LogoBoth Barack Obama and I visited Tasmania in 2012. One night back at my hotel I was watching the news on TV and the lead story was about that evening’s state visit. The great and good of the Australian civic society were invited. As the presenter announced, “the business people, politicians and academics are all here to welcome the President of the United States.”

I sat up. Academics? Invited and up there with business people and politicians? I was amazed. It struck me as something that would never happen in the UK; that academics would be invited, or that it would be reported on the news in this way. And I felt immediately deflated about the status of the general academic in Britain, and the value of deep thought to our collective future.

It’s a question that was on my mind as I landed at Cedar Rapids airport, just outside of Iowa City, where I was headed for the Affect and Inquiry conference this March, to debate the nature of inquiry as engaged with the feelings and motions of affect in everyday life, such as Ann Cvetkovich’s simple question in her book Depression: A Public Feeling: “How does capitalism feel?”.

And who else should be in Cedar Rapids that morning? Obama of course. My coach ride down to Iowa City was disrupted by his cars crossing the highway. Apparently he comes here a lot, as Iowa, the first caucus to announce its support in the US election primaries, is a key state in their political system. But I couldn’t help but think: twice? Okay, this is getting to be more than a coincidence.

But the highlight of the ten day trip, and as the question continued to percolate through my mind along with the Java House’s excellent coffee, was a visit to see the work done by the Centre for Humans and Nature, based in Chicago. As another part of the process in refining some thoughts around my Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship this summer, in April this year I met with Brooke Hecht and Kate Cummings from the Centre. They are, in their words,

a group of engaged and curious thinkers who understand that ideas matter. We invite Fellows to work with staff to broaden and deepen our Project work.

They have a set of outputs focused on the role of the thinker/academic/writer in the debate on the relationship between humans and nature. Their organisation is particularly interesting as they are invested deeply in a belief of the value of engagement through this kind of deep thought that is often best done by those paid to think, and think critically, for a long time: academics, philosophers, and writers/artists. For them, academics and deep thinkers should always be at the table when these issues of our future are being thought out. Their questions include

(I think also there are important questions here about what it takes to form an “us” who can together ask these questions.) It was a full and engaging talk with Brooke and Kate in particular, with other colleagues joining us when they could, and I was hugely grateful for the time they provided to talk with me, which only modeled their ethos of being invested in and generous around the value of thought and conversation. What I gathered from our talk were four questions they were facing that could inform my Churchill project about “The Creative Writer in Conservation / Nature / Animal Education” and the potential structure and forms any work or outcomes could take, and what to take into account when assessing the cultural value of art and thought in these fields:

  1. How to evaluate the work you do
  2. How to develop a strategy for a portfolio of products to have strong conversations that lead to action (e.g. blog posts, journals, events)
  3. How to link into creative activity and output from learning
  4. How to pick an organisational structure (charity, non-profit, tied to academia?)

It was a long and lovely meeting, not least because I got some tips for the best raw food and vegan restaurants in Chicago. It’s helped me think about two key things, re-emphasised in meetings I’ve had since with other organisations, including William Fiennes’ First Story charity, and Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. (More on those to follow). Those two things are:

– how do we value thought, and the role of the thinker, in debates that are central to our collective future?

– how do I play with and connect what I am doing here on this project to the work I want to produce, and what is its value?

And that night, as my friends and I made our way across town to a Buddhist vegan cafe and then onto Al Capone’s jazz club, The Green Mill, guess who should turn up again, but my buddy Barack. The metro station was cleared so Obama’s motorcade could pass under the bridge. We jumped on the last train out of there before the station was cleared, but I couldn’t help think the guy was following me. Perhaps academics and writers are wanted people after all…

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