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

  • Offered for Year: 2024/25
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Ella Mershon
  • Owning School: English Lit, Language & Linguistics
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
  • Capacity limit: 48 student places

Your programme is made up of credits, the total differs on programme to programme.

Semester 2 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0
European Credit Transfer System


This module examines the entanglement of human and earth histories on an increasingly imperilled 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, when imperial powers "scrambled" to seize natural resources across the globe, and when the scientific discoveries of geological and evolutionary timescales revolutionized historical consciousness. We will discuss Victorian literature and scientific thought to 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 postcolonial, Black, and Indigenous writers address these Victorian legacies that continue to shape the contemporary literary imagination.

Readings from Victorian literature, such as H. G. Wells, The Time Machine 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 and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter.

KEYWORDS: Anthropocene; climate crisis; nature/culture; literature/science; environmental justice; race and environmental racism; Indigenous literature and traditional knowledge; science fiction and speculative fiction; poetry

Outline Of Syllabus

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.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture111:0011:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion401:0040:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading721:0072:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching112:0022:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyStudent-led group activity111:0011:00Weekly study group work
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study441:0044:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures introduce students to the texts, providing key historical contexts and interpretive frameworks.

Small group sessions offer students the opportunity to sharpen their critical and analytical skills; to review concepts from lecture; and to express their own opinions and ideas.

Study groups are preparatory and exploratory: they offer students the opportunity to explore set readings and discussion questions in a collaborative setting.

Assessment Methods

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

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Oral Presentation2M25Group Presentation. Alternative assessment (in case of PEC): 5 minutes individual recorded activity / presentation.
Essay2A75Students choose one of three options: critical (3,000 words), editorial (3,000 words) or creative final project (variable by genre). For prose and script, 2,500 words + 500 word reflective essay. For poetry, 10-12 poems + 500 word reflective essay.
Formative Assessments

Formative Assessment is an assessment which develops your skills in being assessed, allows for you to receive feedback, and prepares you for being assessed. However, it does not count to your final mark.

Description Semester When Set Comment
Research proposal2MN/A
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Summative Assessments
1) Group presentation (25%). Working in groups, students will create a 10-15 minute presentation that will summarize a secondary reading, connect the secondary reading to the primary reading, and launch small group discussion. This assessment prepares students for employment by developing collaborative team-work skills and oral communication skills. It also helps students prepare for the final project by engaging in-depth with secondary sources.

2) Final Project (75%). Students choose one of three options:

-- A critical comparative essay;
-- A creative response (poetry, prose, script) to a text or concept encountered on the module; or
-- An editorial introduction either for a new Anthropocene edition of a chosen text or for a new Anthropocene anthology with a proposed set of primary texts.

Formative Assessment
Students will submit a project plan (abstract + bibliography) for their final project. They will receive oral feedback on their plan in a tutorial session.

Reading Lists