The role of humanities

The role of humanities

  Office of the Dean December 16, 2021

Critical to climate change solutions are interdisciplinary collaboration and the ability to effectively communicate the scope of the crisis

By Tom Vasich

Climate change has been described as the world’s most urgent issue this century, and scholars in the UCI School of Humanities believe that addressing this multifaceted problem will require tapping into brainpower beyond science.

Over the past few years, these scholars have been reaching across campus to form collaborations with researchers in other fields to develop courses and events to more effectively communicate key aspects of this existential threat.

Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities, partnered with Steve Allison, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology, to create a course in which humanities graduate students were embedded in science teams to rethink climate solutions.

And in 2019, Jeffrey Wasserstrom, UCI Chancellor’s Professor of history, and award-winning author Amy Wilentz, UCI professor of English in the literary journalism program, co-chaired a two-day conference called “Fire and Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change.” Geared to the public, it featured interdisciplinary conversations about how to avert the worst consequences of the looming crisis.

The conference is only one example of Wilentz’s commitment to climate change issues. Each fall quarter, she teaches a course in which her journalism students read works by the best contemporary nonfiction writers on the topic. The objective is to train future reporters how to think about climate change and how to tell stories about it that move readers to react.

“I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying this class is, both for me and for my students,” Wilentz says. “They’re all already primed for the subject, because students know that this material is the material of their lives and that the course addresses all of their future problems. It’s educational in the best way: in terms of life learning, developing curiosity about the world, feeling you’ve found some answers to big questions, and spurring you on to ask further questions.”

“It teaches students, as journalists, to ask both the small questions – like ‘How does this tiny golden frog live in captivity?’ or ‘What’s the effect of this bridge on the wildlife near it?’ – and the big questions – like ‘How do we want our children’s world to look?’ and ‘How much are we willing to give up to make it look that way?’” she adds. “And it teaches them to think about how to frame stories to give them the biggest and most useful effect.”