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SEL3409 : Planetary Imaginations: Literature in the Time of Environmental Crisis

  • Offered for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Ella Mershon
  • Owning School: English Lit, Language & Linguistics
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module will introduce students to the interdisciplinary study of literature and the environment through a sustained engagement with the concept of the Anthropocene, the new epoch that marks the advent of humanity’s emergence as a planetary, geological force.

It has four main aims:

•       To develop a close familiarity with the idea of the Anthropocene, as well as its counter-concepts;

•       To explore how the Anthropocene challenges the binary logic of nature and culture, science and literature;

•       To develop an interdisciplinary approach to the Anthropocene by beginning to draw out connections and comparisons across disciplinary boundaries;

•       To analyze and articulate the unique resources of the literary imagination for conceiving, structuring, and interpreting humanity’s relationship to the earth.

Outline Of Syllabus

This module examines the entanglement of human and earth histories on an increasingly imperiled planet. While this entanglement has prompted geoscientists to speculate that we have entered a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—this term also raises significant questions for literary studies as it suggests that we can no longer decouple “culture” from “nature.” Taking up the intervention of the human into earth systems, this module will use the provocation of the concept of the Anthropocene to consider how literature can help us understand, imagine, and interpret our relationship to geo-histories that eclipse the scale of human life. 

This module will begin in the nineteenth century, when the widespread use of fossil fuels launched modern industrialization, and when the scientific discoveries of geological and evolutionary timescales revolutionized historical consciousness. We will discuss the literature and scientific thought of the Victorian era in order to better understand how emerging generic and narrative conventions shaped representations of the human’s place in inhuman timescales. In the latter half of the module, we will turn to the twenty-first century and consider how these same concerns continue to shape the contemporary literary imagination.

Readings from Victorian literature, such as H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, John Ruskin, “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” and Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness, will be read alongside excerpts from nineteenth-century geology and evolutionary biology as well as contemporary environmental literature and ecocriticism. Readings from contemporary literature will include N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter, and Chantal Bilodeau, Sila.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion401:0040:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture101:0010:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading701:0070:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching112:0022:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyStudent-led group activity101:0010:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDrop-in/surgery41:004:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study441:0044:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures introduce students to the texts, providing key historical contexts and interpretive frameworks. Seminars offer students the opportunity to sharpen their critical and analytical skills; to review concepts from lecture; and to express their own opinions and ideas. Student-led seminars will help students learn how to prepare an oral presentation and develop teamwork skills.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1M30mid module essay, 1100 words
Essay1A60Final essay, 2,500 words
Reflective log1M10Reflective Essay analyzing participation and engagement - 400 words
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Students will be required to submit a short mid-semester essay (30%) that is designed to help students prepare for the final essay.

The final essay assessment (60%) tests students on their written argumentation, their successful acquisition of the module's key knowledge outcomes, and their understanding of the historical and social contexts of Anthropocene literature.

10% of the assessment will be based on a reflective portfolio which will document student engagement throughout the module. This will enable students to analyse their participation in activities including in class discussion, peer review, and student-led presentations.

Reading Lists