Environmental Humanities Course Descriptions

AMST 1950 | Pursuit of Happiness: Environmental Justice and Indigenous Rights | Ron Potvin and Lorén Spears
Co-instructors Ron Potvin and Lorén Spears lead exploration of indigenous cultural survival in the midst of ecological exploitation by the colonizers of Rhode Island and North America. They will address these issues with tours to native heritage sites; meetings with native experts and advocates; historical scholarship; and fiction, poetry, and song. Students will communicate their understanding of course content through writing, creative expression, and multimedia. The class will contribute content to a traveling exhibition organized by the Humanities Action Lab for its 2019 Initiative on Migration, Climate Justice, and Environmental Justice. 

ANTH 0110 | Anthropology and Global Social Problems: Environment, Development, and Governance | Sarah Besky
This course offers students an opportunity to examine and analyze a range of contemporary global social problems from an anthropological perspective. We will explore human-environment entanglements with particular attention to intersecting issues of capitalism, international development, and state and non-state governance. Course materials will look at various kinds of work in, on, and with the environment, asking questions about the possibilities of over-working our landscapes, while addressing the potentials for social and environment justice and sustainability.

ARCH 0680 | Water, Culture, and Power | Tyler Franconi
Water is the source of life. In the midst of global climate change, environmental crises over water resources, and increasingly ubiquitous political debates over water, we are beginning to recognize humans' complete dependence on water. This course investigates our long-term attachment and engagement with water using archaeology, environmental history, and visual, literary and historical sources. From sacred spaces around springs to ancient cities by the sea, we will explore the cultural and political aspects of water beginning with the Last Ice Age and ending with late antiquity. Enrollment limited to 50 undergraduates.

CLAS 0765 | Witches and Vixens | Sasha-Mae Eccleston 
What do video vixens and Foxy Brown have in common with "Witchy Woman"? These modern metaphors continue a long history of equating female sexual allure with dangers found in/or capable of subverting Nature. This course will use contemporary methodologies to make sense of similar descriptions of women found in Greco-Roman literature: how do the Greeks and Romans express a concern about gender, ethnicity, class, and/or politics using these metaphors? How do these same categories help distinguish what is "natural" from "unnatural"? To what end does this discourse about women and nature affect law, public space, or other aspects of "civilization"?

ENGL 1900J | Zoopoetics | Ada Smailbegovic
This course will explore the intersections between the depictions of plants and animals in twentieth and twenty-first century poetry and the theoretical conversations about non-human worlds unfolding in emerging fields, such as animal studies and the environmental humanities. Readings will range from poetic texts by Francis Ponge and Marianne Moore to theoretical texts by figures such as Donna Haraway.

ENGL 1901G | Tiny Politics: Non-Monumental Ecologies and Poetic Forms of Attention | Ada Smailbegovic
This course will examine how poetic forms of attention can offer a different sense of the shifting temporalities of change in the age of the Anthropocene, allowing us to stretch our range of perception to non-monumental rhythms that may be at play below the thresholds of human perception, but also the vast swaths of geologic time that may supersede them.

ENGL 2761S | Naturalism and the Anthropocene | Stuart Burrows
The world of naturalist fiction is strange and terrifying: monstrous new forms of life; speaking animals; suicide; madness; financial ruin; ecological disaster. We will study this world in light of our catastrophic present, reading recent work in new materialism, neuroscience, animal studies, science studies, and environmentalism. Authors include Zola, Stein, Wharton, Chesnutt, Conrad, Hardy, Nietzsche, Bergson, Freud, Du Bois, James. Enrollment limited to 15 graduate students.

ENVS 0150 | Naturalism and the Anthropocene | J. Timmons Roberts and Damian White (RISD)
This course seeks to build a reconstructive environmental sociology of the sustainable transition, incorporating debates from political ecology, critical design studies and energy/technology studies. It debates the merits of green capitalist and post-capitalist, socio-centric and technocentric visions of the transition away from fossil fuels.

