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Why Pursue the ESSP with English as a Focal Department?

The Environmental Studies program benefits immensely from its ties to the University’s English department.  Though Environmental Studies is popularly understood as social and natural science-based, scholars of the Humanities have made key contributions to our collective understanding of humanity’s relationship to the environment.  To meet the increasing need for humanistic inquiry in the field of Environmental Studies and the interest of literary scholars in environmental cultural production, the, ESSP students can pursue English as a focal field.

The University of Oregon has been one of the first research universities to train and support graduate students linking these two areas of study.  This fortuitous alliance happened, in part, because of the UO English department’s strength in the study of literature and the environment (ecocriticism).  A small but visionary group of literary scholars at the University helped to establish ecocriticism as a field in the early 1990s, and the UO English department remains a national leader in this area.  Alumni who specialized in literature and environment now teach in colleges and universities around the country.

The ESSP program distinguishes itself from the handful of graduate programs in literature where this specialization exists because students are trained in areas beyond English literature.  In addition, the faculty within English use a variety of approaches and maintain strong relationships with environmental philosophy, cultural geography, film and media studies, and the Environmental Studies program.  English Literature and Environment faculty are interested in a range of topics, from New England Transcendentalism and nineteenth-century natural science to the sciences of Modernism, ecocritical theory and critical animal studies, colonial American writing, travel writing, borderland studies, embodiment in Early Modern literature, the rhetoric of wilderness, and the environmental imagination in film and popular media (English department faculty website link here).  ESSP English students work with faculty specializing in Literature and Environment, but students are encouraged to make connections with English faculty doing work in other fields as well, such as Ethnic Studies, Comparative Literature, Folklore, Film Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.

The relationship between the Environmental Studies Program and the English department is particularly strong because English Department faculty have been involved in the Environmental Studies Program since its inception.  These faculty members offer a variety of courses relevant to ENVS on a regular basis, and they also serve as Core ENVS faculty members who teach required courses for ENVS Master’s students.

English was one of the original fields of focus for students completing a Ph.D. in ESSP, and there have been three English-ESSP students thus far.  Two 2009 graduates secured tenure-track Assistant Professorships at institutions dedicated to cultivating strong Environmental Studies programs.  These students’ interdisciplinary training fits the institutions’ emphasis on humanistic approaches to environmental studies.  ESSP-English graduates are well prepared for an increasing demand for scholars with interdisciplinary training and a foundation in humanistic approaches.

Ph.D. students who have focused their work in the English Department have typically been people with interdisciplinary backgrounds in fields as diverse as biology, religious studies, and American studies. They have chosen English as a focal department because they recognize the value of literature and other areas of humanistic inquiry about the human place in the natural world.  ESSP students with English as a focal department are excited by the possibilities of cross-fertilization between cultural geography, literature, philosophy and the life sciences, and the challenges of crafting their own interdisciplinary projects. In particular, ESSP students find support within MesaVerde , an organization composed of humanities faculty and students interested in Literature and Environment.  This active group regularly organizes colloquiums, outings, and readings.

ESSP doctoral students differ from English Ph.D. students in the extent of their interdisciplinary backgrounds, interests, and course work, and in their participation in the close community of the Environmental Studies graduate students. They are held to the same doctoral requirements as all English students, and undergo the professionalization process in English with the assumption that they will be qualified for academic jobs in English departments.  But in order to support the ESSP requirement of interdisciplinarity, they tailor each of the professionalization steps to integrate environmental studies.  These steps include: completion of coursework, proposing an Orals Exam project, passing the Orals Exam, selecting a dissertation committee, composing a successful dissertation prospectus, and completing the dissertation. Tailoring these steps to integrate environmental studies is a creative and challenging process.  For example, while the English Oral Exam is designed to test a student’s familiarity with his or her specific research interest within a literary and cultural period, the Oral Exam for an ESSP student involves an additional examiner (chosen by the student) to test for familiarity with the environmental themes of that research area.  ESSP students work closely with the chair of graduate studies in English and with the chair of the Environmental Studies Program to fashion individualized course schedules that meet both programs’ expectations, and to tailor the English doctoral requirements to fit the students’ needs.  And ESSP-English students’ dissertation committees reflect the interdisciplinarity of their work; they are comprised of faculty from any departments or programs with which the student has been forming connections through coursework.

ESSP students are also different from English students in that they have graduate teaching fellowship opportunities in both English and Environmental Studies, and the opportunity to design and teach upper-division interdisciplinary courses to Environmental Studies majors.

Students who thrive as ESSP-English Ph.D. candidates are those who relish the chance to design innovative research projects that bridge several disciplines and actually create emerging theories and methods. They are independently-minded, have a strong interest not just in learning about existing interdisciplinary alliances, but in forging new ones.  They gain appreciation for other methodologies but are ultimately trained to do close readings of texts (broadly defined), and feel energized by straddling the two worlds of humanistic and applied scholarship across the University.  They desire a cultural studies or literary foundation, but seek the breadth and freedom of an interdisciplinary program.

Supplementary Application Information

Consult the English Department’s Suggestions for the Graduate Application Process prior to completing your application to the Environmental Studies Program. Note that the English Department requires that “a sample of academic writing (not exceeding 20 pages, double spaced and single sided) demonstrating your ability in literary study” be included with your application.

Questions about the application requirements for the English Department may be directed to Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Lara Bovilsky, by phone (541-346-1309) or email at

See also the standard application procedures for the Environmental Studies Doctoral Program .

Useful Links

English Department
Louise Westling, Environmental Studies Core Faculty
English faculty affiliated with the Environmental Studies Program
English Structured Emphasis in Literature & Environment
Shane Hall, Taylor McHolm, Current PhD Students in ESSP and English