How can reading literature help sustain attention to climate change? If you’re taking this course, you probably already know something—maybe a lot of things—about climate change. You probably understand that it’s a “wicked” problem because there are no easy solutions and its dynamics are constantly shifting. It’s also wicked because there’s so much well-financed propaganda muddying discussion. And perhaps just as important, it’s wicked because, no matter how much you understand the problem and care about its consequences, it’s just plain difficult to keep thinking about it. I know for myself I can easily get overwhelmed and sad. This last area of concern is perhaps where literature can help the most, especially if reading literature is part of a larger practice of paying attention.
This course seeks to use literature to develop strategies for sustaining attention to climate change as a phenomenon that affects our everyday lives. We will read novels, critical essays, journalism, and poems as well as watch some films, and we will also engage in a single project that will take the entire semester to complete. The project calls on you to change some aspect of the way you live your lives, and to reflect, through a series of assignments, on how reading stories about climate change and living your life differently affects your experiences of the everyday. The wager we are making is that doing and thinking can reinforce each other, and cannot be divorced from one another.
PROJECT + ASSIGNMENTS
The critic Andrew Epstein describes an “everyday life project” as an experiment that’s “artificial” and “rule-bound,” which engages “in certain activities, usually for a set amount of time, with the goal of channeling attention to one or more aspect of everyday experience.” One early example of such a project is Walden Pond, which recounts Thoreau’s attempt to live as simple a life as possible in a small cabin in the woods. There are many other literary examples of such a project as well, and other kinds of everyday life projects that aren’t connected to literature. Think, for instance, of people who wear devices on their wrists (such as Fitbits) that record how many steps they’ve taken, what their heartrates are, and how many stairs they’ve climbed. People also share the minutiae of their lives on a variety of social media platforms, allowing them to record and analyze what they are doing, thinking, and eating on a day-to-day, or even hour-by-hour, basis. These are all every-day life projects, which have proliferated in recent years. Other examples include the young climate activist Greta Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic in a solar-powered sailboat, scientists and academics signing a pledge to fly less, and two graduate students I met at an environment and literature conference in Detroit, who rode their bicycles there all the way from New York City to share papers about the experience.
Building on such examples, I am asking you to engage in your own everyday life project for the duration of this course. We will break down this project into different components, and take a lot of time as we go to reflect on how engaging in such projects while reading works of climate fiction affect our experiences of the everyday. The course will culminate with the writing of a final paper at the end of the semester, which seeks to bring together everything you’ve discovered by engaging in this project.
|Choosing an everyday life project. We will spend a few class periods talking about what an everyday life project is, and give you time to consider what the shape of your project will be and what rules you plan to follow. I will also ask you to formulate a hypothesis: What do you expect to discover by engaging in this project?
Examples of the kinds of projects you might undertake are: make an effort to eat less meat or become a vegetarian; drive less or give up traveling by automobile all together; consciously reduce your use of electricity; consciously reduce your use of water; take detailed notes of daily weather; take a picture every day; share a fact or an observation about climate change every day on a social media account.
Finally, I will put you into small groups based on your projects, so that you can share experiences and resources with each other as you engage in your projects.
|Daily record keeping. As your project gets underway, I want you to start a journal where you will record daily observations. Entries should be from about a quarter of a page to half a page (or about 150 words to 250 words) on average. I’d like them to be kept in a single Google Doc that can be shared with Amanda and me, so that we can make sure you’re keeping up with this assignment and we can also provide feedback as needed. The daily observations will otherwise be private, meant for you as the primary way for you to collect data on your project.|
|2 Periodic Reflection Papers
(5-6 pages; 15% each)
|Taking stock. Twice this semester, I ask you to write a short paper reflecting on how your project is going. How have the readings or films we’ve been discussing in class given you opportunity to think more deeply about your project? What have you learned so far from the interaction of readings, class discussion, and daily observations? Is there anything unexpected that you’ve discovered? Please make sure to incorporate discussion of the readings in these reflection papers.|
(10-12 pages; 25%)
|The project culminates in a final essay that explains what the project is, how it was conducted, and what you discovered as you did it. The essay should incorporate discussion of the readings and films from the class, and how they’ve affected the way you’ve conducted your project. It should be written as if it were for a general reading public, and can be presented in a narrative form.|
participation. (15%) Regular attendance, appearance on time, participation in discussions, and doing all of the required reading are crucial to doing well in this course, especially as it will be project-based. You will also be learning as much from each other as you will from me, so it is especially important that you be engaged and contribute to what we are doing in class. Please be sure to maintain all absences to a minimum and appear on time. Attendance will be taken after the second week of class.
