Literature of the Environment

Professor: Kevin Maier
Institution: University of Alaska Southeast
Course Number: 303

Kevin Maier

[email protected]                                                              Tuesday/Thursday 1:15-2:45

University of Alaska Southeast                         

In the introduction to the second of his field-defining trilogy of books on environmental literature, aptly entitled Writing for an Endangered World, Lawrence Buell remarks that our “environmental crisis is not merely one of economic resources, public health, and political gridlock.” Citing the sociologist Ulrich Beck, Buell asserts that “the success of all environmentalist efforts finally hinges not on ‘some highly developed technology, or some arcane new science’ but on ‘a state of mind’: on attitudes, feelings, images, narratives.”  It is Buell’s conviction—and the argument of this class—that paying attention to environmental attitudes expressed and reflected in literature might prove beneficial not only to understanding our crisis, but for resolving it, too.

Since the 1990s when literary studies made what is often called the “environmental turn,” ecocriticism has slowly emerged as a definable field of inquiry.  As a result of this scholarship, a standard body of environmental literature is starting to come into focus.  This course is intended as an introduction to what is fast becoming a recognizable canon of environmental literature. Although our goal is to familiarize our selves with this emergent canon, we will of course want to ask questions about omissions, exclusions, and oversights.  Do the texts here best help us resolve environmental problems?  Are there others that might be better suited to such a task?  By attending to questions of environment first rather than to, say, race, class, or gender, do we do a disservice to such significant social concerns?

To address these questions and others related to the relationship between humans and the natural world we will read selections from this newly found “tradition” in a loosely chronological order.  Along the way, we will note the historical and political contexts in which the writing was produced, attending to the myriad discourses that inform our perceptions of environment—from the philosophical to the political and from scientific to poetic. By observing and contemplating the available means of representing the human/non-human relationship, my hope is that we will leave this course with both a clearer sense of the “state of mind” that might best alleviate our environmental crisis and a sense for how environmental literature might help us arrive at this state.


Required Materials (available at the University Bookstore):

Henry David Thoreau.  Walden.

John Muir.  Travels in Alaska.

Aldo Leopold.  A Sand County Almanac.

William Faulkner Go Down, Moses.

Rachel Carson.  Silent Spring.

Edward Abbey.  Desert Solitaire.

Leslie Marmon Silko.  Ceremony.

Neal Stephenson.  Zodiac.


Required Work: 

ESSAYS and PRESENTATION: You will compose three essays of 3-4 pages in response to our class readings and discussions. One of these essays is due on the day that you make your 10-minute presentation; the other two essays will be due at the beginning of the class period on two Fridays of your choosing. A sign-up sheet and more specific instructions will be provided in class for both the presentation/essay and for the second two essays.  Ideally, you will complete roughly one of these assignments per month of the course.  These essays should be typed, double-spaced, and in a normal 12-point font (e.g. Times New Roman) with one-inch margins.  Please give your essay a title and put your name and a page number on every page.  I rarely accept electronic submission, so please plan on getting paper copies of your work to my campus mailbox. These will count for 45% of your grade, or 15% each.

DAILY QUESTIONS: For every day we meet you are required to post to Blackboard one question pertaining to the day’s reading. As we will use these questions to generate discussion, they should clearly indicate that you have done the reading, and they should be questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.  Please put some thought into these, and be sure to read all the questions posted on the discussion board before you come to class. Questions must be posted prior to noon before each class session. Though I won’t grade the questions individually, the quality of your daily questions will be evaluated at semester’s end for 10% of your final grade.

ATTENDANCE: Discussion of the course texts is the central component to this class, so attendance is mandatory.  Each absence after your third will lower your final grade by a full letter (so four absences would make an A grade a B, while five absences would make an A a C).  You will automatically fail if you miss 6 or more classes.  Excessive tardiness or early departures will count as absences too.  The overnight course outing April 24-25 will count as two class sessions.

PARTICIPATION While everyone participates in different ways—some are more vocal than others—you are expected to have done the reading and to be prepared to address it each day.  At the end of the term, each student is required to submit a short self-evaluation, explaining what participation grade the student thinks he or she should receive and why. I will use the self-evaluation to assist in assigning participation grades, which will account for 10% of your final grade.

MIDTERM and FINAL EXAMS: On March 12 and April 28 there will be a mid-term and final exam.  Each exam will consist of a handful of short answer questions and a couple of essay questions.  I will prepare for what to expect on the exams as the time approaches. The midterm will count for 15% and the final exam 20% of your final grade.



