You are here

Humanists Explore the Environment

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring inspired a generation to work toward protecting the environment. More recent books on climate change abound. But writings about man and nature date back to the Bible, as students learn in a new series of “environmental humanities” courses offered jointly by the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of the Environment. The courses explore the relationship between humans and the environment through literature, film, and art. 

"One of the things that attracted me to the UW was people like Gary  and Sabine, who were doing this type of work," says Richard Watts,  center, with Sabine Wilke and Gary Handwerk.

"One of the things that attracted me to the UW was people like Gary  and Sabine, who were doing this type of work," says Richard Watts,  center, with Sabine Wilke and Gary Handwerk. Media credit: Nancy Joesph

Gary Handwerk, professor and chair of the Department of English, explains that cultural and literary texts of all kinds can play an important role in how societies think about environmental issues. “Texts are acts of persuasion," he says. "They are implicit arguments about how we should think and feel and behave that are often all the more effective for the implicitness of their positions.”

The environment has long interested Handwerk, who eight years ago joined with colleagues in history, women studies, geography, and other disciplines for a reading group and lecture series devoted to environment and community. It’s no surprise, then, that Handwerk was on board immediately when the College of the Environment expressed interest in collaborating with humanities faculty on course offerings. Also interested were Richard Watts, associate professor of French, and Sabine Wilke, chair and professor in the Department of Germanics. Each taught a course in the environmental humanities series this year.

“One of the things that attracted me to the UW was people like Gary and Sabine, who were doing this type of work,” says Watts, who joined the UW faculty in 2009. “Previously, I was working on these issues in isolation.”

Watts’s course, The Water Crisis in Literature and Film, builds on a book he is finishing that examines water and its meaning throughout history and across the globe. For the course, Watts combined material from his book with additional content aimed at broadening the scope of the discussion. Students were assigned selections from the Koran and the Bible, but also contemporary texts and the films Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources and Chinatown

Sabine Wilke’s course, Literature, Culture, and the Environment, focuses on how different writers and artists present nature in writing and illustration. The class examines depictions of plants, animals, mountains, and other natural elements, with an emphasis on how those depictions have changed over time, both in writings that describe the natural world and in book illustrations. “Students discover that there is no unframed encounter with nature,” says Wilke.

Handwerk’s course, Re-Valuing Nature: Environmental Humanities in the 21st Century, focuses on how texts help shape the beliefs and values that frame political debates about public policies—more specifically for this course, environmental policy. He begins with Robinson Crusoe, the Daniel Defoe classic about one man alone in nature, and then tackles a range of non-fiction texts from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (also included in Watt’s course) to Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams.

All three courses touch on historical changes in man’s relationship with nature. “Something really did change in the 18th and 19th centuries in regard to how people saw the relationship between human beings and the surrounding environment,” explains Handwerk. “There was a new sense that nature is inside of us and we are inside of it—the sense that at every level, we’re embedded in the world that we inhabit.”

Because these courses are cross-listed in three places—the professor’s home department, as a Literature offering, and as a College of the Environment course—they attract diverse students, from science majors to language or literature majors. The faculty has found this diversity to be the series’ greatest strength and its greatest challenge. 

“The makeup of the class is, in itself, a reason to teach these courses,” says Handwerk. “You have to think about how to teach material to intelligent students in very different disciplines. For science students not familiar with humanities approaches, you must address why we read in the humanities in the way we do. You must explain how we go about this. I believe that thinking about this has made all my teaching better.”

In her class, Wilke found that the humanities students were comfortable with analytical, aesthetic, and historical questions but were not used to linking them with contemporary environmental issues. Science students, in contrast, were used to tackling environmental issues but had no familiarity with aesthetics or rhetoric. “When I would ask science students, ‘How do you narrate a plant?’ they would look at me blankly,” recalls Wilke. “It’s a different language.”

The faculty faced many of the same challenges as their students, stepping outside of their academic comfort zone to teach these interdisciplinary courses. “Our training as academics has been primarily analysis of language and texts,” says Watts. “This work has obliged me to read in environmental philosophy, to branch out and study things not normally associated with ‘literary studies.’ It’s been very healthy, very good.” Adds Wilke, “I find myself rereading texts in a different way. Before, I hadn’t noticed the way nature is discussed. I had known the texts, but not in that way.”

The three faculty plan to offer their courses again, and anticipate that colleagues in other humanistic disciplines will develop courses as well. An environmental humanities conference, planned for Spring 2013, is sure to build interest in this area of study.

“There are a number of students who want an integrated, focused course of study in the environmental humanities,” says Handwerk. “We’re confident that offerings in this area will continue to grow.”