The books are required for class, and can be purchased either at the BC Bookstore or at your favorite book seller. They are also on course reserve at the O’Neill Library.
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island
Tommy Pico, Nature Poem
Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves
Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140
Ada Limón, The Carrying
All other readings are found on the course Canvas website. They are listed in the course outline below on the days they will be discussed, and will soon be available for download as a single zip file. You should download and print out the readings, and bring them to class on the days we will be discussing them. And, of course, please be sure to read them before that class meeting.
Among other things, we will be reading several chapters of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume 2, published in 2019 (from now on, referred to as NCA4). In 1990, passage of the Global Change Research Act legally mandated that the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) produce a comprehensive report on climate change every four years. You can visit their website for more information about NCA4 and to access the full report; the individual chapters we are reading are available on Canvas. <https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/
Jan14 Welcome / Introductions and getting to know each other exercise, as well as discussion of syllabus.
Jan 16 What Is Denial? / The sociologist Stanley Cohen argued there are three kinds of denial: literal, interpretive, and implicatory. We will explore their differences, and consider the challenges each pose for our attention to climate change. The first reading is a journalistic account of the ways in which realtors represent the threat of rising tides and worsening storms in Miami, offering an interesting occasion for thinking concretely about denial. The second is an introduction by the novelist Lauren Groff to a series of shorter pieces on climate change by well-known writers, which she is curating on the Greenpeace website (I highly recommend the other pieces, which are still appearing).
- Sarah Miller, “Heaven or High Water,” Popula (April 2, 2019).<https://popula.com/2019/04/02/heaven-or-high-water/>
- Lauren Groff, “#Climate Visionaries Project,” Greenpeace. <https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/stories/lauren-groff/>
Jan 21 Substitute Monday Schedule / No Class
Jan 23 What is the “everyday”? / The everyday seems to many as an ever more elusive and difficult to capture phenomenon even as interest remains high in tracking what is ordinary, mundane, and quotidian. There’s also a rich modern tradition of intellectual thought devoted to focusing on the everyday as something worthy of serious attention. To these concerns, Epstein wonders what literature, and poetry in particular, can contribute to the attention of the everyday. Choi’s poem and Groff’s short story offers us an opportunity to think concretely about these ideas as they find literary expression.
- Andrew Epstein, “The Crisis of Attention, Everyday-Life Theory, and Contemporary Poetry,” from Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016). 41-69.
- Franny Choi, “How to Let Go of the World.” <https://pen.org/how-to-let-go-of-the-world/>
- Lauren Groff, “Ghosts and Empties,” from Florida (Penguin 2018), 1-14.
Jan 28 How does race and poverty affect experiences of the everyday? / We begin discussion of a novel that takes place days before Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast, and considers the vulnerability of the characters it depicts. The novel focuses on a poor African America family living in the pathway of a historic storm, and invites both consideration of the resilience of the characters and the disproportionate share of the burden they share of climate change’s destructive storms.
- Ward, Salvage the Bones (1-130)
Jan 30 Why don’t they evacuate? / This is an often asked question of those who remained in the path of extreme weather, and responses to it vary but often focus on poverty and lack of resources. It’s worth keeping in mind that evacuation is usually expensive, requires modes of transportation and a place to seek refuge, prohibitive for disabled people, and disruptive of often vert strong emotional ties to place.
- Ward, Salvage the Bones (131-176)
- Make sure to begin your everyday life projects by this date, if you haven’t already. This includes writing daily observations in you project journal.
Feb 4 What can Hurricane Katrina teach about the changes coming to the American Southeast? / Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes of all time, drowning much of New Orleans and leaving large swathes of the Gulf Coast in disarray. Race played a large part in the responses to it, and revealed severe weakness in emergency preparedness, coordination of resources, leadership, and general adaptation to changes that are getting more intense. We finish discussion of the novel, and connect it to the NCA4’s report on the Southeast.
