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ENGLISH 2Z03 Nature, Lit And Culture

Academic Year: Fall 2015

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Susie O'Brien


Office: Chester New Hall 301

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23724

Office Hours: Tues. 2:30-4:00, Wed. 1:00-2:00

Course Objectives:

Course Description:

"When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over." Neil Gaiman, The Wolves in the Walls

A place of refuge.  A fragile (or dangerous) wilderness.  A community of living things.  The saviour, victim or destroyer of human society.  A repository of economic resources.  Even a brief survey of common representations confirms the observation of cultural theorist Raymond Williams that "nature" is “perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language”  (Keywords 1976), inflected with conflicting political, aesthetic, and emotional values.  At the same time as human culture fashions ideas of nature, we are ourselves biological and ecological beings, sharing a habitat with diverse other life forms, vulnerable, as they are, to the effects of environmental degradation.  Focusing on the theme of ecological habitat (and its connection to the highly charged cultural concept of home) this course will examine the representation of nature in a variety of contemporary texts, with the aim of critically analyzing its conflicting resonances and some of the beliefs, values, fears and desires that inform them. Among the questions we will investigate are: how do different representations of home/habitat frame problems of security, mobility, sustenance, and responsibility for humans and other living things? What concepts of identity and belonging, e.g. species, race, gender, sexuality, and class, shape the representation of nature (and vice versa)? And, finally, what socio- ecological histories do different texts/genres invite us to remember?  What kinds of futures do they allow us to imagine?

By the end of the course, students should be able to

  • recognize the values, beliefs, knowledges and myths that shape concepts of "culture", "nature", "home" and "habitat"
  • understand and apply concepts from ecocriticism and postcolonial theory
  • recognize the role of genre in shaping the meaning of environmental(ist) culture
  • think critically about the way in which concepts of identity and belonging, e.g. species, race, gender, sexuality, and class, shape the representation of nature (and vice versa)
  • demonstrate the ability to communicate ideas insightfully and clearly in oral and written form
  • work comfortably and cooperatively in groups ranging from 7-20 participants

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

Neil Gaiman, The Wolves in the Wall. HarperCollins

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild.  Doubleday

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.  Penguin

Susan Savage Rumbaugh, “The Gentle Genius of Bonobos” TED talk (online)

Home (online video)

Lament for the Land (online video)


PDFs available through Avenue to Learn




Method of Assessment:


Tutorial Participation: 15% (5% attendance, 10% TBD by TA)

Short writing assignments associated with online lectures, submitted via Avenue to Learn: 10%

Short writing assignments associated with in-class activities, submitted via Avenue to Learn: 10%

Home/Habitat Show & Tell: 600 words, 10%, submitted in class and via Avenue due Oct. 6th

Essay: 1200 words, 25% submitted via Avenue, by 4:30 pm, Oct. 19th

Interspecies Family Album Assignment: 600 words, 10%, submitted in class and via Avenue, Nov. 17th

Take-home exam: 20% Dec. 10th

Terms of enrollment

In addition to these terms listed below, your tutorial leader may stipulate additional rules and regulations for the tutorial session.

  1. Attendance and Participation. Success in the course depends on consistent attendance at lectures and tutorials. 15% of your final grade is based on regular, informed participation in tutorials.  10% of your grade is based on the completion of short written assignments based on class activities.  In the larger group setting, it is particularly important that everyone observe rules of common courtesy, including refraining from talking, passing notes, opening pop cans, rustling papers, etc. Recreational computer use, even if silent, is also distracting to people sitting nearby.  Laptops are welcome in class for the purposes of note-taking only. NB. The class ends at twenty minutes past the hour.  Knowing that everyone needs to get somewhere fast, I will try not to go overtime.  In return I ask that you refrain from closing books, opening knapsacks or leaving before the lecture is finished.
  2. Readings.  You are expected to do the assigned reading prior to each class, and bring texts to classes and tutorials.  You should come to tutorials prepared to discuss the readings. 
  3. Plagiarism. Plagiarism is a serious offence with serious consequences. Do not plagiarize under any circumstances! Please refer to the “Statement of Academic Ethics” (below) and the “Senate Resolutions on Academic Dishonesty” for the university policy on plagiarism. These documents are distributed at registration and are also available in the Senate Office.
  4. Course Evaluations. Students will be asked to complete a course evaluation at the end of the term.
  5. Retaining Assignments. Disputes regarding evaluation will only be considered if students are able to present the original copy of the class work. For this reason, please retain all pieces of work submitted and graded during the term.
  6. Contacting TAs and Professor: Questions about course content and assignments should be addressed to your tutorial leader or the instructor during their office hours. If you are unable to attend these office hours, you may e-mail your TA or instructor to schedule an alternative meeting time. The instructor will try to respond to short email queries within 48 hours. Messages received over the weekend will generally be answered by Tuesday. Your TA may provide his or her own e-mail policy. All e-mail correspondence for this course must have “2Z03” in the subject heading. Please ensure that your e-mail message is addressed to your tutorial leader or instructor by name and that it includes your own name. It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from the student's own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student. Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.  Please send email using McMaster addresses ( and not through Avenue to Learn.
  7. Accessibility. I encourage you to speak to me, and to your TA, about accommodations you may require to facilitate your participation in the course. Student Accessibility Services can help with the identification of disabilities, and suggestions for specific arrangements to accommodate them.  If you already have a documented disability, please let us know as soon as possible (i.e. well in advance of assignment due dates) so we can put arrangements in place ahead of time. (NB accommodation must be made in advance of evaluation; it will not be retroactive).
  8. Class cancellation: In the event of class cancellations, students will be notified on AVENUE TO LEARN and the English Department Website.  It is your responsibility to check these sites regularly for any such announcements.  Link:; Link:

Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Check the syllabus for submission instructions for specific assignments. Late assignments will be docked one grade-point a day (incl. Saturdays and Sundays).  If an assignment is worth a B+, but was handed in a day late, it will be given a B; two days, a B-; three days, a C+; and so on up to seven days. For other policies regarding submission of work, consult the First Year English and Cultural Studies Handbook (see above).

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Tentative Class Schedule:

Sept. 8. Introduction: Where You At? Different Perspectives on Home/Habitat

"Where You At? A Bioregional Quiz" (PDF)

Sept. 15. The Work of Belonging I: Bioregionalism

Sylvia Bowerbank, “Telling Stories About Places” (PDF), Daniel Coleman, “The Broken Pine” (PDF), Rita Wong, Watersheds (PDF)

Online Lecture 1

In-class activity: “Where You At?” quiz

Sept. 22. The Work of Belonging II: Watershed Thinking

SueEllen Campbell, “Layers of Place” (PDF) Alexander Wilson, “The Culture of Nature” (PDF)

Online Lecture 2

In-class activity: “Where You At” Now?

Sept. 29. Nature/Culture I: Fear of the Wild

Neil Gaiman, “The Wolves in the Wall,” Karen Russell, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves” (coursepack)

In-class Lecture

Oct. 6. Nature/Culture II: At Home in the Wild

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (PDF), William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness” (coursepack)

Online Lecture 3

In-class activity: Home/Habitat Show & Tell

Oct. 13. Fall break

Oct. 20 Nature/Culture III: Into the Wild 

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

In-class lecture

Oct. 27. Family Values

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, “The gentle genius of bonobos.”  TED talk.

Online Lecture 4

In-class activity:  discussion of Savage-Rumbaugh video

Nov. 3.  Kinship on/with the Land

Beth Brant, “This Place” (coursepack), Vanessa Watt, “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European World Tour!)” (PDF)

In-class lecture

Nov. 10. Home Economics I: The Garden

Mike Mikulak, "The Map and the Territory: Learning to Gardening With Nature" (PDF), Jamaica Kincaid,  “To Name is to Possess” (coursepack)

Online lecture 5

In-class activity: treaty-making exercise

Nov. 17. Home Economics II: The Planet

Home (video:, Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges” (PDF)

Online lecture 6

In-class activity: family album

Nov. 24. Home (In)security: Representing Climate Change

Lament for the Land: Climate Change and Mental Health in the Circumpolar World video (, “everyday climatechange” Instagram group (

In-class lecture

Dec. 1. Defending Home and Habitat

Edward Abbey, “Eco-Defense” (coursepack), Leanne Simpson, "Aambe! Maajaadaa! (What #IdleNoMore Means to Me)" (PDF)

In-class lecture

Dec. 8. No classes

Dec. 10.  Take-home exam (exam question released at 11:00 am Dec. 9, due 11:00 am Dec. 10)



Other Course Information:

Course Structure

This is a blended course, which means that some of the lectures will be presented in the form of online video recordings posted on Avenue to Learn.  In addition to weekly, one-hour tutorials (to be assigned individually) we will meet once a week as a class.  Approximately half of these meetings will take the form of regular lectures.  The others will involve discussion and group activities.  A portion of your grade (10%) will be assigned to participation in these activities.  10% of your grade will be allocated to short writing assignments associated with the online lectures.