In the winter of 2022, I had planned a place-based literature course on Providence at the Rhode Island School of Design. A series of outings formed the backbone of the class: my aim was to have students connect to the place where they lived through experiences like standing atop the landfill to understand the afterlife of their waste and touring a colonial house to trace the violent foundations of the city's wealth. Instead, due to the omicron-variant surge, the course was largely conducted over Zoom and all but one outing became virtual. I found that a disorienting, nearly absurd sensation clouded the course when we discussed places that we should have been inhabiting together; instead of bridging the distance between the texts and the world, in the end, the course only accentuated that distance.
Postcolonial/ecocritical place-based teaching is challenging for the precise reason that it is based on place and our places are changing now more than ever. And yet, as the kind of teaching the planet needs becomes more difficult, it also becomes more essential. In his foreword to Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media, Graham Huggan asserts that “teaching is the most valuable thing we postcolonial/environmental scholars do” (xiv). Amid global health and ecological crises that perpetuate, Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media is a collection invaluable for its compilation of teaching ideas, resources, and commentary on the field of postcolonial environmentalism. But perhaps more importantly, it is invaluable for the sense of community it creates among educators who continue to dedicate themselves to a livable future.
At its core, Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media aims to show the analytical and pedagogical import of considering social and environmental injustices together through postcolonial ecocriticism. Editor Cajetan Iheka writes about the collection this way: “Taken together, the growing interest in postcolonial ecologies and the demand for a diversified curriculum addressing social concerns, including the climate crisis, makes this book a crucial contribution to the environmental humanities” (5). The majority of the essays are field-tested success stories of teaching postcolonial ecocriticism that offer a snapshot of the contributor's course. Most courses are literary, and while some are more typically environmental and others postcolonial, all experiment with the overlap of the two in exciting ways. The collection is particularly useful for teacher-scholars who know one side of the critical conversation—either postcolonialism or ecocriticism—and are wanting to bring the other to bear on their thinking and teaching.
In recent years, postcolonialism has advanced the field of ecocriticism, a field long dominated by a Euro-American epistemology that put forth romanticized imaginings of pristine nature and prioritized wilderness conservation. While this hegemonic strand of environmentalism was challenged by scholars from a range of social and disciplinary perspectives, stoked in part by the US environmental justice movement in the 1990s, the conspicuous dearth of postcolonial analysis from ecocriticism remained. Due in part to the contributions of major critics like Graham Huggan, Rob Nixon, and Elizabeth DeLoughrey, the second decade of the twenty-first century has come to mark what Iheka calls “the ecocritical turn in postcolonial studies,” characterized by increased critical attention to “the inextricability of colonial plundering from environmental conditions” (1). The recognition that colonialism and neocolonialism—and the world order they uphold—are dependent on land theft, resource extraction, and the degradation of Indigenous cosmologies with devastating consequences for people and the environment has fundamentally impacted both postcolonial and environmental studies, leading to the rise of postcolonial ecocriticism.
This collection contributes to the critical project of postcolonial ecocriticism by emphasizing the practice of teaching it (even as you will also learn much about postcolonial ecocriticism itself from this impressive group of scholars invested in advancing and diversifying the field). Although there is now a number of major works that take up the study of postcolonial texts and environmental concerns, Iheka points out in his introduction that “none of them explores teaching postcolonial environmental texts” (3). Published in 2021, Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media is especially timely, as it responds to the growing demand by students that their education attend to past and present environmental and racial injustices. Uniquely positioned to expose these injustices, postcolonial ecocritical texts can help us teach the afterlives of colonialism that dually exploit local communities and environments.
As you might expect from a collection that spans two fields, Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media is impressive in its scope and breadth: twenty-seven essays are organized into six sections. The geographic diversity of the literary and other cultural media analyzed in the book, and to a lesser extent the classrooms themselves, soundly positions the project in a global context. Together, the contributors draw on an “expanded sense of the postcolonial” (9) by including colonized spaces from the Global North in their discussions of the Global South. This approach is important, as it underscores shared systems of exploitation and solidarity outside region or nationhood. The collection also features canonical ecocritical and/or postcolonial texts like Indra Sinha's Animal's People and Ken Saro-Wiwa's Month and a Day alongside newer ones like Nnedi Okorafor's Lagoon and Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, making it valuable to faculty who teach introductory and advanced literature courses. Finally, as the title emphasizes, the book examines media other than literature, and several key articles focus on teaching visuals, a crucial component of many environmental humanities courses.
