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ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for May 2024 is Michelle Yates.

Michelle Yates is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Humanities at Columbia College Chicago. Situated within ecomedia studies, her research utilizes a feminist and queer ecologies approach to examine the relationship between masculinity, nostalgia, and environmentalism as represented in popular Hollywood climate fiction (cli-fi) narratives. She has written on films such as Soylent Green (1973), WALL-E (2008), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Snowpiercer (2013), and Interstellar (2014). Michelle also produces scholarship in the field of waste and discard studies. Michelle has published in peer-reviewed journals including Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography; Food, Culture & Society; ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; Science Fiction Film and Television; and Green Humanities. She has chapters in edited collections such as Gender and Environment in Science Fiction; The SAGE Handbook for Frankfurt School Critical Theory; and Literary and Cultural Production, World-Ecology, and the Global Food System. Michelle was a guest editor for two special issues in peer-review journals, a stream titled “Men and Nature in Environmental Media” for Media + Environment (2022) and “The Climate Issue” for American Studies (2021). Michelle co-directed and produced a short documentary film Rebel Bells about an all-girls radical collective located in southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana. Between 2020 and 2022, Rebel Bells screened at ten film festivals around the United States, and screened at the ASLE conference in Portland, OR in 2023. Michelle is the current Co-Coordinator for ASLE’s Ecomedia Interest Group. She was also the Co-founder and Co-director of the Chicago Feminist Film Festival from 2016-2019. She is an active member of South Suburbs for Greenspace, an environmental justice organization dedicated to preserving greenspace and quality of life for all residents that live, work, pray, play, and learn in the Chicago south suburbs. At Columbia College Chicago, Michelle teaches classes like Nature & Environmentalism in U.S. Culture; Feminist and Queer Environmentalism; Cinema and the Environment; and Feminism and Film.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities? 

I was really interested in environmental science when I was in high school. I went to undergrad at Penn State to study Wildlife and Fisheries Science, which was the closest major they had to environmental science in the 1990s. It turns out I wasn’t particularly interested in or good at fish identification. Lol! I ended up switching my major a couple of times until I settled on a degree in Women’s Studies. A few years later, I went to graduate school in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, where I intended to continue studying the topic of my undergraduate honors thesis, women-centered pornography. But at UC Davis, I met amazing scholars like Julie Sze who showed me that I could return to environmental studies through a humanities lens, and that I could articulate my interests in environmental studies with my interests in gender and sexuality studies.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? 

I’ve spent the past fifteen years writing about men and nature in popular Hollywood ecocinema, mostly writing about films that are directed by men. But when I think about my favorite environmentally-themed films, they are almost all directed by women like Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014); Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life (2008); or almost anything directed by Kelly Reichardt.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a couple of different projects. I am guest editing a special issue on “Ecologies of Waste, Extraction and (Re)Value” (with my colleague Rachel Vaughn) for the peer-reviewed journal Cultural Studies. I recently received a small seed grant from Columbia College Chicago to start on my second documentary short film about South Suburbs for Greenspace, a community-based grassroots organization that promotes environmental equity in the Chicago south suburbs (and of which I am a member).

What is something you are reading right now that inspires you, either personally or professionally? 

For funsies, I just finished reading Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightening. So good! Roanhorse is a speculative fiction writer, and I mostly read speculative fiction for fun. Roanhorse’s worldmaking is amazing and fantastical, as well as intelligible and understandable. Her characters are complex yet lovable, often in spite of their flaws. Now, I’m halfway through Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. So far, really heartbreaking, but also really good. Kingsolver is just a beautiful writer, and in this novel, she is able to convey the intricate and often ambiguous realities of impoverished and working-class people in southern Appalachia. In terms of academic writing, I’ve just finished Max Liboiron’s Pollution is Colonialism. It’s amazing!! At heart, it’s about scientific research methodologies, re-thinking science as anti-colonial practice. But Liboiron draws extensively from the humanities in which to (re)conceptualize notions of land, relations, obligations, ethics, and knowledge production. I’m very excited about this book, and would love to talk to other ASLE folks about it.

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you?

As Co-Coordinator of the Ecomedia Interest Group, this academic year, I organized a monthly virtual lecture series, which featured several scholars from all over the world, including Emily Roehl, Joseph Heumann, Robin Murray, Salomé Lopes Coelho, Mario Trono, Derya Agis, Sara Crosby, Lauran Whitworth, and Stina Attebery. I find these folks who are doing work in ecomedia studies to be really inspiring.