Reading the Environment

New concentration in ecocriticism adds humanities-based voice to critical conversations

Artwork by Ingrid Sant ’21, “The Fore Reef”
By Laura Meader
April 12, 2021

As students grapple with the challenges of inhabiting a planet rapidly transformed by climate change, they’re increasingly turning to the humanities to imagine future possibilities.

Contributing to this shift, Colby’s English Department has added a new concentration, literature and the environment, to its major. This specialization places Colby among distinguished literature departments at institutions such as UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, and Cornell University and ahead of its peers in the Northeast.

Cal Waichler “Untitled”
Cal Waichler ’21, “Untitled” (cropped)

The concentration will train students to wield the tools of literary studies, namely analysis and writing, “not just to communicate ideas about the environment, but to produce new knowledge about the intersection between social justice and environmental change,” said Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker.

Because those future possibilities need to be more than clean and sustainable, Walker said. They must also be equitable.

“There can be no environmentalism,” he said, “if it’s not rooted in social justice.”

By emphasizing social and environmental justice, the L&E concentration recognizes the undue burden Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities bear from climate change. The program creates a structured but spacious path for students to critically examine the Western-dominant canon of environmental writing alongside works by BIPOC scholars whose communities face what Walker calls the brunt of environmental racism.

Because students come from increasingly diverse backgrounds with different experiences with the environment, “they’re ready and eager to take on the difficult task of analyzing the intersection of environmental problems and social inequalities, and innovating novel solutions that are justice-oriented,” Walker said. And as students and faculty consider the ways that race, gender, and socioeconomics intersect with environmental thinking, Walker anticipates that the demand for L&E classes will only increase.

“The hope is not that this L&E concentration sates student interest,” Walker said, “but instead ignites student interest—and they’re going to want even more.”

“Students are ready and eager to take on the difficult task of analyzing the intersection of environmental problems and social inequalities, and innovating novel solutions that are justice-oriented.”

Chris Walker, Assistant Professor of English

The concentration in literature and the environment, a field also called ecocriticism, reflects a growing student interest in the field. It’s also designed to complement other majors and disciplines. “We’re really wanting students to put their English degree alongside other ways of thinking about environmental problems,” Walker said.

Students will find plenty of opportunities. Not just in the English Department, with a significant expansion of the breadth and depth of its faculty expertise in the L&E field, but in departments across campus.

From anthropology to history to philosophy to French studies, departments have been steadily adding faculty members and courses that examine environmental issues in all manner of cross-disciplinary collaborations. It’s been a deliberate strategy since 2016 when Colby established the Environmental Humanities Initiative with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The result is a substantive, humanities-based foundation for environmental inquiry now in place.

Students will also find willing partners in Colby’s nationally recognized Environmental Studies Program. For 50 years, the program has emphasized an interdisciplinary approach to environmental investigations rooted primarily in natural and social sciences.

Ingrid Sant "Oncoming Storm"
Ingrid Sant ’21, “Oncoming Storm”

All of this has led to an influential, interconnected structure. The ultimate goal? A major in environmental humanities. That major would pull together all the pieces and contribute a much-needed voice to that quest for future possibilities.

“Because in addition to very good science and policy solutions that have already been proposed, we really need humanities to join in that conversation in a much more robust way,” said Walker, who joined Colby in 2017 as its Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities.

Walker has found that students have a predilection for thinking across disciplines that they bring readily to their academics. They possess a broad sense of the questions that need to be asked, and they think in comprehensive ways. “That’s what has been driving students’ inquiries, student-faculty collaborations, and faculty research in environmental humanities.”

It’s precisely students’ ability to think broadly that buoys Walker as he considers the importance and urgency of the work.

“I’ve found amazing reservoirs of hope within the student body here. I’ve really come to appreciate how our students nicely balance the realism that is required to confront serious problems alongside a real sense of the possibility of achieving a more just future.

“I’ve actually learned,” he said, “how to be more hopeful because of their activism and enthusiasm.”

Read more about Cal Waichler ’21, an environmental science major, and her work on the Colby Climate Project. Artwork: Cal Waichler ’21, “Dancing on Your Lovely Bones,” 2019. Intaglio step etch and drypoint, 7×9 in. (cropped).

Student artwork supplied by Fauna, Colby’s environmental humanities literary and art magazine.