The first five essays, which constitute “Part I: Background and Theoretical Foundations,” showcase the intersections among postcolonial ecocriticism and other major theoretical frameworks, including environmental justice, Indigenous, queer, disability, and place studies. In the opening essay, Byron Caminero-Santangelo is motivated by “the unique contributions that postcolonial ecocriticism could make to transformative ways of imagining the world and to possibilities for action” (23). Arguing that environmental justice struggles in the Global South “are neither belated nor peripheral” (24), he shows instead that these struggles foreground fundamental elements of injustice, such as the role of multinational and transnational actors, too often ignored in US-centric conversations of environmental justice. Even as Caminero-Santangelo writes toward a global conceptualization of environmental justice, he acknowledges the equal importance of paying attention to specific and local circumstances. Throughout, the collection is animated by this “generative tension” (26) between the universal and the particular that centers the field of postcolonial ecocriticism.
Together the contributors to section 1 unsettle the United States and Europe as epistemological strongholds in mainstream environmentalism. In “Finding Balance: Disability and the Ecocritical Lens,” Roanne L. Kantor describes the limitations in how disability is generally studied in the Global North. When disability is approached as socially constructed, in which “impairment happens offstage, such that its causes cannot be politicized or legally redressed” (55), it elides bodily harms inextricable from environmental hazards and disparities in medical care, as in Sinha's Animal's People and Rohinton Mistry's Fine Balance. Similarly, Brady Smith's “Place and Postcolonial Megacities: A Project-Based Approach” redresses the historic exclusion of urbanity in Euro-American literary traditions of “place” through a project-based course that examines how Okorafor's Lagoon complicates many students’ preconceived ideas of the environment.
Pedagogy takes center stage in “Part II: Global Ecologies and Uneven Flows.” Each contributor shows how the study of postcolonial environmental literature necessarily shapes the structure and aims of their courses. Examples include creating opportunities for students “to discover their own power” through assignments like an open-ended field journal (81). In Margaret Anne Smith's “Decolonizing the Environmental Classroom: Increasing Student Agency through a Journal Assignment,” excerpts from these journals enable student voices to dominate that essay. Perhaps most radical, Elaine Savory describes a course that integrates lecturers from various environmental fields in the close reading of literary texts. Together, the essays in part 2 demonstrate how postcolonial ecocriticism is by definition interdisciplinary and intersectional because, as Savory puts it, “to think about the environment in postcolonial space is to think globally and locally at once, beyond disciplines and across time” (105).
More localized considerations of postcolonial ecocriticism are featured in “Part III: Regional and Local Perspectives,” and Christina Gerhardt opens the section with a region that exemplifies climate injustice: the Pacific Islands. In her environmental humanities course, students explore the threat of sea level rise and the politics of representation as they view map collections and read Pacific Island literature, including Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner's Iep Jāltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter and Craig Santos Perez's From Unincorporated Territory [Hacha]. In choosing an island to represent in both essay and map form, students in the course are primed to think through ideological questions like who and what is centered in each representation and to what effect. Other essays develop these themes of positionality and audience. I particularly appreciate Salma Monani's honest appraisal of her pedagogical decision, as a woman of color in a majority-white classroom, to begin her introductory environmental course with “voices and situations familiar to [her] students” (132), even as the choice delays introducing Indigenous perspectives (Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk) until a case study on water wars in the Klamath River Basin.
While the third section brings together essays on a range of regions, from the Pacific Islands to the Caribbean to Latin America, it concludes with the challenges of using region as an organizing principle. There needs to be more attention on the Global East as colonizer and as colonized, Simon C. Estok insists, at the same time that teacher-scholars need to acknowledge the vast heterogeneity among East Asian nations. This work includes serious obstacles, not least of all because “teaching postcolonial East Asian ecocriticisms outside the region means teaching in a language and culture not of the region” (172). While most of ecocriticism is conducted in English, Estok includes untranslated Korean to highlight how “an inability to read something means an inability to receive the information contained in that writing” (172). Readers will find that Estok's essay resonates with critical linguistic conversations outside of this collection, including those on the politics of language in postcolonial writing, the traditional ecological knowledge embedded in Indigenous languages, and the need to diversify standard academic English in composition studies.
“Part IV: The Lives of Animals” introduces the more-than-human community as an essential element of postcolonial environmental teaching. Although animal rights are often pitted against human rights—with one taking precedence over the other—essays by Jonathan Steinwand, Amit R. Baishya, and Jason Price eschew the hierarchal thinking that justifies environmental, racial, and (neo)colonial violence. Instead, both Steinwand and Baishya formulate courses that emphasize multispecies entanglement and, as Baishya defines, “the mutual constitutiveness of the human and the animal” (199). Price confronts the vexed animal studies debate on how to interpret cultural renditions of animals by teaching animist-realist African literature. Instead of reading animals as wholly outside symbolic meaning or not, Price helps students work toward “metaphoric-material approaches [that] successfully blend treatments of animals as literal and nonliteral without denying or backgrounding the animal” (221).
