As students and I have been creating more zines (both through classes and research projects), we have started to build a critical mass of them. You can now find several in the Collaboratorium (Smith Lab 4180) here at OSU. Best of all, they are free!
Our zine “Infrastructural Digest” is now completed(!) and 250 copies have just been printed for the opening of the Privy2 demonstration garden. The zine features original artwork and essays by OSU students and faculty that reflect on the history of sanitation and its relationship to agriculture. You can download a copy here.
Our latest article is out, which examines the history and cross-cultural management of human waste (or “night soil”) as an agricultural resource. The paper grew out of a collaborative class project that I proposed to Master’s degree students enrolled in my Environmental Anthropology course in the spring of 2017. Together, we delved into the archaeology and history of night soil use and management, as well as some recent ethnographic research on the subject. This paper synthesizes that work and puts it in conversation with contemporary theorizing of the “metabolic rift” — or the notion that the rise of industrial capitalism led to a fundamental rupture in human relations to the earth’s ecological systems. The article, titled “Night Soil: Origins, Discontinuities, and Opportunities for Bridging the Metabolic Rift,” can be found in the latest issue of the open access journal Ethnobiology Letters.
This summer I’ve been working with students and colleagues in the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State to install a demonstration garden, titled “Privy2: Biosolids and You.” The project is designed to draw attention to the processes by which waste products are transformed into both agricultural and architectural resources. The garden is fertilized with Com-Til — a Class A biosolids product made by the City of Columbus — and planted with corn. The site will also feature an architectural pavilion constructed primarily of material derived from recycled plastics. You can follow our progress and learn more from the project website. You can also read this recent article that provides an overview of the project.
When I first started teaching an environmental anthropology class several years ago, I wanted students to develop group projects that could potentially address some local environmental problem or issue. But I found that the projects asked a lot of students and I really didn’t have the time (or resources) to launch successful experiential or service-learning projects. So instead, I started thinking more about how to get students to reflect on their personal relationships to the environment and how they might conceive of those relationships. I started with a short “Show & Tell” classroom presentation (assignment #1). I’d been thinking a lot about this Object Lessons series and I’d been reading a little philosophical work on Object Oriented Ontology. Simply put, I wanted students to bring in objects that they felt embodied their personal connection to their environs or even objects that they thought were helpful for reflecting on human-environment relations. As part of the assignment, I asked them to develop a “take-home” message. Really, I was asking them to build some kind of theory out of their personal insights and reflections.
From there, I had them draft an essay (assignment #2) in which they refined their reflections. Generally, I asked them for more idiosyncratic “ethnographic” details while I also tried to push them further on their final take-home message.
In the second half of the class, we read about phenomenological approaches to understanding human-environment relationships and we talked about sensory ethnography as well as embodied and experiential knowledge. After that, I asked them to develop an artistic model that captured some distinctive feature(s) of their Show & Tell object that could be represented in a way that appealed to one of the five senses (assignment #3). This semester was the first time I’d asked them to do that. To lead by example, I made sauerkraut with them in class and used the experience as way for them to think a bit more expansively about what their art piece might be.
After I gave them feedback on their preliminary models, I provided them with more details on the final art exhibition (assignment #4). As part of the final art piece, they also developed short artist statements that drew from their essay drafts but also offered reflections on their choices of materials and the intentions behind their pieces. For the actual exhibition, we were lucky enough to be able to use an open study space in our department and we did a real slap-dash installation right before the start of class. In retrospect I think it would’ve helped if I had asked for the projects a day or two ahead of time to think more through the layout and distribution of the pieces in the room. But, despite it being a little chaotic and crowded, they seemed to enjoy it. With the exhibition installed, I gave them a worksheet (assignment #5) that prompted everyone to engage with different pieces in the room. We also had bagels and coffee so people took breaks and rotated in and out of the exhibition space. At the end, we had some final reflections as a group and every individual had a chance to talk and reflect. We even sampled the sauerkraut that we had made together in class the week prior.
For the final assignment, I had them write one final version of their Show & Tell essay (assignment #6). I’m not sure if that’s overkill or not. Still, I’m hoping to tweak this further for future use. Along with the zine assignment that I’ve used in my History of Anthropological Theory course, this is most fun I have had with a course project.
In July 2017, I visited Manaus to work on a new collaboration with researchers in the Sociology Department at the Federal University of Amazonas State (UFAM) and I also had the opportunity to give a talk based on my book Amazonia and the Anthropocene. Following that visit, I developed a lengthy email exchange over the better part of a year with Bruno Caporrino (a PhD student in the Dept. of Anthropology at UFAM) and Túlio Zille (a PhD student in Political Science at Johns Hopkins). Now, we are happy to share our dialogue (in Portuguese) in the new online magazine, Amazônia Latitude. The essay, titled “A virada ontológica e a Amazônia: um dialógo”, offers a summary of some of the key points of debate that have attracted our attention in the ontological turn in anthropology, particularly in relation to the ethnographic study of the Amazon region. A slightly edited version of our original email exchange (also in Portuguese) can be found here.
For the past several years, the graduate students of the Ohio State Department of Anthropology have produced A Story of Us, a podcast that is sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. Last semester, Emma Lagan interviewed me about my work as a cultural anthropologist and the episode is now available online. We talked about the early experiences that led me to anthropology and my research in Amazonia as well as my current work that examines how the city of Columbus converts human “waste” into an agricultural resource, known as biosolids. If you have a chance, take a listen. You can also explore earlier seasons from A Story of Us that draw on diverse perspectives and subfields in anthropology to see what they can teach such themes as childhood, migration, and mortality.