Contemporary Literature about the Environment (Syllabus)


The literary scholar Kate Marshall recently argued that critics interested in climate change often fall prey to “a demand for content,” which she describes as “an idea that the work of the critic is simply to show where climate change is represented directly, centrally to the plot or setting, and easily identifiable. Critics then become collators of texts that are ‘about’ forms of climate change or experience, or that contain aspects of such fact or experience within their most overt characteristics.” A necessary complement, Marshall suggests, is the development of reading practices that are attentive to subtle traces and hybrid forms. What is needed are “good readers” and “good aesthetic responses to the world as it is.”

Following Marshall’s lead, we are less concerned in this course with developing a canon of contemporary environmental literature and more interested in how we read and make sense of this literature. The “about” in the title of the course should therefore be understood as focusing attention on literary works that are good to think with if we are interested in environmental concerns. This means that not all the works we read together will obviously be about the environment; indeed, we want to interrogate what we mean by “about the environment.” This also means we need to think about how we are reading, self-consciously developing a toolkit of useful ideas that allow us to be “good” readers. Fortunately, there is already a large and fast-growing scholarship that offers us many useful ideas to add to such a toolkit.

The readings for this course are a mix of novels, memoir, creative nonfiction, poetry, and scholarly writing, which allow us to work with a capacious definition of literature and to consider the ways in which the line between literature and scholarship has grown muddy. The readings are centered primarily on American literature because this is what I am most familiar with, but I also make an effort to provide as much variety as possible to give a sense of the richness of contemporary environmental discourses.


Aug 30  Welcome (to the Anthropocene?) 

  • (Required) Paul Crutzen, et al., “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415 (January 3, 2002), 23.
  • (Required) Kate Marshall, “What Are the Novels of the Anthropocene? American Fiction in Geologic Time,” American Literary History 27:3 (Fall 2015), 523-528.

Sept 6  Rhythm and the Everyday / Our first primary text is a bildungsroman that tries to capture what it might feel like to lead an “ordinary” life during extraordinary times. Our focus will be on how we imagine the ordinary, and the everyday, and what this imagining leaves out.

  • Karen Thompson Walker, Age of Miracles (Random House 2012).
  • (Required) Kari Marie Norgaard, “People Want to Protect Themselves a Little,” from Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2011), 63-95.
  • (Supplemental) Caroline Levine, “Rhythm,” from Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton University Press, 2015), 49-81.

Please Note: on September 10, Carrie Mae Weems will be giving a talk entitled “‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely’” at Devlin Hall 110, 7PM as part of the Lowell Humanities Series. <>

Sept 13  Food / When I taught an earlier version of this course, students told me they wished they could read the whole of Pollan’s book rather than just an excerpt. We will focus in particular on its impact on how many of us in the US think about food.

  • Michael Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin 2006).
  • (Required) Claire Jean Kim, “The Optic of Cruelty: Challenging Chinatown’s Live Animal Markets,” from Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 63-100.
  • (Supplemental) Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” from Animal Liberation (HarperCollins, 2009, 1975), 1-23.

Sept 20  Pastoral / We will be reading your guided writing assignments (inspired by Pollan’s idea of the “supermarket pastoral”) and discussing them in class. Because the focus is on your writing, the reading for this week is relatively light.

  • (Required) Paul Alpers, “Representative Anecdotes and Ideas of Pastoral,” from What Is Pastoral (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 8-43.
  • (Supplemental) Raymond Williams, “Pastoral and Counter-Pastoral,” from The Country and the City (Oxford University Press, 1975), 13-34.

Sept 27  Race and Water / Class meets at the McMullen Museum. We will begin with a docent-guided tour of the Carrie Mae Weems exhibit, and then discuss the art and reading in the museum’s seminar room. Sharpe’s book in particular demonstrates for us how scholarly and literary writing can blur in profound ways.

  • Christina Sharpe, In the Wake (Duke University Press 2016).
  • (Required) Hester Blum, “Terraqueous Planet: The Case for Oceanic Studies,” from The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Amy Elias and Christian Moraru (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 25-36.
  • (Supplemental) Saidiya Hartman, “Innocent Amusement,” from Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), 17-48.
  • Guided Writing Assignment due.

Oct 4  Hurricane Katrina: Memoir and Documentary / We will screen Act 1 of Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans, and discuss it in relation to the readings. What is a memoir? How does it differ from a documentary in capturing what it’s like to be there at a recent traumatic historic event?

