Thursday, December 8, 2016

Teaching Environmental Issues (After the Election)

Three years ago, I designed Ecocriticism and Medieval England (syllabus here, if you're interested), a senior-level, interdisciplinary capstone course for all majors. This semester's section has been interesting, given the election results that dropped into the middle.

Rather than addressing Trump directly, I talked about the Republican party platform section on the environment and the environmental consequences.

The week before the election, I'd been talking about the monstrous figures in Africa and Asia on the Hereford Mappa Mundi and how they shaped Europeans' attitudes during later travel and colonization while trying to ignore the Trump sticker on the laptop of a student sitting front and center.

Wikipedia has a hi-res image of the whole map

The morning after the election, as I made my way to campus sleep-deprived and stunned, I knew I still had to teach that student, and others who didn't share my pretty far-left politics.

I decided  to be honest. I told the students I was deeply dismayed by the election results, that I'd been in tears a lot, but that I knew everyone didn't share my views. I said the classroom remained a place for respect for all, and for civil discourse.

There's a social work student who sits in the back, a little older than traditional students, and she gave me a nod, a look of compassion. The rest of the class breathed a little easier. 

A student who'd been mostly quiet asked, in a voice of anguish, what now? And I said, my own voice cracking with emotion, "keep fighting." I asked what she was going to do after graduation, she said she didn't know; I said: Go into politics. Make your voice heard.

One of the course assignments was for the students to take on a (small) environmental project for the duration of the semester. Some students bought reusable bottles or mugs for the water or coffee, one group car-pooled to school from their off-campus house, others turned off lights or committed to recycling more or unplugged things that drain power even when off.

Last night was the last class meeting. Here's some of what I said, more or less:
You all come from different majors, and you have different reasons for taking this course. Some of your are interested in environmental issues, some of you saw a course that fit your schedule, some of you saw a hybrid course that meets only once a week and thought it would be easy. It's a challenge bringing such a diverse group into conversation. It takes work on the part of the professor, but it also takes good will and cooperation on your part, as students, and you brought that to the classroom. Thank you for that.
I asked you to think about a lot of unfamiliar things: medieval history and literature, ecocriticism, environmental issues. I asked you to change your lives, albeit in a small way. These are not easy things to ask of students, but you engaged.
Teaching environmental criticism is not, in my mind, just an intellectual exercise. It is an explicit act of resistance and activism. In asking you to thinking about how the people of medieval England wrote about the natural world in literary and documentary texts, and their own relationships with animals and the environment, as well as with other human beings, I have also been asking you to think about contemporary ideas about the environment. 
Ecofeminists have observed that medieval writers wrote explicitly that women were more closely connected with nature than men, less rational, less capable; aristocratic women were often given by their fathers to their husbands in an economic arrangement, and their purpose (like Kate Middleton's) was to produce heirs. Their fecund bodies were a resource controlled by men.
Ecofeminists didn't go quite far enough, because they didn't recognize that the bodies of peasants, male and female, were also seen as resources controlled by the aristocracy as sources of labor and excess production. This enabled lords to evict peasants from farmland so they could graze sheep when wool became more valuable than food, rendering them homeless.
Thinking about the Middle Ages and the environment is valuable, in my mind, in two important ways.
Understanding medieval technologies can help us to better understand our own. It takes more than 700 hours to spin the thread needed to make enough fabric for a simple peasant dress. That contrast with the speed with which garment factories today can churn out fast fashion gives some perspective. Understanding something about what it takes to heat a house, or for that matter build it, to travel, to grow and harvest food, to create a manuscript -- the sheer amount of hours of labor required -- helps us to see contemporary farms and homes and books and cars in a different light.
The other issue is that our attitudes toward our "natural" surroundings have a very long history. They are deeply embedded in our culture. We need to understand those attitudes, and understand how they shape the way we build communities and organize transportation and commerce today, and understand how long-standing their hold on our culture has been, in order to get a sense of how we got here -- and how we might be able to make change and envision a better future.
We need to change. We need to make change happen, and we need to do it fast. We are already beyond 400 ppm, a threshold some climate scientists think portends disaster. Wildfires in Kentucky and California are a result of droughts caused by humans. Most of you directly experienced the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. 
You all need to go out into your communities and, like a pebble that drops into a pond, make a ripple. And if enough of you make that ripple, it can turn into a wave.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

CFP: Medieval Ecocriticisms at Leeds

Medieval Ecocriticisms is seeking papers for a session to be held at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, July 3-6, 2017.