ENVS 0710 | Powering the Past: Environmental Histories of Energy Use and Social Change | Bathsheba Demuth
From wood, water, and muscles, to coal, oil, and nuclear power, humans have a long history of reshaping their environments to access energy. The nature of these energy sources also influences the form and distribution of political and economic power. Using environmental history methods, this course examines the ties between energy, power, environmental change, and inequality, from before the agricultural revolution to the present. Readings and lectures link the United States and Europe to the rest of the globe, with particular emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

ENVS 1557 | Birding Communities | Nancy Jacobs
This seminar explores and builds communities around a charismatic and conspicuous class of animals: birds. The irony is that birds are marvelously diverse and abundant, but birding is associated with a narrow and privileged sector of society. Course readings address the politics of knowledge and modes of inclusion and exclusion in birding practice. While studying these hierarchies worldwide and historically, we create our own community of knowledge and practice through a “birding buddies” program in a local urban school. Students will learn from interdisciplinary scholarship, school children, and not least, the birds. History matters. Be woke. Think globally. Bird locally.

ENVS 1910 | The Anthropocene: The Past and Present of Environmental Change | Bathsheba Demuth
Scholars in many disciplines have begun using the term the Anthropocene to signal a geological epoch defined by human activity. This seminar examines the Anthropocene idea from the perspective of environmental history. What activities might have changed the planet – the use of fire thousands of years ago, or agriculture, or fossil fuels? Is the Anthropocene another term for climate change, or does it include pollution and extinction? Is it a useful concept? Drawing on anthropology and the sciences as well as history, we will use the Anthropocene to think through environmental change and the human relationship with the non-human world. 

ENVS 1915 | Histories of Global Wetlands | Brian Lander
Wetlands are increasingly recognized as dynamic ecosystems, but for much of human history were valued only after being drained to make farmland. This course explores how humans have used, transformed, and destroyed wetlands around the world over the past two millennia. In some cases people have entirely rebuilt hydrological systems with dikes, sluices and dams, creating landscapes that require constant management and investment to remain livable. Studying the environmental history of wetlands can help with conservation, managing cities built upon them, and recognizing how coastal peoples can adapt to rising sea levels.

ENVS 1916 | Animals and Plants in Chinese History | Brian Lander
Plants and animals are the basis of human civilization, providing us with shelter, clothing, medicine and, especially, food. While historians have traditionally put humans at the center of history, this course shifts the focus to species that have shaped Chinese society. By studying a few of the species that humans depend on, we gain a new appreciation of the central roles plants and animals have played in Chinese civilization, and still play in our daily lives.

ENVS 1928 | Race and the Politics of Nature: Intersecting Histories and Political Ecologies | Kai Bosworth
This senior seminar examines the ongoing perpetuation of race and racism as fundamentally related to concepts of “nature” and “the natural.” We examine scientific and pseudoscientific concepts about population, biology, and resource scarcity, western environmentalism’s origins and history, and relations with projects of incarceration, border violence, triage, environmental determinism, dehumanization, and the maintenance of essentialist understandings of ‘race.’ This course centralizes a critical race studies lens towards the history of environmental injustices, while also querying in what way nature, ecology, or environmentalism might be liberatory projects for racial justice.

FREN 1900M | La question animale | Thangam Ravindranathan
This seminar studies representations of animals in French literature, visual arts, popular culture and critical thought through the 19th-21st centuries, attending to their specific cultural and material histories. We will consider the fates of animals as industrial modernity progressed (discussing in turn urban space, agriculture, the battlefield, zoos, science, meat, the beginnings of photography and cinema), and the important philosophical and ethical questions they raise. Authors include Renard, Michaux, Cixous, Roubaud, Pastoureau, Baratay, Philibert, de Fontenay, Derrida, Bailly et Despret. Taught in French.

HISP 1330X | The Nature of Conquest: Scientific Literatures of the Americas | Iris Montero
Throughout history, conquest, and colonization have implied different kinds of appropriations: control over new lands, new bodies, new languages. With the appropriation of new languages came the confrontation between different ways of organizing the world and, in particular, alternative ways of understanding humankind's relationship to nature. This course explores the scientific literatures that emerged in the wake of Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas (1500-1800). These hybrid scientific literatures, written in Spanish but also in Nahuatl, Maya, Quechua, and graphic forms, illustrate the lasting cross-pollination between Old and New World notions about American nature.

