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The Emerging Field of Environmental Humanities

Growing up on a farm in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey and witnessing the dramatic loss of farmland to housing developments and shopping malls ignited visiting professor Ken Hiltner's early and life-long interest in the environment which he later married with his passion for English literature.

"My initial interest in the environment comes from growing up on my family's farm in southern New Jersey where I gained an appreciation for open-space," said Hiltner. "Sadly, the landscape of today's Mt. Laurel bears little resemblance to what I knew and loved as a child."

Ken Hiltner
Ken Hiltner, Currie C and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities at the Princeton Environmental Institute.
Photo: PEI

This past fall, Hiltner joined Princeton University for the 2012-13 academic year as the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities. He came to PEI from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is a professor in the English Department and has served as director of the Early Modern Center, director of Graduate Studies, and director of the Literature and the Environment Center. Hiltner received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. His appointment at Princeton is joint between PEI and the Department of English.

Ken Hiltner
Ken Hiltner. Photo: PEI

Prior to pursuing an academic career, Hiltner worked as a furniture maker. After achieving most of his objectives as a second-generation woodworker, he began taking English courses at Rutgers University. His enthusiasm for the discipline inspired him to pursue a masters degree selecting the English poet John Milton as the focus for his thesis. Although only required to write 30 pages, he wrote a 300-page master's thesis that became the book Milton and Ecology, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2003.

"This was my first attempt at exploring the ideological underpinnings of our current environmental crisis by way of Renaissance literature, in this case through Milton's radical reevaluation of dualistic theology, metaphysical philosophy and early modern subjectivism," said Hiltner. "No one believes me, but I began my studies without any real vocational ambitions, but I became so fascinated by the issues that it caused me to pursue a career in teaching and research at the intersection of literature and the environment," said Hiltner.

He is the author of four additional books all of which have environmental import including: What Else is Pastoral? published by Cornell University Press and Essential Ecocriticism forthcoming by Routledge Press. Several other books are in the works.

At Princeton in the fall 2012 semester, Hiltner taught "An Introduction to Literature and the Environment." Hiltner says the course had two practical goals. The first was to introduce the study of environmental criticism, also known as ecocriticism or "green" criticism, which is a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment. The second goal was to facilitate student discussion of the course material and the issues it raises.

"Deforestation, air pollution, endangered species, wetlands loss, animal rights, and rampant consumerism have all appeared as controversial issues in Western literature for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. This course," explained Hiltner, "takes up these issues by exploring the often-ignored literary history of the natural world starting with an excerpt from one of the West's earliest texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and ending with Rachel Carson and Michael Pollan."

Senior Dana Miller said, "In his Environmental Literature course, Professor Hiltner challenged us to focus on big picture themes and how they evolved through time by asking questions such as: When, if ever, did humans live in harmony with their environment? What is the difference between inspiring an environmental activism and environmental consciousness? How do you reach a broad variety of audiences? With this framework, we were able to address controversial topics such as organic or convention farming, vegetarianism, and consumerism."

Miller, who is an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major and pursuing a Certificate in Environmental Studies, also exclaimed, "This course has definitely influenced my perspective on life because the issues raised are relevant to my choices every day. Professor Hiltner was a great teacher because he introduced topics, gave us an historical framework, and let us control the discussion."

English major Adoley Ammah-Tagoe ’14 exclaimed, “The unique thing about his teaching is his attention to detail--he was constantly referring to points and thought progressions people had made in previous class sessions and used this input to foster a semester-long discussion around central themes.”

“I'm an English major, and I think I benefitted from the class as much as did the Biology and Environmental Studies students. Ken introduced me to an entirely new field of study that I didn't know existed, and I hope his course will be the beginning of a greater focus on ecocriticism at Princeton,” said Ammah-Tagoe.

Ken Hiltner, Currie C and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities, discussing the writings of Carolyn Merchant in his course, “Theories of Literature and the Environment.”  Photo: PEI
Ken Hiltner, Currie C and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities, discussing the writings of Carolyn Merchant in his course, “Theories of Literature and the Environment.” Photo: PEI

This semester, Hiltner is teaching "Theories of Literature and the Environment” which explores a range of works from modern environmental critics, beginning in the 1960s and ending with the ongoing explosion of interest in the field in the 21st century. "Ecocriticism, is a rapidly emerging field of literary study that will be crucially important in upcoming decades, especially as our present environmental crisis unfortunately worsens,” said Hiltner.

In addition to teaching, Hiltner will deliver a lecture on February 13th entitled, "The Two Cultures in Environmental Studies." In 1959, English chemist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered a famous and influential lecture on "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." Its thesis was that the intellectual life of the whole of western society was split into the two cultures — namely the sciences and the humanities — and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems.

"While the environmental sciences have been a major presence in American universities for over 40 years now, the environmental humanities have only recently emerged onto the scene,” said Hiltner. “Some universities have largely ignored their presence, but some forward-thinking environmental studies programs are working to integrate the environmental humanities with the sciences." In his lecture, Hiltner said he will argue that these two very different cultures can not only coexist, but that they can also work together for the benefit of each other--and the planet.

This talk is the first in a series of environmental and humanities forums he plans to host at Princeton this spring. In addition, he is organizing a conference, “Environmental Humanities in a Changing World,” to be held on March 8 and 9.

This two-day conference will not only bring together leaders from a range of fields in the environmental humanities, but also prominent artists producing work with environmental import. The stated goal is to both provide succinct overviews of these fields and introduction to this art, as well as to consider how these various approaches can work together for the future of the planet.

"This conference will capitalize on previous initiatives at Princeton that have fostered collaboration between the sciences and the humanities," said Hiltner.

Hiltner is in the process of interviewing leading environmental humanists from around the world which is posted as podcast HERE. More information about Hiltner’s research and teaching is available at KenHiltner.com. Hiltner is in the process of interviewing leading environmental humanists from around the world which will be posted as podcasts on PEI’s website.  More information about Hiltner’s research and teaching is available at KenHiltner.com.
Hiltner at Princeton’s Broadcast Center recording podcasts.
Photo: PEI

At Princeton, one of the key mechanisms that stimulates the connections between these fields is the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron ’72 Visiting Professorship in the Environment and the Humanities. Established in 2003, this program enables PEI to forge closer ties between environmental studies and the humanities and social sciences at Princeton. PEI works cooperatively with leadership in the humanities disciplines to identify and appoint accomplished and emerging scholars whose academic work is at the intersection of a traditional humanities discipline and environmental studies.

Recent Barron visitors have had backgrounds in philosophy, political science, religion, and the performing arts. Their scholarship has focused on topics including environmental justice, climate ethics, ecology and religion, climate change, and biodiversity.

"Coming to Princeton has been a wonderful experience thus far both personally and professionally. Having grown up in Southern New Jersey, it is a homecoming to the region. I also wrote most of my first book in Firestone Library," said Hiltner.

"Professionally, I'm especially excited to be at PEI where there is real desire and enthusiasm to bridge environmental sciences and humanities, which if not unique, is pretty unusual."

Hiltner with students from his course “Theories of Literature and the Environment.”  Photo: PEI
Hiltner with students from his course “Theories of Literature and the Environment. Photo: PEI