Each year, the Congress chooses a special thematic strand; this year, that strand is "Otherness." Medieval Ecocriticisms seeks papers or position statements that combine an environmental or ecological approach with a consideration of "otherness" in some area of Medieval Studies, construed as broadly as possible in terms of time, space, and discipline. The session might include three or four 15- to 20-minute papers, or five to seven position statements of eight to ten minutes, depending on how many people are interested in participating, as well as a respondent.

The IMC call for papers refers to "otherness" particularly in terms of human interactions with other human beings. This session seeks papers or position statements that also or instead consider relationships with or among animals, objects, dwellings, mountains, the sea, and/or other non-human others.

Please submit proposals Heide Estes ( by September 1. Include title, abstract of 250 words, academic affiliation, audio-visual needs, and information about any need for accommodations  Please let me know if you are flexible in regards to presenting a paper or position statement, or serving as a respondent, or if you would prefer one or another of the options.

More information about the International Medieval Congress:
Call for Papers
Guidelines for Submissions (with information about location and anticipated registration fee)

Please feel free to email with questions.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Environment and Ecocriticism at Kalamazoo

A list of Kalamazoo sessions of potential interest if you're trying to follow current work on environmental studies and/or ecocriticism in the field:


10:00 a.m.
37 Medieval Ecocriticisms: Why the Middle Ages Matter

1:30 p.m.
51 Wild and Tamed Spaces in Middle English Literature
86 Animal Languages

3:30 p.m.
110 Animals and Power: Human-Animal Interactions and the Representations of Social Order in Medieval Research and in Teaching the Middle Ages
130 Holy Landscapes and Sacred Space


10:00 a.m.
200 Romance Ecologies I: Tame Beasts/Wild Men
209 Urban Space and Urban Resources in Medieval Central Europe

1:30 p.m.
250 Warfare and Conflict Landscapes in Britain and Ireland, 1100-1250: New Approaches
260 Romance Ecologies II: Alien Terrain
264 Elemental Approaches I: Earth

3:30 p.m.
279 Romance Ecologies III: Decay
317 Elemental Approaches II: Fire


10:00 a.m.
376 Ecocritical Outlaws

1:30 p.m.
429 Elemental Approaches III: Water I

3:30 p.m.
442 Places and Spaces in the Pearl-Poems
482 Elemental Approaches IV: Water II

If I've missed any, please let me know in the comments and I'll edit them in.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Medieval Ecology at MLA

Medieval ecocritics: if you're attending the Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, you might want to check out this session:

594. Becoming Human: Medieval

Saturday, 9 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Lone Star C, JW Marriott
Presiding: Ruth Evans, Saint Louis Univ.

Speakers: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.; Holly Crocker, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia; Rebecca Davis, Univ. of California, Irvine; Allan Mitchell, Univ. of Victoria; Myra Seaman, Coll. of Charleston

Session Description:

Medieval studies has long been invested in exploring the complex dynamics at stake in the themes of human/animal and human/machine and in the modes of becoming human. Panelists discuss the place and status of the human and medieval humanism in the context of the recent posthuman turn in literary studies.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mosaic Call for Submissions: Scale

Within the biological-ecological sciences from which the term Anthropocene emerged, “scale” has a longer history and broader usage than it does within the now-proliferating philosophical, critical, theoretical, and ethical discourses that address environmentalism, climate change, and the Anthropocene’s status as a sixth major extinction event. For the latter discourses, scale often refers to something “bigger” than we have ever previously encountered: climate change, for instance, as a crisis unprecedented in its scope and in the reorientation, or “reinvention,” of critical protocols that it is said to require. Given the unrelenting scale of such issues as climate change and of factors contributing to it, e.g., the shift from small-scale family farming to massive global-marketing industrial operations, must theory, too, as some suggest, undergo a transition from local and individual to global perspectives? In what might a global imaginary consist, and how might it relate to existing critiques of globalization as but a label for the hegemony of Western culture? Are broader understandings of scale available from within the ecological sciences and, if so, how might these serve as resources for the “greening of theory”?

Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal, invites innovative and interdisciplinary submissions for a special issue on Scale in relation to ecocriticism, the Anthropocene, climate change, and environmental and animal ethics.

Mosaic follows an electronic submission process. If you would like to contribute an essay for review, please visit the website for details. Email any submission questions to mosasub [@] Submissions must be received by March 18, 2016.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Mosaic welcomes submissions that conform to their mandate:

  • Essays may be in English or French and must represent innovative thought (either in the form of extending or challenging current critical positions). Mosaic does not publish fiction, poetry, or book reviews. 
  • Mosaic publishes only original work and  will not consider essays that are part of a thesis or dissertation, have been published previously, or are being considered for publication in another journal or medium. 
  • Preferred length of essays is 7,000 words, to a maximum of 7,500 words. Parenthetical citations and works cited must follow the conventions of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd ed.) or MLA Handbook (7th ed.). Essays may feature illustrations. 
  • Mosaic’s anonymous peer-review process requires that no identifying information appear on the electronic version of the essay itself. Submissions that meet our requirements are sent to specialists in the specific and general area that an essay addresses. Anonymous but complete transcripts of the readers’ reports are sent to the author.  

Address inquiries by email to:
Dr. Dawne McCance
Editor, Mosaic
University of Manitoba, 208 Tier Building
Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 2N2 Canada
Tel: 204-474-8597, Fax: 204-474-7584

Submissions: Submit online at

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ecocriticism at Leeds: Food, Feast, Famine

Food, Feast and Famine: Medieval Ecocriticisms
International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 2016
Call for Papers

Medieval Ecocriticisms seeks papers and/or brief position statements for one or more sessions related to the 2016 Congress theme of “Food, Feast, and Famine.” Given sufficient interest, we will run a round-table session with five to six brief position statements as well as one or more tradition sessions with three twenty-minute papers.

These sessions ask the question, broadly construed: How can ecocritical perspectives illuminate medieval relationships with food, including feast and famine? Papers might consider the effects of weather and war on crop yields, medieval relationships with eating animals, literary constructions or documentary descriptions of any of these and / or other aspects of food in the Middle Ages.

This proposal seeks papers from various disciplines, including art, art history, history, literary studies, archaeology, the history of science, and more, addressing times and places across the medieval period.

Please submit 100-word abstracts with two to four index terms as well as your full name, title, affiliation, and postal and email addresses. The full call for papers, including a link to a list of index terms, is here:

For more information or to propose a paper, contact Heide Estes at

Ecocriticism at Kalamazoo

There are a few sessions planned for the May, 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo that look to be of potential interest for medieval ecocriticism:

The Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages has been allocated space for four sessions organized by Ellen F. Arnold (

Kathryn Vulić ( is organizing a special session on "Wild and Tamed Spaces in Middle English Literature. The organizers for both sessions are open to papers that take ecocritical approaches. 

In addition, Medieval Ecocriticisms ( is organizing a roundtable session on "Why the Middle Ages Matter," seeking explicitly ecocritical brief presentations. Here's the call for papers on that one: 
In their Introduction to Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice, Celia Chazelle, Simon Doubleday, Felice Lifshitz, and Amy G. Remensnyder make the case that an understanding of medieval ideas about power and justice helps to illuminate contemporary political and social issues concerned with power: who has it, who doesn’t, how it operates in contemporary nations and cultures. The essays in the volume address gender and sexuality, dis/ability and deviance, race, class, ethnicity and prisons. The editors acknowledge that an important topic not included in the volume is environmental history. They note that the contraction of economies in the early Middle Ages and the attendant reduction in the volumes of garbage produced in comparison to the late Roman era and suggest that this is a possible model for the reduction of consumption today. 
This round-table seeks short presentations that respond to Chazelle et al.’s call for future work on medieval environmental issues by considering what medieval texts and artifacts can teach us about how individuals and polities of the period conceived of their relationships and responsibilities to the non-human. Papers might address agriculture, wilderness, water, animal studies, urbanization, light and darkness, the relationships of gender, race, religion, and dis/ability to environmental questions and formulations, from the perspective of how such medieval formulations matter to the modern world. Papers are sought from a wide variety of disciplines, including but not limited to archaeology, art history, history, and literary studies. 

The Call for Papers for the Congress is here.