- Ward, Salvage the Bones (177-258)
- NCA4, “Southeast.”
Feb 6 How should low-lying communities respond to rising tides? / Managed retreat is starting to gain traction as a strategy for many coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels, but there are many reasons why it might not work. Some of the challenges of managed retreat has been exemplified by Isle de St. Charles, a low-lying island off the coast of Louisiana that is fast disappearing and was also the inspiration for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. In addition to watch a clip of this film, we discuss a journalistic account how the people of this island have been responding to the loss of land from a book that was a finalistic for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction.
- Screening in class: Beasts of the Southern Wild (excerpt)
- Elizabeth Rush, “On Opportunity” and “Goodbye Cloud Reflections in the Sky,” from Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Milkweed 2018), 162-180.
Feb 11 Can the realist novel depict climate change? / The novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh answers “no” to this question in a widely read essay, but in the process raises important concerns about realism and the novel. In class, we discuss the essay where Ghosh makes this argument, and this also prepares us for hearing his talk on Weds.
- Amitav Ghosh, “Stories,” from The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press 2016), 3-84.
Feb 12 at 7PM, Gasson 100: Amitav Ghosh will be giving a talk entitled “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean.”
Feb 13 What forms should the novel take if it’s to represent climate change? / In his latest novel, Ghosh seeks to tell a story about climate change that takes place in the present day. In many ways, he seems to take up the very challenge he poses in his earlier essay and in the same time suggests what is both the possibilities and limitations of realism.
- Ghosh, Gun Island (3-69)
- Be sure to discuss Ghosh’s talk in your daily observations.
Feb 18 Are coincidences possible? / A lot of the novel is of Dean Datta stumbling from one adventure to another, but somehow running into characters that keep the story going. We’ll be focusing on why there are so many deliberately unlikely coincidences throughout this novel, and how this affects our understanding of realism.
- Ghosh, Gun Island (70-232)
Feb 20 What routes do migration take? / The novel is concerned with the movement of people, and suggests that this movement isn’t arbitrary but follows historic paths. Discussion focuses on the relationship between migration and climate change.
- Ghosh, Gun Island (233-312)
Feb 25 McMullen Museum Visit / The class will meet at the McMullen Museum by 3:10 PM, when we will take a tour of the exhibit “Indian Ocean Current: Six Artistic Narratives.”
- Kate Marshall, “What Are the Novels of the Anthropocene? American Fiction in Geologic Time,” American Literary History 27:3 (Fall 2015), 523-538.
- Donna Haraway, “Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble,” from Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016), 58-98.
Feb 27 What should we name the present? / Ever since scientists proposed that we call the geologic period we’ve entered into the Anthropocene, others have debated alternative names for the present. Class discusses Marshall and Haraway in particular, but it’s a good idea to read them before our museum visit so that they can shape your experience of this visit.
Mar 10 What role do American Indians play in the imagination of nature? / From first contact, Native Americans have been imagined by Europeans settlers and their descendants as being close to nature. This continues to shape how people perceive Native Americans, and how environmentalist talk about nature. To get us thinking about this question, we explore Pico’s long poem; Pico is himself a member of the Kumeyaay and gay, both topics that affect his meditations on the way nature is commonly evoked.
- Tommy Pico, Nature Poem
Mar 12 What’s the difference between RCPs and speculative fiction? / Representative climate pathways (RCPs) are predictions climate scientists make about what is likely to happen given different emissions scenarios. This class looks at the ways in which an official government document like NCA4 explains this idea, and other assumptions that go into making predictions about what might happened to the climate under multiple sets of assumptions.
- NCA4, “Overview.”
Mar 17 What happens to our idea of region when the climate changes? / Regionalism emerged as an American literary genre in the late 1800s, as the nation expanded and become more geographically diverse. Authors explored the use of vernacular, emphasized local landmarks, spotlighted different customs and cultural practices, and was aware of local landscapes and animals. The novel is set in the northern party of the Great Lakes region, and offers glimpses of a landscape transformed by dramatic changes to the climate.
- Dimaline, Marrow Thieves (1-55)
- NCA4, “Midwest.”
