An Anthropocene Primer Syllabus in the Literature Classroom

An Anthropocene Primer Syllabus in the Literature Classroom
David Rodriguez

I am particularly fond of “an” in the title An Anthropocene Primer as a signal that it is a medium that suggests use rather than determines use. The precise definition of the term “Anthropocene” is debated, so the variety of routes and approaches–rather than an implicit argument about golden spikes or timelines–is an effective way to communicate, to students in particular, that the participation in discourse relating to the Anthropocene is part of the present constitution of its meaning. I think my students were also interested in this open approach, which they curiously identified and formulated that An Anthropocene Primer “lacks bias.” This impression, I suppose, likening the site to the experience of an encyclopedia even though it looks much different, toned their encounter with it.

I have just wrapped a climate change themed, introductory-level “Literature, Science, and Technology” course in the English Department at Stony Brook University. I used the syllabus from An Anthropocene Primer to organize the independent work that my students did to prepare for group presentations, which ran parallel to our reading and discussion schedule. As the semester progressed, the work they did in groups with the Anthropocene Primer syllabus outside of class inevitably made its way into daily class discussions.

I intended the course to be an opportunity to encounter the environment and climate change in their imaginary form, which I see as primary, as opposed to foregrounding mimetic or representational interpretations of environment in literature and film. I introduced the class by emphasizing fictionality and the imaginary as the main resources for negotiating the boundaries of aesthetic and extra-aesthetic engagements with the environment. This afforded us the opportunity to talk about literary texts as a unique form of research into the Anthropocene as the dominant concept organizing contemporary scientific and popular thinking about the environment. Michel Butor’s 1968 essay “The Novel as Research” provides the guiding principles:

“Even though veracious narrative always has the support, the last resort, of external evidence, the novel must suffice to create what it tells us. That is why it is the phenomenological realm par excellence, the best possible place to study how reality appears to us, or might appear […].”[1]

We studied one novel, Ben Lerner’s astounding 10:04, and other texts with various degrees of fictionality, such as Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. These narratives engage with the question of how reality might appear to their subjects and narrators; my students’ work was to tease out why the environment appears to become foregrounded in these texts and the implications of the strategies used to arrange this “internal evidence.”

The class was structured by three sets of student presentations that sequentially engaged with the “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” questions on the Anthropocene Primer syllabus. They were organized into five groups of three or four students to match each of the five modules. For each presentation, they chose one of the questions to use as a framework to interpret examples from the texts we had been studying up to that point in the semester. A benefit of the Anthropocene Primer syllabus is that it prescribes no answers. The questions in each “difficulty” section of the syllabus have varying degrees of specificity, but each invites more questions rather than straightforward answers. This fits into a useful paradigm for humanists engaging with Anthropocene issues, as Janet Fiskio puts it: “not-solving the problem of climate change.”[2] The part of the research process in which humanists join study of the Anthropocene is this negative position, critically thinking with the ways in which the environment possibly appears in our literary imagination and using the negation of the present to open up new ideas about the future.

My students had the choice of engaging with the resources on the syllabus to enrich each question, but many found the organizing principles of questions such as “In which ways do issues of responsibility and stewardship in the Anthropocene vary according to scale?” (an “Advanced” question from the “Scale” module) enough to find connections with the discussion of the literary texts from our course. During their presentation, this particular group broke the class up into smaller sections to brainstorm how the particular subjects of the texts we had studied are partially determined by scale: Does the national scale of Carson’s critique of specifically U.S. American values influence her images? Or, how does the ideology of globalism constrain how Jennifer Baichwal treats Edward Burtynsky’s photographs in her film Manufactured Landscapes?

Another group used the question, “How does the meaning of the Anthropocene change if we define it as either a: hyperobject, process, concept, framework, or something else entirely?” from the “What is the Anthropocene?” module to analyze how these conceptual forms are also identifiable across narrative forms: Anthropocene as process is exemplified in James Balog’s glacier time-lapses in the film Chasing Ice; as a framework, the Anthropocene is diligently outlined in Squarzoni’s graphic memoir Climate Changed.

The questions and resources on the Anthropocene Primer may be basic for the educator, or have mixed origins and histories, but presented in this format they delivered apparently revelatory information accessibly to my students. I had just one student who was an Environmental Humanities major in the Sustainability Studies program at Stony Brook, but none of my other students had encountered “Anthropocene” as a term, in any context. Though the work with the Anthropocene Primer syllabus was independent, and spaced out through the fifteen-week course, the site had the cumulative effect of broadening the kinds of discussions my students were willing and able to initiate.

My maybe too-strictly aesthetic context for studying literature and environment alluded to above was met by my students’ willingness to engage openly and playfully with political, social, and economic issues raised by the syllabus. An Anthropocene Primer afforded pathways for my students to transit between the literary texts and their daily lives. The concerted effort to present to the class, for example, how a specific aspect of “polycentric governance” (from the “Policy” module) is related to the political issues raised by Encounters with the Archdruid stretched them (and me) to consider new ways in which the text proposes that the encounter with the environment is always mediated through the various politicized narratives embodied by figures on all sides of the conservation / preservation / responsible-use debates.

I am interested in how open resources like this will continue to influence pedagogy for the variety of disciplines now invested in engaging with the Anthropocene in a dynamic classroom. Another pattern that my students noticed from the texts in our course was the prevalence and value of of autodidacticism for Thoreau as he builds both his house and his home in Walden, for example, or in the representations of research in the reflexive memoir form for Squarzoni in Climate Changed. Both Thoreau and Squarzoni engage with their vastly differently scaled environments by following paths through literary as well as scientific texts. An Anthropocene Primer models this same practice; it shows students and teachers alike a variety of paths for answering difficult, new questions and feeds back into a reflection on past and present methods for learning about our environments.


David Rodriguez is an English PhD candidate at Stony Brook University. His dissertation, “Spaces of Indeterminacy” studies aerial descriptions in American novels as a keystone to the environmental imagination in the 20thcentury. He has forthcoming articles on econarratology in English Studiesand geographical narratology in Frontiers of Narrative Studies. He is currently editing a book with Marco Caracciolo and Marlene Marcussen, Narrating Nonhuman Spaces: Form, Story, and Experience Beyond Anthropocentrism, which is currently under review.


[1]Butor, Michel. “The Novel as Research.” Inventory: Essays by Michel Butor. Ed. Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. 26-29.

[2]Fiskio, Janet. “Building Paradise in the Classroom.” Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities. Eds. Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, & Stephanie LeMenager. New York: Routledge, 2017. 101-109.

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