Faculty Favorites: Reading Through the Pandemic

Statue of a man sitting on a bench wearing a mask and reading a newspaper

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite some of our favorite scholars from a range of fields to share with us the environmental books and essays they look forward to teaching in the weeks ahead.

For this list, we asked contributors to highlight works that speak to one or both of the pandemics of coronavirus and racial injustice. During this time of widespread virtual instruction, it is vital that classrooms and learning communities be responsive to the unique precarities, uncertainties, and anxieties of the current moment. These works not only offer a wide range of topics, from Black birding to migrant farmworkers’ rights, but they show how careful syllabus and curriculum choices can allow students to work through present-day concerns in tandem with their classroom learning.

The invitation to “read through the pandemic” is twofold: first, for many, reading is a cherished pastime that can bring a measure of comfort and grounding during this time of crisis and upheaval. Another meaning of “reading through the pandemic” is to use the pandemic as a lens through which we “read,” or interpret, everything else. What can we as readers learn about ourselves and society in times of disaster? What does history have to teach us about creative interventions? How does this moment of crisis clarify our understanding of and commitments to environmental and racial justice?

We hope that these recommendations offer rich material for your to-read list.

For more suggested readings, you can browse our lists from Spring 2020, Fall 2019, Spring 2019, Fall 2018Spring 2018Fall 2017Spring 2017, and Fall 2016.

Matt Henry, Scholar in Residence, University of Wyoming

Recommendation: Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger by Julie Sze (University of California Press, 2019)

Blue book cover with Earth on fire.

The United States is in a moment of danger. From the COVID-19 pandemic to climate-driven wildfires and hurricanes engulfing the western U.S. and Gulf Coast, all set against the backdrop of mass protests in response to the murder of Black Americans at the hands of police, 2020 feels like a historical inflection point. Julie Sze’s Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger meets the moment. A timely primer on the history of the U.S. environmental justice movement grounded in recent struggles like Standing Rock and the Flint water crisis, the book is a terrific choice for teaching undergraduates. An included glossary defining terms like “racial capitalism” and “settler colonialism” is especially useful for readers new to the concept of environmental justice. Sze’s hopeful third chapter, which outlines a vision for restorative environmental justice and the role of the arts in envisioning equitable, sustainable futures, is especially needed right now. I look forward to teaching it in my Environment & Society and environmental justice courses.

Alexandra Huneeus, Professor of Law and Director of the Global Legal Studies Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School

Recommendation: “Realizing the Right to Be Cold? Framing Processes and Outcomes Associated with the Inuit Petition on Human Rights and Global Warming” by Sébastien Jodoin, Shannon Snow, and Arielle Corobow (Law & Society Review 50:1, 2020)

Page of text, entitled "“Realizing the Right to Be Cold? Framing Processes and Outcomes Associated with the Inuit Petition on Human Rights and Global Warming."

This semester, for the first time, I am teaching a course on climate, law, and justice. My research on human rights led me here as climate change litigation focused on rights has exploded in recent years. I particularly like this article because it carefully shows just how fraught this human-rights-meets-climate-justice nexus can be. The Inuit petition submitted to the OAS Human Rights Commission for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions was the first rights-based climate change claim ever to reach the international system. It spawned climate-focused rights claims around the world. But sometimes, the article shows, rights language does not resonate with the peoples on whose behalf it is advanced. Today few Inuit view environmental rights as relevant to their struggle to survive climate change. The authors provide a nuanced analysis. 

Noreen McAuliffe, Lecturer in English and Program Specialist in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recommendation: The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham (Milkweed, 2017)

J. Drew Lanham’s memoir is at once a story of how a scientist came to his profession, a meditation on race and land, and an elegy for a lost place. Lanham grew up in Edgefield County, South Carolina, joyfully wandering on his family’s two-hundred-acre farm. Lanham writes with lyric precision about all the creatures that populated his Home Place, but he has a particular affinity for birds. Lanham carried his love of birds into his professional life as a wildlife ecologist. Yet as a Black man in America, his mere physical presence in wild spaces entails risk. In his fieldwork in the South, Lanham has harrowing encounters and works with a visceral knowledge of the racial violence lurking in the loblolly pines. Still, it is in moments alone with birds that he feels most at home: “Not a single cardinal or ovenbird has ever paused in dawnsong declaration to ask the reason for my being.” Lanham’s work is an essential addition to American nature writing.

