Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


Welcome to the Department of English blog.

My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Binocular Vision

I have not laid eyes on the physical book yet--faculty scatter over the summer and it is harder than normal for me to keep abreast of every development--but it appears that Spencer Schaffner's book Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides has just been printed by The University of Massachusetts Press.

Since UMass Press has strengths in environmental studies as well as in the field of book history, I think you'll agree that they are highly appropriate publishers for Schaffner's work. Here is the book description, pasted in here from the press's website:

"From meadows to marshlands, seashores to suburbs, field guides help us identify many of the things we find outdoors: plants, insects, mammals, birds. In these texts, nature is typically represented, both in words and images, as ordered, clean, and untouched by human technology and development. This preoccupation with species identification, however, has produced an increasingly narrow view of nature, a “binocular vision,” that separates the study of individual elements from a range of larger, interconnected environmental issues. In this book, Spencer Schaffner reconsiders this approach to nature study by focusing on how birds are presented in field guides.

Starting with popular books from the late nineteenth century and moving ultimately to the electronic guides of the current day, Binocular Vision contextualizes birdwatching field guides historically, culturally, and in terms of a wide range of important environmental issues. Schaffner questions the assumptions found in field guides to tease out their ideological workings. He argues that the sanitized world represented in these guides misleads readers by omitting industrial landscapes and so-called nuisance birds, leaving users of the guides disconnected from environmental degradation and its impact on bird populations.

By putting field guides into direct conversation with concerns about species conservation, environmental management, the human alteration of the environment, and the problem of toxic pollution, Binocular Vision is a field guide to field guides that takes a novel perspective on how we think about and interact with the world around us."

Congrats, Spencer (wherever you are)!

I linked to Spencer's standard departmental profile above, but those seeking a more in-depth Schaffner experience should also visit the web-space he maintains. Quite a lot there to see, if you poke around...

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