Introduction to Environmental Literature

Professor: Sarah Jaquette Ray
Institution: University of Oregon
Course Number: ENG 230

Spring 2008
CRN 31859        Lillis 175
MWF 10-10:50 am    Instructor: Sarah Jaquette
Office: 240 COL         Office Hours: M 11am-2pm
Email: [email protected]

What is “the environment”?  What is “environmental literature”?  What is its purpose?  What is the role of “literature” in the human relationship with our environment?   What kinds of questions does environmental literature ask?  What kinds of questions do we ask of environmental literature?
In this course, we’ll begin to tackle some of these questions together.  To do so, we could cast a wide net to include texts written as early as the fifteenth century, from all corners of the globe, and in any number of languages.  We could include anything as a “text,” from slave spirituals, sermons, captivity narratives, landscape art, plays, and poems, to cartoons, science fiction, bumper stickers, billboards, films, laws, architecture, and the University campus itself.  There are no geographical, temporal, language, or genre limits to what we could “read” as a “text” for its environmental themes.

But given that we only have ten weeks and this is an introductory-level course, we will limit our examination to a variety of eighteenth- to twentieth-century texts written in the United States in English. These parameters should not imply clean boundaries or authority; times and places are not easily divided up, genres boundaries are as fluid as the boundaries of language and national identity, and so the texts we’ll read certainly should not be taken as comprising the environmental “canon.”  What is not included in our list warrants as much notice as what is on it. But we must begin somewhere, and I’ll invite you as a class to amend the canon with your own contribution during week 10.

Unless otherwise noted, the readings are available by e-reserve. Print them out, read them, write all over them, and bring them to class on the days in the “schedule” below on which the reading is indicated. For each reading, Study Questions will be posted on Blackboard that you are expected to review before class to prepare for discussions, quizzes, and the final exam.

Writing Assignments        40%
Reading Quizzes              30%
Final Exam                       20%
Investment                       10%

Writing Assignments (40%)
1. Natural History Assignment (10%):  In this assignment, you will use the devices we observe in natural history and travel literature to write your own description of a place.  Practicing the modes we identified in the writings of Crevecoeur, Jefferson, and Thoreau, you will introduce your reader to a local place, such as the campus, the river walk, Spencer’s Butte, the Whiteaker District, the green space under the 105 freeway entrance, the Wetlands, Amazon creek, Alton Baker Park, or your own dorm. This assignment will require that you spend a lot of time observing the place, so reserve enough time to visit several times to just be there.

2. Close Reading Assignment (15%): If there is one skill literary scholars hold claim to, it’s “close reading”; reading texts closely is our “methodology.” Paying attention to the details of a text—the choice of words, composition of images, and other aspects of its “form”—is our bread and butter.  In closely reading a text, we ask, how, exactly, does a text convey its meaning?  In other words, we’re not just interested in what the text is saying, but how it is being said.

3. “Into the Wild” Assignment (15%): Toward the end of the term, we will view the 2007 film based on Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into the Wild.” “Environmental literature” plays a significant role in the film. I will ask you to take note of the literary references in the film, choose one that you found particularly significant or powerful, and do some research on that author and text.  You may also choose a song or place in the film to examine as a “text.”  By examining the author, text, and its context in the film, you will explore the significance of literature to the film and to environmental thought more broadly.

Reading Quizzes (30%): Most days, we will have short reading quizzes.  The quiz questions will be drawn directly from that week’s Study Questions, which will be posted on Blackboard no later than the week prior. Use the study questions to help direct your reading, and prepare, preferably in writing, answers to the questions. The final exam will also partially draw on these questions, so it’s worth keeping your responses documented for the purpose of studying. You are expected to be prepared to answer all of the Study Questions, not just for the quiz, but to help guide your reading and contribute to discussion.

