ENGL 559: Ecocriticism
MW 10:30 – 12:20
Instructor: Jesse Oak Taylor
email@example.com; 206-747-4818 (cell)
Office Hours: MW 1 – 2 (PDL A-408) & By Appointment
This seminar offers an introduction to ecocriticism, the study of literature and the environment. Our organizing principle will be ecocriticism as opposed to more open-ended terms like “environmental humanities” in part because doing so foregrounds the political and ethical practice of criticism. “Eco” has its roots in “oikos,” meaning home or dwelling, while the critic is one capable of judgement or discernment. Hence, ecocriticism is not simply a method of interpreting texts or other cultural artifacts, but rather of dwelling critically, turning the lens of critical interpretation upon the world outside the text, attending to sites of reading as well as the contexts of composition. Ecocriticism is a practice, a mode of action as well as contemplation; it attempts not merely to understand the world, but to change it; to imagine new worlds, and to make worlds bearable; to mourn what has been lost and cling to all we can still save. We will devote particular attention to the question of what it means to practice ecocriticism here, in Seattle, and how our analyses operate across multiple intersecting scales, from the particularities of a given text or class discussion to the “deep time” of the planet.
These discussions dovetail with the inherently interdisciplinary nature of environmental studies, and the position of ecocriticism as a subfield within it. Hence, we will consider several aspects of ecocriticism that make it distinctive among literary studies methodologies, including the demands of scientific literacy and a penchant for fieldwork. At the same time, we will think about the distinctive contribution that literary analysis can make to environmental studies and an interdisciplinary endeavor cutting across the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.
This course has two primary goals.
- Introduce students to the theory and practice of ecocriticism. Readings will focus on work published within the past five years in order to give students a robust grounding in the current state of the field, preparing them to write exams or dissertations in ecocriticism. Discussions will frame this work in terms of important topics and discourses such as: energy humanities, the Anthropocene and/or Earth System humanities, and extinction.
- Help students learn how to read scholarly books, and understand such major projects are conceived and structured. Each week, we will be reading an academic book in its entirety. Thus, part of what we will discuss is how to manage an intense reading load, and how to strike an appropriate balance between slow/attentive reading and fast/get the main point reading. This is an invaluable skill in academic life, especially as you prepare for exams and dissertation research. These discussions will also include questions of voice, scope, audience, and format and should help students think about how to structure their own dissertation projects in future.
The reading load will be substantial: we will read a book per week, focusing on significant works of ecocriticism and/or environmental humanities dealing with a range of themes including climate, energy, and multi-species relations. These will cover a range of periods (from medieval to the present), genres, and national traditions. Students will be expected to read and engage with all of them. Indeed, one of the things we will discuss is how to learn from criticism on works that you may not have read.
All books have been ordered to the UW Bookstore. Most are also available as e-books from the library. I will leave it up to you to decide whether to purchase them or check them out, but I do expect you to bring the text with you to class in some form, and to do your best to finish each book. The “Introduction” to The Ecocriticism Reader (for Day 1) is available on Canvas.
Jennifer Wenzel, The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature (Fordham, 2020). ISBN 978-0-8232-8677-5
Louise Westling, Deep History, Climate Change, and the Evolution of Human Culture (Cambridge, 2022). ISBN 978-1-009257343 (e-book in library)
Tobias Menely, Climate and the Making of Worlds: Toward a Geohistorical Poetics (Chicago, 2021). ISBN 978-0-226-77628-6
Bob Johnson, Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Johns Hopkins, 2019). ISBN 978-1-4214-2756-0
Cajetan Iheka, African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics (Duke, 2021). ISBN 978-1-4780-1474-4
Joshua Schuster, What is Extinction? A Natural and Cultural History of Last Animals (Fordham, 2023). ISBN 978-1-5315-0165-5
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen & Julian Yates, Noah’s Arkive (Minnesota, 2023) ISBN 978-1-5179-0424-1
Caroline Levine, The Activist Humanist: Form and Method in the Climate Crisis (Princeton, 2023). ISBN 978-0-691-25058-8
Written assignments will include: a book review of one of the course texts (due the week after we read that book in class) and a final project consisting of either a “review essay” describing a movement within the field or a research paper offering an interpretation of an artifact of your choice. Book reviews should be 500 – 750 words. Final projects should be around 3,500 – 5,000 words, though longer is acceptable especially if you are revising an existing piece for publication. Multi-modal projects and alternatives to traditional academic essays are welcome, provided they involve substantive research and are of equivalent scope.
- Book Reviews: Each student will write a review of one of the books we are reading, modeled on a review that would appear in an academic journal. These reviews should be around 500 – 750 words, and provide an overview of the book’s argument, methodology, archive, and key contributions. The review should also offer an assessment of strengths and weaknesses. However, in academic reviews, this “thumbs up / thumbs down” aspect tends to be less prominent than an overview assessing the book’s contributions. Book reviews will be due the week after we read the book in class, so that you can draw on insights that emerge from the seminar in writing your reviews. These reviews will be posted on the Canvas site, such that we will be building a collective archive during the quarter that people can consult while working on their final projects.
Helpful guidelines for writing academic book reviews are available here: https://wendybelcher.com/writing-advice/
- Final Project: At the end of the quarter, each student will complete a research project related to the course theme. These may consist either of a critical intervention or interpretive reading of a text or artifact of your choice or a review essay describing a movement within the field. Either should be around 3,500 – 5,000 words, and include substantial engagement with relevant scholarship. Multi-modal projects are welcome for either option provided they are of equivalent scope. More details on both options will be available on the Assignments page.
