The Whitney Launches New Graduate Fellowship in the Environmental Humanities

Megan O'Donnell

When the United States saw a spike in hunting license sales at the start of the pandemic, Camila Marcone paid close attention. She learned that for some, hunting became an affordable way to get food on the table, while for others it was an opportunity for outdoor recreation as indoor spaces became unsafe. And she discovered that conservationists across the country welcomed the sudden popularity of hunting, because budgets at state wildlife agencies rely on revenue from hunting and fishing licenses.

Yet Marcone, now a first-year graduate student at Yale, is neither a hunter nor a conservationist. Her keen attention to modern hunting trends and their relationship to wildlife conservation stems from her work in medieval studies and environmental history. In particular, she traces it back to a 14th-century Iberian hunting manual, King Alfonso XI’s Libro de la montería (book of hunting). Marcone focuses on the book’s third section—which uses a repetitive fill-in-the-blank formula to gather descriptions of 1,559 hunting grounds in Alfonso XI’s realm—and the larger story it tells about the collaborative production of environmental knowledge in medieval Iberia.

The Whitney Humanities Center is partnering with Yale Environmental Humanities to support research like Marcone’s. This academic year we welcomed the inaugural cohort of Whitney Humanities Center Graduate Fellows in the Environmental Humanities. Nine first-year Yale PhD students (including Marcone) received the distinction, which comes with an honorarium as well as opportunities for mentorship and additional programming. This year’s fellows represent a wide range of academic fields, such as history, medieval studies, English, Chinese literature, and Assyriology, among others. With projects on an eclectic mix of subjects—from medieval hunting manuals to Mesopotamian clouds—they embody the dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of research in the environmental humanities.

“At Yale, we see the environmental humanities as a capacious interdisciplinary approach to examining the ways that human society and culture are intertwined with nature,” says Yale historian Paul Sabin, who coordinates the Yale Environmental History working group and the Yale Environmental Humanities Program. A constellation of diverse disciplines coalesces under the banner of the Environmental Humanities. It draws environmental history, ecocriticism, cultural anthropology, and other humanist approaches to environmental questions into conversation with each other, cultivating perspectives on environmental issues that complement those of the natural and social sciences. As Sabin explains it, the environmental humanities at Yale aims to “show how humanities disciplines can contribute to broad interdisciplinary conversations about humanity and the fate of the planet, while also exploring how the study of environmental topics can reshape teaching and research in the humanities.”

The Whitney Humanities Center is excited to advance these interdisciplinary conversations, beginning with our inaugural class of fellows. Diane Berrett Brown, associate director of the Whitney Humanities Center, describes the fellowship’s goals as twofold: first, “to identify incoming graduate students with ties to the environmental humanities” and second, to “then introduce them, from their first weeks at Yale, to other PhD students with a shared commitment to environmental humanities.” Abigail Fields, a graduate student coordinator for the Yale Environmental Humanities Program, too spoke of fostering community. “This has primarily been envisioned through programming, including happy hours and an object session at the Beinecke,” says Fields. “These spaces, which are not tied to coursework or academic requirements, are meant to provide fellows with opportunities to break out of their subject fields and understand the broad scope of the environmental humanities, as colleagues and as friends.”

For Marcone, it was the fellowship itself that prompted her to explore more deeply what it means to work in the environmental humanities, not just on an environmental topic. “I consider myself a historian, but I’m still learning where environmental history fits in with the environmental humanities,” she explains. “The environmental humanities caught me at the right time for needing an intellectual space at Yale”—a space to explore new, interdisciplinary perspectives on pressing and past environmental questions.

Megan O’Donnell is the associate communications officer for the Whitney Humanities Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at University of Delaware. She works on depictions of ecology and the environment in nineteenth-century British fiction.