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C LIT 396 A: Special Studies In Comparative Literature

Valuing Nature: Literature and the Environment

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
MLR 316
Gary Handwerk

Syllabus Description:

Course Syllabus: English 365A/Comparative Literature 396A

Valuing Nature: Literature and the Environment


Spring 2016                                                                Professor Gary Handwerk     

Tues/Thur 10:30-12:20; Miller 316                           Office: A-402 Padelford; Phone 543-2183   

E-mail:                                        Office Hours: Tues. 1-3 and by appt.

Canvas Site:


About the course:

 What values do we find in nature…and why? What role do various forms of literary and aesthetic experience play in shaping these acts of valuing? Perhaps most crucially, why should we care about nature…and why, so often, do people seem not to do so, or to do so quite differently from “us”? These questions are closely intertwined; what we imagine nature to be frames and delimits the sorts of values we find in it and that we are able even to envisage. In different contexts, we may grant greater or lesser worth to quite different aspects of nature: its beauty, its resource possibilities, its spiritual impact, its recreational uses, its scientific status, or any number of other standards.   These acts of valuing are themselves rooted in specific cultural, historical and religious traditions, as well as in the economic and scientific frameworks that often play a bigger visible role in political and personal decision-making.

This course will examine how people value (and de-value) nature through one distinct variety of cultural text—literary works—analyzing how such works represent nature, how they present environmental issues, what values they assert (explicitly or implicitly), and how their forms of representation affect their success in projecting specific values upon nature. This will not be a course on nature writing or social science/ public policy issues, although our concerns will intersect in many ways with both of those perspectives. Instead, we will be studying how aesthetic and rhetorical elements are used by different authors to shape our attitudes toward nature and the environment—with “environment” broadly construed as a category that encompasses human and non-human, physical and socio-cultural landscapes. Our main practical goal will be to work toward reading the texts in this course—a set that includes fictional narratives, non-fictional essays and theoretical works—more closely and more carefully. Each text depicts one or more attitudes toward the environment—varying senses of what the world around us is, how it works, why it is the way it is, and what all of that means for us as human beings. Moreover, each text also deals with the non-human environment as it bears upon social relations; collectively, they let us explore how our attitudes toward nature and toward other people intersect. As we read them, it is important to remember that they (like literary texts and works of art generally) are not simply descriptive accounts of what particular authors see or feel. They are acts of persuasion, implicit arguments about how we should think and feel and behave that are often all the more effective for the implicitness of their positions. Such texts play a key role in determining how societies think about environmental issues; they help shape the deep base of beliefs and values that frames political debates about public policies.

 Learning to read these kinds of texts well is, in addition, a skill that we can also bring to bear on non-literary texts. Most kinds of discourse make extensive use of “literary” sorts of strategies, deploying narrative, imagery, allegory, and other elements typical of literary texts to help them achieve their own rhetorical purposes. It is rare that scientific expertise proves to be the sole determining factor even for what one might construe as scientific issues—the reality of global warming, for instance, or the decision to protect or not protect a specific endangered species. It is even rarer for politicians or bureaucrats to refrain from the slanting of perspective that rhetoric can provide (thus the still-recent renaming of global warming as “climate change”). So the analysis we will practice in this class is in an important way transferable to the reading and the writing you might do in very different contexts.

Your writing provides the best measure of how well you can perform the kinds of analytical reading I will expect from you. Effective writing is in equal measure a matter of conception and execution, of planning and practice. We will talk about the former most specifically in relation to the longer essay assignments in the course, where I will clarify for each one what you are being asked to do and why. We will address the latter by having you write regularly, supplementing the formal, graded essays with a series of short, ungraded e-mail responses (12 over the course of the quarter) that you will collect in a portfolio, along with your other writing, at the end of the quarter.


Graded Work:

             Responses/Portfolio (with self-reflective essay)      1/7 of final grade

            Analytical essays (5)                                                 5/7 of final grade

            Attendance and participation                                     1/7 of final grade                                                              

Analytical essays will be graded on a 10 point scale, with 9 = 4.0, 8 = 3.5, 7 = 3.0, etc. You will be writing five of these (each a one-page, single-spaced, no-margin paper, with topics circulated a week before they are due). Font size should be either 11-point or 12-point; papers using smaller font sizes will be returned unmarked. Electronic submission of papers. Please use your last name as the first part of the file name for all written works you submit for this class. I.e., smith.mcpheeessay, rajan.response3, cheung.silkoessay, etc.


