Eng 236, Fall 2009

Theories of Literature and the Environment

In response to the UC budget crisis, in 2009 the English department decided to introduce an experimental course that was both a senior seminar and graduate seminar.  My Theories of Literature and the Environment, simultaneously taught in Fall 2009 as both a graduate and senior seminar, was one of the first experiments. Sensing that the format was not being well received, in the middle of the term I asked my students to informally evaluate, using a modified version of the department’s standard evaluation form, our new senior/graduate seminar format. Before passing out the forms, I explained the rationale for such courses, noting that the hope was that such courses would benefit both undergrads (by giving them more senior seminar options, for example) and grads (by ensuring that certain grad seminars are not undersubscribed, and hence in danger of being cancelled). Nonetheless, the results were sobering, as our grad students in particular seemed generally unhappy with the format, noting that the objectives of graduate seminars are very different from undergraduate classes and that the undergraduate presence in the classroom considerably undermined serious graduate scholarship.  Based in part on my experience, the UCSB English Department decided to largely abandon the senior/graduate seminar format after 2009.

Environmental criticism, also known as ecocriticism and “green” criticism (especially in the UK), is a rapidly emerging field of literary study that will be crucially important in upcoming decades, especially as our present environmental crisis unfortunately worsens. In the first half of this course we will explore how the relationship between human beings and the environment has been imagined in the West, especially as it appears in the works of Heraclitus, Anaximander, Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Epictetus, Aurelius, Augustine, Aquinas, Montaigne, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, James, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Arendt, Levinas, Foucault, Patocka, Derrida, and Agamben. Withal, we will be considering how these attitudes toward the environment influenced writers such as Theocritus, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Thomson, Wordsworth, Thoreau, and so forth. The second half of the course will consider works from modern ecocritics (beginning in the 1960s and ’70s with Lynn White Jr., Leo Marx, Carolyn Merchant, Keith Thomas, and Raymond Williams, and ending with the ongoing explosion of interest in the field in the 21st century) with an eye to directly applying this theory to the reading of texts.

“Please rate the overall quality of the instructor’s teaching”

Average rating: 4.6 of 5 (♣♣♣♣♣ Excellent; ♣♣♣♣ Very Good; ♣♣♣ Good; ♣♣ Fair; ♣ Poor)

♣♣♣♣♣ The instructor’s teaching, preparation and involvement in the class discussion was excellent and very, very informative. The course required a lot of reading, but each set of readings was perfectly prepared and made sense. It was more a pleasure than just an obligation to prepare for the class.

♣♣♣♣♣ Professor was great. Very well informed. A little too much reading. I often focused on one essay which would not be covered in class. Otherwise, very informative.

♣♣♣♣♣ A few concerns about the Reader:

1) It would help students make more historical sense of all the literature to see it chronologically ordered; it seems that the period breakdown should be followed by chronological succession of particular texts as well.

2) The copying is somewhat careless; for a $200+ reader, a disconcertingly high number of individual excerpts have lines or margins missing. It’s very hard to follow an argument when the last line of every page is missing!

♣♣♣♣ A good introduction to a very wide range of environmental thoughts, writing, etc. I enjoyed the framing of the class as large narrative. Great preparation for this reading list.

♣♣♣♣ While I appreciated the breadth of the course’s ideas, and found them especially rewarding as the term came to a close, more “themetigation” would have helped. Perhaps, putting works like Heise’s and Garrard’s in weeks 1 or 2 would have helped frame the class and to help understand what “ecocriticism” is from the beginning. However, this was a very rewarding course, and I feel that the professor lead, initiated, and inspired many interesting discussions.