Special Topics in Documentary Studies (Environment in Literature, Law, and Science)

Course Number: 
DOCST 490.01
Course Instructor: 
Daniel Richter, Jr. (Nicholas School)
Priscilla Wald (English, Women's Studies)
Saskia CC Cornes (Duke Campus Farm)
Friedl Bldg 107
Days and Times: 
MW 1:25 p.m.–2:40 p.m.
Course Category: 
Special Topics
Course Type: 

Climate change, resource exhaustion, an increase in natural disasters: these, we are told, are problems with “the environment.” We are living, it seems, in the Age of the Anthropocene, when humanity has become a geological force. 

Terrorism, rising crime rates, unprecedented poverty and urban blight: these, too, are problems with “the environment.”  The world population has exceeded seven billion; we are putting increasing pressure on each other, as well as on our natural resources.

So what is this “environment,” and why does that question matter? How might a better understanding of how that term is circulating help us to move past our impasses and begin constructively to think about how to live more justly and effectively in our world?

This class will address that question by considering the very ground you’re standing on: the Piedmont, Durham, and most specifically the area surrounding the Duke Campus Farm.  Beginning with early settlement, when the earth began to get a history of its own, we will consider five historical moments—settlement; slavery, plantation culture and the Civil War; urbanization and modernization; the Civil Rights movement, and the present—to show how science, law, and cultural forms (literary works, films, news media) contribute to the changing idea of “the environment.” 

We will trace the idea of the environment not only across time, but also across geographical space, as we consider how ideas travel through social, cultural, economic, agricultural, commercial, and other networks, shaping the ever-changing relationship between the local and the global.

The environment prompts us to think of networks of ever-changing relationships across species and geopolitical boundaries, of ecologies and interdependence. We will consider the changing conceptions of “nature” and “the human” and consider how those changes in turn produce categories such as race, gender, and social class—how, that is, they shape humanity’s relationships to our surroundings and each other. 

This class will be “hands on,” using the space of the Duke Campus Farm to explore specifically the connections among science (geology, evolutionary biology, genomics), law and policy, and cultural forms.  Foundational to this class is the idea that literary and cinematic works and literary analyses of non-literary works, landscapes and objects can offer crucial insight into the pressing questions of our moment and should be a significant part of our ethical, legal, and policy debates concerning “the environment.”  The course begins with the assumption that literature, film and other artistic and cultural forms can help us see how our ideas circulate through language, images, and stories to shape our lived experience: specifically, our sense of “the environment.” We will consider how we are telling these stories through science, law, and policy as well as fiction, film, and the news media.  And we will consider how the story of “the environment” unwittingly shapes our approach to our surroundings.  Throughout the class, we will ask what alternative stories we might tell, and how they might affect the practice of science, law, and policy and lead to more productive debate and constructive change. 

There will be several written requirements for this class (two papers and a blog) as well as a documentary class project involving the Duke Campus Farm.