  • Natasha Trethewey, Beyond Katrina (University of Georgia Press 2010).
  • (Required) Rob Nixon, “Introduction,” from Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2010), 1-17.
  • (Supplemental) Wendy Brown, “Undoing Democracy: Neoliberalism’s Remaking of State and Subject,” from Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015), 17-45.

Oct 11  Disaster and Community / Continuing our discussion of Hurricane Katrina, we will consider how it might provide an important case study for how people respond to disasters in spontaneous and often highly generous ways. Solnit and Klein are also interesting in how they have carved out a space for themselves as public intellectuals.

  • Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Penguin 2010).
  • (Required) Naomi Klein, “Blockadia: The New Climate Warriors,” This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 293-336.
  • (Supplemental) Peter Kropotkin, “Introduction” and “Mutual Aid among Animals,” from Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Knopf, 1917), 1-31.

Oct 18  No Class – away for a conference

Please Note: October 24, Rebecca Solnit will be giving a talk entitled “The Mother of All Questions” at Gasson 100, 7PM as part of the Lowell Humanities Series. <>

Oct 25  Roots and Trunks / This week, we return to the contemporary novel to look at a very recent, compelling example that contains a large number of characters and stretches our sense of time to match its interest in thinking about the vitality of trees.

  • Richard Powers, The Overstory (Norton 2018).
  • (Required) Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Voila, “The Root of the Problem” and “The Plant: A Stranger,” from Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence (Island Press, 2015), 7-44.
  • (Supplemental) Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “What’s Left?,” from The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2017), 10-52.
  • (Optional) Extra Credit Assignment due.

Nov 1 Crown and Seeds / Class continues discussion of Powers’s novel, considering its conclusion alongside recent arguments about what Bennett calls “vibrant matter.” We will also talk about research. If you haven’t already, please be sure to come see me one-on-one about your research paper during this week.

  • Richard Powers, The Overstory
  • (Required) Jane Bennett, “The Agency of Assemblages,” from Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010), 20-38.
  • (Supplemental) Donna Haraway, “Symbiogenesis, Sympoiesis, and Art Science Activisms for Staying with the Trouble,” from Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Anna Tsing, Heather Swansen, Elaine Gan, and Nils Budandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), M25-M50.
  • Midterm Paper due

Nov 8 Refugees / One of the most consistent predictions about the consequences of anthropogenic climate change is that it will exacerbate the global refugee crisis (debate is emerging about whether this prediction has already started to come true). Hamid’s novel is perhaps one of the most hopeful works we read because it imagines that mass migrations can lead to flourishing social outcomes.

  • Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (Riverhead 2017).
  • (Required) Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” from Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1975), 267-302.
  • (Supplemental) Lida Maxwell, “…to Have…,” from Stephenie DeGooyer, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, Samuel Moyn, The Right to Have Rights (Verso, 2018), 45-58.

Nov 15 Ecopoetics / Class focuses on the ways in which contemporary poetry engages environmental issues in ways that are often more direct, and daring, than print fiction. You are welcome to suggests other short poems for us to read.

  • (Required) Juliana Spahr, “Gently Now, Don’t Add to the Heartache”; Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, #Misanthropocene: 24 Theses; Tracy Smith, “My God, It’s Full of Stars”; Craig Santos Perez, “Love Poems in the Time of Climate Change”; Cheena Marie Lo, “Poor Markings for His Handling of Federal Response”
  • (Required) Margaret Ronda, “Mourning and Melancholia,” from Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End (Stanford University Press, 2018), 91-111.
  • (Supplemental) Virginia Jackson, “Lyric,” in Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, fourth edition, ed. by Roland Greene, Stephen Cushman, Claire Cavanaugh, Jahan Ramazani, and Paul F. Rouzer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 826-834.


Nov 29 The Return of the Pastoral? / Comics have emerged in recent decades as a medium worthy of academic interest. We look at one recent example, recently written in Korean, to consider the potential power of this medium and to consider issues related to translation. You should also have decided what your research paper will be about, and be actively researching.

  • Yeon-sik Hong, Uncomfortably, Happily (Drawn and Quarterly 2017).

Dec 6  Contemplating the Worst Case Scenario / The course ends with a question that continues to bedevil environmental discourses: should we speak candidly about of our worst fears about environmental collapse, risking greater disengagement, or should we focus instead on the tools we have to make a difference? How should we, in other words, conclude a course like this one?


Thursday, December 13 at noon: Research Paper due