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Farewell Reflections with Director Jeff McCarthy

Headshot of Jeff McCarthy, a white man with short blonde and grey hair in a light green button up shirt in front a grey background.

After nine years of leadership, Dr. Jeffrey McCarthy is officially retiring from his position as Director of the Environmental Humanities Program. We are full of gratitude for Jeff's years of service, and although we will miss him, we wish him all the best in his next chapter. 

Throughout his directorship, Jeff has graduated nearly 70 students and placed many of them in PhD programs, professional programs, non-profit leadership roles, and Fulbright programs. He created the Utah Award in the Environmental Humanities to celebrate environmental leadership and expression, organized two leadership symposia for regional Environmental Humanities academic leaders, and encouraged vigorous relationships with U of U research organizations like the Taft-Nicholson Center and Bonderman Field Station at Rio Mesa. Jeff hired new faculty members, including Lizzie Callaway, Diana Leong, and Angela Robinson, and organized the Environmental Humanities Research Interest Group. Most recently, Jeff was the PI on a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which created an Environmental Humanities Community Fellows Program to promote environmental justice. While improving our program from all angles, Jeff also stayed committed to his scholarly pursuits and published three books. 

Students and Jeff sit in a circle on benches and camp chairs at the Rio Mesa Field Station in a remote red rock desert landscape. Sandstone cliffs are in the background.

Jeff with students at the Rio Mesa Field Station in April 2023.

"Jeff has made phenomenal contributions to the Environmental Humanities Program during his nine years as director," said Danielle Endres, incoming Director of Environmental Humanities and longtime affiliated faculty member. "His leadership contributed to a rise in the national and international profile of the program, increasingly diverse graduate student cohorts, and a deepening focus on environmental justice, community engagement, and collaboration with Indigenous peoples and nations, in part a result of the grant he received from the Mellon Foundation. Speaking from the perspective of an affiliated faculty member, Jeff has been an unwavering source of support for faculty research in the environmental humanities, including his efforts to nurture a community of intellectual engagement for faculty across campus."

Jeff in a suit on stage standing next to Rebecca Solnit accepting the Utah Award in the Environmental Humanities.

Jeff awarding Rebecca Solnit with the Utah Award in the Environmental Humanities in 2019.

As a former student and current staff member, I've had the honor of having Jeff as a professor, advisor, supervisor, and colleague. From day one, Jeff made me feel at home in the Environmental Humanities Program. I appreciate all the ways he has created a culture of rigor and success balanced with community, creativity, and care. Below are Jeff's written responses to questions I posed for a final farewell reflection. 

When you reflect on your time as director of the Environmental Humanities Program, what are you most proud of?

The people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve formed have been transformative. This question brings me back across a decade with so many public occasions and so many shared insights that I can barely choose. That said, I suppose I’m proudest of something ineffable, something you might call praxis wed to rigor. Walk into any EH event and there’s an identifiable community of motivated, careful, engaged thinkers who know their work matters. This spirit has blossomed around me in the last decade – not because of me but alongside me. You can see the work coming from our faculty and our graduates as they lift one another.

If I must pinpoint something concrete, the EH program has flourished into a place where every student is funded for two years of guided, rigorous inquiry. That’s a good model for shaping environmental thinkers who can, themselves, shape their world.

Jeff sitting at this desk, covered in papers and a mug. He's wearing a blue button up shirt.

Jeff at his desk in the Environmental Humanities building.

What lessons are you taking with you? What did you learn from the experience, your fellow faculty, and the students you taught and mentored over the years?

I’ve learned a lot in a lot of directions, but maybe I’ll land on “Only Connect.” That’s what E.M. Forster concluded in 1910 when England was riven by class tensions, political deadlock, and culture wars. In our moment, “only connect” means listening to others, learning from sources outside the academy, and realizing how much the youth have to teach. “Only connect” also means reaching across the aisles that separate us from alternative political ideologies, or from other disciplines, or from people with other abilities.

The environmental humanities is a relatively new field. How have you communicated the field’s meaning and importance throughout your time as director? What direction do you see environmental humanities going as the field continues to evolve and grow?

I think EH is identified by problem solving. EH scholars use humanities tools to solve environmental problems. One of our mottoes in Fort Douglas has been “ideals in action,” and we see that realized in student theses and in faculty publications and in the symposia we host and the interviews we give media.

Where is the field headed? Judging by successes like our Mellon grant, I’d say toward environmental justice. Interestingly, EH is also headed towards recognizing the presence of an agential non-human world. See the paradox? Environmentalism is more focused on human problems than ever before and environmentalism is more aware of non-human agency than ever before. We tell good students to dive into any tension they find in their research, so I have faith the environmental humanities will succeed by exploring exactly this pull between human and non-human interests.

Beyond your role as director, you are also a scholar who has contributed valuable research and ideas to the field of environmental humanities. What is the focus of your research and what issues are you currently exploring?

My work has always explored social constructions of nature and the ways such understandings get deployed – to challenge power or to affirm it. These days, I’m motivated to understand the ocean’s role as climate problem and climate solution. In a surprising twist, studying the ocean has helped me realize the ways academic focus on “climate” can be a distraction (a red herring!). You see, spotlighting carbon and ice cores and climate science can obscure the daily environmental injustices and daily environmental pollutions that develop in parallel with parts-per-million of carbon or desertification. For instance, many deep-sea fishing practices are horrendously abusive of the oceans and of the people who do the fishing and these abuses can be rectified with policies available to us today. The problem is not about carbon. You can think of other examples where the issue is not a planetary imbalance but, instead, some dysfunction of politics and greed. In short, the ocean reminds me that environmental health has as much to do with today’s political pressure as it does with tomorrow’s carbon in the atmosphere.

Jeff on a small sail boat in a marina. He's wearing a red U of U cap and a short sleeve grey tshirt.

In addition to studying the ocean, Jeff likes to spend his time sailing on the ocean. 

What’s next for you professionally and personally? What are you most looking forward to as you begin a new chapter?

Marge Piercy has a wonderful poem titled “To Be of Use.” I’m keen to explore new ways to be of use. One path includes spending extended time in wild nature. Funnily enough, my scholarly compatriots have long deplored the Romantic canard that a retreat to unsettled nature improves us. Nonetheless, I’m game to try the experiment on myself.

A decade ago, I told the hiring committee that directing Utah’s EH program could be “the most important job in America” because of the work scholars and students and activists could combine to do. Now I think directing the EH program is the best job in America. These are great people doing amazing work in a supportive context. But why leave such a role? Well, in Walden’s concluding chapter, Thoreau writes, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live.”

Jeff hiking in a green mountainside. He's wearing a blue tshirt, grey shorts, a red bandana around his neck, and a red U of U baseball cap. He is holding trecking poles.
Jeff in wild nature.
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Last Updated: 4/28/23