How Content Matters in an Eco-Humanities Course: A Perspective from Caribbean Eco-Criticism

by Ania Kowalik

Vicissitudes by Jason de Caires Taylor

Let me start by confessing that it is odd for me to begin with content in a piece about pedagogy. As a result of my work in educational development, I am now somewhat used to foregrounding the concerns about student learning when designing a course—the “why and how” over the “what,” the bigger picture and higher-order skills over the reading list. And yet the questions that come to my mind when I think about eco-pedagogy in the humanities are mostly about what’s on the syllabus. What exactly is humanistic environmental knowledge? What perspectives, ideas, and educative frames do the humanities offer in response to the predominantly scientific approaches to climate change? What knowledge about nature and the humans within it do we muster for our students and what’s at stake in these choices? Here, I’d like to bring some of these concerns to my own class “Caribbean Ecologies” which I regularly teach at Rice as part of the First-Year Writing-Intensive Seminar (FWIS) program.   

Much like other FWIS courses, my course teaches the skills of academic communication and process writing while exploring a topic in a specific disciplinary context. In my particular FWIS, Caribbean literature and art become a privileged context for students to explore the entangled meanings of nature, history, and humanness and deepen their understanding of these relationships through writing. While my approach to Caribbean eco-literature in this class is episodic and not terribly comprehensive, I enjoy teaching this topic as a FWIS because it allows me to reach students for whom this might be the only opportunity to learn about the Caribbean and its ecologies from a humanities perspective.

What’s on my syllabus, then? I organized the class around a series of topic clusters that introduce some of the most salient issues in Caribbean ecocriticism, show how deeply embedded environmental issues are in Caribbean history and culture, present a diverse choir of voices from Caribbean literary and artistic traditions, and mobilize a range of affective responses to environmental crises in the Caribbean:

  • Preface—Kendel Hippolyte “Archipelago”
  • Encounters—excerpts from diaries of Columbus and de las Casas, Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and poems from Olive Senior’s Gardening in the Tropics
  • Theoretical Foundations—“Introduction” to Caribbean Literature and the Environment by DeLoughrey et al.
  • Seascapes—Derek Walcott “Islands,” Monique Roffey Archipelago, underwater sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor
  • Tourism & Development—Jamaica Kincaid A Small Place
  • Haiti: Art, History, and the Reframing of Disaster—Edwidge Danticat “Our Guernica,” Atis Rezistans: The Sculptors of Grand Rue (dir. Leah Gordon)
  • Queer Ecologies—Thomas Glave “Jamaican, Octopus” (in post-Covid times)   

This approach to the class issues from the broader conceptual premises of Caribbean eco-criticism: that “nature is already acculturated by the human process of rendering meaning” and that “addressing the historical and racial violence of the Caribbean is integral to understanding literary representations of its geography” (DeLoughrey et al., 2). In other words, I want my students to understand the fallacies of the idealized concept of nature as something that exists outside or prior to culture and history, to anchor their understanding of Caribbean ecologies in the traumas of colonialism and Atlantic slave trade, and to discern forms of discursive and aesthetic resistance to the dehumanizing colonialist and neocolonialist regimes.

There are human, ethical, affective, and political concerns embedded in this reading list, too, that pertain both to the study of the Caribbean and to the study of nature and ecology as fields of humanistic inquiry. Those concerns became apparent to me as I was adjusting my syllabus to the shortened semester in fall 2020. What do I want to keep and why? What kind of eco-pedagogy is ushered into my classroom on the pages of these texts? I realized, for instance, that I wanted to keep Kincaid’s essay “In History” because it is to my knowledge the only literary piece that shows the complicity of early modern science in the destruction of natural and cultural environments in the Caribbean, and the enduring trauma resulting from this damage. I was equally certain that I cannot teach this class without having my students learn about Haitian resilience and creativity from Haitian writers and artists in an attempt to deconstruct the popular representations of Haiti as a site of abject poverty and disaster. Finally, while Kincaid’s A Small Place tends to shock some students into guilt, anger, or withdrawal with its direct, strategic use of anger and vitriol, it also gives them a rare opportunity to examine their own participation in colonial legacies and reflect on their own affective responses when interpolated into these histories.

What Kincaid has taught me, in turn, is that there is a moment of reckoning in such discomfort and that learning in an environmental humanities classroom is inextricably bound up with troublesome affects. In fact, it is A Small Place with its poignant condemnation of tourism that sparked the most transformative learning last semester. Here are just two excerpts from students’ final reflections that illustrate this shift in perspective:

“[L]earning about tourism and its tangible and intangible harmful effects has changed how I see tourism as a whole. Before this class, I honestly just saw tourism as a mostly positive thing because I didn’t consider anything other than the economic and maybe environmental side of things. But now, having taken a long look into the Caribbean, I realize that tourism and many other topics are much more nuanced than my opinions suggested.”

“I find that the most significant learning experience in this class has been the impact of tourism on the Caribbean region and peoples. Previously, I had seen tourism as a way to save the Caribbean from economic disaster (save them from who? Such a privileged point of view). I viewed my contribution to the tourism industry as a piece of salvation, much like I imagine the Europeans viewed themselves as saviors. The reality is far grimmer and far more complex.”

This shift in perspective experienced by my students reflects a broader epistemic contribution of Caribbean eco-literature to the study of human impact on the environment and the slow violence of climate change in this period we have come to call the Anthropocene. The long historical arch of this class and its focus on colonialist, racist, and imperialist ideologies driving ecological dispossession in the Caribbean helped my students understand our current ecological and social crises as linked to more global and longer histories of disaster. It also taught them that while the accelerating pace of environmental disasters might at times feel to us like “the end of the world,” some worlds ended catastrophically in 1492.    

One of the main contributions of the humanities to the study of environmental crises is “an ecological planetary provocation, the omnipresent yet uneven imbrication of ourselves and our students in climate change” (Siperstein et al., 2). Climate change does indeed entwine us into a planetary matrix of complicity, suffering, resilience, and responsibility to various human and non-human others. In this way, it calls for a new kind of imaginary, one that would allow us to see ourselves implicated into histories that may appear somewhat distant but that nevertheless weigh heavily on many communities all over the world. The Caribbean in particular reflects this intertwining of different histories and ecologies. If “there is no other region in the world that has been more radically altered in terms of human and botanic migration, transplantation, and settlement than the Caribbean” (DeLoughrey et al., 1), then Caribbean literature can provide unique opportunities for such planetary yet grounded kind of learning.



De Loughrey, E., Gosson, R. K., Handley, G. B., eds. “Introduction” to Caribbean Literature and the Environment. University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Siperstein, S., Hall, S., LeMenager, S., eds. “Introduction” to Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities. Routledge, 2017.


Ania Kowalik is an Assistant Director at the Center for Teaching Excellence and an Adjunct Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University.

Main image: "Vicissitudes" by Jason deCaires Taylor.