Environmental Literature, Film, & Culture course: Spring 2018

This coming spring, I am scheduled to teach an upper-level class called “The Literary Experience of Nature.” I hate this title and take issue with every significant word in it, but I’m excited about the class. I prefer to think of the class as Environmental Literature, Film, & Culture instead. I haven’t entirely decided what I’m doing with it yet, but I created a poster to put up around the building that will hopefully draw some students.

ENGL 300 poster-page-0


Gender + Environment in Science Fiction (revised CFP with extended deadline)

Building on our previously posted CFP, we are inviting contributions focusing not only on non-print SF media and expanding our project to include any form of science fiction. We believe this will lead to a stronger and more inclusive examination of gender and environment within the genre.

CFP: Gender & Environment in Science Fiction (edited collection)

There are many important studies of gender in science fiction and a growing number of studies of environmental science fiction, but more work is needed to bring these fields together. We wish to fill this gap and invite contributions exploring the intersections of gender and environment in science fiction.

The central question of this project is as follows: How do gender and environment intersect and/or influence each other in or across science fiction texts and media? Projects might also address the following questions: How do varying media forms influence representations of gender and environment in science fiction? How might examining gender and environment together influence ideas about or definitions of science fiction as a genre? How do the language and/or imagery of science fiction contribute to our conceptions of gender and environment?

We have previously solicited essays focusing primarily on non-print science fiction, but we are now interested in expanding the project’s scope to include print science fiction as well. At this point, therefore, we invite abstracts addressing the intersections of gender and environment in any science fiction text or media.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words and a brief CV to Christy Tidwell (christy.tidwell@gmail.com) and/or Bridgitte Barclay (bbarclay@aurora.edu) by October 1, 2016. We have been strongly encouraged by the editor of the Ecocritical Theory and Practice series, published by Rowman & Littlefield’s imprint Lexington Books, to submit a proposal. For those asked to contribute, we anticipate completed essays of approximately 15-18 pages will be due by April 1, 2017.

Movies of July

Because it’s summer, I have a lot more time at home to spend on both leisure and research. This means I have watched a lot of movies in the last month. Most of them (21 out of 30) are directly related to some part of my work, too, which makes me feel more productive than not. Here’s a quick overview of what I watched in July, followed by a few thoughts on my favorites.

  1. Advantageous, dir. Jennifer Phang (2015) – 4 stars
  2. La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker (1962) – 5 stars
  3. The Inbetweeners Movie, dir. Ben Palmer (2011) – 3 stars
  4. Filth, dir. Jon S. Baird (2013) – 4 stars
  5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920) – 4 stars
  6. Black Sunday, dir. Mario Bava (1960) – 2 stars
  7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Philip Kaufman (1978) – 4 stars
  8. The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973) – 5 stars
  9. Kuroneko, dir. Kaneto Shindo (1968) – 4 stars
  10. Picnic at Hanging Rock, dir. Peter Weir (1979) – 4 stars
  11. Daisies [Sedmikrásky], dir. Vera Chytilová (1966) – 5 stars
  12. Alan Partridge, dir. Declan Lowney (2013) – 4 stars
  13. A Nightmare on Elm Street, dir. Wes Craven (1984) – 3 stars
  14. Inferno, dir. Dario Argento (1980) – 2 stars
  15. Creep, dir. Patrick Brice (2014) – 4 stars
  16. Hatchet for the Honeymoon, dir. Mario Bava (1970) – 3 stars
  17. It Follows, dir. David Robert Mitchell (2015) – 5 stars
  18. Tig, dir. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York (2015) – 4 stars
  19. Chasing Ice, dir. Jeff Orlowski (2012) – 5 stars
  20. Food, Inc., dir. Robert Kenner (2008) – 4 stars
  21. Mission Blue, dir. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens (2014) – 4 stars
  22. The Conformist, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci (1970) – 4 stars
  23. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, dir. George Miller (1981) – 4 stars
  24. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, dir. George Miller and George Ogilvie (1985) – 2 stars
  25. Eugene Mirman: Vegan On His Way to the Complain Store, dir. Bobcat Goldthwait (2015) – 4 stars
  26. Thirst, dir. Chan-wook Park (2009) – 4 stars
  27. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper (1974) – 4 stars
  28. Pontypool, dir. Bruce McDonald (2008) – 4 stars
  29. Jug Face, dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle (2013) – 3 stars
  30. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (2013) – 2 stars

la jetee poster

La Jetée, directed by Chris Marker, is a short film told in a series of still photographs rather than moving images. It’s a story of apocalypse and time travel and love. It is gorgeous.

