Thinking Through Nature

Here at UVic, I've been lucky enough to teach the first three versions of English 478, a variable-content course at the intersection of literature and environment. In September 2014, I'll be delivering the fourth version, under the rubric "Thinking Through Nature," and it's planning season: book orders are due, and I'm looking for advice in all the wrong social media places.

We English instructors are free to propose each year what we'd like to cover in any of the department's variable-content courses. Courses can't cover the same ground within any rolling three-year period, and some years, the department's Curriculum Committee decides that some variable-content courses shouldn't run at all, so I'm feeling very lucky these days.

Here's the description that was approved for the course to be offered in September 2014:
"An examination of nature, both as an idea and in its material form, throughout twentieth-century Canadian literature. Explores the foundations and consequences of the stereotypic view of Canada and Canadians as being obsessed with and grounded in nature, especially wilderness. Reflects upon touristic and governmental discourses of Canada and Canadianness. Blends literary studies with environmental studies, environmental history, and conservation biology."
Eagle Pass Mountain, BC
And also:
"We will question what consequences this traditional faith in wild nature might have in the near future under climate change, and what consequences it has had over the last hundred years. In particular, this course is intended to let students connect Canadian literature to the aims and  methodologies of academic programs from across the university, such as environmental studies (especially law and history) and conservation biology."
So, I'm left with two big questions: which directions should the class head, and what texts should we look at?

Directions: the easy option would be to stick close to literary history and ecocriticism. Nothing wrong with aesthetics, obviously, and English students generally seem interested still in the traditional questions of literature, so maybe that'd be more attractive for a larger group of students.

But more and more, I'm feeling seriously drawn toward taking a much more activist approach. Could an English class work, if we read all our literature in relation to something like the recent IPCC climate change report; the Enbridge pipeline's Joint Review Panel report; or the potentially destructive Park Amendment Act here in BC?

In other words, are English students prepared to buy into a course that blends environmentalist protest, ecosocial critique, and literary studies?

Texts: this is tricky not just because there are SO MANY GREAT OPTIONS, although there are, but because the choice of texts will limit the kinds of directions we'll be able to pursue. Here's where I'm at right now:
I'm really looking forward to this course, or at least I will be once I finish digging out from under the torrent of marking under which I'm currently buried.

But for now, I'd appreciate any advice or suggestions you might want to share in the comments. Which books do I choose, would English students sign up for a protest-like course, and which issues might we emphasize for confrontation?


Angie Abdou said…
Thanks for including The Canterbury Trail, Richard. An early version of this novel was a Ph.D. dissertation. For that, I wrote a 50 pages exegesis, part of which focused on ecopoetics. I'd be happy to share that with you.

Looks like a great course!

richard said…
If you're prepared to share the exegesis with my class, Angie, then I'll guarantee that we'll cover it. (I'm dreaming of doing the same with Richard White's Organic Machine: popular history on the Columbia River, with a reputedly massive academic history framework of footnotes and citations deposited in the UWashington archives!)

Though Canterbury Trail may push Wharton's Icefields off the list…. But then again, I taught that one three years ago, so I've already shown it some love. Hmm.
Tyler Kinnear said…
Hello, this looks to be a fantastic class (wish I had the opportunity as an undergrad!). How about something on acoustic ecology or environmental sound more broadly? Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer first comes to mind. There is also an active soundscape community here in Vancouver. Thanks for extending your course planning to the ASLE list.

- Tyler
Angie Abdou said…
Let me have a re-read of exegesis and see if it's share worthy. I'd also be happy to visit class via Skype or videoconference.

I know a class on mapping at TRU includes The Canterbury Trail. I can put you in touch with that prof to see how it teaches.

PS I love Wharton'd Icefields.
theresa said…
I love the idea of including Murray Schafer. His work is so wide-ranging and brilliant. And imagine listening to Patria along with John Luther Adams as companion work for the literary texts...

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