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C LIT 396 A: Special Studies in Comparative Literature

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
SMI 307
Joint Sections: 
ENVIR 495 D, ENGL 355 A
Gary Handwerk

Syllabus Description:

Course Syllabus: English 355A/Comparative Literature 396A/Enviro 495D

Valuing Nature: Literature and the Environment


Spring 2017                                                                Professor Gary Handwerk       

Tues/Thur 10:30-12:20; Smith 307                               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 can various forms of literary and aesthetic experience play in determining what we value and how we justify these values?  Why should we care about nature at all…and why, so often, do people seem not to do so, or to do so very differently from “us”?  These questions are closely intertwined; what we imagine nature to be frames and delimits the values we find in it, even what values we can envisage at all.  In different contexts, we may grant greater or lesser worth to various aspects of nature: its beauty, its resource possibilities, its spiritual impact, its recreational uses, its scientific status, or 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. 


In this course, we will be analyzing how nature and environmental issues have been represented across various historical periods and geographic locales in one distinct variety of cultural text—literary narratives.  This will not be a course on nature writing or social science/public policy issues, although our concerns will intersect with both of those perspectives.  Instead, we will be studying how aesthetic and rhetorical elements have been 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 elements.  One primary course objective is simply to work toward reading the texts in this class—a set that includes fictional narratives, non-fictional essays and theoretical works—more closely and more carefully.  Each text we will read 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 acts of valuing nature and other people are connected.  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 bring to bear on non-literary texts.  Most kinds of discourse make extensive use of “literary” strategies, deploying narrative, imagery, metaphor, and other elements typical of literary texts to help them achieve their 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 (or even scientists) to refrain from the slanting of perspective that rhetoric can provide.  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 to the course Canvas site (12 in all during the quarter). 

Graded Work:

            Responses/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—always submit analytical essays to my UW e-mail address (above).  Please use your last name as the first part of the file name for all written submissions for this class.  I.e., smith.mcpheeessay, rajan.faulkner, 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.   


  1. 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. 


  1. The median grade for the course will very likely be close to the norm for classes in the humanities here, somewhere around 3.2 or 3.3. That isn’t the bottom grade; it’s the median. That means that it is possible to get a grade below 3.0, even though you have been doing the assigned work and submitting everything on time. 


  1. Attendance and participation are required. Moreover, they presuppose engaged and timely completion of writing assignments. Late analytical essays 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.


  1. 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.


  1. Required texts: McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid; Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Faulkner, Go Down, Moses; Appleman (ed.), Darwin (this Norton edition ONLY); Butler, Wild Seed; Ghosh, The Hungry Tide; plus photocopy packet available at Rams Copy, 4144 University Ave.


Course Calendar (subject to change)

March 28          --  Introduction: Looking & Seeing; Cheryll Glotfelty, “Introduction” to Ecocriticism                                                Reader (PC); Berry, “Faustian Economics” (PC)

March 30          --  John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid (Part 1)

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

April 4              --  McPhee, Encounters (Part 3)

April 6              --  McPhee, Encounters (Part 2); Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (PC)

APRIL 8            -- PAPER #1 DUE (McPhee)

April 11            --  NO CLASS (Reading day)

April 13            --  Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; Buell, “Intro” to Writing for an Endangered World (PC)

April 18            --  Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

April 20            --  Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

APRIL 22         --  PAPER #2 DUE (Defoe)

April 25           --  William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses, “The Bear”; William Cronon, “The Trouble with                                              Wilderness” (PC)

April 27           --  Faulkner, “The Bear”

May 2             --  Faulkner, “The Bear”; Paul Shepard, “Ontogeny Revisited” (PC) [Roosevelt HS Visit]

May 4             --  Faulkner, “Delta Autumn”

MAY 6            -- PAPER #3 DUE (Faulkner)

May 9             --  Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (selections to be announced)

May 11           --  Octavia Butler, Wild Seed

May 16           --  Butler, Wild Seed; Phelan, “How We Evolve” (PC)  [Lake Washington HS Visit]

May 18           --  Butler, Wild Seed

MAY 20           -- PAPER #4 DUE (Darwin, Butler)            

May 23            --  Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide

May 25            --  Ghosh, The Hungry Tide

May 30            --  Ghosh, The Hungry Tide

June 1             --  Wrapping Things Up and Looking Ahead: Weart, “Discovering a Possibility”

                                    (PC); Chakrabarty, “The Climate of      History” (PC)

JUNE 5            --  PAPER #5 DUE (Ghosh)

JUNE 8            --  PORTFOLIO DUE

Catalog Description: 
Offered by visitors or resident faculty. Content varies.
Department Requirements Met: 
Literature Elective
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:20pm