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Major Insight Episode 8: The Linguistics of Eco-poetics, The Environment, and You

Abby Culpepper wants us to connect with places we’re from and spaces we occupy, right here and right now. As a French and linguistics major, she uses language and literature to explore our relationship with local communities and with the wider natural world. On this episode, Abby speaks about her work with eco-poetics, why it’s so important to appreciate the distinctness and richness of our own unique localities, and more.

Featured Majors

French, Linguistics, German

Featured Study Abroad

Paris: Cultural Capital; Intensive German Summer in Heidelberg, Jena, Dessau and Berlin

Featured Awards & Organizations

Geoffrion Family Fellows Program, The Office of Research for Undergraduate’s Summer Scholars Program, The Humanities Center, The Dean’s Scholar Program, Bishop Woods

Music: “Only Knows” by Broke For Free

Read the transcript

Announcer:

Major Insight is a production of Miami University. This where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

(MUSIC)

Abby Culpepper wants people to connect with places we’re from and spaces we occupy, right here and right now. As a linguistics major and a Geoffrion Fellow at Miami, she uses language and literature to explore our relationship with local communities and with the wider natural world.

And on this episode, Abby speaks with Major Insight Host Jacob Bruggeman about her work with eco-poetics, why the fight against climate change is less about conservation, and more about changing our fundamental relationship with the environment, and why it’s so important to appreciate the distinctness and richness of our own unique localities.

Jacob Bruggeman:

All right Abby. Welcome to the podcast. Could you start by giving us a little bit of an overview of your outstanding experiences at Miami University?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah, of course, Jacob. Thanks for having me. I'm a double major in French and linguistics, with a minor in German. And I'm also a BA/MA student in French. And over the course of my time at Miami, I have had the opportunity to do a lot of different amazing research experiences - between Undergraduate Summer Scholars project, a Dean’s Scholar Project, and the Geoffrion Fellowship offered through the Humanities center. I've also worked at the Humanities Center as their undergraduate student aid, which has offered me the opportunity to participate in and facilitate a lot of amazing discussions on campus surrounding humanities research.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Excellent. Yeah. We participated last year in the Geoffrion Family Fellows Program together on theme of urban futures. So could you tell us a little bit about your research in that cohort, and in that year-long project? And then perhaps the other things you've done, and the U.S.S., and whatnot?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. So my work in the Geoffrion project actually was a bit of an extension of my undergraduate Summer Scholars, where I explored the role of nature writing a bit from a historical perspective, how it had a tradition in the turn of the 19th century, with the professionalization of sciences, and scientific writing, and how today we use nature writing in a very different context. In the idea that we could kind of return to nature writing as a way to re-experience and re-approach the environment. And so with my individual project through the Geoffrion fellowship, I talked about eco-poetics as a way of reimagining our relationship to the environment more generally construed.

Because often we talk about the environment as, you know, nature with a capital “N.” And so, it's the nature that is exterior to us and outside of the urban. And so I was really excited to participate in the Geoffrion fellowship on the topic of urban futures, and talk about, you know, the environment that is not the, you know, the exterior. But the environment that is just our surroundings and urbanity as a natural environment. And then poetry is a way for us to, you know, write poetry that connects us to that environment.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. I remember vividly your presentation, which I thought was excellent. About eco-poetics, which I think we could sum up for the listeners that eco-poetics is the poetry that connects us to the natural world around us, correct?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. Yeah. The explicit definition I gave is kind of an etymological one. So eco-poetics coming from eco coming from the Greek “okis,” and, you know, pardon my Greek, meaning home. And then poetics coming from poesis, meaning to create or to fabricate. So it has a type of home building and thinking about, you know, the urban is a space that we inhabit. And so eco-poetics is really about, you know, building a home and, you know, the urban.

Jacob Bruggeman:

I'm curious what you think in terms of maybe like a localist perspective or a local-oriented perspective in terms of inhabiting and moving within the local environment? So here in Oxford, you know, the trails and what not. How do you think that poetry can connect, or can it connect us with the natural world around us? Because it's … in one sense, it's easy to get caught up -- and if you care about the environment, some environmental catastrophes going on, you know, hundreds or thousands of miles away. Whereas it sounds like what you're talking about -- and there's perhaps a disconnect between our very local/localized existence in terms of we're living in an environmental space, no matter where we are. But we often don't focus on the immediate environment around us.

