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Fall 2024 - Class Option #1

Oil and Water in the Gulf of Mexico

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, two events in one place revealed starkly our new world of environmental vulnerability. One was the 2005 Hurricane Season, and especially Hurricane Katrina, which led to the largest evacuation of a U.S. city in history: New Orleans. Just five years later came the BP Oil disaster, the largest oil spill in the history of marine oil spill disasters.

In the decades since, these events affecting all life on land and water in the Gulf of Mexico have evolved into bellwethers of a new normal around the world. Decisions made before any of us or some of us were born are beginning to change the way we all live. And although extreme weather and fragile or damaged environments initially appeared to affect only parts of our world, the vulnerability of larger and larger swathes of our nation and our world become increasingly visible with every passing season.

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. Our course asks what distinctive regional landscapes of land and water can tell us about our place on this planet, at this moment in history. We focus on lower Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, a region emblematic of stories we in the United States tell ourselves about racial and cultural difference, climate crisis and climate vulnerability, and how to survive — and transition — at the end of the world. At the other end of the Mississippi River, we will also make forays into the region we occupy here in Evanston and Chicago on the Great Lakes, as a point of critical comparison.

Through the lens 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. Many environmental events of the early 21st century show vividly how the vulnerability of contemporary life is shaped by longer histories and imagined futures, in which "natural disaster" and human agency can be hard to tell apart. The racial, economic, and environmental aftermath, driven equally by accident and decision, neglect and care, violence and resistance, is not unique to the Gulf of Mexico: it is emblematic of the unfolding story of the modern world.

Students will read across history, ecology, and literature, grounding 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. Through all of these modalities, we will learn, discuss, and debate how to live in our collective future. Some of you may end up changing the world by figuring out how to steer us away from what now seems inevitable global disaster. We believe the project of knowledge-building will require as many ways as possible to see and tell where the world is headed. In this class, history, literature, art, film, and lived experience will be our shared methods.

Prof. 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.

Prof. Tristram Wolff is an Associate Professor of English, where he also teaches in the Programs in Comparative Literary Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture. His first book, Against the Uprooted Word: Giving Language Time in Transatlantic Romanticism (Stanford UP, 2022), shows how a poetics of naturalized language change in transatlantic romanticism transported the origins of language to an ongoing present, in answer to Enlightenment primitivism. From the “romantic century” (1750-1850) of Wheatley, Blake, Wordsworth, and Thoreau, it retrieves a lost philological chapter in the history of “nature” as a racializing category of humanistic inquiry. His second book, How Not to Feel It: Critical Reading and Affect after Hazlitt shows how Romantic-era writing on the passions, and the historical emergence of the role of the “critic,” have continued to shape contemporary debates about affect and emotion in our habits of critical reading.