Faculty Favorites: What to Read (and Teach) in the Environmental Humanities Now

Collage of book covers for Faculty Favorites. Decoration only.

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 are most excited to teach in the weeks ahead. This spring’s list features collaborative, creative, and genre-bending texts that chart new directions for the environmental humanities. We hope you enjoy the recommendations below.

For more reading suggestions, peruse the rest of our recommendations.

April Anson, Assistant Professor, Classics and Humanities, San Diego State University

Course: HUM 409: “The Future”

Recommendation: M Archive: After the End of the World by Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Duke University Press, 2018)

M Archive is strange, gorgeous, and frustrating. It is, too, one of the most provocative works of environmental fiction that I have ever read or taught. In poetic prose thick with theoretical layers, this Black Feminist speculative documentary is told from the perspective of a researcher living in an unspecified future who reads from the “Lab Notebooks of the Last Experiments,” surveys archives of dirt, sky, fire, and ocean, and offers possible futures yet to be woven from baskets of no, baskets of yes, and a Memory Drive. The book is genre-defying and electric with insight. It prompts students and me into a rich struggle with expectations of linear plot, unmooring tropes so common that they feel like truth. M Archive offers no solace or simple reprieve, but its profound complexity holds something for everyone. It provokes an astonishing array of student responses and vital discussions about not-knowing, offering an entry point into the often intimidating concepts of ontology and epistemology. In all, M Archive performs, rather than preaches, the centrality of racial justice concerns to questions of environmental futurity.

Devin Garofalo, Assistant Professor, English, University of North Texas

Course: Introduction to Literary Studies: “Reading for the Present” / Literature and Environment: “Climate Monsters”

Recommendation: Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity asks and answers a pressing question: “How might our response to physical and political impurity be connected?” Environmental humanists have traced the origins of the Anthropocene epoch to various “golden spikes” or historical markers. Shotwell draws our attention instead to a particular ethos: namely, the idea “that we have lost a natural state of purity” and “that purity is something we ought to pursue and defend,” that “we can access or recover a time and state before or without pollution.” Against this purity politics (in all of its “preracial” fantasy—its aspiration to expunge the histories and legacies of slavery, genocide, and extraction—and its obfuscatory obsession with individual hypocrisy), Shotwell sketches an ethos of impurity, entanglement, and collectivity in exposure.  

What I find most compelling about Against Purity is Shotwell’s argument that “complexity and complicity is the constitutive situation of our lives.” Whereas an ethos of purity fetishizes individual agency, erases human difference (including the uneven distribution of exposure and responsibility), and obscures how broader structures of power condition (and often preclude) individual choice or action, an ethos of impurity organizes itself around the idea of “adequate abundance”—of a world just enough and nothing more, of collective (which is to say necessarily finite) flourishing. “All there is, while things perpetually fall apart, is the possibility of acting from where we are”: students in my Fall 2020 “Climate Monsters” course found this claim especially galvanizing. I am looking forward to teaching Shotwell’s Against Purity again this spring. 

Anne Pasek, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Media, Culture, and the Environment, Trent University

Course: Media Studies 1535: Intro to Media

Recommendation: Anatomy of an AI System by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler (AI Now Institute and Share Lab, 2018)

For those looking to sneak some environmental content into a media studies class—or to find a way of engaging students who aren’t yet adherents to the academic monograph—I warmly recommend this beautiful set of 21 short texts and images. Together they compose an expanded map of the material, labor, and digital processes that lie behind Amazon Alexa, pulling students across vast scales of history and geography to better understand the development and implications of a seemingly innocuous household device. As students work through the project, they’ll circle around several definitions of extractivism in resource mining, labor exploitation, and data capitalism, drawing uncommon connections across these fields. It’s a great example of public scholarship that works across multiple registers of thought, sensation, and relation.