HISP 1331A | Writing Animals in the Iberian Atlantic | Iris Montero
Animals are our mirrors, our doubles; creatures onto which we project our notions about humanity and its limits. From Aristotle’s ladder to Mesoamerican nahualism, animals have been at the center of how we understand the world and our place in it. This course looks at Animal Studies in dialogue with Hispanic, Latin American, and Indigenous Studies to explore how intersectionality illuminates discourses about the human-nonhuman divide. Drawing on studies from both sides of the Atlantic, we will analyze the main genres that have focused on the nonhuman and recent studies on sheep, pigs, the rhinoceros, llamas, and perhaps even hummingbirds.

HIST 0150H | Foods and Drugs in History | Harold (Hal) Cook
What we consume connects us to the worlds of both nature and culture. Bodily and socially, “you are what you eat,” but if your well-being suffers, you often seek out other ingestible substances. In many times and places, changing what you eat is thought to be healing, while in other times and places drugs — either remedial or recreational – are thought to be distinct and more immediately restorative. Few human interactions with the larger world are more important or interesting than how comestibles and medicines have been discovered, mixed, transformed, distributed, and how those processes have changed us.

HIST 0270A | From Fire Wielders to Empire Builders: Human Impact on the Global Environment before 1492 | Brian Lander
This is a new lecture course intended to introduce the field of environmental history to students with no previous experience in it. The study of prehistoric, ancient and medieval environments is a heavily interdisciplinary research field, and the course will emphasize the variety of sources available for studying it. We will combine textbook readings with primary source readings from scientific and archaeological reports and, especially, contemporary texts.

HIST 0270B | From the Columbia Exchange to Climate Change: Modern Global Environmental History | Bathsheba Demuth
Environmental stories are constantly in the news, from weird weather to viral outbreaks to concerns about extinction and fracking. In this course, we put current events in the context of the past 500 years, exploring how climate, plants, animals, and microbiota – not just humans – acted as agents in history. From imperialism to the industrial revolution and from global capitalism to environmental activism, we will examine how nature and culture intermingled to create the modern world. This is an introduction to environmental history and assumes no prior courses.

HIST 0576A | The Arctic : Global History from the Dog Sled to the Oil Rig | Bathsehba Demuth
The Arctic is regularly in the media, thanks to climate change. This course examines the long history of human thinking about and habitation in the far north before and during the era of global warming. Focusing on how people valued, survived, and made the arctic home, topics range from whaling, the importance of dogs, cultural imaginaries and colonialism to capitalist and communist arctics, the meaning of sea ice, indigenous rights, and climate change. The course introduces historical methods and environmental history through reading, writing, discussion, and interpreting artifacts.

HIST 1976C | Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Environmental Histories of Non-Human Actors | Nancy Jacobs
More than other sub-fields of history, environmental history approaches non-human actors as agents in their own right. This forces a radical reconceptualization of the nature of the subject. What happens to our understanding of the past (and the stories we tell about the past) if we posit that mountains think, mosquitos speak, and dogs dream? Drawing on Science and Technology Studies, Thing Theory, and Animal Studies, this course examines such questions by decentering the human and elevating non-human actors within narratives of interactive networks. Short written assignments build on each other to culminate in a research project in environmental history.

HIST 1976G | Animal Histories | Nancy Jacobs
Participants in this seminar are invited to explore human and non-human relations in the global past. The history of human-animal relations is huge, so rather than attempt a general survey, we situate our discussion around selected topics. We begin with one animal, the wolf, and move through established and less-familiar historical topics, building toward our final question: how does the inclusion of animals enhance the discipline? The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said, "animals are good to think with." So is history. In this seminar we think through those things together.

HIST 1976I | Imperialism and Environmental Change | Brian Lander
Empires conquer and control territory to enrich their ruling elites, often transforming the environments of these regions to make them more productive and profitable. This course will examine how empires have reorganized the landscapes of the regions they conquered from the ancient empires of Rome and China to the modern overseas empires of Europe and Japan and the informal American empire.

