Introducing Ecocriticism Quickly

One of the more difficult decisions I find myself making again and again in my teaching, is when and if the discussion of critical theory is useful in the literature (and creative writing) classroom. Typically, I land on avoiding explicit discussion of critical theory, but then we’ll be discussing postmodernism in John Barth’s Mobius Strip story “Frame-Tale,” or the transnationalism of Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (a favorite of mine to end the Intro American Lit survey), or the subversive anthropomorphism of George Saunder’s “Fox 8.” What follows is often a clunky attempt to give small doses of the applicable critical theory in order to help connect these works to broader literary and cultural movements. Too often, both the students and I have ended up a little lost and happily turned away with my line “Alright, let’s do a little close reading and maybe put that into practice” (though we are rarely really certain we do).

After plenty of these instances, I decided I needed to find some way to quickly and neatly introduce some critical theory into the classroom, in the hopes that one such overt discussion would ease those later meanderings into crit theory.  For me, ecocriticsm was an obvious choice, as it was most in my wheelhouse, but I hope that the discussion that follows will be useful both as a model for the incorporation of other crit theory interventions and for those who could use an ecocriticism intro day or week in the broader service of their course.

Depending on the time devoted, I would suggest actually teaching Ursula K. Heise’s well titled “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism” which I link to here from Stonewall College’s Greening the Curriculum Site–useful, I should mention, as a source of ecocritical articles and other critical work on environmental literature.  At times a bit heavy and needed unpacking, particularly for  non-English majors and those less familiar with critical theory broadly, this article presents an excellent account of the history, goals, and methods of this field of criticism.  It is manageable, even paired with some primary text, in one class period. One of teaching the articles particular benefits is that, especially in the context of a course centered on nature writing or environmental literature, it provides an excellent list of sources important to the genre for students to draw on in their own academic research.

But I think the intro can be even quicker and dirtier while still actively discussing ecocritical theory.  This is useful if the course is a broad survey without an environmental theme or if paired with extra-broad running themes in American Literature like “the Land,” “Wilderness versus Civilization,” “Home,” or “The Frontier” which I often find appearing again and again in class discussion once introduced.  Here is what I have found to be a useful list of context and information regardless of the primary source to which it will be applied or understood through…

  • Ecocriticism comes well after the rise of the field of environmentalism, which influences its goals and methods and makes it differ from movements such as postcolonial and feminist theory that arose along with concurrent powerful political movements.
  • As Heise states in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocrit,” ecocriticism has a triple allegiance to “the scientific study of nature, the scholarly analysis of cultural representations, and the political struggle for more sustainable ways of inhabiting the world.”
  • These works are largely defined by sharing that political goal of sustainably inhabiting the world, though theoretical assumptions and methodologies are pretty widely varied and debated within the field.
  • First-Wave ecocriticism is closely connected to and even defined by the ideas of Deep Ecology, where nature is valued in and of itself. (think wilderness, sense of place, the Think Local movement, Leave No Trace camping…)
  • Second-Wave ecocriticism (the more common vein of this critical theory day) is interested in the social ecology wherein even the idea of wilderness is troubled and connections are drawn to other critical theories such as feminism, postcolonialism, and socialism.
  • The broad move from First-Wave to Second-Wave (or New-Wave) ecocriticism can be represented by the move suggested by William Cronon in his 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” that offers the term wildness as an idea to be valued over the problematic and historically irresponsible term ‘wilderness.’
  • Increasingly, ecocriticism is concerned with both the global and the local, or ideas of both place and planet when it comes to its scope and political goal.
  • It is also inherently interdisciplinary.

This may seem quite broad, but I think introducing these ideas to students accomplishes something that benefits the course moving forward.  If the course is engaging with a lot of nature/environmental writing, it introduces them to some very useful sources, as well as a bit of the language used by ecocritical theorists.  Further, in my experience, even this specific intro to crit theory through ecocriticism empowers students to view themselves more as scholars who can engage with both the works they read and the criticism surrounding it.  As a result, students are more likely to engage with theory in their own research and to apply it to their academic writing. And when the time comes for me to make some brief references to applicable theories during later classes, that transition is less severe than it had been in the past.  The course is still far from geared around ecocriticism or critical theory, but the foray for a day or a week can be a positive one.  In future posts, when discussing American literature of the environment and American nature writing, I’ll try to link back to this article and some of the sources and theorists Heise mentions in her excellent ecocriticism primer.