Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
This course, "The Literature of Environmental Disaster" looks at natural and anthropogenic environmental crises through the lens of comparative literature. A variety of text styles are brought in to reflect on this issue, ranging from plays (eg Endgame/Fin de Partie by Samuel Beckett) to novels (eg Animal's People by Indra Sinha) to journalistic exposés (eg The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert). Each week focuses on a particular topic of natural disaster. For example, Fall 2014 covered: Overview of Natural Disasters; Fossil Fuels; Apocalypse; Plague; Industrial Pollution; Megadams; Oil Spills; Industrial Catastrophe (e.g. Bhopal); Nuclear Disaster (e.g. Chernobyl); Agribusiness & Polemical Journalism; Species Extinction; and Post-apocalyptic Thought. All of these topics are addressed through key literary texts, rather than the scientific or political documents, historical accounts, or primary sources that might be seen as conventional. However, each week academic texts are brought to bear on the subject, to supplement the literary analysis.
The lectures in this course are conducted in English, and all readings and assignments can be read and written in English. However, for students interested in French, or who wish to gain credit for a French certificate, reading responses will be written in French, and the readings which were originally written in French should be read without translation.
The readings, and discussion of the readings, are central to this course, and are the foundation of its analysis of environmental disasters. However, the majority of the grade comes from written assignments. There are two reading responses due each quarter, each 1-2 pages in length. When the student writes a response to that week's reading, they will be asked to share their insights in class to spur discussion. The midterm paper (5-6 pages) asks students to delve deeper into a particular text from the first half of the semester, while the final paper (10-12 pages) allows students to either compare multiple texts read throughout the course, or to extensively explore one text while bringing in a research component.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
Listening and participating in class is the central component of this course, even though most of the grade actually stems from the written responses. Classroom instruction was structured more in terms of a precept-style "lecture with audience participation" than a seminar. Blix will present his knowledge on an issue, and then ask for clarifying questions, or else ask a question, listen to the responses, and then present his own interpretation. These lectures are key to learning and engaging with the material, and will give insights into the more difficult texts, finding connections that you might not have noticed on your own. Pay attention and stay engaged, just for the purposes of getting the most out of the class and fully enjoying the literature. However, the assignments are mostly focused on making individual interpretations, so the lecture can inspire ideas, but won't directly support completion of the assignments.
Learning For and From Assignments
There are 4 reading responses, each 1-2 pages double spaced. Two are due before Fall Break, and two before Winter Break. These can be done at any point in the quarter, when the student has time or is particularly interested in the topic at hand. These assignments give space for the student to reflect further on the reading. They require a complete reading of the assigned reading, but can be anything from detailed series of questioning, to personal reflection, to topical, scientific, or literary analysis. These short response papers are due the night before class, then used in class to spur discussion. The midterm paper requires deeper analysis of a particular text - not necessarily one of the ones the student has already responded to. The final paper is longer, and allows for comparison across multiple texts, or uses outside resources to delve deeper into one text. Again, these papers also allow for individual interests to be expressed. Some students in my class were more interested in the scientific aspects of the material, and preferred to write technically on the scientific basis of the disaster. Others were more interested in the nuances of the literary style, and delved deep into the metaphors and imagery of the texts. Still others were more interested in the historical background, the political implications, and the ethical question. This diversity of perspectives was thoroughly encouraged and, in my opinion, was the major benefit of this class.
This class is pretty self-contained - no external resources are very necessary. Supplementary readings are all on Blackboard, including the video reserves. Firestone has some of the books if you need the French translation of the course books, or if you need related books for comparison for the final paper. The Princeton Public Library also has some of the course books in French (and fun fact, Public Library membership is free for Princeton University Students!).
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
This course has relatively high, but completely manageable reading levels. The policies on completing the assignments when you choose makes the workload flexible, which can be very helpful to busy students.
The texts are varied, well-written, relevant, and memorable: I found the subject matter extremely interesting - but also somewhat depressing, as you might be able to expect from its emphasis on disaster. This topic seems to be Blix's personal specialty and interest, so he is very engaged and knowledgeable - throughout the semester he kept organising and speaking at conferences on this exact subject!
The major benefit of this class, in my opinion, is the diversity of opinions and perspectives it brings to the table. Being cross-listed in 3 departments only starts to show what a multi-dimensional approach this course takes to the topic of environmental disaster. Its just so cool to be talking about literary imagery, journalistic ethics, scientific principles, political theories, and environmental history, all within the space of an hour. For this reason, I would say that this course is ideal for people with wide-ranging interests, or those who want to widen their experience of their major or certificate in Comp Lit, Environmental Studies, or French.