Jennifer Atkinson (she/her)
Associate Teaching Professor
Ph.D. English Language and Literature, University of Chicago
M.A. English Language and Literature, University of Chicago
B.A. English and History, University of California Santa Barbara
Office: Husky Hall 1316
Area of focus: Environmental Humanities
I believe that creating a more sustainable world is both a science and an art. My teaching brings together environmental studies and the humanities (literature and ethics, history, art, philosophy and film). In addition to this interdisciplinary approach, my classes also emphasize integrative learning: studies in humanities are enhanced by service learning and other field experiences throughout the Puget Sound region. When they’re not analyzing literary and cultural texts in the classroom, students spend time outdoors and reflect on experiential/embodied relations to our more-than-human world.
When teaching about existential threats like our climate and biodiversity crises, I also work to address the emotional impact this material has on students. Processing and applying difficult information about climate injustice can give rise to emotional, psychological and intellectual challenges that are too seldom made explicit in our teaching. Yet educational research shows that growing rates of hopelessness, guilt, nihilism and despair among young people compromises their ability to think critically or respond creatively. Moreover, it can ultimately lead students to shut down and withdraw rather than engage in climate solutions. My classes offer a space to confront those feelings head on: I provide tools and strategies for students to develop the affective, psychological, and existential skills they need to take up and sustain this difficult work over the long haul without becoming overwhelmed.
I also address the intersections of racial justice, privilege, trauma, colonialism, and power in climate change and its solutions. Across these many contexts, I constantly work to evaluate whether the way I teach about climate breakdown impairs or enhances student learning and feelings of agency, and ask my own students and colleagues (and myself!) to consider the following: what are the psychological burdens of climate change on different groups? How do race, gender, economic inequality and privilege shape the emotional toll of climate disruption? How do we help each other navigate the “doom-and-gloom” of environmental disaster?
Recent Courses Taught
BIS 490 Eco-Anxiety and Climate Grief: Building Hope in the Age of Consequences
BIS 356 Ethics and the Environment
BIS 245 Environmental Humanities
BCORE 104/110 Our Home in the Forest: Ecology, Literature and Culture
BIS 345 American Environmental Thought
Peru study abroad seminar: “From Andes to Amazon: Biodiversity, Conservation and Sustainability in Peru”
BIS 499 IAS Portfolio Capstone
BISSKL 375 Academic Research and Writing Seminar
BIS 371 Twentieth-Century American Literature
In recent years my research has turned toward the emotional and mental health impacts of climate disruption and ecological loss. I am currently working on a book titled An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Crisis (co-edited with Sarah Jaquette Ray) that explores strategies for helping young people navigate the emotional toll of climate breakdown. In tackling the intersecting crises of racial injustice, climate change, pandemics, and ecological degradation, we believe that our challenge today is to ensure that students don’t just have the content they need to address these issues, but that they also have the existential tenacity to stay engaged in climate solutions and navigate the long emergency ahead.
My seminars on Eco-Anxiety and Climate Grief have been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, National Geographic, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, High Country News, others. Public scholarship is a high priority for me in this work, and I regularly lead seminars and public talks on climate and mental health while collaborating with partners beyond the university (youth activists, climate scientists, psychologists and policy makers). My podcast Facing It also gives people tools to channel eco-anxiety into action. And with grant support from the Rachel Carson Center in Munich I lead a scholarly discussion series focusing on Eco-Grief and the Climate Generation featuring an international community of scholars in this emerging field. Much of this work will be featured in our forthcoming book, An Existential Toolkit for the Climate Crisis.
I am also the author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice (University of Georgia Press, 2018), a book that explores American garden literature as a “fantasy genre” where people enact desires for social justice, joyful labor, contact with nature, and more vibrant cities. The project examines a wide variety of texts, from popular garden books to literary fiction and nonfiction (works by Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison, Henry David Thoreau, Leslie Marmon Silko and John Steinbeck), “guerrilla gardening” manifestos, Hollywood film, and works of science fiction. In exploring the different fantasies arising from key historical moments in the U.S., Gardenland tells a much bigger story about who we are and the kinds of anxieties and desires that draw us to the soil. The book was selected as one of EcoLit’s “Best Environmental Books” of 2019 and featured on NPR’s Morning Edition as well as the Smithsonian Institution lecture series.
In other scholarly publications I’ve explored topics like the role of anxiety and grief in climate education, the place of “multi-sensory” experience in environmental humanities, representations of nature in utopian literature, and the ecology of terraforming in science fiction (see selected publications below).
- “The Emotional Curriculum of Climate Justice Education: An Existential Toolkit.” Co-authored with Sarah Jaquette Ray. The CSU Journal of Sustainability and Climate Change. Vol 1, Article 6 (2021).
- “How to Love a Burning World.” Forthcoming in Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World. Edited by Paul Bogard, University of Virginia Press (2022).
- “Eco-Grief and Climate Anxiety in the Classroom.” In Contemplative Practices and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogies for Higher Education: Bridging the Disciplines. Ed. Greta Gaard and Bengu Erguner-Tekinalp. Routledge, 2022.
- Mourning climate loss: ritual and collective grief in the age of crisis. CSPA Quarterly 32 (Spring 2021), 8-19.
- Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2018.
- “Multi-Sensory Experience and Environmental Encounter: Rethinking the Sustainability of Humanities Education.” Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, Vol. 16, Nos. 2/3/4 (2015), 253–266.
- “Comedies of Surplus.” Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden. Ed. Annette Giesecke and Naomi Jacobs. London: Black Dog Publishing (2012), 258-271.
- “Seeds of Change: The New Place of Gardens in Contemporary Utopia.” Utopian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2007), 237-260.
Essays and Creative Productions
- Facing It: a podcast about eco-anxiety and climate grief. Written and narrated by Jennifer Atkinson; music by Roberto David Rusconi; produced by Intrasonus UK.
- Climate Grief: Our Greatest Ally? Resilience. Aug 27, 2020.
- Why the Covid Gardening Boom is About More than Food. Earth Island Journal. June 10, 2020.
- The Impulse to Garden in Hard Times has Deep Roots. The Conversation. May 1, 2020.
- Gardening in Hard Times: A Hidden History from Jim Crow to Covid-19. Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), Monthly Feature. June 2020.
- Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake. High Country News. May 29, 2018.