Perceived values and challenges of Arts and Humanities inquiry in the LTER Network

Network News Summer 2015, Vol. 28 No. 2
Site News

The first documented arts and humanities interactions with science in the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network were writer’s residencies in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in 2002. Since then, several sites have developed arts and humanities programs and a substantial body of artistic and written work has been produced at LTER sites.

There has, however, been no systematic analysis of the arts and humanities work emerging across the LTER network. In August 2013 we sent site Principal Investigators (PIs) an online survey and encouraged them to consult other personnel at their site for their responses.

Of the 24 sites surveyed, 21 reported some level of arts and humanities inquiry, ranging from “consistent” to “sporadic” engagement. The most prevalent genres represented across the sites were painting, photography, and literary prose. On the question of whether arts and humanities engagement is relevant for LTER sites, 19 of 24 sites agreed or strongly agreed.

To better understand why this interdisciplinary engagement was perceived as meaningful, participants were asked to rank 13 potential values of arts and humanities inquiry. The top 5 responses were:

  1. Fosters outreach
  2. Is good in and of itself
  3. Inspires creative thinking
  4. Provides opportunities for education
  5. Broadens our understanding of the natural world

One response, “Stimulates empathy”, ascribes an ethical value to arts and humanities inquiry. The response ranked only in the middle of the response field, but when we offered “empathy” as a possible response in another survey question, participants ranked it very highly.

Referring to list of LTER goals, mission statements, and intellectual commitments, we asked: How does arts and humanities inquiry reflect or complement the goals of LTER sites? The top 5 responses were:

  1. Outreach
  2. Communication
  3. Relationship-building
  4. Human dimensions
  5. Education

Because arts and humanities inquiry within LTER is mostly associated with education and outreach, we anticipated most of these responses. But we were surprised by the high ranking of “Relationship-building: to develop empathetic relationships with the natural world and to stimulate inspiration, awe, and wonder”, which tied third with “Human dimensions”. Therefore, we further explored the response to empathy in the survey in telephone interviews in the fall of 2014 with 14 PIs and two Education and Outreach representatives.

We asked respondents about the connections between environmental science; inspiration, awe, and wonder; empathy; arts and humanities inquiry; and the LTER Network.

A number of respondents said inspiration was the reason they became scientists and discussed its role as the foundation for science inquiry. One participant explained: “I think that a lot of environmental scientists get into what they do because of a sense of wonder, and…we tend to forget that the root of what we are doing is a deeply rooted sense of curiosity and appreciation for the natural world that I know for myself was really the reason why I chose to do what I do.” Another respondent explained that inspiration is important for communicating with non-LTER audiences and arts and humanities inquiry can facilitate that process: “I think where I see the value of the humanities is inspiring people that maybe don’t have that natural curiosity or natural wonder…[as] they’re more likely to get inspired by a beautiful sculpture or painting than by a Ph.D. scientist espousing the virtue of ecological theory.”

Nearly all respondents agreed that developing empathy—or stimulating inspiration, awe, and wonder, which can catalyze empathetic relationships—is something the LTER Network should be pursuing; several others believed it is something the network is already doing through Broader Impacts, Outreach, and Education efforts.

While most respondents appreciated that LTER is conducting arts and humanities inquiry in some capacity, they were also honest about the challenges this work presents, including limited human and economic resources, NSF expectations, network dynamics, and site objectives.