Faculty Favorites: Books for a Return to Campus

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite 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. In the midst of another COVID-19 surge, this is no ordinary semester. As colleges and universities throughout the U.S. resume face-to-face instruction, we asked contributors to recommend readings that will inspire, challenge, and offer refuge for the return to campus this fall.

We hope that these books offer rich material for your to-read list. For more reading suggestions, you can browse our full archive of recommendations.

Stacey Balkan, Assistant Professor, English & Environmental Humanities, Florida Atlantic University

Recommendation: Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes (Verso, 2019)

As the U.S. continues to see a rise in direct action protests from across the political spectrum, the return to campus this fall presents a unique opportunity to reflect upon the nation’s centuries-long history of political resistance. It is in this spirit that I am excited to include Nick Estes’s Our History is the Future in my Literature and Social Movements class. The book charts a history of Indigenous struggle taking the #NoDAPL movement as its point of departure (in fact centering the battle between the Oceti Sakowin peoples and the DAPL project) and making clear that “Indigenous resistance is not a one-time event”—that it must be understood as the “amplified presence of Indigenous life and just relations with human and nonhuman relatives, and with the earth.” As Estes clarifies through discussions of land seizures from Wounded Knee to Standing Rock, battles over land use between Europeans and Indigenous communities have long hinged on divergent understandings of the land itself: as a commodity subject to market speculation or as an ecological commons. The book issues a clarion call to both recognize the urgency of teaching such histories and to reconsider our cultural relationship to the oft-mythologized landscapes that, for many, are sites of historical trauma, environmental devastation, and Indigenous dispossession.

Courtney M. Cox, Assistant Professor, Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies, University of Oregon

Recommendation: The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes (Simon & Schuster/Saga Press, 2019)

In a moment marked by constant disruption, isolation, and loss, fiction has returned to my regular rotation as a form of escape, of refuge. In picking up Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, I was instantly immersed in a world murky with memory. The novella, inspired by a song of the same title by experimental hip-hop group clipping., centers on underwater peoples—the wajinru—borne of pregnant enslaved women thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. Many generations later, they battle not only forgetting the past but for their collective future, facing humans who “will not stop until we are extinct. Like salmon, like the mighty hammerhead, monk seals, various sea turtles, fin whales, and so many others.” This Afrofuturistic book might be labeled fantasy, but its key themes—loss of habitat, collective trauma, and the need to remember and recall one’s history accurately—feel so much more like reality on the page.

Marcus Cederström, Community Curator of Nordic American Folklore, Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic+, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recommendation: Inari Sámi Folklore: Stories from Aanaar by August V. Koskimies and Toivo I. Itkonen; revised by Lea Laitinen; edited and translated by Tim Frandy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019)

A fire burns inside a teepee in the snow. Northern lights in the background

First published in 1918, this collection of Aanaar Sámi folktales, legends, joik, and other oral forms of Inari Sámi folklore, translated by Tim Frandy, is the first anthology of Sámi stories to ever be published in English. Frandy provides the reader with biographies of the storytellers, a glossary of terms, and, perhaps most important, heavily researched and well-written annotations that contextualize and explain the richness of Inari Sámi folklore. Especially relevant today, I gravitate to the Čuđit tales featuring legends of Sámi people outsmarting their invaders and using their knowledge of the environment to their advantage as they resist various forms of attack. We see in these stories how traditional knowledge is portrayed as a strength, a tool to be wielded for protection. Frandy writes, “At heart stories that depict the violence of colonialism and its threat to shared Sámi values and communities, Čuđit stories resonate deeply even today.” By making clear the connections between oral folklore and Indigenous rights, decolonization, and the sustainability of environment, language, and culture, Frandy’s translations and annotations help us better understand the important role of traditional knowledge in decolonization efforts.