Investment (10%):  The investment component measures your commitment to the overall success of the class for you and as a whole. Contributing to discussion is one way to show me you are invested. If you are shy, I invite you to work to speak up anyway, as it builds confidence.  But there are other ways to show me your investment.  Whether or not you contribute in class, come to office hours, talk to me as problems or question arise, or even when you have no problems, questions, or revelations.  Come to class prepared, be respectful and engaged, and involve me in your experience of the texts, the assignments, and the class.  All of these behaviors are forms of “investment.”


How to Know What Is Expected of You:  You are responsible for knowing what is expected of you and keeping apprised of your own progress. Become familiar with this syllabus.  It acts as a contract, and your success in this class will rely on your adherence to syllabus policies and assignments. A copy is available for your reference on Blackboard under Course Documents. Changes to the syllabus may occur due to class interest or schedule problems. I will make announce changes by e-mail.  Therefore, be online frequently, especially if you missed class. When in doubt, come talk to me.

Attendance & Late Work: This course combines lecture and discussion, so regular attendance and class participation are essential. Attendance will be taken throughout the term. Two unexcused absences are permitted; thereafter final grades are lowered one-third letter grade for each absence. All assigned work must be completed on time, no late work will be accepted, and quizzes cannot be made up.

Plagiarism: All work submitted in this course must be your own and be written exclusively for this course.  Sources (ideas, quotations, paraphrases) must be properly documented.  Please refer to the Schedule of Classes or under “Course Information” on Blackboard for the University’s policy regarding academic dishonesty.  In cases where plagiarism has been clearly established, the award of an F for the final course grade is policy.

Success/Access:  I am committed to ensuring each student’s success in this course, but you have to help me by coming to talk with me if you experience problems, from access to course materials or the classroom, to challenges with my style of teaching or difficulty meeting syllabus expectations.


Week 1

3/31    Introduction to class: What is environmental literature?
James Wright, “Depressed by …”
4/2    Intro, cont’d (class possibly cancelled due to jury duty summons; look for email)
4/4    Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, “Letters from an American Farmer” (on Blackboard)

Week 2
4/7    Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia; Introduce Assignment (HW: do Natural History observation)
4/9    Thoreau, “Where I Lived…” and “Sounds”; Discuss Assignment
4/11    no class (HW: Natural History Assignment)

Week 3
4/14    Natural History Assignment Due, read and discuss Jamaica Kincaid, “In History,” in class
4/16    Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” and “Wild Apples”
4/18    Thoreau discussion continued

Week 4
4/21    Henry Nash Smith, “The Garden as Safety Valve”; Discuss 19th-century key themes: Transcendentalism, Manifest Destiny, Civil War, American exceptionalism, Darwin, pastoral
4/23    Frederick Jackson Turner, “On the Significance of the Frontier in American History,” selection, and Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Turnerians All”
4/25    Sarah Orne Jewett, “A White Heron” and Emily Dickinson, “Split the Lark”

Week 5
4/28    Jack London, “To Build a Fire”; intro to 20th century key themes: conservation, modernism, naturalism, primitivism, industrialization
4/30     Ernest Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River” (HW: Close Reading Assignment)
5/2    Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, selection and bell hooks, “Earthbound”

Week 6
5/5    Discuss Close Reading Assignment; read Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms” in-class
5/7    Read and discuss Aldo Leopold, “Thinking like a Mountain” (in-class)
5/9    Close Reading Assignment on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” Due

Week 7
5/12    Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, selection
5/14    Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, selection
5/16    Introduction to “Into the Wild” assignment (HW: View “Into the Wild” and post Proposal for “Students’ Choice” week 10 on Blackboard by Monday)

Week 8
5/19    “Into the Wild” Assignment Due and discuss film
5/21     William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness” & Limerick, “Mission to the Environmentalists”
5/23    Simon Ortiz, Fight Back

Week 9
5/26    Ana Castillo, So Far from God
5/28    So Far from God
5/30    So Far from God

Week 10
Students’ choice & Final Review

Final Exam (20%)
Take-home, due Thursday, June 12th, 10am in 10 PACIFIC