Rhonda Knight and Mary Laffidy, a professor and a student, respectively, open the next section with a question that many of their co-contributors in the Global North grapple with: what scaffolding is required to help Western students engage responsibly with literature from other parts of the world? Their course focuses on speculative petro-fiction, in which new worlds are built on African and Caribbean cultures. Knight and Laffidy choose not to provide contextual resources directly but to create a multimodal assignment that guides students to fill in their own knowledge gaps. Students keep a reading journal and then rewrite parts of their journal for a public blog, building their capacity for research and communication in global digital contexts.
The essays in “Part V: Extractive Ecologies, Environmental Justice, and Postcolonial Ecomedia” experiment with media that allow for new forms of storytelling. To understand art as a tool of empire and resistance, students compare hegemonic representations of the Caribbean with Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié’s exhibit Imagined Landscapes, in which bright colors are notably absent from his paintings and glitter reflects viewers’ faces, details that lead students to consider their own role in the exoticism and exploitation of the Caribbean landscape (Charly Verstraet). (This essay immediately made me want to learn more about the exhibit and to incorporate more art in my classes.) Another course describes the digital project Colonize Mars, “part choose-your-own adventure novel, part nonfiction account of Mars exploration past and future, and part video game” (273), created by Rachel Rochester (and now available to the public) for students to contend with interplanetary colonization and terraforming, as well as to envision alternative, sustainable futures.
What will strike you over and over as you move through Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media is the reminder that the stakes of our teaching are high. “Effective environmental pedagogy,” Rochester writes, “must expose the ideological miasma that normalizes colonial violence and its trail of environmental and social catastrophe while invigorating learners to identify alternative means of inhabiting the world” (274). The final section of the collection, “Part VI: Place-Based Approaches,” highlights pedagogical methods that engender these alternative means of inhabiting the world by rooting students in place. In “Ecocriticism in Nigeria: Toward a Transformative Pedagogy,” Sule Emmanuel Egya outlines the challenges and rewards of teaching ecocriticism in a country where the field remains relatively new and of incorporating place-based practices. Class trips to “ecological zones” around campus cultivate students’ concern for local environmental conditions alongside the desire to become agents of change. Additionally, in their significant contribution to the collection, Kristin Lucas and Gyllian Phillips contemplate how to resist a place-based pedagogy that reinforces settler colonialism by centering Indigenous texts that ask their settler students in Canada to engage with the continuance of colonization, as well as restorative human-land relations.
Far from being provincial or parochial, the place-based courses shared in the last section illustrate the relevance of the local in studies of the global and offer expansive imaginings of what place-based education can be. For example, comparative learning is presented as place-based when images of oil spills in Ogoniland and writings by Saro-Wiwa lead students in Malaysia to make connections between the power structures that govern both postcolonial places in what Shalini Nadaswaran describes as a “text-to-world-to-self sequence” (324). In the final essay, Sarah Dimick and Cheryl Johnson follow a similar sequence in writing about students in a postcolonial literature course visiting a Chicago-based environmental justice organization. The experience is guided by pragmatics—bringing students to locales depicted in the literature would have required international travel—but also politics: “Without domestic context, students from relatively unpolluted areas of the United States who enroll in a postcolonial environmental literature course may inadvertently come to associate sacrifice zones . . . with distant geographies” (349). For faculty or administrators who need to be encouraged to include field trips in university courses, this concluding essay showcases the critical, reciprocal, and hopeful learning that can happen when students engage with environmental justice community work.
While too often “place” is reserved for the rural and place-based teaching as excursions into “nature,” this collection integrates throughout pedagogical methods that invite the careful study of varied places, including urban and built environments. In her book that asserts the specificity of global connections, Anna Tsing (2005: 3) asks, “Where would one locate the global in order to study it?” We might read each essay in the collection as a response to that question. In fact, one of the most provocative moments in relation to place-based approaches appears outside the section labeled as such in “The Colonial Relation between Digitization and Migration in Mohsin Hamid's Exit West” when Sofia Ahlberg asks students to track their online activity, calculate its corresponding carbon footprint, and “imagine which part of the world their finger actually affects as they click and drag on their devices” (246). While it is difficult to find any serious shortcomings with this smart and capacious collection, brushes with the virtual world like this one made me wish that explicit discussion of online courses had been included, especially given the challenges of making local, material environments come to life in virtual spaces.
Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media will inspire teacher-scholars in the fields of ecocriticism and postcolonialism to bring students to the place where the two discourses meet—and to do so quickly. For an immediacy underlines this collection, not only in the need for more postcolonial ecocritical teaching but also in the capacity to make changes to one's own course or curriculum. Reading the book, you will feel as if you are in a room of gifted teachers sharing their expertise and lessons learned; and, because course assignments, scaffolding, and activities are detailed so well, you will feel that it is more than possible to implement them. For the sake of the planet, the contributors to this collection hope that you do.