Loyola University Chicago

Department of English


Dissertating students engage with ecocritical literature (3/14/2024)

Working on a dissertation takes years of research and writing to create a project that not only conveys a PhD student’s expertise but treats a topic that a candidate finds rich, interesting, and important. 

Three of the current English PhD candidates are working on dissertations that touch on ecocriticism, and although their research spans different periods, they have one thing in common: they explore how literature talks about our planet. 

Danielle Nasenbeny is approaching the finish line in completing her dissertation, which focuses on tracking the word “ecology” in literature. 

In her work, she talks about social Darwinism and primitivism and “the different ways that people, mostly in the earlier 20th century, were understanding how they relate to the natural world.” 

“I'm concentrating on texts between the first usage of the word ‘ecology’ in 1867 and the establishment of ecology as an actual science,” she says. “So, I'm looking at authors in those decades and their understanding of nature. Do they see nature as being something that is outside humanity? Do they see themselves as part of nature after the Darwinian revolution?” 

Nasenbeny’s dissertation is focused on four landscapes – rural England, urban London, vacation spots, and beaches, to discuss landscape rhetoric as it appears in the works of a number of authors, such as D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Selvon. 

“Humanity is cultural and rational, and then you have the natural world, which is neither of those,” she says. “I'm kind of deconstructing the idea of nature and trying to get rid of the Victorian idea of nature. That also impacts the way we view non-natural spaces. Basically, all the authors I'm looking at are engaging in some kind of thinking that questions the binaries between nature and culture, or humanity and the non-human living world.” 

Nasenbeny likes to write from her desk, where she has all the materials ready and poised to keep writing. She also doesn’t outline, but lets the ideas structure the work. 

Emily Sharrett is in the final drafting and revising stage of her dissertation and will defend her project early in the Fall 2024 term. 

She shared a brief overview of her project: “My dissertation research details how classical thought on nature is digested and reshaped in Shakespeare’s so-called Roman plays and poems. As I attend to Shakespeare’s poetics, I engage with insights conveyed in environmental humanities scholarship, especially those insights that parse out how the sea and soil or the air and nonhuman life influence political and social affairs.” 

Sharrett says that when she was going through her undergraduate and graduate coursework, she was most inspired by ecofeminist readings of Renaissance texts that addressed how people’s lived experience is shaped by the symbolic and material importance of the physical world in which they live and work. And, as a researcher of print and performance texts, she was keen to study further how bodies move through space that is designated as natural, sacred, domestic, playful, or even unimportant by those with power. 

“I decided to focus on Shakespeare’s Roman plays because the existing scholarship on those texts largely overlooked the role of the natural world when addressing Shakespeare’s reception of classical moral philosophy. I knew that nature played a key role in that reception history, and I wanted to offer a dissertation that told that story,” she says. 

“The main reason, though, is our collective need to address ongoing environmental crises,” Sharrett says. “I am committed to using my research and teaching to consider with colleagues and students the intertwined histories of the people and the natural world.” 

Anthony Shoplik is still in the early stages of writing his dissertation. He meets with some of his peers a couple of times a week to write together. 

“Having structured time for in-person writing sessions with fellow students has been really important,” he says. “I also think just finding different ways to balance the dissertation with other things, both work related and not work related, is significant.” 

He is almost finished with chapter two of his dissertation, which is focused on how anthropologists, literary critics, and poets envisioned humans’ relationship to the environment. 

“I'm really interested in the ways that literary texts are depicting the relationship between humans and their environments. In the early 20th century in particular, there were really strange concepts of race in circulation, and there were all kinds of debates happening in the anthropological literature of this time about how humans are formed by their surroundings. he says. “So I think when I was looking at the contemporary scholarship I was noticing there's an opportunity to try to have these two discourses of nature and race, which are often treated as separate, be more in conversation with one another, and I saw that in the early 20th century they really were in conversation with one another in a way that is surprising and different from how we might think about their relationship today.” 

He says he is interested in the ways that ideas about national belonging and race get embedded in landscapes or are projected onto other forms of nature in the early 20th century.  

“My project positions itself in relation to an important term today, environmental racism, which describes how communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental degradation, a larger impact from the fossil fuel industry and various others that are producing harmful byproducts near these communities,” he says. “So the goal of the project is to show that there’s a pre-history of this in the early 20th century that's really surprising and strange in which different aspects of nature – the landscape, tidal waves, trees, and soils – become part of the racializing of groups of people.”