Prerequisite: Upper-division standing with a “C” or higher in English 211 or instructor permission.

The grade of “Incomplete” can be given only in unusual circumstances where a student has successfully completed the majority of the course with a grade of “C” or higher but has been unable to complete the final requirements of the course due to unavoidable extenuating circumstances.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense that can result in disciplinary measures taken by the Committee for Student Disciplinary Action. All work submitted in this course must be your own and must be written exclusively for this course. The use of sources (ideas, quotations, paraphrases) must be properly documented following MLA style guidelines. Please see me if you have any questions about the use of sources.

If you have a documented disability for which you require academic or programmatic accommodations, please contact the Disability Support Services Office as soon as possible.


Learning Outcomes:

Content: You will demonstrate knowledge of the major texts and authors in environmental literature. This will include your ability to contextualize literature within the appropriate philosophical, political, and cultural history.

Communication (Writing): You will become a more confident writer by sharpening your critical analysis skills in both formal and informal writing assignments.

Communication (Speaking): You will practice speaking and listening in whole- and small-group discussions, you will also have the opportunity to give a class presentation.

Critical Thinking: Frequent reading and writing assignments will provide you with the opportunity to develop skills in analyzing primary texts.  By participating in class discussion of literary works, you will learn that the process of critical reading is a social activity that involves exchanging ideas, listening to others, taking responsibility for your views, and keeping an open mind about alternative approaches.

Computer and Information Literacy: You will demonstrate your ability to use computing resources as you write your course papers.  You will also practice using computer and hard copy reference tools in the Egan Library for your presentations and papers.

Professional Behavior: You will learn the importance of class attendance, preparation, and participation for enhancing and ensuring college success.  This includes turning work in on time and evaluating the level of polish required by different kinds of assignments.


Other Considerations

This course emphasizes writing and speaking skills. To make sure your essays and presentations are sufficiently polished, you may want to work with tutors in the Learning Center. Information is available at


Tentative Schedule 

Week 1

1/13 Introductions

1/15 Early American Natural History:  William Bartram, Alexander Wilson, and John J Audubon (handout)


Week 2

1/20 British Romantics:  Dorothy and William Wordsworth (handout)

1/22 American Romantics: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (handout)


Week 3

1/27 American Romantics: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (“Economy”)

1/29 Walden cont. (“Where I lived…” through “Visitors”)


Week 4

2/3 Walden cont. (“The Bean-Field through “House-Warming”)

2/5 Walden cont. (“Former Inhabitants” through “Conclusion”)


Week 5

2/10 Romanticism comes to the Last Frontier: John Muir’s Travels in Alaska (Ch. 1, 2, 4, and 10)

2/12 Muir’s Travels continued (Ch. 15, 17, and 19)


Week 6

2/17 New England Women: Susan Fenimore Cooper, Celia Thaxter, and Mabel Osgood Wright–and Isabella Bird  (handout)

2/19 Murder to Dissect? Sarah Orne Jewitt’s “A White Heron” and George Bird Grinnell (handout)

Week 7

2/24 Enter Ecology: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (Foreword through “November”)

2/26 Leopold cont. (“Marshland Elegy,” “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” “Flambeau,” “Thinking like a Mountain,” “Conservation Eesthetic,” “Wilderness,” and “The Land Ethic”)


Week 8

3/3 Ecopoetics I: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, and Friends (handout)

3/5 Ecopoetics II: Haiku (handout)


Week 9

3/10 The Big Woods of the South: William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses(“The Old People,” sections 1-2 of “The Bear”)





Week 10

3/24 Faulkner cont. (sections 3 and 5 of “The Bear” and “Delta Autumn”)

3/26 Walden for the Southwest? Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire(“Author’s Introduction” through “Cliffrose and Bayonets”)


Week 11

3/31Desert Solitaire cont. (“Polemic: Industrial Tourism…” and “Down the River”)

4/2 The Rhetoric of Toxicity: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring


Week 12

4/7 Silent Spring cont.

4/9 Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
Week 13

4/14 Ceremony cont.

4/16 Ceremony cont.

4/21 No class, read Zodiac.

4/23 Short class meeting for outing preparation.  Cont. reading Zodiac.

4/24-5 Course Outing: discuss Stephenson’s Zodiac.


Final Exam Tuesday April 28, 1:30-3:30