HIST 1820B | Environmental History of East Asia | Brian Lander
This is a lecture course on the environmental history of East Asia from prehistory to the present aimed at students with no background in either Asian or environmental history. Because little has been written about Korean or Vietnamese environmental history, it will mostly concern China and Japan, for which there are good textbooks. The course will also incorporate weekly primary source readings, or analysis of artifacts.

HMAN 2400I | Environmental Humanities
Spring 2019: Into the Wild: Thinking Democracy Ecologically | Mark Cladis and Sharon Krause 
We live in an age of immense, intersecting environmental problems that pose deep challenges to democratic life. How are we to respond to ecological crises that interweave race, class, ethnicity, and gender/sexuality; humans and the non-human; and politics, economy, religion, and culture? This collaborative seminar explores a range of contemporary and historical work in environmental humanities, with a focus on radical imaginaries of ecological democracy. The readings reflect a diversity of normative commitments and methodological approaches, and include such authors as Wollstencraft, Emerson, Thoreau, Du Bois, Silko, Wendell Berry, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, Rob Nixon, and Glenn Coulthard.

LACA 1504G / HISP 133H | Latin American Environmental Humanities | Nicolas Campisi
Latin America is one of the regions where the worldwide environmental crisis has manifested itself most forcefully over the past decades–with high levels of environmental toxicity, endangered species, and habitat loss. This course will introduce students to how artists, filmmakers, and writers are representing and raising awareness about key environmental issues in the region. The course is structured around five case studies: the desert, agriculture, oil extraction, water pollution, and waste management. The languages of instruction will be Spanish and English. When the reading material is not available in translation, students are expected to be able to read in Spanish.

LATN 2020G | Writing Human/Nature | Sasha-Mae Eccleston
This course will use Pliny's encyclopedic 'Natural History' as a conduit for thinking through the implications of writing the human being 'as human'. First we will revisit other natural histories to get a sense of this mode of writing in its contemporary cultural context and then we will survey postmodern ideas about how to write humans as well as other sentient nonhuman beings. By the end of the course we ought to become more adept at putting Pliny's observations in dialogue with other institutions, technologies, and practices in place during the Roman Empire that helped construct the human identity.

LITR 1150A | Ecopoetics in Practice | Eleni Sikelianos
What we have perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet's means and material. But can poetry be ecological or display values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and non-human realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? How might poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world? Readings, discussion, essays and creative writing.

MUSC 1921 | Music, Nature, Ecology | Joshua Tucker
What is “nature”? How is it related to humanity? And what role do sound practices play in raising and answering those questions? This course explores how sound mediates the relationship between humans and the non-human things that Western societies typically categorize as “nature.” Via case studies drawn from Western music history and from non-Western societies, we will examine how composers like Grieg, Ives, and John Luther Adams have used music to convey their experiences and interpretations of the non-human world; how soundscape artists like Schafer, Westerkamp, and Dunn seek to transform listeners’ perceptions of and relations to the natural systems through which they move; how people in Papua New Guinea, Central Asia, and the Bolivian Andes coordinate ecological knowledge, cosmological systems, and environmental relationships through sound; how theorists use sound practices to think through the difference between humans and other animals; and how instrument making forces practitioners to contend with resource extraction and climatological concerns.

RELS 0260 | Religion Gone Wild: Spirituality and the Environment | Mark Cladis
A study of the dynamic relation between religion and nature. Religion, in this course, includes forms of spirituality within and outside the bounds of conventional religious traditions (for example, Buddhism and Christianity, on the one hand; ecofeminism and nature writing on the other). Topics in this study of religion, philosophy, and ecology will include environmental justice, environmental degradation, and depictions of humans in relation to the natural world.

STS 0400 | The Phoenix and the Hummingbird: Stories of Nature from the Classics to iNaturalist | Iris Montero
Scientists love to solve mysteries. From the philosophers of antiquity to contemporary citizen naturalists, the study of nature has always focused on creatures that have puzzled humankind. This course provides an introduction to the stories that have been told throughout history about the inhabitants — plant and animal — of the natural world: from myths and legends about chimeric creatures to direct experience, the systematization of nature, and the limits of such systems. Taught as a seminar, course readings will include key texts from figures like Pliny, Humboldt, and Darwin, as well as alternative understandings of nature from indigenous naturalists.

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