some fashion or another.
  • At the same time there are anxieties about interdisciplinarity within departments.
  • Interdisciplinarity has institutional consequences. Many of the questions don't line up with departmental boundaries.
  • There is an issue of time - how do you keep up with research in more than one field?
  • How do you teach people to be interdisciplinary?
  • Environmental humanities challenges the centrality of the human in the humanities.
  • Method can be a way of bringing together different traditions.
  • Is the digital a useful framework?
  • Issue of common language when working across different traditions.
  • Opening or pleasure found when trying new practices.
  • The reality of interdisciplinarity is that it often involves a phase of negotiating (arguing over) terminology and methods. This can be exhausting and sometimes the humanists feel like junior partners.
  • That said, humanists can contribute to the understanding of concepts and their terms over time. How are metaphors deployed; what is the history of the ideas shared; and how are things represented in other media?
  • The value of interdisciplinary work (the reason why you spend the time negotiating language and methods) is that you get an opening into other ways of thinking the questions through. You also help students when you expose them to interdisciplinary methods. Graduate students especially need to be exposed to a variety of discourses and methods.

Sunday, Sept. 8th

The second day was dedicated to research tools and how they can used by the environmental humanities community. I gave a quick tour through a bunch of tools that I think could be used.

We had an interesting exchange on crowdsourcing and how to motivate people. Some ideas:

  • Keep the task simple enough that someone can contribute without having to learn too much.
  • You need to advertise widely and invite people to participate.
  • You need find ways to reward or recognize people. Badges, leaderboards and personal contact help a lot.
  • Often crowdsourcing or citizen science is more about connecting to a new audience than getting work done.
  • You get a long tail of participation - a small number of people do most of the work and a lot of people do a little
  • There is a literature now on motivation in crowdsourcing.

Susan Brown then presented some other tools:

Renée Sieber talked about GIS tools and techniques:

She was asked a question about hiding data in crowdsourcing. If citizen scientists tag things then the wrong people might find the information. If people tag wolves then others might use the tags to hunt them.

Matthew Milner talked about tools for time:

Stéfan Sinclair showed us Voyant Tools ( He began by showing us Adam Crymble's Distant Reading and the Digital Humanities short video. He showed the RezoViz tool that does network analysis.

We then had an interesting breakout session where we imagined what we want to do with digital tools. Some of the cool ideas:

  • Slow violence
  • Critical cartographies
  • Alternate worlds
  • Analyzing literature for EH concepts
  • Curated online publishing initiative which can output e-books
  • Online installations that mash together locative media and a RomeLab like interface
  • Curation of events with tools for supporting symposia with online outreach tools
  • Having physical or virtual labs for incubating projects
  • NINES-like curation and review of materials
  • Shorter, pedagogically-oriented papers

We then had another breakout group session to try to identify concrete projects that could be pursued. We merged some of the smaller groups and I ended up in a group with folks interested in publishing. Some of the ideas discussed included:

  • A EH/EArts project incubator or lab where projects could get the support needed.
  • An integrated curation environment that could support documentation of projects, the curation of new research exhibits and so on. This would connect with publishing tools for hybrid outcomes. There was some tension between the physical lab idea and the online curation idea.
  • I tried to interest people in the idea of an environment for being able to create virtual 3D spaces for interpretation, documentation and speculation. Something like HyperCities, but in 3D. Many felt this would be too expensive.
  • A NINES-like architecture for "federated" full-text searching and data visualization/generation

I actually had to leave part way through this and Adrian Ivakhiv fed me notes.



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