Mar 19 How do different groups experience time? / Indian boarding schools took native children from their families in both the US and Canada and sought to educate them with Western, white norms. It’s this history that the novel makes direct reference to, which asks us to think about how a group of people understand time and how such scales of time affect their sense of who they are.
- Dimaline, Marrow Thieves (56-170)
Mar 24 Is this for young adults? / Often categorized this way, the novel and its sober content might make us wonder about the affinity between novels marketed to young readers and dystopic story-telling. This class explores how the newly emerging category of the young adult novel perhaps also puts a spotlight on the experiences of the young, and their specific concerns about a future defined more and more by climate change.
- Dimaline, Marrow Thieves (171-231)
Mar 26 How effective is the novel’s world-building? / A term often used in science fiction, world-building is about trying to create an entire universe that feels to the reader fully realized and complex.
- Robinson, New York 2140 (3-62)
- Optional Reading: NCA4, “Northeast”
Mar 31 Why are there so many concurrent plots? / The novel isn’t in a hurry to get to the end of the story it’s telling and juggles a lot of different characters, which can give the narrative a leisurely pace.
- Robinson, New York 2140 (63-210)
Apr 2 What should we be paying attention to instead of plot? / The novel keeps going and stuff happens, but there isn’t always a movement toward an end goal. As the Tsing article might suggest, one way to think about the ways in which plot works and doesn’t work here might be to think about how scale is being foregrounded for the reader.
- Robinson, New York 2140 (211-265)
- Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales,” Common Knowledge 18:3 (Fall 2012), 505-524.
Apr 7 Is capitalism at the heart of the problem of climate change? / This is certainly a possibility that the novel seems to explore, as its attention seems as much on the intrigues of finance as it is on environmental themes.
- Robinson, New York 2140 (266-373)
Apr 9 Holy Thursday / No Class
Apr 14 Do we need utopic thinking? / So many narratives about climate change are, as we’ve seen, sensational and often very disturbing, Robinson’s novel is noteworthy because it is so upbeat about what’s possible. It’s ending, in particular, is meant to offer a radical political solution to the problems besetting the characters in the novel.
- Robinson, New York 2140 (374-613)
Apr 16 Do we need a positive vision of what’s possible in the future? / Perhaps no idea in the US has tried to address the issue of climate change as directly as House Resolution 109, which calls for the creation of a Green New Deal. Introduced by congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (and co-sponsored by MA Senator Ed Markey), it is more an aspirational statement than a specific guideline for how to proceed.
- HR109, “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.”
- Kate Aaronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, “Introduction: Bad Weather, Good Politics,” from A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, 1-34.
Apr 21 How does climate change affect decisions about sexual reproduction? / Limón’s poems cluster around her efforts to get pregnant and her feelings of devastation when she miscarries. This theme is also accompanied by an abiding preoccupation with environmental themes and ecological disasters, which don’t speak directly about climate change but is relevant nevertheless.
- Ada Limón, The Carrying (sections 1&2)
April 22 at 7PM, Gasson 100: Ada Limón will be reading from and giving a talk on her collection The Carrying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
Apr 23 Ecopoetics of the “Self-Conscious Anthropocene”
- Ada Limón, The Carrying (section 3)
- Lynn Keller, “Introduction: Beyond Nature Poetry,” from Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene (University of Virginia Press 2017), 1-30.
- Song will be out of town; Amanda will be leading discussion on this day.
Apr 28 What can Parasite tell us about climate change? / I want to end the course with a discussion of film, and the ways in which this mediums use of moving pictures and sound can capture something that print perhaps cannot. At the same time, I want to think about the ways in which paying attention to climate change can change the way we watch a film. Parasite, a Korean film that’s been gaining international recognition, provides an opportunity to think about this topic.
- Be sure to watch Parasite before class. Instructions for how to access the film will be announced in class.
- Optional Reading: Min Hyoung Song, “Climate Change in the Film Parasite,” Chicago Review of Books (November 21, 2019). <https://chireviewofbooks.com/2019/11/21/climate-change-in-the-film-parasite/>
Apr 30 Ask me anything / On the last day of class, you are welcome to ask me anything you’d like and I will try to answer as candidly as possible.
© 2020 Min Hyoung Song.