Sarah D. Wald, Associate Professor, Environmental Studies and English, University of Oregon

Recommedation: The Smell of Risk: Environmental Disparities and Olfactory Aesthetics by Hsuan L. Hsu (NYU Press, 2020)

What does environmental justice smell like? How do we think about the trans-corporeal qualities of smelly (or not-so-smelly) toxins alongside the racialized deodorization efforts of settler aesthetics? As Hsuan L. Hsu contends, odor and its aesthetics structure colonial relations and racialize environmental risk. He describes efforts to manage and mitigate smells and their risks as “air conditioning.” In one chapter, Hsu shows how novelists take up smell to expose racialized health disparities. In another, he theorizes the term “atmo-orientalism” as a discourse that associates Asiatic subjects with noxious atmospheres. From his discussion of naturalist novels to his analysis of the fragrance-free movement, Hsu helps us appreciate scent as he interrogates its roles in producing racial meanings, reinforcing settler colonialism, and redressing environmental harms.  

George Handley, Professor, Comparative Arts & Letters, Brigham Young University

Recommendation: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974; HarperCollins, 2013)

The American West is burning as I write and COVID-19 is on its fourth large wave. These are troubling times that seem to have shattered trust in more coherent cosmologies and rendered hope an endangered species. 2021 feels more like a Greek tragedy, with competing gods and no one apparently in charge, and less like the trustworthy providence implied by the book of Genesis. I think this is a good reason to return this semester to the classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Long admired for the beauty of her prose, Dillard is also a brilliant theologian who understands that you can’t cheat your way to God and to hope. She forces her reader to confront the ugliest and darkest aspects of the natural world so that you can then learn to see and more deeply appreciate that momentary sparkle of divine light in the wrinkles and folds of this world. She teaches us the indispensable skills to haunt and stalk and brood so that we don’t miss those flashes of illumination that provide the grounds for hope in dark times.

Isaac Land, Professor, History, Indiana State University

Recommendation: Ireland, Literature, and the Coast: Seatangled by Nicholas Allen (Oxford University Press, 2020)

This absorbing monograph explores how Irish authors struggling with overly rigid nationalist or sectarian ideologies found a way to dissolve the impasse through reflections on water. Envisioning Ireland as an island both porous and permeated, lapped by waves of distant origin, suggested creative alternatives in both politics and culture. The poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s meditations on the soggy and brackish nodded to an escape route even from the overdetermined space of transnational and oceanic history: “An intimate coastline. / No pounding historical waves . . .” While Allen includes memorable chapters on W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney, he also introduces a host of fascinating, less familiar, figures. A standout for me was the novelist Ciaran Carson’s descriptions of Belfast’s port infrastructure in his 1998 novel The Star Factory. Rusting, crumbling postindustrial zones are coastal too.

Sarah Gold McBride, Lecturer, Program in American Studies, UC Berkeley

Recommendation: Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora by Kevin Dawson (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)

As many of us return to campus this fall for the first time in seventeen months, I am more eager than ever to turn the lecture hall into a discussion space and to focus on stories, ideas, and texts that students can really connect to. I am teaching a new undergraduate course on beaches in American culture this semester, and since almost all of my students are born-and-raised Californians (as am I!), they bring to the classroom a lot of experience with and feelings about the beach. My goal is to weave together students’ identities as beachgoers with their identities as scholars-in-training through material that feels familiar yet also new. Perhaps no book on my reading list does this better than Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power. In this book, Dawson offers a fresh perspective on early U.S. and Atlantic history, inviting the reader to place waterways at the center—not the periphery—of their examination of slavery and the African diaspora. In doing so, Dawson’s book flips the script on the land-based study of history and culture familiar to most undergraduates. My hope is that this new perspective will serve as a springboard for students to bring their own cultural knowledge of and experience with water into our conversations. Plus, since so many of my students are surfers (or at least familiar with surfing), I am excited to see how Dawson’s study of early surfing will make the nineteenth century feel alive and relevant in a way they might not expect.

Featured image: Apples and leaves on an open hardcover book by congerdesign on Pixabay