UCLA beefs up environmental humanities with hires from Stanford

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.

ursula heise

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.

To read the full article by Peter Monaghan in The Chronicle of Higher Education click here.