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. I think Oxford is actually a really good example of that because being a small college town that is really kind of tucked away, and in this corner of Ohio, so many students kind of come in, you know, they do their four years of undergrad, and then they leave. And they kind of think of their time at in Oxford, I think, fondly. But with not a lot of thought to the fact that they've really lived in this space. They think of it in relation to its proximity to Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Columbus, Cleveland -- if we're going to throw all the C's in there.

Jacob Bruggeman:

My hometown.

Abby Culpepper:

And they, I think, at times, you know, forget the fact that, you know, they really did live here. And it's interesting because Oxford also is a bit of a transient space. We hear all the time -- and even I just on my way in, I was hearing the train come through Oxford. And it's constantly being traversed by trains, by semi-trucks that have to, you know, come in to bring goods to this area. And there's others. So there's a lot about Oxford that kind of wants us to forget that we live in this embodied space. But I think kind of some of the things that resist that are a lot of the green spaces here.

Particularly, I love the bluffs, which I actually had a great opportunity in my very first semester here, with a honors pairing of courses between an English class on the environment, which actually led into my Undergraduate Summer Scholars project, and a geology class to visit the bluffs and talk about how they're actually glacial moraines. And it, you know, it's part of the geography and the history of the location. And I think being able to walk through these spaces, and take time to think about this. and I actually even worked on a project for the Humanities Center about Percy MacKaye himself, and working on getting the historical marker up in Bishop Woods, where he had a shack.

Jacob Bruggeman:

The Poet's Shack.

Abby Culpepper:

The Poet's Shack. Which is very, you know, poetic in itself. There was like no electricity. He's had a fire. It was very Thoreau-ien. But it's about being there, and being able to write poetry in this space. And I think if, you know, if students, you know, take time to pause and look around, even though you don't do it all the time, you know, you just realize that you're here, and you're here for a moment, and to appreciate that. And not to be too concerned about when you graduate, and when you're leaving, and what you're going to. But to just enjoy being here.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So we've talked about the connection between rootedness and poetry, and an awareness of one's life in a certain place. Could you talk about how that awareness can lend itself to an action? Action for environmental justice. Climate change is a hotly debated, but salient topic right now. So could you could you talk about that connection a little bit?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. I think the response to that question is a bit something I explored in my, you know, Undergraduate Summer Scholars project that I worked on. Because one of the problems with climate change is that it causes so many anxieties in people, and poses problems for activists. Because as much as we want to cause change, it's something that we as individuals often can't do something about immediately. We have to request other people to help us. We have to organize in mass. And a lot of times, people who are the largest polluters are corporations. They're not individuals. And so it's hard to cause change.

And so what I talked about in my paper was, you know, I proposed nature writing -- and this, you know, idea that I then explore later in my Geoffrion project with eco-poetics -- is this idea of that being embodied in space, and exploring that through literature as a way of changing our relationship to the world. Because the root cause of climate change isn't, you know, CO2. It's the fact that we think we can use the environment as a resource without thinking about the consequences.

Because I don't think that just using it less is going to solve the problem. I think we have to be engaging in the environment in a way that is a respectful, in a way that is conscious of the fact that we are not separate from the environment. And I think literature, and exploring our relationship to the environment through literature, is a way to kind of shift that mindset, and to begin a cultural conversation about that. Because at the end of day, you know, we base our decisions a lot of times on cultural narratives. And until that cultural narrative changes, it's always going to be an uphill battle.

Jacob Bruggeman:

So, you've studied abroad several times, I think. And I'd be curious to know how your study abroads, your embeddedness in other environments, have shaped your worldview? And shaped the research agenda that you've described for us?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. I think… I actually had a really interesting experience with studying abroad insofar as it's actually kind of encouraged me to really appreciate Southwestern Ohio more. I think so often people … I really … and because of my …. my main language of study is French literature. And I think one of my favorite questions to ask: Is, like, do you remember the first time you learned about the Eiffel Tower?

And most people don't. Like, the Eiffel Tower is … and, like, as a kid from Southwest Ohio, like, why in the world do I need to know that the Eiffel Tower exists? But it's just this cultural icon, and this imagery, that exists in our imagination. So we have this really, like, idealization of, like, Paris and in France, specifically. But also just largely like Europe as this space where like culture happens, and where like things are better. And especially as someone who's like environmentally motivated, there's always these articles that are, like, Europe has way better everything than the U.S. Why can't we learn to recycle?

