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Fall 2021 - Class Option #1

How to Survive the End of the World: Oil and Water in the Gulf of Mexico

This course is co-taught by a professor of history, and a professor of literature, both fascinated by the shared ground between human histories and environmental change. Focused on a single region in the United States—Lower Louisiana, East Texas, and the giant body of water that connects them—our course asks what this distinctive landscape of land and water can tell us about our place on this planet, at this moment in history. The Gulf of Mexico is emblematic of stories we tell ourselves about racial and cultural difference, climate crisis and climate vulnerability, survival and the end of the world. Through the cause of climate justice, students in the course will examine how today’s political thinking pits economic and ecological priorities against each other, and against human survival. Three events of the early 21st century—the flooding of New Orleans in and after Hurricane Katrina (2005); BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010); and the flooding of the Houston, Texas area after Hurricane Harvey (2017)—show vividly how the vulnerability of contemporary life around the Gulf of Mexico is shaped by longer histories, and imagined futures, in which "natural disaster" and human agency can be hard to tell apart. The inextricability of racial, economic, and environmental impacts that follow such events, with their potent mix of accident and decision, neglect and care, violence and resistance, is not unique to this region: it is part of the unfolding story of the modern world. Students will work in between history, ecology, and literature in order to ground themselves in the "environmental humanities," an emerging area of study that helps us see how material histories and natural ecologies intersect with literature and art.

Readings may include selections from these books:
Jack Davis, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea
Andy Horowitz, Katrina: A History, 1915-2015
Eugenie L. Birch and Susan M. Wachter, eds., Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
Leanne Howe, Shell Shaker
Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century
Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth


Leslie Harris is Professor of History and African American Studies. Her research and teaching has focused on complicating the ideas we all hold about the history of African Americans in the United States, and finding ways to communicate these new ideas to the general public. In her first book, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003), she examined the impact of northern and southern slavery on the definitions of class, gender, citizenship, and political activism promulgated by New York’s blacks and whites. Harris is currently at work on a book on New Orleans that uses Hurricane Katrina and her family’s history as a way to interrogate the history of African Americans in the city from the nineteenth century to the present. She also has ongoing research interests in the history of slavery, gender and sexuality in the antebellum U.S. south, and the historiography of U.S. slavery.

Tristram Wolff is Assistant Professor of English. He writes and teaches on 18th-/19th-Century British literature, as well as comparative and transatlantic romanticisms, critical theory, poetry and poetics, and the environmental humanities, including representations of oil and water as extractable resources in fiction and film. His current book project, with the tentative title Giving Language Time: The Uprooted Word in the Romantic Century, outlines a poetics emerging from transatlantic romanticism that transported the speculative origins of language from the depths of the past to an ongoing present, in answer to the ethnocentric primitivism of the Enlightenment. A newer book project in its early stages comprises a series of essays revolving around the Romantic essayist William Hazlitt, and aims to show how Romantic-era writing on the passions has shaped contemporary debates about affect and emotion in our habits of critical reading.


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