Other Essential Information:

 1. Both the amount and the different kinds of materials we will be reading make this a challenging course. In addition, the active close reading that I expect you to do regularly may be something that you have not had much occasion to practice. So I encourage you to ask questions in class and to see me in office hours for further help if needed. It is your responsibility to come to me with any issues you feel are getting in the way of your effective learning.  

 2. This is an intensive course, requiring you to read 100-200 pages per week and to write regularly about that reading. I expect that for most of you the required work will fill the 12-15 hours a week that the university prescribes as the norm for a 5-credit class. Some of you may find yourselves putting in more time than that during certain weeks.

 3. The median grade for the course will very likely be close to the norm for classes in the humanities here, somewhere between 3.1 and 3.3. That isn’t the bottom grade; it’s the median. That means that it is indeed possible to get a grade below 3.0, even though you have been doing the assigned work and submitting everything on time.

 4. Attendance and participation are required. Moreover, they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. Late papers will have one point deducted for each calendar day that they are late. I will take roll on occasion and will use your response papers and your portfolio to help me evaluate your class participation.

 5. Finally, please DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. If you have any questions about the proper use of outside sources that you have consulted, see me BEFORE you submit the paper.



Course Calendar (subject to change)


March 29        -- Introduction: Environments in the 21st Century…and Us; Cheryll Glotfelty,  “Introduction” to Ecocriticism Reader (PC); Berry, “Faustian Economics” (PC)

March 31        -- John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid (Part 1)


WEEK 2          -- Optional class session on writing analytical papers (day, time and place TBA)

April 5            -- McPhee, Encounters (Part 2)

April 7            -- McPhee, Encounters (Part 3); Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (PC)

APRIL 9          -- PAPER #1 DUE (McPhee)


April 12          -- NO CLASS (Reading day)

April 14          -- Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Buell, “Intro” to Writing for an Endangered World (PC)


April 19          -- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

April 21          -- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

APRIL 23        -- PAPER #2 DUE (Defoe)


April 26          -- William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses, “The Bear”; William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness” (PC) [Roosevelt HS visit]

April 28          -- Faulkner, “The Bear” [Lake Washington HS visit]


May 3              -- Faulkner, “The Bear”; Paul Shepard, “Ontogeny Revisited” (PC)

May 5             -- Faulkner, “Delta Autumn”

MAY 7            -- PAPER #3 DUE (Faulkner)


May 10           -- Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (selections to be announced)

May 12           -- Octavia Butler, Wild Seed


May 17            -- Butler, Wild Seed; Phelan, “How We Evolve” (PC)

May 19            -- Butler, Wild Seed [Tacoma SoA visit]

MAY 21          -- PAPER #4 DUE (Darwin, Butler)


May 24            -- Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony

May 26            -- Silko, Ceremony


May 31            -- Silko, Ceremony; “Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination”

June 2              -- Wrapping Things Up and Looking Ahead: Weart, “Discovering a Possibility” (PC); Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History” (PC)


JUNE 6           -- PAPER #5 DUE (Silko)

JUNE 9           -- PORTFOLIO DUE

Additional Details:

Comparative Literature 396A (Special Topics); English 365A (Literature and Discourses on the Environment): Valuing Nature: Literature and the Environment (Professor Gary Handwerk; Spring 2016)

Our focus for this course will be upon how literature deals with the environment, i.e., how literary texts represent environmental issues and why it matters that they be represented in this form.  How, that is, do literary sorts of texts help shape the social framework within which environmental issues get discussed and environmental decisions made?  How do we come to value nature, and nature in relation to (or in competition with) human society?  We will be considering a range of prose texts, including fictional narratives, non-fictional essays and journalism, primarily texts written or set in the Americas.  Course goals include: 1) developing the analytical reading skills appropriate to different kinds of literary texts, 2) working on how to formulate and sustain critical arguments in writing, 3) learning how to uncover the supporting logic and stakes of specific attitudes toward the natural world, 4) understanding how environmental issues are linked to other social and cultural concerns, 5) seeing how those linkages are affected by particular historical and political conditions.  The course will contain a significant writing component, both regular informal writing assignments and several medium-length analytical papers; it can count for W-credit.

Texts include Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Faulkner, Go Down, Moses;McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid; Abbey, Desert Solitaire; Appleman, Darwin; Butler, Wild Seed; Barry Lopez Arctic Dreams; and a reading packet.

Catalog Description: 
Offered by visitors or resident faculty. Content varies.
Department Requirements Met: 
Literature Elective
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
October 5, 2016 - 9:12pm