KuoRay’s Aspirations for the next Summer Academy (GESA 2012)

Friday January 13, 2012

an e-mail from Kuoray Mao (Taiwan, GESA 2011 alumnus)

Hope everything is going well for all of you. Last August was one of the more fascinating and memorable periods of my life as I befriended all of you and got to know your work. I would like to return the favour by providing feedback so Gary can build on the strong foundation of last year’s experience for GESA 2012, allowing more people to benefit from the good will of GDF and RCC.

I think environmental history should remain a crucial component of GESA. As a group coming from diverse academic backgrounds, I feel that as we go through our respective disciplinary trainings, we become more and more specialized in the shifting trends within our own fields. As a result, our research projects run the risk of becoming more pigeonholed in the specific modes of each discipline. Personally, I believe this trend is not only harmful to our cause but damaging to the integrated approach we sorely need as future scholars.

Working in the field and trying to understand the perspectives of local peasants regarding their connections (physical and psychological) with their land.

Working in the field and trying to understand the perspectives of local peasants regarding their connections (physical and psychological) with their land.

The perspective of environmental history enables us to ‘situate’ our specific disciplinary knowledge on the broader landscape of historical human-nature interaction. This approach provides both greater temporal and spatial scales than what we are used to as a ‘—gist’ or ‘-ian’ and trains us to connect ‘the tree’ back to ‘the forest’. Ironically, learning environmental history is perhaps the most appropriate way to give people a taste of an integrated approach between social and natural sciences. Since GESA is designed as a summer academy, it is within the expectations of both students and faculty to embrace something different before we return to our individual pursuits.

For the next GESA, I suggest Gary and Susannah build the course around the work of four or five selected Carson Fellows whose research subjects are made the primary focus of the summer academy. This suggestion is not a criticism to the speakers we so fortunately had last August – I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to get in touch with so many accomplished scholars, and I deeply respect the time Gary put in to invite all of these speakers. However, I felt that we focused on so many different topics that if it wasn’t the sure handed orchestration from Gary, Susannah, and Eleanor, a course designed to teach an integrated approach to environmental issues almost became disintegrated under the duress of covering so many important issues in such a short amount of time.

For example, if we were to talk about the Mosquito Empire, we could invite speakers whose work covers topics such as invasive species, agronomists who debate about the risks of mono-cropping and GMO, and political ecologists who have dealt with the effects of colonization. Or, if we were to choose Culver’s book on selling pleasure, then maybe we could invite scholars who have researched on resource management in built environments, agro-ecologists who have studied salinization and anthropologists who challenge homogenization and the loss of biodiversity. This way, participants would find more continuity while exploring assigned readings and also balance the content of discussions.

To be succinct, I am basically championing the need to utilize the case studies of the Carson Fellows, as containers which hold and coalesce all the different kinds of cheese (disciplinary perspectives) we use to make lasagne (the holistic yet layered empirical reality of environmental issues). This analogy is perhaps a bit inappropriate but unfortunately, I have been craving for good Italian food for a while. My apologies!

Related to that, on the recruitment of GESA participants, it would be great to have a three way split among hard/life sciences, humanities/social science, and policy/media/activist realms. In recruitment brochures, we can list the topics that will be covered, and how an integrated approach would help achieve goals in the various fields. This, I know, is a very demanding task given that evaluators already need to balance concerns related to global regions and levels of development.

Here’s to a fruitful GESA 2012!

Best, KuoRay

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