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Environmental humanities program sparks inspiration to change

July 21, 2010

When Chelsea Koressel decided to major in English literature, she never anticipated finding herself interested in environmental literature or the connections between nature and culture. But once she took Joni Adamsons’ film and literature class as part of the environmental humanities certificate program, she was hooked.

Mixing the two – environmental studies with humanities studies – may seem unorthodox, but the certificate program is awakening students to new ideas and possibilities. Open to any major, the program was rolled out in Fall 2009.

In a short time, students in majors from science to philosophy have been drawn to the program, which explores the relationship between human culture and the environment and examines the impact of human activities on the planet.

“I became extremely inspired by the first class I had with professor Adamson, because her passion and love for nature ignited something in me,” said Koressel, a senior.  “I have always enjoyed reading and writing, but I finally became motivated to fully develop my own ideas about life in general through her class.”  

Adamson, associate professor of English and environmental humanities in the School of Letters and Sciences and one of the founders of the field of environmental literary studies, co-created the curriculum for the new environmental humanities certificate with Elizabeth McNeil, director of undergraduate academic services in the English department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Adamson drew from experiences working with environmental community organizations and her own areas of study in environmental literature, environmental justice studies, and American and ethnic literatures to create courses like “Environmental Issues in Literature and Film,” “Environmental Creative Nonfiction,” “The American Southwest in Literature and Film” and “Environmental Literary Criticism.”

While most environmental studies courses take a sociological, statistical or scientific approach, there are other kinds of intellectual inquiry that should not be ignored by those who are interested in ecological problem-solving, according to Adamson.

“Literature offers a way of looking at the issues through visual images and metaphors, while illuminating connections to history and enhancing understanding of what it is like for many people around the world who are living with the effects of environmental inequities,” said Adamson, who is also affiliated with the School of Sustainability.

“My courses offer students development in the ‘cognitive sophistication’ they need to grasp large and small scale patterns and concepts important to understanding how humans interact with and impact their environment.”

The certificate requires four core courses, an environmental humanities internship and four related electives from other programs. Students are also encouraged to pursue study abroad programs focused on culture and the environment, such as the “Human Dimensions of Sustainability” program in Australia.

Koressel has completed much of the required course work and is preparing for the internship portion next summer. According to Koressel, she has enjoyed the lively class discussions and the knowledge of the professors as well.

“My experience with the program has been extremely inspirational and has opened my eyes and mind to a completely different way of life, new perspectives about the environment and the issues surrounding the environmental movement,” Koressel said.

Adamson says students often come to her courses already weary of the gloomy reports about the planet they have seen in the news and in popular films.

“For this reason, I ask them to read literature, watch films, and engage in literary criticism and historical analysis that will facilitate greater ecological literacy,” she said. “This humanities-based knowledge is an ideal companion to expanded science-based knowledge about how we can work together to solve the challenges that we face.”

For information about the program, visit