This movie would be an interesting challenge to teach. Students might find it difficult to get into because of the experimental visual style – it’s just not what they’re used to – but because it’s short and apocalyptic, I think they could find a way into the story. I imagine we might have interesting conversations about the way the use of still photographs challenges us as viewers and what the use of this technique, instead of the moving pictures we’re used to, reveals about the way we watch film. What do we gain from the gaps between images? What do we lose?

Finally, and this is a bit of a spoiler if you intend to watch this film and don’t know anything about it already, La Jetée was a major influence on the 1995 film 12 Monkeys (which I love). It is fascinating to see those connections here and having students compare the two films (short film versus feature film, black and white versus color, still photographs versus moving images, etc.) could be fun.

wicker man posterAnother favorite from this month was The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy (this is the 1973 version, not the 2006 Nicolas Cage movie). I loved pretty much everything about this movie. It has Christopher Lee, for a start, but more substantially, it is dark and complex and subtly creepy throughout. There’s something about 1970s horror that I love (I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) just before this and it worked for me, too) – something about its grittiness and uncertainty, I suppose.

My main issue with this movie is that – as I learned after watching what was available for purchase through Amazon Prime – there are multiple versions. The version I saw is apparently an edited version, missing an opening scene and an extended version of the naked dance scene (and perhaps with other changes as well). I desperately want to see the longer version, but I haven’t had any luck finding a copy of it (at a reasonable price, at least).

Daisies PosterI already posted about Daisies, directed by Vera Chytilová; at the time, I had trouble finding words for the movie and simply posted images. I find that I still don’t have much to say about it, however. The film’s effect was so much tied up in its visual humor and cleverness that I’m having trouble translating my reaction into English. I liked it so much that I definitely want to watch it again, however, and perhaps then I’ll be able to come up with something coherent to say about it. In the meantime, I highly recommend it.

The last two movies I loved this month are quite different – It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell, is a horror film about sex (to oversimplify it quite a bit); Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is a documentary about the disappearance of glaciers. They both, however, are about the way your actions (and their consequences) follow you – whether sex (in It Follows) or humans’ effects on the climate. Both are about a chase, both are visually stunning – and both scared the crap out of me. In It Follows, the fear is created through extremely effective uses of camerawork and sound. There is one scene in particular where the intensity of the score is increased very gradually and over such a long period of time that I almost had to pause the movie to breathe before I could continue. I held out and experienced the scene without having to stop, but it took real effort on my part because the score created such a strong feeling of anxiety in me. In Chasing Ice, the fear is less immediately visceral, less about the filmmaking, and much more real since the documentary tells the true story of what is happening to the planet and how little we can do to stop it.

It Follows movie posterChasingIcelarge

Climate Change Documentaries: Some Thoughts and a Request

I’m watching lots of movies this week – some for research and writing purposes, some for teaching, some just for fun. One film category that covers all three of these purposes to some degree is documentaries related to climate change. Most immediately, I am looking for something I could use in my composition course to get students thinking about climate change and climate change-related issues. I want them to end the fall semester by researching and writing about solutions to some element of climate change. What can they do – in their private lives, in their future jobs as scientists and engineers, or through political action – to create change? Ideally, the film I assign will help them see a) the reality and seriousness of the problem and b) some possible avenues for research. Ideally, I’d like to find a film that can help illustrate the interconnectedness of climate change and give students ideas about actions and policies that contribute to climate change that they could investigate. I want to help them break the problem down into more manageable pieces.


Yesterday I watched Chasing Ice (dir. Jeff Orlowski; 2012), Food, Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner; 2008), and Mission Blue (dir. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens; 2014). Of the three, Chasing Ice is the most promising – and I hear from multiple sources that it teaches well. It is a lovely film and illustrates the reality and seriousness of the problem clearly. I’m not sure it gets at the second set of goals I’ve described, however.

Food Inc poster

mission blue poster

I hoped that Food, Inc., might get at those interconnections a bit more (there are lots of possible proposals to be written about agricultural practices), but it spends less time on environmental issues related to food production than I hoped it would. Finally, I liked Mission Blue a lot, but I don’t think it’s my best choice. Through its focus on protecting the world’s oceans, the film illustrates the problem of human-caused environmental changes and it proposes a solution (hope spots), but I think it might be too focused on Sylvia Earle for my purposes in this class. She is seriously awesome, but this is at least as much biography of Earle as anything else, so maybe this isn’t the perfect film for the goals of the course.

