Introduction to Environmental Literature

Professor: Stephen Siperstein
Institution: University of Oregon
Course Number: ENG 230

Introduction to Environmental Literature

Course Description

As an introduction, this course is organized around a basic question: what is environmental literature? Together, we will explore this question by examining major trends that have shaped how Anglophone writers have understood and written about their environments historically, and we will consider how those trends continue to influence our feelings towards, and understandings of, the more-than-human world.  More specifically, by using the tools of literary analysis and literary history we will use the course texts (which represent only a small sampling of the environmental literary canon) to distinguish a set of shared tropes and shared concerns indicative of environmental literature in general.  We will identify strategies through which poets, dramatists, and fiction and nonfiction writers have addressed environmental questions through both the form and content of their works.  Finally through the close reading, critical thinking, and analytical writing required in this course, we will investigate the extent to which literary and cultural forms shape the ways that people see and relate to nature and the environment, that is to the places where they live, work, travel, and form their identities.


Required Texts

The following texts are required for this course.  I would suggest that you purchase the particular editions of each book available at the Duck Store.  All other readings will be available through our course blog site.  Please note: you must have a hardcopy of the assigned text, whether a book or a printout of an article, and bring it with you to class on the days we are reading and discussing it.


Carson, Rachel.  Silent Spring (40th Anniversary ed, Houghton Mifflin)

Darwin, Charles.  On the Origin of Species (Penguin)

May, Theresa.  Salmon is Everything (Course pack available at bookstore)

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings(3rd ed, W.W. Norton)

Viramontes, Helena Maria.  Under the Feet of Jesus (Penguin)

Yamashita, Karen Tei.  Through the Arc of the Rainforest (Coffee House Press)


You will need to have a University of Oregon email address to be able to access our course blog site:

Required Assignments and Grading Percentages

Investment                                         5%

Reading quizzes                                                            10%

Course blog                                       10 %

Close reading assignment                                       15 %

Midterm exam                                       15%

Final paper assignment                                       20%

Final exam                                        25%

Investment 5%:  The investment component of your final grade reflects your commitment to the overall success of the course.  I want you to take ownership of your thoughts, words, and writing—an impossible notion if you do not participate in class discussions.  I want you to make this class work: to make it what it is, will be, and the path that it will follow throughout the term.  Contributing to discussion is one way to demonstrate that you are invested.  If you are shy, I invite you to work to speak up anyway, as it builds confidence in your ideas and writing.  But there are other ways to demonstrate your investment as well.  Be an active participant on the course blog, commenting or posting more than the required amount.  Come to office hours and let me know when you have questions.  All of these actions are forms of “investment.”


Reading quizzes 10%:  Over the course of the term I will give a quizzes based on important details from assigned readings and class lectures/discussions.  Quizzes are a way for me to check that you are reading and understanding the material.  Quizzes will usually occur during the first ten minutes of class and cannot be made up.


Course blog 10%:  Throughout the term you will contribute posts to our course blog website (approximately one significant post, about 400-500 words, every two weeks), as well as respond to your classmates’ posts (at least two comments every two weeks).  The course blog will be a place for us to test out ideas, engage in discussion with each other outside of class, and share ideas and texts not included on the course syllabus.  (Course blog site:


Close reading assignment 15%: The first formal writing assignment, due near the middle of the term, will be a paper of 3-4 pages.  It will involve close reading one or more specific passages from assigned course texts, allowing you to practice the skills that you will develop further in the final paper.  All papers must have a works cited page and a title, include correct citations in MLA format, and be typed, double-spaced, in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, with standard margins.  More detailed assignment guidelines will be distributed as the due date approaches.


Final paper assignment 20%: The second formal paper, due at the end of the term, will be an extended literary analysis assignment of 8 pages.  You will have an option to complete one of two assignment prompts: either an imitation and analysis of one of a selection of writers we have read this term or an analysis/comparison of two writers we have read during the term.  I will also allow alternative topics for the final paper, as long as they are cleared with me at least two weeks before the due date; come talk to me during office hours as early in the semester as possible if you have ideas.  Regardless, in this assignment you will use the skills of close reading and literary analysis, and build on some of the approaches to thinking about environmental literature that we have been developing together throughout the term.  More detailed assignment guidelines will be distributed as the due date approaches.


Midterm exam 15%: The midterm exam will cover material in the first half of the term and will be based on the content of course readings, key terms, lecture material, and discussion.  No advanced or make-up exams.


Final exam 25%: The final exam will be the same format as the midterm exam, but it will be comprehensive (including material from the entire course) and twice as long.  No advanced or make-up exams


Course Policies

AttendanceYour regular attendance is vital to succeeding in this course.  You may miss two classes without penalty.  (NOTE: if you are absent on the day an assignment is due, you must still arrange to hand in that assignment on the scheduled due date).  Each subsequent absence will result in your overall course grade dropping by a full step (A to B, B to C, etc.) unless you have contacted me well in advance and we have agreed on alternative arrangements.  Absences for illness or sporting events count towards your two allowed absences.  Arriving late or leaving early will count as one half absence.


