The Year in Review, 2019-2020

Dear friends of Oecologies:

As my last task as Outgoing Director, I want to report on the group’s happenings and to get you excited about what we’re planning for the upcoming academic year. The year-in-review is, in my experience, never an easy genre in which to write. And it is one I rarely enjoy reading. How do I strike the right tone? How do I fondly recall past gatherings and individual successes without humble-bragging? How do we attract new friends of Oecologies? Perhaps more to the point for this year, what is there to say in an annual roundup of 2019-20 that is not trite, over-sentimental, and akin to a sound-byte?

Running such risks, this is what I will say: Oecologies has transformed itself over the course of the last year. The changes hearten me greatly; they have not always been easy to make happen; and they are a work-in-progress, so please join us as we steer Oecologies in the next decade. In the meantime, let me show you what’s new with us.

In solidarity with BLM and BIPOC academics whose scholarship, historically, isn’t cited or acknowledged, we reimagined our bimonthly reading group. Under the care and guidance of Mo Pareles, we now read this work, with the hope that we will engage it in our ecocritical projects in medieval and early modern studies. Our first reading group for the year will take place, virtually, on 2 October 2020 at 10:00 AM PST. It contributes to the “Earth, Sea, Sky” project that flies under the Oecologies banner. Our readings will concern the sea and early modern maritime cultures; they will include writings by Renisa Mawani (Sociology, UBC), Helen M. Rozwadowski (History, University of Connecticut), and Surabhi Ranganathan (International Law, King’s College). If you interested in this event, please email me for further details. We expect such reading-group programming to continue through 2021, so stay tuned for a full schedule.

In response to the global pandemic, Oecologies will host a virtual event, “In the Wake,” which will be held on Zoom on 23 October 2020 from 1:00-2:30 PM PST. This moderated conversation is the brainchild of my Oecologies colleagues, David Coley (Simon Fraser University), the prize-winning author of a recent book on plague in medieval literature, and Derrick Higginbotham (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa). It will feature Urvashi Chakravarty (English, Toronto), Gabriel Rocha (History, Brown), Rebecca Totaro (English, Florida Gulf Coast University), and Elaine Treharne (English, Stanford). Here is the event’s formal description:

Speakers will take as their stepping-off point our contemporary social and cultural moment, one in which the sudden cataclysm of a global pandemic seems to be catalyzing a series of social, cultural, political, and economic changes that would have been difficult to imagine a year ago. This paradigm—of response, recovery, and perhaps re-creation in the wake of pandemic—resonates with similar moments of social change in the medieval and early modern world, where change, progressive and/or reactionary, has followed plague, war, natural disaster, and human-made political catastrophe. The virtual symposium will consider what our study of such moments in the past might reveal about our present and, conversely, what our current moment of turmoil might suggest about similar crises in the past? 

Details about this event will be advertised on social media soon by Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC PhD), our new influencer.

In mentioning my colleagues David Coley and Derrick Higginbotham, I allude to a change in governance that Oecologies has just formalized. David and Derrick are now the group’s co-directors: David will serve for one more year, and Derrick for two. As of this writing, in other words, I am no longer co-supervising the operations of the group I co-founded in 2012 with Tiffany Jo Werth and colleagues at UBC and SFU. Cue the sentiments. 

First, excitement. I can think of no two better folk to be running Oecologies than David and Derrick. Smart, progressive and forward-thinking, responsible: all come to mind when I think of words to describe them. And they won’t be fine-tuning a new vision for Oecologies alone. Joining them as members of the Oecologies Advisory Council are Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Courtney Barajas (Whitworth), Sharon O’Dair (Alabama), Noah Guynn (UC Davis), Leila Kate Norako (University of Washington), and Kenna Olsen (Mt. Royal University), as well as graduate representatives Breanne Weber (UC Davis PhD), Scott Russell (SFU PhD) and Kirsten Schuhmacher (UC Davis PhD). I am eager for the programming, including blog posts, reading groups, and further virtual events, that this team will put together as the pandemic continues to modify how scholars share their research and socialize. To get a sense of what could happen, check out the range of events recorded in “2019-2020 Season” on our website.

Second, elegy. Rotating off the Oecologies council with me are dear friends and long-time collaborators Frances E. Dolan (UC Davis), Louisa Mackenzie (UW), and Mo Pareles (UBC), as well as graduate representatives and students extraordinaire Alexander Cosh (UBC PhD) and Karol Pasciano (UBC MA 2020!). I have immense gratitude for their heroic efforts in solidifying a foundation upon which Oecologies will continue to thrive and for having had to the opportunity to play, seriously and joyously, with them (and all the other Oecologists, especially Tiffany Jo Werth, Patricia Badir, and Robert Rouse) during the last several years. 