Thom Davies, Assistant Professor, Geography, University of Nottingham 

Course: GEOG 4090: “People and the Environment”

Recommendation: A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None by Kathryn Yusoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

I run a module for graduate students at the University of Nottingham with the impossibly expansive title of “People and the Environment.” With a title like that, where do I even start? Kathryn Yusoff’s short but expansive book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None is a great place to start and always leads to some interesting discussions. It’s a useful text to work through in order to grapple with the role that race and racism play in shaping the environment past, present, and future. It’s also a useful antidote to the racial blindness of much writing on the Anthropocene—not least the decaffeinated and deracialized versions of the Plantationocene offered by some notable scholars in the humanities. I often pair it with a stellar chapter by Leon Sealey-Huggins on structural racism, inequality, and climate change, where he draws upon his climate justice research in the Caribbean to challenge the flattening universalism that still clings to less critical imaginations of global climate catastrophe. Both texts speak to the ongoingness of colonialism and the toxic legacies of imperialism that define our broken epoch—however you want to define it.

Sarah Ensor, Assistant Professor, English, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Course: ENG 825: Queer Ecologies

Recommendation: Advantages of Being Evergreen by Oliver Baez Bendorf (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2019)

In a time when it feels ever more pressing to learn to read socioecological damage (as queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would have it) reparatively, I can think of no better guide than Oliver Baez Bendorf’s Advantages of Being Evergreen. In poems that take the forms of rituals and spells, prayers and incantations-poems that trace the ways in which a body can be both strange and familiar to itself, that model what it means to open ourselves to ourselves and each otherBendorf offers “a hand-drawn map / up the mountain,” composing a “Field Guide” to what, individually and collectively, we may yet become. Tenderly detailing processes of environmental and corporeal transformation while also remaining unafraid to linger with what remainsscars and fossils and ghosts, what he has kept and what has kept himBendorf assembles not only a collection of poems but also a path forward, through, and, as that hand-drawn map suggests, up.

Andrew Watson, Assistant Professor, History, University of Saskatchewan 

Course: ENVS 201: Foundations of Sustainability 

Recommendations: Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso (University of New Mexico Press, 1996) & Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed, 2013) 

The foundations of sustainability are interdisciplinary. I’m an historian and I co-teach this course with a biogeochemist. Our students come from a variety of programs across the university, from natural resource management to philosophy. Starting the course off in a good way requires that all of us acknowledge our epistemological baggage—there are many ways of knowing that will help us imagine and build a more sustainable society. A meaningful way of doing this is to introduce our settler students to Indigenous ways of knowing. We assign chapter 2 of Basso’s book (“Stalking with Stories”) to remind students of the importance of place. As Basso and his Apache teacher Nick Thompson tell us, the stories people tell one another about familiar places in the landscape connect them to their communities and help them to reflect on their values. Trying to reconcile Indigenous and Western worldviews is a useful exercise in interdisciplinary thinking. Students read Kimmerer’s chapter on “The Three Sisters” to consider two different, yet complementary, ways of understanding the synergy of cultivating maize, beans, and squash together. Both of these books encourage students to recognize that the foundations of sustainability are found in learning multiple ways of knowing.

Rebecca Oh, Visiting Assistant Professor, English, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Course: ENGL 475: “Imagining the End Times: Science, Fiction, and Climate Change”

Recommendation: An Ecotopian Lexicon, edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)

An Ecotopian Lexicon is a fabulous book to think with and to teach. As we become increasingly aware that environmental apocalypses have “already arrived” in the form of the Anthropocene, petromodernity, megaslums, and the sixth extinction, it is easy to drown in pessimism. An Ecotopian Lexicon resists this impulse, instead offering an invigorating array of “loanwords to live with.” To remake the world, we must first be able to imagine it differently, and this is precisely the Lexicon’s task. Its loanwords, offered in accessible, vivid, and tightly researched essays, illuminate the utility of language, imagination, and the humanities for the serious work of environmental justice. Drawing on neologisms as well as non-Western epistemological and ethical standpoints, each entry is a provocation to think deeply with existing problems, including individualism, consumption, and loss, and then to think beyond them. As valuable as the content of the essays, though, is the Lexicon’s collective form. It shows us how creative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary work can move us toward the commitments we share and toward a more sustainable and just future.

Featured image: Collage of featured book covers, 2021.