And it's so frustrating just because it ignores the different cultural aspects, or it ignores differences in space and logistics. But I also think it is a way of refusing to engage with your own locality, and attempting to say that, you know, well, it's better here so, like, I just want to be in this other space, where the problems have already been worked out more. And it's pushing off the burden of doing work in your community, where there are issues. And it's also refusing to acknowledge that there is great, you know, cultural moments in your communities.

And so I think after, you know, being in Paris, you know, visiting Berlin, and a bunch of other amazing European cities, coming back to Southwestern Ohio I felt like, you know, I had the knowledge to say that like, no, I really love this space. There are, you know, places in Cincinnati that, you know, like rival places in Germany. You can really see the impact of German architecture there. And just there's so much great culture and access and art going on there. And I really love it, and appreciate it. And I think we should spend more time really appreciating our localities, and doing work in them, and, you know, focusing on that. And not focusing on, you know, that, you know, mystical world abroad where, you know, the Eiffel Tower is.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. A lot of my work now is on Midwestern history. And one of the persistent myths about the Midwest is that it's a culture desert. And that the cities, such as Columbus or Cincinnati are oases in some sense, where culture happens.

And, I mean, there's a false dichotomy, in some sense, between the cities and the rural. And in some sense they're all connected. And culture happens in every single community, regardless of its population density, or the height of its buildings. And so I really appreciate that you said that.

I’d like to ask you about the concept of the global citizen, which we've talked about on the podcast before. And it seems like you just critiqued it in a sense, in that there's a tendency today to look outward and prize the “global cities,” in quotes, of course. And to not realize the value, or the distinctness, and richness of the communities we are brought up in. And I'd be curious for you to comment -- being in some sense, you know, a global person. You've traveled and you've studied abroad. You speak multiple languages. But you also value Southwest Ohio. Could you talk about the problem of the concept of the global citizen?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. I think my critique of that comes out of my work and interest in the importance of locality, and of realizing that we need to be embedded in space instead of, you know, rejecting our relationship to the ways in which we’re connected to communities. And I think the idea of the global citizen is something that we push upon people as this like ideal, and it's something that I very often get from family members, who come from rural communities, or from suburban communities in Southwestern Ohio. That, like, I'm so cultured now, and like traveled, and like I'm gonna go move to some big city on like the coast, or abroad, and live some like idealized life, and, you know, walk along the Champs-Elysées, and whatever.

But it's so frustrating to me. Because it seems really just so cliché. And to me, it seems so … It doesn't seem like a life that anyone real has actually lived. It seems like the life of someone who has like lost all sense of identity. And for me, the global citizen seems like a type of identity crisis - that we reject everything that, you know, has made us who we are, that we grew up in. Whether or not, you know, it's been a positive experience. Because that's not to say that, you know, your background is always great. Because people do have rough backgrounds.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Absolutely

Abby Culpepper:

But that still defines them in a certain way. And it influences their perceptions, even if it's in the contrary way. Even if you say, “I don't want to be like that, so I'll be different.”

But the global citizen seems to be this type of way of saying, like, “I want to mold myself after this ideal, almost Übermensch-ien type of person.” And so, for me, it's very strange and bizarre.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Übermensch from Nietzsche. Meaning great man, sort of world … Well, he's using it in a more of an intelligence type of perspective …

Abby Culpepper:

It's a rejection of the confines of kind of like societal norms. But I think in this context, we could talk about it as a kind of rejection of a kind of background that you've been given by your upraising, and your desire to overcome and, you know, be beyond this. To not conform in a certain way. But I think the global citizen is this weird, like, nonconformity to the point of conformity. Very, like, instagrammy. Very, like, “look at me!”

And I don't…

Jacob Bruggeman:

There's theater involved in it.

Abby Culpepper:

Yes. It's very aestheticized.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. You're presenting yourself on social media, and to yourself, as a global cultured person, as you said. And I think it's a rejection of the community you grew up in. Be it Oxford, Ohio, or in my case, Brunswick, Ohio. Or ….

Abby Culpepper:

It's also a rejection of the locality you're currently in, in favor of a larger, like, a meta-narrative of your life. Where it's like, “I travel.” And, “I am not tied down to one city, and that defines me.”

Jacob Bruggeman:

I'm curious though. I mean, the global citizen is something that our own university, and most universities, promote because it seems to connote this worldliness, this attention to social issues beyond our own communities. We were talking about climate change. In some sense, it conveys an awareness of the global scale of an issue such as that. And so, I'm curious whether or not you think it's -- as Plato would say -- a noble lie? Something that we can aspire to, or could aspire to?

