Exploring the world of Environmental Humanities

Spotlight: Suzanne Loui | Env. Studies Program

Contributed by Julian McCall on June 13, 2022.

What is your background, what led you to environmental humanities?


I was raised in a family that was able to frequently hike, camp, visit national parks and generally relish the outdoors. Getting tick bites and bad sunburns were then-considered acceptable outcomes of a good day.  My parents taught theater arts and literature, so I was exposed to that as well.  By high school, as an avowed history and literature student, I dreaded taking chemistry…and absolutely loved it.  

I came to realize that the way people experienced their environment would always be dependent on many factors about themselves, such as their economic status, racial, national, or cultural identity, their family heritage, their access to education, any number of factors.  And that therefore, human perception of place was quite subjective.  I wanted to integrate that human perception and scientific understanding of place.

I got into environmental humanities because my questions about people in any given landscape or historical period require exploration into different disciplines.  A good example is the Dust Bowl.  When I teach it, my students explore the history of immigrants and indigenous cultures, economics, agricultural technology, autobiography and literature.  Climate change requires the same interdisciplinary representation, which I explore with students in my class, “Fallout” about the evolution and public perception of nuclear technology.

How has environmental humanities changed since you were a student?

The change has been wild!  Environmental Studies programs were not broadly established in America, and one didn’t exist in my university, when I was an undergraduate.  I studied abroad for a year in Wales and my course included a unit called “outdoor pursuits” where we were taught river and ocean kayaking, ice climbing, orienteering and other outdoor activities. It was a wonderful program that allowed me to combine my outdoor interests with the history and literature classes I loved. My senior history honors thesis was a reflection on the historical differences between Wales and England through the lens of kayaking down the Wye River that separates the two.

My history major and theater minor prepared me to join the National Park Service after completing my undergraduate degree, where I developed and presented educational programs about the history of NPS sites, for all age groups.  My challenge was to accurately tell the story of people who lived in places and times other than my own, which I loved.  I had a career position but found myself lacking in time to do the historical research I wanted to do, at which point I went to graduate school and did my work in American culture studies, an interdisciplinary field which allowed me to research the depth and breadth of my topic.

I taught my first American culture studies course in 1985 and around 1990 the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment was formed.  I guess that was a benchmark for me in terms of an integrated study of nature gaining popularity. About this same time, many environmental studies programs were formed, from which environmental humanities emerged.

How does your background give you a unique perspective? 

My exposure to theater trained me to critically think about the human experience in relation to time and place, my respect for science reminds me that the human perception and the physical reality of place as understood by science, do not always align.  And my outdoor experience…well, once an enthusiastic and polite undergraduate science student asked me (the “humanist”)  if I needed instruction on how to descend a steep slope in the forest.  I smiled and said, “I’m good!” 

Is there a divide between environmental humanities and “hard” sciences?  

I feel lucky because so many scientists at WU have been welcoming to me.  For example, about seven years ago, I sought out Professor Lee Sobotka (Professor of Chemistry and Physics) and explained to him that I wanted to tell the story of nuclear technology from a humanities perspective.  He was so willing to listen and really understood what I wanted to do.  He ultimately became the science advisor for the course.  Without a colleague like that, the course wouldn’t be possible.

I’m lucky to be in a rich environment where scientists like Professor Sobotka and others who have helped me, (like Prof. Sophia Hayes in Chemistry, soon to be vice-dean of graduate education), don’t see a divide but a chance to create with the humanities rich representations of climate change issues.

What do people misunderstand about environmental humanities?

I think the strength of the humanities is missed when the field is seen as some sort of soft inquiry that doesn’t have as important of a role to play as a scientific understanding of the world. In the end, we are human beings living in this world, with life histories which drive our emotional responses to events and places.  We feel and think uniquely, about the environment, science and technology, and handling that human perception is something that the humanities are really good at.

What is the most interesting aspect of your work?

My happy place is in my classroom, learning from the students how they think about environmental issues.  They teach me so much with their questions, especially when they react with confusion to things I think are so apparent! That is great because it makes me constantly clarify my ideas to better share them.  The most important thing I do is teach my students and let them teach me.