Late workA hardcopy of all essays or other written work is due during class on the date indicated on the attached schedule.  Every day an assignment is late (including weekend days), it will be marked down one half letter grade (A to A- to B+ to B, etc.).  Quizzes and exams cannot be made up if you miss them.  If you have extenuating circumstances or if you foresee you are going to have difficulty making a deadline, please speak to me at least 48 hours in advance so we can problem solve.  Make-up exams will be given only in cases of documented emergency.  The final exam can neither be made up nor given in advance; thus, please make your winter break plans accordingly.


Cell phones/laptops/electronic devices: Even the most dedicated student can be distracted by technology.  Therefore, laptops are not allowed in this class.  If you need to use your laptop to take notes because of a documented disability, you should discuss this with me ahead of time.  Anyone found listening to music, talking on the phone, texting, etc., will be counted absent for the day, even if I decide not to interrupt class to draw attention to your activities.

Books in class: This is a literature class, which means we look closely at language and dissect its form and structure.  Attending a literature class without your individual book is like going to a chemistry lab without test tubes and chemicals: you can’t do the experiment because you don’t have the necessary tools.  Therefore, you are required to always bring assigned readings to class.  On days when the assigned reading is from a book, bring the book; on days when the reading is posted on our course website, print it out and bring the hardcopy printout to class.

Communication: One of the goals of our writing and our class discussions is to communicate with each other more effectively.  As follows, I strongly encourage you to communicate with me so that I can be in a position to understand your goals, questions, frustrations, and successes.  If you are feeling particularly unsure of your work, I want to know about it.  And if you ever find my comments on your papers confusing or inconsistent, I want to know about it.  If you are having difficulties (either in this class or outside it) that affect your work, confidence, or concentration, I want to know about that too.  Please stop by my office during office hours or contact me via email.

Academic honestyAll work submitted in this course must be your own and be written exclusively for this course.  The use of sources (ideas, quotations, paraphrases) must be properly documented. Please consult Rules for Writers for a definition of plagiarism and information on documentation and refer to the summary of the Code of Student Conduct on the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards website: In cases where academic dishonesty has been clearly established, the award of an F for the final course is the standard practice of the Composition Program. Please see me if you have any questions about your use of sources. 

Access: If you have a disability (physical or learning) that you think may affect your performance in this class, please see me during the first week of the term so we can make arrangements, if necessary, for your full access to all classroom activities.  You may also wish to contact Disability Services in 164 Oregon Hall at 541-346-1155 or[email protected].


Schedule of Assignments

This schedule is tentative and may change throughout the term.


Week 1: What is environmental literature and what can it do?

Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Sept 25  
Thursday, Sept 27 Buell, “Glossary”: especially the following terms: anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, ecocentrism, ecocriticism, ecology, environment, environmental justice, nature, pastoral, wild 

Kaza, “Why Environmental Humanities?”


McKibben, “What the Warming World Needs Now”; “Climate Art is Hot”

Join course blog (you will receive an email from me inviting you to join) 

Write a response (at least one page) to the following three questions: Why are you interested in environmental literature?  What do you hope to gain from studying/learning about this topic?  Where do yourenvironmental values come from?


Week 2: Wilderness, nature, & the American imagination

Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Oct 2 Excerpts from Genesis, 1.1-3.24 

“Pima Stories of the Beginning of the World”


Rowlandson, “A Narrative of the Captivity…”


Crevecoeur, “Letters from an American Farmer”


First blog post due by Monday evening, October 1, at 8 pm.
Thursday, Oct 4 Emerson, “Nature” Two comments to classmates’ blog posts due before class time today.


Week 3: Thoreau

Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Oct 9 Thoreau, Walden,“Economy” (1-19); “Where I Lived and What I Lived For”; “Visitors” 
Thursday, Oct 11 Thoreau, Walden, “The Ponds” (128-37); “Brute Neighbors”; “Spring”; “Conclusion” 


Week 4:  Between literature and science – Darwin, Carson & Leopold

Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Oct 16 Darwin, Origin of Species, “Introduction”; “Struggle for Existence”; “Natural Selection”; “Recapitulation and Conclusion” 


Second blog post due by Monday evening, October 15, at 8 pm.
Thursday, Oct 18 Carson, Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow”; “The Obligation to Endure”; “Elixirs of Death”; “The Other Road” 

Monsanto, “A Desolate Year”


Sandra Steingraber, “The Fracking of Rachel Carson”;

Two comments to classmates’ blog posts due before class time today.


Week 5: Poetic perspectives

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Oct 23 Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, “Thinking Like a Mountain”; “The Land Ethic” 


Close reading assignment due 
Thursday, Oct 25 Poetry selections, TBA 


Week 6: Poetic perspectives

Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Oct 30 Poetry selections, TBA   
Thursday, Nov 1  


Midterm exam


Week 7: Space and place in fiction I, environmental justice

  Reading Due Assignments Due
Tuesday, Nov 6 Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus, parts 1 and 2 




Third blog post due by Monday evening, November 5, at 8 pm.
Thursday, Nov 8 Viramontes, Under the Feet of Jesus, parts 3, 4, 5 



Two comments to classmates’ blog posts due before class time today. 





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