Homeric compost: professor working at an interdisciplinary “intellectual frontier”

Originally posted: October 4, 2011

Between fall 2008 and spring 2010, Dana Burgess, professor of classics, taught 50 Whitman students to read the classics from a new perspective. He assigned traditional texts — Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca — with a new purpose: to reach across disciplines and re-evaluate contemporary attitudes about the environment.

The forward-thinking Burgess looked back to antiquity to examine the foundations of modern environmentalism.

“What we call “nature” is an idea with a history,” Burgess said. “Most schools would limit environmental studies to an inquiry into the present and the future, but a liberal arts college needs to think about the present as, in part, a function of a past: How did we get here?”

Although many colleges offer social or political histories of environmental studies, Whitman’s Don Snow, senior lecturer of environmental humanities and general studies, knows of no other positions that bridge the environmental humanities and the classics.

Burgess successfully petitioned for a new cross-disciplinary position, and Kathleen Shea, assistant professor of environmental humanities and classics, was chosen to fill one of 10 new tenure-track positions last June.

“She is blazing a trail at Whitman,” Snow said.” It’s a very exciting opportunity for a young scholar, pedagogically as well as scholastically. Trying to unearth what some of those underpinnings might be is a very interesting project, a great intellectual frontier.”

The new field is a two-pronged study — first, a literary study of modern American nature writers as readers of classical texts, and second, a philosophical study of ancient texts from an ecological approach.

“My primary goal is to get a new perspective, to see the natural world and environmental concerns from a radically different perspective,” Shea said, “And I think looking at the ancient world gives us that. They’re foundational to us in forming our own ideas, and yet their experiences are completely different.”

That’s what I really hope: that the students will get a widened and deepened idea about how to approach the idea of nature.

Sustainable Cults, Ritual Composting

Shea’s fall 2011 class “Concepts of Nature in Greek and Roman Thought” is based upon the course of the same name that Burgess designed and taught in fall 2008 and spring 2010.

Environmental studies-biology major Natalie Jamerson ’13 recalled the study of rituals in agriculture as particularly “enlightening.”

In one ritual, the grain goddess Demeter was honored by leaving pigs and other organic matter in a pit. Women would later retrieve the decomposed matter and mix it with the seeds to ensure fertility.

“We basically have some really awesome compost,” Shea said.

Although placing environmentalism within ancient Rome might seem an anachronism, Shea contends that environmentalism took different forms.

“Is environmentalism played out the way we do, in a political approach to land management, or does it get played out in religion and cultural activities? That’s one of the approaches we take in Concepts of Nature: how does cult relate to how a civilization sustainably manages their land.”

For scientifically-minded students like Jamerson, the course offered a unique opportunity for discussion across disciplines.

“This seminar style allows for more discussion about philosophically environmental concepts instead of the typical environmental science class where the material is predictable though interesting,” Jamerson said. “Many of the writers and poets we read had no conception of how the earth functioned, attributing much of the natural processes to divine works, so it gives me the opportunity to see these phenomena through a completely differently lens.”

Brady Klopfer ’12, an environmental humanities major, said Shea’s class is an integral component of his environmental education.

“In a sense, Concepts of Nature in Greek and Roman Thought is to the Environmental Humanities major what our first-year program, Encounters, is to a general Whitman education,” Klopfer said. “It provides the foundation of thought on the subject, a historical background that pertains to the major and an overarching theme and understanding which can be drawn on at any time in any other class. It is a beautiful class, and very well taught, and in my opinion it is imperative to a well-rounded Environmental Humanities education.”

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