Abby Culpepper:

I think there's a difference between being aware of, like, the relationship … our relationship to different mechanisms of, like, globality, if we want to call it that. And being this “global citizen.”

Because I think the rhetoric of a lot of liberal arts education is that we want educated citizens, who are aware and critical, and are able to recognize that they exist within systems that act in a local and global level. But the concept of a global citizen is, I think, one that is the concept of, in some ways, a transient laborer and consumer.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Jetting about …

Abby Culpepper:

Who Jets about, and is flexible in ways that labor and products need them to be. And so, the image is one of that. Whereas the rhetoric is one of trying to be aware.

But the problem is that often, you know, there’s a need to sell these ideas of, like, you can do a, you know, a small study abroad project in Peru, which is, you know, would be a great experience. But often, it is sometimes, you know, sold as more of a vacation, than an engaged type of time and community. And I think if we focus more on talking about these things as engaging in community and locality, instead of as a time to take cool pictures. Then, you know, we're moving more towards the right location.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. It's a tough and knotty issue. I think Miami is doing a good job. Because it seems like our study abroads are actually more and more focused on community engagement. So you're going in, you know, beforehand. You're doing a specific project. You're training. You're learning and living with a host family and, you know, doing language education. And it seems like we’re doing a good job of not framing it necessarily as the global citizen. But perhaps as a globally informed citizen, which is probably a healthier and truer way to think about.

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. And I think one of the benefits is that my experience with the study abroad programs that are faculty led, is that the same faculty member leads them every time. And so, it gives the faculty member a chance to build up consistent relationships with communities.

And so, while the students are new, the faculty member is not. So, for example, when I studied abroad in Germany, in each city we went to, our faculty member had friends he was friends with for decades in those cities. And so, we were with host families that he'd known for decades. And, you know, we would have dinners, and he would be talking to them about, you know, past experiences from trips years ago.

And I didn't feel like I was just there, and, you know, they were, you know, helping out a student trying to learn language. I felt like they were excited to have new students from Miami. They'd hosted them before, and that they really were excited to engage in this project. Because the faculty member was interested in building a community.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Yeah. So lots of incredible experiences here at Miami in your three-and-a-half, verging on four years. So what's next? What's on the horizon for you?

Abby Culpepper:

So I've been applying to Doctoral programs in French literature at the current moment, and I've been accepted to a couple programs. And wait-listed for a couple others. So I will be …

Jacob Bruggeman:

Congratulations.

Abby Culpepper:

Thank you. So I will be completing my PhD and in French literature.

Jacob Bruggeman:

That's excellent. Do you have any inclination of what your studies will be about?

Abby Culpepper:

Yeah. So I focus on contemporary and modern French literature, and I'm particularly interested in -- as this interview may have suggested -- in poetry and eco-criticism. So my larger goal is to continue working on these themes of how do we understand in poetry and in eco-criticism. And so that will kind of be my project moving forward.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Excellent. Well, sounds like an interesting research agenda, and Miami will always be a home for you, a place of rootedness that you can return to when you get the chance.

Abby Culpepper:

It certainly will.

Jacob Bruggeman:

Alright. Thank you, Abby.

Abby Culpepper:

Thank you so much.

Announcer:

Abby Culpepper is now a graduate of Miami University, where she earned degrees in French, German, and linguistics.

If you enjoyed this episode of Major Insight, share it with a friend, with students, or with anyone who hopes to make an impact on their world. You can find more of our podcasts for free, including episodes of our Reframe podcast, on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

SHOW NOTES:

Featured Majors: 

French, Linguistics, German

Featured Awards & Organizations:

Geoffrion Family Fellows Program, The Office of Research for Undergraduate’s Summer Scholars Program, The Humanities Center, The Dean’s Scholar Program, Bishop Woods

Featured Study Abroad:

Paris: Cultural Capital; Intensive German Summer in Heidelberg, Jena, Dessau and Berlin

Major Insight

 

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Major Insight is a production of Miami University and the Reframe podcast. This is where we showcase successful students, their promising new research, and its relevance in our world.

Host Jacob Bruggeman

Jacob Bruggemam

The Major Insight podcast is hosted by Jacob Bruggeman. Bruggeman, a Miami Honors student and double-major in History and Political Science created the podcast to feature stories of students navigating 21st century academic life.

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