Living in and Learning from the Age of the Anthropocene

The human geography of land use. Fiction that wrestles with the effects of climate change. Food scarcity in the 21st century. These seemingly disparate topics all have a home in the Honors College colloquium, The Dawn of the Anthropocene.


Students and Dr. Hamblin in a recent class discussion

This course tackles the concept of the Anthropocene—an epoch in the current geological age that is defined by human activity. The course creator and instructor, Dr. Jacob Hamblin, a professor of history in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, notes that this topic is ideal for the Honors College approach: “Honors College colloquia offer a space to have real conversations about issues that matter,” he said. “Students come to class ready to discuss each week’s topic or debate it. From my point of view, that’s an ideal way to get conversations going and get students thinking about these issues.”

Hamblin’s seminar engages in the Anthropocene from a variety of perspectives. Each week, Hamblin invites a different Oregon State University scholar to consider the era of the Anthropocene from their discipline’s standpoint.

In a recent class, Dr. Ray Malewitz from the School of Writing, Literature, Film visited the class to discuss fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” Malewitz began by asking students to consider genre categories in fiction and then led the class in a conversation about how climate change is expressed in contemporary fiction.


Dr. Malewitz visits The Dawn of the Anthropocene to discuss climate fiction

For biology major Juliana Brown, the discussion with Malewitz offered a new way of thinking about cultural representations of climate change: “I had never considered fiction to be a possible way to address environmental issues and to compel people to care more about their environmental footprint, but I think it’s potentially very impactful,” she said.

Other guest lecturers in the class included Dr. Hannah Gosnell from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences to discuss land use and geography and Dr. Barbara Muraca from the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion to facilitate a conversation about the economic and social movement known as “degrowth.”

The ability of Honors College colloquia to address a topic from multiple angles is one of the reasons that Hamblin created the course: “There is a lot of freedom in Honors College courses to experiment, which makes the HC a great environment for this kind of class. Anthropocene is so broadly defined that I can bring in lots of different issues and lots of different faculty who care about issues related to the environment,” he said.

This spirit of collaboration in the classroom will continue in summer, 2017, when Hamblin will co-lead an Honors College international program in London. Students will spend three weeks in London studying the city’s history through its museums, artifacts, and landscapes. Hamblin will teach a course on the history of scientific controversy; students will also take two colloquia while abroad, London’s Icons: How Objects and Discoveries Define a City, and London, Sugar and Slavery.

Considering large-scale issues through the lens of multiple disciplines is one of the aims of a yearlong celebration of arts and science at Oregon State called SPARK: Arts + Science @ OSU. The Honors College is a partner in SPARK, which features events and lectures across Corvallis and the state of Oregon to highlight the relationship between the arts and science. Courses like The Dawn of the Anthropocene help students consider these intersections while learning about issues like climate change.

The breadth of topics addressed through this approach is a draw for students, including entrepreneurship major Abbey Martin. “I had no idea how many avenues people are using to approach climate change. I’ve always thought it was mostly a scientific problem, but we have read religious texts, short stories, and articles that prove otherwise,” she noted. “The danger of climate change isn’t communicated only through scientific fact, but also through art and community.”

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