This year, more difficult than writing a year-in-review is perhaps figuring out how to sign-off on any communication. What to say? Stay well, be kind to yourselves, your colleagues, and your students, and I hope to “see” you soon.

Vin Nardizzi
University of British Columbia

Oe in the Classroom

Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

It is syllabus season. About to start a staycation, I find myself fretting (and blogging) because I have not yet determined the order of readings for the two new courses that the English Department at the University of British Columbia will launch this year as part of its revamped curriculum. ENGL 244 is called “Environment and Literature” and is designed for second-year (or sophomore) students. ENGL 393 is a special topics class in “Ecocriticism” addressed to third- and fourth-year (junior and senior) students. It is exciting – finally– to have dedicated courses in these fields. Colleagues and I no longer have to repurpose old course shells to suit new disciplinary expertise and to meet student demand. I know that delivering new courses (content, assignments, and my unfamiliarity teaching some of the content) will prove terrifying, electrifying, and exhausting, by turn. In addition to such typical affects, I am also dreading being depressed by some of the materials in this course, especially those that concern the present and futures of climate emergency. My goal for the year will be to make this affective mix legible in the classroom and so (hopefully) also pedagogically generative. I begin to teach ENGL 244 in a month’s time. It is about “Unreal Environments in the Renaissance.” I will blog again about what did and didn’t work in the course. I will share my outline and course assignments on the Oecologies webpage (once they’re completed!).

As part of its recent relaunch, Oecologies has also focused its energies on thinking about pedagogy. At our upcoming symposium on “Earth” at the University of Oxford we will convene a workshop on the Environmental Humanities job market. A recap of that event will appear in our October blog. We have also asked Oecologies members to share with us information about the courses they’re offering. The range of these courses is inspiring. I include here course names and thumb-nail descriptions. Our hope is that some more detailed information about these undergraduate and graduate courses will be housed on our website. In the meantime, if you have questions, feel free to drop the instructor of record an email.

Dr. Juliet O’Brien (UBC): “Animal Reading” 

What does it mean to be an animal? To be a human? And what does reading have to do with anything?

Animal studies and the environmental humanities are ideas that are increasingly familiar to 21st-century readers; viewed here through the lens of some of the finest and most intriguing literary works from the premodern Romance world, with important interactions with other literatures around the whole world and influences on them, and spanning a range of forms: from short poems to encyclopaedias, from fables to bestiaries, from saints’ miracles to dramatic multimedia satires.

What, where, and when is this “Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern” of the course title? We’ll be in places where the linguistic relatives of today’s Catalan, French, Italian, Occitan, Portuguese, and Spanish are used; our two set texts are from the 12th and the 16th centuries CE, but we’ll be talking about manuscript and multimedia cultures from the 6th century onwards … and before and after, from an “in the middle” in the sense of not being in the beginning nor in End Times … and elsewhere: potentially adventuring anywhere in a Global Middle Ages, depending on where students’ interests take us.

We will start small: listening to a frog in a 12th-century Troubadour poem in Old Occitan by Marcabru, “Bel m’es quan la rana chanta.” We will revisit this frog at the end of the course, to see how our readings have changed along the way, and how we have changed through them.

Our two set / required texts in the main body of the course are originally in 12th- and 16th-century French; through them, we will meet animals in associated works from France, Italy, and Spain (and other areas where Romance vernaculars are spoken, in a multilingual world; our 12th-c. set text, for example, is from England). There will be reading about animals, of animals, and physically on animals (through online digitised manuscripts and books in the library); shape-shifting; animals reading (and speaking, interacting, and otherwise showing evidence of sentience and thinking); and reading humans as animals (via Montaigne). Along the way, readings and student presentations may converse with—for example—wolves, dogs, foxes, bears, birds, bees, donkeys, horses, deer, cats, squirrels, rabbits, snails, unicorns, hedgehogs, lions, chickens, sheep, fish, whales, otters, beavers (and of course frogs).

All texts will be worked on in English translation, though students will have the option, if they wish, of using versions in the original (or a modernized variant) in their final projects.

Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (UC-Davis): “Allegory, the Unthinkable, and the More-than-Human in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596) and Amoretti

Modern readers might think of Edmund Spenser as the author of one of England’s longest poems writ, as Ben Jonson quipped, in “no language.” An unfinished work, it praises Queen Elizabeth I, memorialized as Gloriana, Belphoebe, Cynthia, or the “Faerie Queene.” Yet while the poem seemingly shadows this human monarch, she barely appears and its world teems with what cultural geographer Sarah Whatmore terms more-than-human life: a “clownishe” and elfin knight, a mournful tree, an unfriendly dragon, false avatars, a crafty shape-shifting hermit, a resourceful dwarf, an iron man, gender-bending heroines, giants and a blatant beast, within an interwoven plot that tells of two rivers in love, a sea deity who sulks, graces and angels who disappear, self-guided lances, a headstrong horse and a happy human-cum-hog. This course explores the limits of literary modes such as allegory, the poetics of lyric, and the long form of the early modern romance alongside questions that stretch the meaning of “human.” Together, we will analyze Spenser’s “worlding” that anticipates many recent posthumanist theories (ecofeminism, the Chthulucene, game theory, geontologies, and other unthinkables).

Dr. Elizabeth E. Tavares (Pacific University Oregon): “Estrangéd Woods; or, Theatre and the Environment”

To survey fundamentals of genre, dramaturgy, and theatre studies criticism, this course explores the ways in which performance constitutes an environmental act. Organized into three units is a schedule of plays and other readings from a range of periods and perspectives. Some of these plays take place in nature, some are explicitly about ecology, and in some the environment becomes a political agent. To consider the spatial and material aspects of theatre, the class will attend a professional production in Portland (Macbeth), on campus (Orlando), and then students will have the opportunity to seek out and review a performance of their choosing. By developing a series of three interlocking essays that culminate in a final portfolio, students will have the opportunity to analyze a particular dramatic oeuvre and employ a specific theoretical lens as a means to interrogate the relationship between dramatic form and our environment.

Dr. Noëlle Phillips (Douglas College): “Being Bad in the Middle Ages: The 7 Deadly Sins”

Sin. This is an ugly and historically powerful word. Ideas of sin and salvation shaped the medieval Western European worldview. The hierarchy of the seven deadly sins – those sins which would endanger one’s soul  – was therefore a commonly recurring theme in medieval literature, philosophy, and theology. However, everyone knows that sin is not simply deadly; it can also be fun. The very significance and intensity of the seven deadly sins meant that they had the attraction of the taboo.

In this course, students will read a range of medieval and Renaissance texts that take a variety of approaches to the seven deadly sins: intellectual, literary, theological, dirty, funny, fearful, and artistic, to name a few. We will find out what lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, and pride looked like 500-1000 years ago – and discuss what they look like today.

Dr. Mo Pareles (UBC): “Medieval Humans and Beasts”

As Cary Wolfe observed in 2003, regarding animals as moral nonentities is the epistemological requirement for reducing human others to animal status. Much medieval cultural production seems to rebuke humanist narcissism: in premodern literature we see hybrid human-animal saints, birdsong drowning out human speech, and wild predators as moral actors. But other literature—for instance, Middle English devotional poetry in which the child Jesus gleefully turns Jews into pigs—demonstrates that medieval authors were also well-versed in species denigration as a racial, religious, and sexual cudgel.

This graduate medieval studies seminar examines the boundary between humans and beasts, interrogating how racial, sexual, and other forms of difference overlap with human-animal difference in medieval literature and culture. We will also consider when and how questions of sovereignty and subordination, linguistic difference, disability, childhood, and queerness become affiliated with the bestial, and how both violence and eroticism use the beast as figure and alibi. Also of concern to us will be the relationship between animal studies and medieval studies, and the place of medieval animal studies vis-à-vis ecocriticism, critical race theory and decolonial studies, and other potentially overlapping disciplines.

Primary texts may include Old English riddles, the alliterative Middle English Siege of Jerusalem, the Early South English Legendary, Marie de France’s Bisclavret, Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland, Marco Polo’s Description of the World, hunting manuals, and homoerotic love poetry. Theoretical texts will include work by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mel Y. Chen, Bénédicte Boisseron, Karl Steel, Peggy McCracken, Kari Weil, and Tavia Nyong’o.

In a way, establishing Oe as a pedagogical resource is not an entirely new initiative. Our website, for example, features a list of scholarly books and collections that we update yearly. Please share it with your students and use it in your own research. We are in the midst of an update, so if you notice a volume or special issue that should be listed there (and isn’t yet), then please let us know. We’ll make sure that it is.

In the meantime, happy syllabus-crafting!

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