Ultimately, it’s okay if the film I choose can’t achieve both of these goals at the same time. If I teach Chasing Ice, for instance, I can find other ways to illustrate the broad range of things that contribute to climate change and that they could then research and write about. One film doesn’t have to do everything. But the more it can do along those lines, the happier I’ll be with it.

So far, then, Chasing Ice is a distinct possibility, but I am still watching more films before the semester begins and I am open to suggestions. What documentaries about climate change might work in this context? What films teach well and are accessible to first-year college students, many of whom will likely be skeptical of environmentalism?

Moody Water: The Problem of Personification in Environmental Writing

Listening to public radio a couple of days ago, I heard Rupa Shenoy’s report on water for The World, which examines the drought in California and the snowstorms in New England and describes the impacts shifting weather patterns have on these regions. I was struck by the language Shenoy uses to describe these shifts and the relationships between water itself and the people affected by it. “Water might as well be a person,” she begins. “It has moods like a person: maybe a running brook when it’s happy; a gentle rain when it’s blue; a storm when it’s angry.” This personification runs throughout the piece: water actively comes and goes places; it “rejected California in favor of the northeast”; it needs to be “allowed to be itself.” Although Shenoy’s piece includes good information about both climate shifts and responses to it, her use of personification is troubling both in general and in the particular way this plays out in the piece.

Personification and anthropomorphism are powerful and potentially dangerous tools. They can be useful and can help create connections between us and the nonhuman entities or creatures we describe this way. Sometimes, personification and anthropomorphism help us see connections and similarities that already exist instead of continually separating ourselves from the nonhuman. But giving water emotions and ascribing intention to its movements is not one of these times. Doing so may not actually lead NPR listeners to think that water can feel and think for itself, but it may indirectly affect the way listeners think about our own role in these movements. Rationally, we may know that water doesn’t choose to abandon California for another region, but using the language of choice and agency may reinforce an emotional sense of the natural world’s agency that isn’t grounded in reality and weaken our sense of our own culpability in climate change. If water is doing this to us, after all, we’re only the victims.

Shenoy does acknowledge humanity’s role in this shift early in her piece:

Water was the powerful one in the relationship, and it hasn’t changed — we have. For the past few hundred years, we’ve asserted ourselves, interfering with the way water’s used to doing things by covering the ground with cement and pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

However, this commentary on humanity’s actions is overshadowed by the language she uses throughout. We have interfered, but it is water’s reaction to this – its movement, its betrayal and rejection – that is at the heart of the piece and that we must adapt to. And, actually, presented in summary, that still sounds not so bad. We do need to adapt to the world and to the logic of climate. But, again, the language presents an emotional narrative that complicates matters.

Shenoy’s use of personification goes even deeper than ascribing agency to water, however. She also presents humans and water as in a troubled relationship:

Field says water will continue to favor New England. And that might be fine for a while. But he says eventually the relationship will turn … unhealthy.

This bit of foreboding is then followed up with commentary on how “water isn’t going to change. So we have to.” In her conclusion, after describing some attempts in Boston to deal with their extra water, Shenoy says,

And when it rains, water’s allowed to be itself and follow its natural path. More alleys like this one might make the difference between a pleasant visit from water and a destructive one. After all, good relationships take work.

This narrative of the relationship between humanity and water sets up water as a problem partner, maybe even an abuser. Water won’t change, we are in an unhealthy relationship, but because we’re in a relationship (and “good relationships take work”), we must work and adapt to accommodate water. This is a confusing approach. Conjuring these images of bad relationships and power imbalances is misleading and prompts unhelpful responses.

If both partners were human and one partner betrayed the other, was moody and unpredictable, and refused to change, this relationship would be identifiable as abusive. That is not a sustainable situation, and allowing the betrayer to continue down this path, allowing that person “to be [him/her]self and follow [his/her] natural path,” would be dangerous. In that situation, the mantra that “good relationships take work” could become a defensive statement, one that hides the fact that abuse is occurring.

But this is a relationship between water and humanity, not between people, so the logic of human relationships doesn’t hold up – not only is it nonsensical to accuse water of abuse, there is no way to sever ties or leave this relationship. Again, therefore, the emotional language of the piece obscures the real issues and shifts responsibility – in perception, not in reality – to the water and away from us. The reality is that this relationship – as it currently stands – isn’t sustainable, but that is not the fault of water.

It’s so tempting to use emotional appeals and techniques like personification to describe environmental issues – they are important, so they should feel important – but this piece serves as a reminder of how crucial it is for us to be careful in the way we do so.