Astrida Neimanis is an interdisciplinary scholar in the field of feminist environmental studies. She is an Associate Professor cross-appointed in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies (FCCS) and the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). She comes to UBC Okanagan after teaching at the University of Sydney for the last five years.
“As I don’t have a strong disciplinary home, the opportunity to work in both FCCS and FASS and cover all of the areas I work in was unique and appealing,” Neimanis says.
She explains that while Gender and Women Studies is where she has done most of her teaching, a lot of her work bridges creative and critical aspects. She works with artists, researching their work and participating in the creation of artistic works.
“My work is both engaged in researching artistic perspectives on water and climate change and environmental solutions and also committed to building that new language.”
In addition to writing for academic publications, Neimanis also works with artists on publications for galleries and museums, as well as public festivals and events. Her research looks at how science and arts and humanities come together to address ecological questions and issues in new ways.
“I am interested in how artistic works can give us a different language for addressing questions of environmental degradation and climate change,” she says.
Neimanis notes that it is clear that the use of policy and scientific language is not doing enough to motivate people to make the kinds of changes we need to do to protect our environment. She feels strongly that that the language of the arts is a really valuable in amplifying the necessity of change to a wider audience.
“I look for ways to talk about climate change related issues using a different kind of communication that can speak to people through languages of feeling, or emotion, esthetic, connection, empathy, obligation, values, or ethics,” she says. “The sorts of things that the language used in policy and science does not always quite get to.”
Her main objective as a researcher is to draw attention to the ways in which we as humans understand our own relationship to the more than human world.
“My research is rooted in the belief that how we imagine and understand the world is directly related to how we treat it and behave in the world.”
Most of Neimanis’ work is about water and watery sites, including oceans, lakes and rivers, and even sewage and postindustrial cesspools of toxic sludge. In all of these cases, she is interested in trying to open up an understanding of how our bodies being made up of water connects us to the bodies we drink from, or extract from, fish from, dump garbage into.
“I’m curious about the material connections between our own bodies and environmental bodies, and how acknowledging those that might change how we imagine our relationship to “nature,” as something we have an intimate connection to.”
She works to tease these things bout by writing research-based stories. Her writing is quite lyrical and takes on a narrative tone even though it is based on academic research.
“In my writing I weave together theory and experiential description with historical and scientific facts. I tell stories about these bodies of water so we might reimagine our relationship to them and think differently about how we treat them and what our obligation is to our environment.”
The Pull of Academia
Neimanis went in and out of academia for about 10 years from her undergrad, to her masters and finally her PhD before settling in a career as a university professor.
She spent six years working for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in gender issues and sexual health issues in Central and Eastern Europe, but she craved a more of a creative outlet for the kinds of social justice questions she was interested in pursuing. This idea drew her back to Canada to complete her PhD at York University in Social and Political Thought.
“The policy work I was doing at the UNDP was valuable, but I wanted to think deeply and creatively about some of the questions I was grappling with,” she notes. “I considered other ways to continue my career, but I wanted that unique combination of things you can do as an academic.”
Neimanis says she is a writer at heart, and also loves teaching and being in a classroom.
“I want to be a part of that amazing discovery process when students are learning and finding out about things for the first time, or bringing their experience to the classroom and teaching us as professors.”
Here at UBC Okanagan, Neimanis will be teaching an upper level Gender and Women Studies course in FASS, as well as a graduate level Critical Theory course in FCCS.
The undergraduate course, entitled Gender and Environment, is a version of a course she taught in Sydney. The course will use the tools of feminism and feminist theory and gender studies and apply them to how we address and think about environmental problems.
“I am trying to expand how we understand power, as traditionally something among humans, and look at what those theories teach us about the relationships between humans and non-humans.” The course will offer students the opportunity to build an individual connection to community or global-scale issues.
The graduate level unit in critical theory will focus on the question of “the human” – who or what counts as human, and who or what is excluded. It will draw heavily from feminist theory, environmental theory, critical race theory and decolonial theory. The course will also ask students to step back and consider what is theory, and what is the point of theory.
“In a scholarly context it is one thing to become fluent in talking about academic theories and how to explain concepts, but I am interested in what theory does in the world. What use is it to us as students and educators who want to make a change in the world?”