- Final project proposals will be due by the end of Week 8. These 3 – 5 page documents will ask you to describe: 1) a title 2) your research question and why you care about it 3) your primary text(s) or archive, 4) your methods and/or a few key secondary works, and 5) any looming questions or challenges that you foresee in completing this project, including any skills or resources that you might need to complete it, whether you have them, and how you plan to acquire them. This last aspect is particularly important for creative or multi-modal projects.
If you are having a hard time making up your mind, you are welcome to submit proposals for two different final projects. I will be happy to help you choose between them. I also realize that projects often change shape during the writing. However, I do expect you to write at least some version of the project that you propose.
A seminar is a collaborative enterprise. Please come to class prepared not merely to pose and answer questions from me, but to engage in frank, thoughtful, and respectful conversations with your fellow students. While I recognize that you may not be able to complete all of the reading, I do expect you to do a substantial amount of it, and have something tangible and specific to say. Because this is a small, discussion based course, you must speak up in class. Similarly, in order for everyone’s voices to be heard, you must not dominate the discussion. If you feel excluded or marginalized by class discussions, please come talk with me about it. I am committed to fostering a classroom environment in which any idea or perspective can be discussed, and in which all participants are respected. To that end, we will adhere to the English Department’s statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (posted below).
Nothing generates discussion better than questions. If you are confused by something in the reading, aren’t sure what a word means (or who a theorist is), please ask. This is doubly important given that we are reading criticism about works that we are not reading together as a class. I guarantee you that no one in the room (me included) fully understands all of these readings. Nor will any of us have read every book discussed by every critic. We will rely on one another for guidance. To that end, a final stipulation: no name dropping. If you want to bring up a critic, theorist, or work of literature that isn’t on the syllabus please be prepared to explain it, such that the idea is available to the group as a whole.
Book Review: 20%
Final Project Proposal: 10%
Final Project: 40%
Disabilities & Accommodations
I want this class to be inclusive for everyone. If you have a disability or any other issue that needs to be accommodated, please ask. The UW Office of Disability Resources (https://depts.washington.edu/uwdrs/) offers a number of services for students, and I will be happy to work with them. If you have a DRS accommodation, please let me know at the beginning of the term. In addition, there are circumstances arise that press upon your ability to participate in the course, please tell me. This is particularly important given the field-based component of some assignments and (potentially) class meetings. If there are reasons why going outside, up and down stairs, etc. will be difficult for you, please be in touch. We’ll work something out.
Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy. Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form.
Departmental Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The UW English Department aims to help students become more incisive thinkers, effective communicators, and imaginative writers by acknowledging that language and its use are powerful and hold the potential to empower individuals and communities; to provide the means to engage in meaningful conversation and collaboration across differences and with those with whom we disagree; and to offer methods for exploring, understanding, problem solving, and responding to the many pressing collective issues we face in our world--skills that align with and support the University of Washington’s mission to educate “a diverse student body to become responsible global citizens and future leaders through a challenging learning environment informed by cutting-edge scholarship.”
As a department, we begin with the conviction that language and texts play crucial roles in the constitution of cultures and communities, past, present, and future. Our disciplinary commitments to the study of language, literature, and culture require of us a willingness to engage openly and critically with questions of power and difference. As such, in our teaching, service, and scholarship we frequently initiate and encourage conversations about topics such as race, immigration, gender, sexuality, class, indigeneity, and colonialisms. These topics are fundamental to the inquiry we pursue. We are proud of this fact, and we are committed to creating an environment in which our faculty and students can do so confidently and securely, knowing that they have the backing of the department.
Towards that aim, we value the inherent dignity and uniqueness of individuals and communities. We acknowledge that our university is located on the shared lands and waters of the Coast Salish peoples. We aspire to be a place where human rights are respected and where any of us can seek support. This includes people of all ethnicities, faiths, gender identities, national and indigenous origins, political views, and citizenship status; nontheists; LGBQTIA+; those with disabilities; veterans; and anyone who has been targeted, abused, or disenfranchised.
- 1.3: Glotfelty, “Introduction” to Ecocriticism Reader (PDF on Canvas)
- 1.8: Wenzel, Disposition of Nature Introduction – Ch. 2
- 1.10: Wenzel, Disposition of Nature FINISH
Book Review: Natalie
- 1.15: MLK NO CLASS
- 1.17: Westling, Deep History, Climate Change, and the Evolution Human Culture (e-book in library)
Book Review: Jack, Olive
- 1.22: Menely, Climate and the Making of Worlds Introduction – Ch. 2
- 1.24: Menely, Climate and the Making of Worlds FINISH
Book Review: Ian
- 1.29: Johnson, Mineral Rites, Preface – Ch. 3
- 1.31: Johnson, Mineral Rites FINISH
Book Review: Edwin
- 2.5: Iheka, African Ecomedia Introduction – Ch. 3
- 2.7: Iheka, African Ecomedia FINISH
Book Review: Abygail
- 2.12: Schuster, What is Extinction? Introduction – Ch. 3
- 2.14: Schuster, What is Extinction? FINISH
Book Review: Alex, Zach
NO CLASS, WORK ON FINAL PROJECT PROPOSALS (Due Friday 2.23).
- 2.26: Cohen & Yates, Noah’s Arkive “Aboard” – Ch. 4
- 2.28: Cohen & Yates, Noah’s Arkive FINISH
Book Review: Ishita
- 3.4: Levine, Activist Humanist “Preface” – Ch. 3
- 3.6: Levine, Activist Humanist FINISH
Book Review: Andres
Final Projects Due 3.15 (On Canvas)