Emily Contois, Chapman Assistant Professor of Media Studies, The University of Tulsa

Recommendation: “Food in the Time of COVID-19” (Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies 20:3, August 2020)

Woman in mask sits in an empty restaurant. Food in the time of COVID-19

In March 2020 as lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, restaurant closures, and grocery (and toilet paper) hoarding took place in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, Gastronomica’s editors issued a call, not for papers but for dispatches on food in the time of COVID-19. Brought to press rapidly and nimbly, the issue features 59 contributions from authors around the globe, as well as recipes and photographs, each providing a unique snapshot of food and eating during the earlier months of the pandemic. Lightly referenced but heavily considered, the essays seamlessly merge theory and practice, academic insights and self-reflexivity, analysis and storytelling, deep thinking and daily life. The issue makes for insightful reading today and will provide invaluable historical evidence in the future.

Nan Enstad, Buttel-Sewell Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology and Director of the Food Studies Network, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recommendation: Migrant Citizenship: Race, Rights, and Reform in the U.S. Farm Labor Camp Program by Verónica Martínez-Matsuda (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

I thought I knew the history of farmworkers in the United States, but then I read Verónica Martínez-Matsuda’s surprising and urgent book Migrant Citizenship: Race, Rights, and Reform in the U.S. Farm Labor Camp Program. From 1935 to 1946, the U.S. Farm Security Administration opened over one hundred farm labor camps that supplied migrant families with housing, medical care, schooling, food, and a self-governing structure. Farmworkers, mixed in race and formal citizenship status, embraced participatory democracy. Challenging jurisdictional definitions of citizenship, they demanded rights to housing, health care, and a collective voice. Why is this so startling? In those same years, Congress excluded farmworkers from New Deal welfare programs and labor laws to preserve white supremacy. Martínez-Matsuda shows that thousands of migrants and their allies nevertheless successfully gained living conditions and rights that would be fantastic wins today. We need to know how they did it.

Addie Hopes, Teaching Assistant at University of Wisconsin–Madison and Managing Editor of Edge Effects

Recommendation: “Coming of Age at the End of the World” by Sarah Jaquette Ray (in Affective Ecocriticism, University of Nebraska Press, 2018)

This recommendation breaks with the standard Faculty Favorites format in two ways. First, it’s written by a graduate student. And second, it’s concerned not with the texts that faculty members might teach this semester but with what might be an even more pressing question: how do we in higher education—graduate students, adjuncts, contingent and tenured faculty members—teach undergraduate students at all during this uncertain COVID-19 semester? In the midst of a global pandemic and political upheaval, how can the classroom make space for the grief, anxiety, and exhaustion so many students are experiencing? What kinds of trauma-informed teaching can we center in environmental studies classrooms? We often ask students to study harrowing information about environmental crises and to confront the violences of environmental racism, settler colonialism, and climate injustice. How do we help students come to understand their complicity in these deep structural problems without losing them to despair and, importantly, without re-traumatizing students who know the effects of these violences all too well—especially now, when tensions are high, nerves are frayed, and so many us still aren’t sure how to create classroom communities through Zoom?

One place to turn is Sarah Jaquette Ray’s essay “Coming of Age at the End of the World,” which is not specifically about trauma-informed pedagogy but can offer a place to start. In her critique of teaching with an uncritical “arc of hope” that relieves students of the pain that learning can cause, Ray argues that “anguish, discomfort, shame, guilt, and even apathy are all productive affects for decolonizing environmental studies”—as long as these affects come, too, with what Ray calls “critical hope” that empowers students to chart messy and collaborative paths toward change. Teachers aren’t therapists, of course. But these are times that call for flexibility, generosity, and care for students as people that contain multitudesnegative feelings and all.

Featured image: Statue of a person reading, wearing a medical mask. Photo from Pikist.