A Transformative Impact
Charlotte Melin, professor and chair of the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch, lights up when she talks about the multidisciplinary nature of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI)—and the inspiration it’s yielding. “There’s this catalyst effect; you discover there are other scholars in all sorts of different areas doing work that’s related to yours,” she says. “And you can be in a very productive conversation with these people in completely different fields. You find yourself being much more creative in terms of research, in terms of teaching, and more involved in the public discourse.”
Cofounder of the EHI, Melin has been drawn to environmental concerns since early in her career, when she began studying postwar German nature poetry. Today, she’s teaching a course called Environmental Thinking that examines German literature over the past three centuries and looks at how it informs environmental awareness and action in the twenty-first century.
Germany has a tradition, dating back to the Enlightenment, of emphasizing the need for science and the humanities to work hand-in-hand, Melin says. “This was how knowledge was pursued in the eighteenth century,” she explains. “And it’s returned as we’ve become aware of the fact that having a strict focus on just one or the other doesn’t bring us all of the knowledge that we require.” When she first offered the course four years ago, 34 students enrolled; this year it has more than 60 students—from five different colleges.
Melin is proud to have developed the Green German Project website for the College of Liberal Arts. It’s an open-access collection of teaching resources, for high school and college instructors, on sustainability topics ranging from carbon footprint to renewable energy to law and the environment. She also just finished editing an essay collection for the Modern Language Association called Foreign Language Teaching and the Environment: Theory, Curricula, Institutional Structures.
Melin feels strongly that the liberal arts and those who study them are essential to advancing environmental awareness and health. “If you look at what graduates of the humanities do, they are the leaders, whether they’re working in business or government or [academia] or the nonprofit sector,” Melin says. “They’re the ones who go out and change what’s happening in society. This is an opportunity to have a transformative impact—and I think it’s the right thing to do.”