Seminar: Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies

10:10a-12:05p W (15) 3 cr.


Themes of risk, danger, thrill, heightened experience, threats of death and extinction, tampering with nature, finding god in nature, adapting to nature, and playing god with nature run through recent autobiography,biography, nature narrative, "environmental literature," cultural criticism, and "ecocriticism." This course will study the imagining of nature from these risk and heightened-sense points of view. These themes are sometimes Darwinian. Quite often, they come to us as updated brands of traditional natural theology. Neocreationism versus Darwinian evolution controversies have many counterparts in the current literature and criticism on "nature." We'll interrogate some of those theological and evolutionary controversies.

The course reading will mostly but not entirely come from the past few decades. We'll read Jon Krakauer's bestselling biographical narrative Into the Wild whose protagonist "in his fashion, merely took risk taking to its logical extreme." We'll also read Krakauer's other gripping narrative on extreme mountain activity and risk, Into Thin Air: a Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster We'll read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire: a Season in the Wilderness. Our main literary anthology in the course will be Literature and the Environment, an anthology of works by Annie Dillard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat Murphy, Joyce Carol Oates, Sarah Orne Jewett, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John McPhee, Peter Coyote, Aldo Leopold, and many other major twentieth-century writers on nature. The anthology also has a section on cultural commentary featuring writers from Rachel Carson to Rush Limbaugh and beyond. We may also read William Faulkner's short novel The Bear.

Evolution, risk, and specters of extinction loom large in some of the best cultural criticism and commentary on science from our times. We'll read W.J. T. Mitchell's fine piece of criticism, The Last Dinosaur Book which explores the dinosaur fascination among children and all the rest of us. In conjunction with Mitchell, we'll read the novel Jurassic Park and also see the film based on that novel. Speeded up adaptations and experimenting with evolution also loom large in Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch: a Story of Evolution in Our Time, probably the best and clearest popular current book on Darwinian evolution. While thinking about evolution, we may or may not manage to fit in Kurt Vonnegut's futuristic novel Galapagos. To gain some historical perspective, we'll also read a few selected excerpts from nineteenth-century natural theologians, nature religion, and evolution writers.

This is a small class. Our weekly meetings will mostly be devoted to discussing the assigned readings and the issues raised by them. Students will write short informal commentaries on the readings (usually of paragraph or so length), a short 5-6 page paper, and a longer seminar term paper in the 12-15 page vicinity. We'll also attempt some trips out into local Indiana nature, weather permitting. I don't foresee our excursions taking any great risks or being too extreme. However, we will try to think about the relationship between our readings in literature and criticism and our own diverse ways of experiencing and imagining nature.