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Telling stories for environmental justice

Graduating ASU student Matt Henry / Courtesy photo

Graduating PhD student Matt Henry, a native of Missoula, Montana, is an avid outdoorsman. His hiking and fishing hobbies have subsequently informed his environmental humanities scholarship.

December 01, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates.

Graduating doctoral student Matt Henry believes in the power of story. And he’s banking on that power to make the difference in the fight against climate catastrophe.

Henry is earning a PhD in English literature, but with a twist. He focuses on a burgeoning area of research called environmental humanities. For Henry, that means writing, reading, analyzing, curating and otherwise helping disseminate stories about climate and other environmental concerns. He believes that by making these tales relatable and “hyperlocal,” humans can begin to grasp the consequences of ignoring our warming planet.

For him, it’s personal; Henry grew up fishing the rivers of his native Montana. So, his award-winning “cli-fi” short story “Victor and the Fish” illustrates the devastating effects of climate change on the ever-lengthening fire season in his home state. As he told ASU Now in 2016: “Talking about climate change through fiction is very important to me because it allows me to share my experience with others.

“I think that is a route to collective action, being able to empathize with one another.”

Henry’s work has been supported by the ASU Katharine C. Turner Dissertation Fellowship, a Graduate College University Graduate Fellowship and numerous travel grants and research assistantships.

He also has published his work in respected academic journals. But Henry has been preaching the gospel of climate fiction everywhere else too. Via Skype, he taught a graduate seminar on U.S. and postcolonial literatures of the environment for master’s students at Kinnaird College in Lahore, Pakistan, under the aegis of a U.S. State Department partnership in spring 2017. He wrote a public-centered think piece on human-centric thinking about climate, “Are we all living in the Anthropocene?” for the Oxford University Press blog in October 2017. And, in May 2018, he gave a presentation on what he calls “extractive fictions” at Stanford University.

Henry defended his dissertation, titled “Hydronarratives: Water and Environmental Justice in U.S., Canadian and Pakistani Literature and Cultural Representations” on Oct. 2. In it, Henry situates a growing body of work dealing with water crises by contemporary writers, artists and filmmakers — from North America and Pakistan — in the context of global climate change and discussions of social and environmental justice.

“These ‘hydronarratives’ represent water as a cultural object,” said Claudia Sadowski-Smith, professor of English and one of Henry’s committee chairs. Henry’s work “(renders) visible the uneven impacts of dam construction, fossil fuel extraction and climate change.”

We sat down with Henry to ask a few questions about his time at ASU and his future plans.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: When I was a college freshman, I couldn’t decide what to major in. I eventually chose English because I liked to read and I was always a good writer. When I started taking college-level literature courses my sophomore year, I pretty quickly realized that I wanted to eventually get a PhD in English.

During my MA program at the University of Montana, I took a class called “Globalization and Literature” that examined writers that were responding to crises associated with globalization, such as growing inequality. It changed everything for me, and I knew I wanted to approach literary studies to understand the urgent social and political issues of our time. I eventually wrote my MA thesis on postcolonial theory, globalization and religious fundamentalism in the literature of Salman Rushdie.

After arriving at ASU, I became more interested in studying U.S. literature and culture from a transnational perspective. After taking classes with my co-advisors, Joni Adamson and Claudia Sadowski-Smith, I decided to pursue research in the environmental humanities with a focus on environmental justice, a topic that emerged naturally from previous work in my MA program. Developing a research program in the environmental humanities was natural: Because I grew up in Montana, I have always been passionate about outdoor recreation — fly-fishing, rafting, backpacking, and trail running — and, by extension, environmental issues. When I began working with Adamson, Sadowski-Smith, and ASU’s broader community of stellar environmental humanists, I had an “aha” moment. I knew I was doing exactly what I should be doing.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I was most surprised by the fact that researching, writing, and teaching — the type of “knowledge-making” that takes place in academia — is all about community. While these activities, especially research and writing, can be isolating, I came to learn that every article, book and syllabus is a project of collaboration and dialogue with colleagues and mentors. That’s pretty cool.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I knew of its reputation for interdisciplinary research and collaboration and it seemed like a good fit for the type of work I wanted to do. Also, graduate TA funding packages involved a solid amount of teaching, with the potential to teach upper-division courses as well as first-year composition. I wanted that experience.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Joni Adamson and Claudia Sadowski-Smith, the co-advisors on my dissertation committee, taught me the value of engaged mentorship. The lessons I learned from them can be applied both within and outside of the academy. If I am someday in a position to mentor students or employees, I will look back on my time spent working with them as an example of selfless mentorship.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Speaking specifically to graduate students: Go for it and don’t be afraid of rejection. Submit that article to a top journal. Cold-email a scholar in your field to introduce yourself and ask them a question about their work. Apply for everything. Keep an open mind and don’t be too wedded to specific outcomes you’ve envisioned regarding what you can and can’t do with a PhD in the humanities.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Hayden lawn at dusk in the fall after a few hours spent teaching or in the library.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am currently seeking a teaching position in higher education. I am also developing a few nonacademic writing projects. I am also beginning to explore the professional possibilities in environmental NGOs and nonprofits, where I would be interested in contributing my writing, research and public-speaking skills to advance environmental justice causes.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Whew. That’s a tough one. I’d probably pour it into efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate change in underrepresented communities, with the important caveat that such communities remain largely in control of planning and spending.


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