UCLA Beefs Up Environmental Humanities With 3 Hires From Stanford

Stanford U.

Jon Christensen
September 03, 2012

Three researchers of environmental and digital humanities are moving from Stanford University to the University of California at Los Angeles this month as part of their new institution's push into the emerging field.

Jon Christensen, Allison Carruth, and Ursula K. Heise say they are making the move from a well-endowed private institution to one hit hard by state budget cuts because UCLA was willing to make a cluster hire to advance its expansion into environmental humanities.

"UCLA is a great public university, with a visionary Institute of the Environment and Sustainability," says Mr. Christensen, who along with Ms. Heise is joining the institute. The university clearly wishes to "reinvent how we study the crucial environmental issues of our time," he says.

Since 2009, Mr. Christensen has directed Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, where he has worked since its founding in 2002. He has also been the principal investigator there of the Spatial History Project and the City Nature digital-humanities project, both of which use computerized analyses of data like maps, demographic records, historical narratives, and social media to create visual aids for understanding history.

At UCLA, he will teach courses that bring historical and other humanities perspectives to environmental challenges and policy making. In his teaching, he deals with such issues as the increased incidence of forest fires, the shrinking of water supplies, and the loss of animal and plant species by using not just scientific, historical, and environmental research, but also, for example, published narratives and even fiction and science fiction that relate to human adaptation and its possible futures. He has also brought such issues to the attention of the public in his 30 years as an environmental and science writer. He has contributed to many publications, including The New York Times and High Country News, and has been interviewed on radio and television programs.

Now 52, he is completing a dissertation and book that trace a "history of thinking with things in nature" by contemplating relationships among an eminent conservationist biologist, Paul R. Ehrlich; an insect, the Bay checkerspot butterfly; a plant, the California dwarf plantain; and a mineral, serpentine. That seeming specificity belies Mr. Christensen's intentions. "I'm interested in looking at the American West as a place where many global processes and phenomena and history are worked out," he says. At UCLA, he becomes an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and in the history department.

Private donors, as well as the institute and various university divisions, are footing the bill for the new hires. Their motivation is simple, says Glen M. MacDonald, the institute's director: All realize the importance of exploring and communicating ideas about sustainability.

Faculty members around campus have demonstrated that they share that awareness, he adds. As have students. In the six years that the institute has offered a bachelor of science degree in environmental sciences that combines science, policy, and communications perspectives, enrollments have jumped from four to 280. "We envisioned we would have maybe 30 students for that because it's so hard," says Mr. MacDonald.

In addition, the institute has an undergraduate minor in environmental systems and society with 150 students, a doctoral program in environmental sciences and engineering with 22 students, and a leaders-in-sustainability graduate certificate with 189 graduate students from across campus, many from the business school.

A compelling draw of the institute for Mr. Christensen and Ms. Heise was its emphasis on digital humanities. Mr. Christensen uses such techniques as digitally overlaying historical maps to visualize environmental changes over time, as well as "text mining," a method of detecting patterns of ideas across thousands of texts.

Ms. Heise, also 52, becomes a professor of English at UCLA with a joint appointment in Mr. MacDonald's institute. A literary scholar who founded the Environmental Humanities Project at Stanford, she studies databases of levels of endangerment of biological species. Those databases, she says, are an expression of a "desire to grasp the whole" akin to literary epics that sought to express communities' entire worlds.

Ms. Carruth, 36, becomes an assistant professor of English at UCLA. She is a specialist in post-1945 American literature and cultural representations of food. Fortunately, she says, the interdisciplinary study of environmental humanities has established itself to the point that specialist academic positions are now being advertised. "The last five years have opened up the conversation about the role of the humanities in examining environmental histories and crises," she says.

Los Angeles might seem an unlikely place for the new hires' field to take off. But Mr. Christensen insists that it is "a vibrant laboratory for studying environmental phenomena." The city is, for example, trying to become a showcase for the improvement of air quality in the world's megacities through such projects as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan and the region's Long Range Transportation Plan for its transport systems.

Arguably, says Mr. MacDonald, Los Angeles is "both the poster child for environmental challenges in sustainability and a place the world looks to for solutions."