Guest Post: Carolyn Fornoff reflects on engaging publics

Carolyn Fornoff is the Coordinator of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). A field that is rapidly institutionalizing, EnvHum aims to value and promote work that engages both academic and non-academic audiences. In this post, Carolyn reflects on how she and other PPEH Fellows and Friends, in her words, “took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain.”  


Patricia Kim and Carolyn Fornoff taking a break from pulling in passersby on the Schuylkill River Trail during the pilot project’s first open house, October 17, 2015.

In academia we often come back to the question of how to engage a broader public with scholarly work. Rather than envision the university as an ‘ivory tower’ from which knowledge ‘trickles down’ to the public, the aim is to rethink how in the 21st century—with its vast array of new platforms for communication—we might bring academics into dialogue with activists, artists, and community groups, all of whom are invested in tackling similar problems (from different angles) so that we might learn from each other. But what does it mean to really engage the public? One of the goals of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) is to create an academic culture that is invested not just in rigorous scholarship about the environment, but also in public scholarship. That is, to craft a program whose events will interest a wide cross-section of scholars from different disciplines, as well as captivate a broader audience.

To this end, the first symposium of the academic year, Faith & Environmentalism, part of the Program’s ongoing Curriculum for the New Normal, was timed to coincide with the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia (and co-sponsored by the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture) to increase attendance by visiting Catholics. Consequently, not only did the presenters represent a wide array of takes on faith and nature across time and space—ranging, for example, from Classics prof Cam Grey’s presentation on pagan interpretation of environmental crisis to Rabbi Ilana Schachter’s discussion of nature in the Old Testimony—but the audience itself included students, scholars and practitioners of faith. This intersection of attendees brought lively debate to the Q&A roundtable, as well as to conversations following the official program.

After giving my own talk on liberation theology, poetry and environmentalism, I was approached by a Peruvian priest who was in Philadelphia for the papal visit.



Carolyn Fornoff speaks at the PPEH Symposium on Faith and Environmentalism. Poet Ernesto Cardenal is shown here kneeling in the background slide.

We began to talk about his experience with liberation theology in Peru, and dove into the merits of liberation theology versus theology of the people, and how these branches think differently about the overlapping articulation of class and environmental violence. What was most powerful about this conversation was how it brought my research’s investment in historical and literary analysis into conversation with concrete contemporary relevance. It pushed my frame of reference beyond the text and into dialogue with public discourse and religious practice.

Whereas the symposium on Faith & Environmentalism brought together a public that was already invested in these debates, PPEH’s first open house for WetLand on the Schuylkill trail took the notion of public engagement to entirely new terrain. How to engage a public that was not purposefully intending to attend an event about the environmental humanities? WetLand, an art installation by PPEH artist-in-residence Mary Mattingly, is both a houseboat and an experiment in sustainable living. After some difficult negotiations with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, we were able to dock WetLand under the Walnut Street Bridge for two weekends in October.



With Philadelphia’s City Hall in the background, Carolyn Fornoff and I have nothing but smiles after long negotiations to obtain permission to use the City’s Park and Recreation dock under the Walnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River in Center City.




On Saturday, October 17th from 11-6, we set up an information table alongside the path of the Schuylkill River Trail and began our efforts to get passersby to come aboard and explore the boat. The Schuylkill River Trail is a path that follows the bank of the Schuylkill River for a distance of 23 miles. Every weekend, people walk, bike, and run along the path for exercise, to enjoy the autumn sun, or to get over to 30th Street train station. After having set up our WetLand information table adjacent to the trail, we quickly realized that few people were stopping to visit with us—likely out of the suspicion that we were trying to sell something. But the striking visual of WetLand, with its multi-colored exterior made from recycled materials, was catching the eyes of many as they jogged past. Soon, we modified our strategy and began to call out to bikers or runners as they sped by, “Come check out our boat!” Surprisingly, about one out of every three people would slow their pace and take a break from their workout to hop aboard. Children, dogs, and adults alike delighted in stepping out onto the Schuylkill River, exploring the houseboat refashioned into a lab of sustainability and art installation, a glimpse of how we might take refuge from the world, but can never truly escape it.

The open house at WetLand was public engagement at its most expansive. Philadelphians of all stripes who might not normally attend a university event or be interested in talking about the environment stepped onto the floating vessel and told us about what they think about climate change and how it is affecting (or not) their lives.


Some of our favorite visitors to WetLand at our first open house.

The curiosity and willingness to experience something new on the part of the public that came aboard WetLand points to the possibilities that an artist-in-residence brings to Penn and to scholars of the environmental humanities at large. Public input pushes us to think about the intersection of environment and culture in concrete, everyday encounters, whether it is with the bodies of water that run through our city, or the different ways in which people walk alongside or travel over them.


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