AvH250: Imagining Interdisciplinary Research for the 21st Century from a 19th-century Perspective (2019-2020)

Background

Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) was a 19th-century German scientist most noted for bringing together different scientific and historical perspectives on Earth and the environment in his seminal multivolume work, Kosmos. At its core, his research sought to unify disparate fields of science, knowledge and culture. He is credited for positing the first description of human-induced climate change and providing core launch points to other luminary scientists, naturalists and environmentalists such as Darwin, Haeckel, George Perkins Marsh, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

To mark the 250th anniversary of AvH’s birth, this Bass Connections project will reflect on his interdisciplinary scholarship and imagine the future of interdisciplinarity.

Project Description

The goals of this project are rooted in a cross-disciplinary exploration of the history of AvH toward imagining how future interdisciplinary scholarship can be performed. Key aims will be to:

  • Study AvH’s career and history. The project team will read and discuss Andrea Wulf’s Invention of Nature, which focuses on Humboldt’s extraordinary life, relationships and lasting influence.
  • Study AvH’s seminal contributions. The team will read Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (Foundations of Natural History) and document its contribution to a broader understanding of the environment, including human interactions.
  • Convene a conference of interdisciplinary scholars to map AvH’s contributions to the development of their fields. The team will organize and lead a meeting of approximately 100 scholars from the U.S. and Germany to reflect and report on AvH’s contribution to their disciplines.
  • Document emergent themes and make recommendations for future interdisciplinary scholarship. The team will prepare a report summarizing their takeaways from this project and charting a path forward for interdisciplinary scholarship. 

Anticipated Outputs

Research report on AvH’s contributions to interdisciplinary research; recommendations for future of interdisciplinary research aimed at a broad community (e.g., Duke leaders; AvH Foundation; American Friends of the AvH Foundation)

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 5 undergraduates and 5 students from a mix of the disciplines that AvH touched throughout his career. This includes, but is not limited to, the natural sciences, literature, history, German studies, environmental activism and art.

No specific skills or backgrounds are required. The only requirement is an interest in exploring AvH’s life and contributions to science and humanity, and a passion for working across disciplines toward broader group efforts.

Both undergraduates and graduate students will be working as part of a team that includes faculty from across the university with interests in AvH, interdisciplinary scholarship, German culture and society and the environment writ large. In addition, as organizers and contributors to the conference, students will be afforded many chances to interact with scholars beyond Duke.

Graduate students will take on a leadership role in organizing the conference and publication of the report in multiple forms, including print, web and video.

Timing

Fall 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Fall 2019: Finalize project goals and set timelines; begin weekly meetings led by contributors on project themes; convene AvH250 conference on interdisciplinary science; convene full day meeting to review AvH history and major works, as well as recommendations from the conference on interdisciplinary science
  • Spring 2020: Assign leaders for each theme for interdisciplinary scholarship report; hold weekly meetings to review report component progress; circulate report draft for review among team leaders; make revisions and submit final report

Crediting

Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

 

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and the university, by Sami, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Alexander von Humboldt and the university.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Paul Baker, Nicholas School of the Environment-Earth and Ocean Sciences
  • Emily Bernhardt, Arts & Sciences-Biology
  • James Clark, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Stefani Engelstein, Arts & Sciences-Germanic Languages and Literature
  • Deborah Jenson, Arts & Sciences-Romance Studies
  • Zackary Johnson, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation*
  • M Susan Lozier, Nicholas School of the Environment-Earth and Ocean Sciences
  • Rob Mitchell, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Thomas Pfau, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Daniel Richter, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy*
  • Priscilla Wald, Arts & Sciences-English