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English program offers optional tracks in Social Justice and the Environment

October 12, 2022
New tracks focus on the most pressing contemporary issues

Starting in Fall 2023, UC Merced's English program offers two optional tracks in Literature and Social Justice and Literature and the Environment.

Why these tracks at UC Merced

We launched these tracks in response to student demand. Most of the major crises facing the San Joaquin Valley, California, and indeed the world have to do with the related issues of environmental destruction and social injustice. UC Merced students are passionate about these issues, as is typical of Generation Z. As a faculty, we are, too.

Every professor in our recently expanded department conducts research in and teaches classes addressing the intersections of literature with social justice and/or the environment, and how literature and other forms of writing and culture can represent inequities, give voice to the powerless, and help people imagine more just futures; we also teach how literature has histories of being misused for colonial oppression, homogenization, and erasure. We join our students in caring deeply about inequality and ecological destruction. Our faculty are leaders in the study of literature and: racism and antiracism, gender and sexuality, refugee and immigration studies, indigenous studies, neurodiversity, disability, working class studies, queer studies, human rights, religious difference, and prison studies. Many of us also work and teach in eco-criticism, animal and posthuman studies, eco-theatre, queer and feminist eco-theories, and environmental communications.

The Literature and Social Justice Track

This emphasis builds a critical framework for understanding social inequity, oppression, and movements for social justice. Courses may focus on literature by historically marginalized communities, including those oppressed by structures of race, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, citizenship and migration status, religion, class, and other vectors of identity and power. Courses may approach literature as a social space shaped by migration, violence, empire, law, history, geography, and politics, and therefore as a space of social contestation and social justice activism. This emphasis track enables students to ethically examine the possibilities and limits of literature and literary studies as tools to create a more just world for all. 

These courses will count towards the lower division requirement:

Intro to World Literature in English (011), Intro to African American Lit and Culture (ENG 031), Intro to Chicano/a Culture (ENG 032), Literature and Sexuality (ENG 033), Literatures of Asian America (ENG 034), Apocalyptic Literature (ENG 059), Science Fiction and Climate Disaster (ENG 060), Native American Memoir (ENG 061), Literature and Gender (ENG 062), 20th Century Women Writers (ENG 063), LGBT Fiction (ENG 064), Environmental Ethics and Beast Fables (ENG 067), or Lit of Illness and Disability (ENG 071).

These courses will count for the upper division requirements:

ENG 109 Encounters with Islam, ENG 110 British Romanticism and India, ENG 111 Mesoamerican Lit, ENG 112 South Asian Literature and Culture Around the World, ENG 113 Latinx Lit, ENG 115 Chicanx Lit, ENG 120 Chicanx, Latinx, and Indigenous Representation, ENG 125 Ecology and Indigenous Religious Traditions, ENG 130 Writing to Save the Planet, ENG 132 Human Rights and Lit, ENG 133 Race, Law, and Lit, ENG 134 Poetry and Justice, ENG 135 Working Class Lit-Brit, ENG 136 Working Class Lit-American, ENG 137 Islam in Literature, ENG 139 Asian-American and Pacific Islander Poetry, ENG 155 James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, ENG 156: Oscar Wilde, ENG 158: The Brontës, ENG 160 Dickens: The Early Years, ENG 167: Theatre and Ecology, ENG 168: Shakespeare and Ecology, ENG 169 Theatre and Social Responsibility, ENG 183 Lit and Queer Ecology, ENG 184 Literature and Queer Studies, ENG 185 Reading from the Margin, ENG 187 Shakespeare and Social Justice

The Literature and the Environment Track

This emphasis builds a critical framework for understanding environmental injustice and environmental racism, as well as ecocritical theories, including indigenous, queer, and feminist ecologies, and literary movements like Afro-futurism. Courses may focus on literature representing or imagining effects of biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, and displacement on both the human and non-human. There is a particular focus on how literature, writing, and media can convey both scientific research and political realities in order to urge systemic change. This track enables students to ethically examine the possibilities and limits of literature and literary studies as tools to address ecological catastrophe and imagine pathways towards creating a habitable planet for all.

These courses will count for the lower division requirement:

ENG 001 Introduction to Environmental Communication, ENG 019 Animals and Literature, ENG 058 Literature and the Natural Environment, ENG 059 Apocalyptic Literature, ENG 060 Science Fiction and Climate Disaster, ENG 067 Environmental Ethics in Beast Fables

These courses will count for the upper division requirement, environmental justice emphasis:

ENG 125 Ecology and Indigenous Religious Traditions, ENG 130 Writing to Save the Planet, ENG 132 Human Rights and Literature, ENG 133 Race, Law, and Lit, ENG 134 Poetry and Justice, ENG 167 Theatre and Ecology, ENG 183 Literature and Queer Ecology

Their other two upper division emphasis courses can come from ENG 125, 130, 167, 183, or in addition: ENG 108 Romanticism and Apocalypse, ENG 122 Nature Writing and the Environment, ENG 123 Literature and Animal Studies, ENG 168 Shakespeare and Ecology (these courses also address Environmental Justice, but not quite as directly as the above).

Career Preparation

These emphasis tracks will well prepare students for specific careers related to social justice and/or environmental work in several growth fields: law and policy; nonprofit administration; social justice, human rights, and environmental advocacy; education and academia; lobbying and government; community organizing and social work; consulting and management; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) positions; and writing and creative work.

How the emphasis tracks work

The ‘regular’ 48-unit Literatures in English major will remain unchanged.

Students wishing to declare an emphasis track will also take 48 units, with requirements mirroring the non-track major. 28 of their units (7 classes) will be the exact same as the English major: ENG 010; two additional lower division courses, at least one of which is a seminar; ENG 101, ENG 102, ENG 103, and ENG 104.

For emphasis track students, one of their lower division elective courses and all three of their upper division elective courses must come from a more limited menu of options that directly relate to Social Justice or the Environment (all of these courses also count for the ‘regular’ English major, too). There are several courses that count for either track. Students can also petition to have one non-English course substitute for an emphasis track class, so long as it relates directly to the track.

For their capstone, students will also enroll in a special section of the senior thesis class, titled either Literature and Social Justice Thesis or Literature and the Environment Thesis. Students will be expected to write a thesis directly addressing their emphasis, and instructors are confident that the topics we use in our ENG 190 classes will accommodate this. Emphasis track students enrolled in the English Honors Program will also be expected to write theses on their track topic, with one course in the two-semester Honors sequence substituting for one emphasis elective, and the other for their 190.

Flexibility at the lower division level, with only one emphasis requirement, will ensure that transfer students and students who develop their passions late will easily be able to complete the emphasis track program in four years. Transfer students can be admitted with the emphasis tracks starting in Fall 2023.