Ask almost any IUP undergrad to tell you about ENGL 121 Humanities Literature, and right away, they'll know which course you mean. Offered as part of the Liberal Studies curriculum, ENGL 121 explores how stories are told and how literature can be used to critically examine ideas from multiple perspectives. The exact focus of each section is up to the instructor.

For Zeeshan Saddique, a doctoral candidate in IUP's Literature and Criticism PhD program, the chance to teach a section of ENGL121 presented a golden opportunity. Drawing on his strong personal connection to environmental advocacy, Zeeshan designed his fall 2023 section of the course to foster environmental stewardship through the study of narrative. The subtitle he gave his course: “Let’s Talk about Climate Change Fictions: What to Know, What’s Happening, and What Can We Do?”

Zeeshan Siddique (left) speaks with students from his environmentally-themed ENGL 121 Humanities Literature class.

Zeeshan's passion for environmentalism traces back to a transformative childhood memory in Kolkata, India. "The incident that changed my life while I was growing up in the dusty and polluted environment of Kolkata was a bunch of sparrows on our rooftop that had died due to smog," he recalled. Seeing the sparrows was a pivotal event for Zeeshan, one he will remember "for the rest of my life."

With encouragement from the example of his father, a professor of geography and environmental protection, Zeeshan began learning more about climate change. He went on to write his master's thesis at Aliah University on the literary manifestation of India's water crisis. "It is at this moment that I realized three things," Zeeshan explained, "How much I don't know about climate change, how much public awareness about this problem is important, and I have to live with this problem for the rest of my life."

This realization spurred Zeeshan to pursue a PhD focused on discovering the many ways climate stories can educate about future impacts and inspire action. He came to IUP with a clear vision for his doctoral research on "Anthropocene literature"—works that redefine, communicate, and contribute to the understanding of human-induced climate change.

Zeeshan's dissertation (he is currently working with IUP English Department faculty members Mike Sell, Susan Comfort, and Brett Clark, University of Utah) takes a multi-genre approach to the study of Anthropocene works, analyzing novels, films, and even video games to examine how these narratives are constructed and how they portray the complex cultural problems arising from viewing the world solely through a human lens. He explores how elements like video game mechanics and storylines interweave to present an interactive experience and how various works depict the political, economic, and social forces connected to the climate crisis.

Crucially, Zeeshan's research focuses on how Anthropocene literature can "offer engaging, elevating, and pragmatic ways to rethink sustainability and the decisions needed to tackle anthropogenic climate change." He sees immense potential to apply the engaging, interactive nature of mediums like video games to achieve meaningful real-world impacts.

This solutions-oriented perspective shaped Zeeshan's approach to his ENGL 121 course. He carefully curated a curriculum spanning animated films like WALL-E to immersive video games, inviting students from all majors to explore climate change from diverse angles. The genre-based strategy is aimed to meet students at their individual levels of understanding and interest.

"Understanding of environmental issues and empathy for all who are affected by them can be fostered through diverse narrative forms," Zeeshan explained, "in a sense, framing the global challenge of climate change as a personal narrative for each student." Personalized framing questions and collaborative discussions transformed the classroom into a forum for probing climate change's multifaceted impacts.

Creative assignments like writing short stories enabled students to craft their own climate narratives. "Bridging the gap between fiction and reality, the course highlights the power of literature as a tool for social change," noted Zeeshan. Beyond enriching students' knowledge, his innovative curriculum empowered them to articulate personal stories of the impact climate change has had in their own lives and advocate for environmental awareness in their communities.

The course, Zeeshan says, is "more than a success." It demonstrates the transformative potential of uniting education, literature, and collective action to tackle critical global issues. Far from a "snooze fest," Zeeshan's class sparks poignant stories, builds community, and exemplifies how relevant literature remains for confronting challenges like climate change.

Students praise the interactive nature of Zeeshan's class. "It's such an engaging class," remarked one student, noting the emphasis on active participation and discussion. The course's structure, with its diverse range of texts and multifaceted approach to the climate theme, allows every student to find a resonant entry point. An elementary education major even took away valuable teaching tips from observing how Zeeshan broke down complex topics and provided multiple avenues for exploration.

Zeeshan challenges his students to dig deep, pushing them to engage in close reading, think critically, and question their assumptions. The texts studied, like the striking example of dead swallows on a Kolkata rooftop from Zeeshan's own life, expose students to perspectives they might not otherwise encounter. One student shared that he felt much more informed about the climate crisis after taking the course. Even those with prior knowledge found their understanding enriched by the class's broad yet incisive approach. Throughout, students felt comfortable asking questions, knowing they were in a space that valued their insights and encouraged them to think beyond their own experiences.

For Zeeshan, this section of ENGL 121 was just the beginning. His course and PhD research affirm his conviction that "literature is not just a mirror to society, but a catalyst for change." Through his teaching and scholarship, Zeeshan Siddique is harnessing that catalytic power to write a new chapter in the vital story of climate action: a living, ongoing collaboration with his students and colleagues alike.

Current students who are interested in studying environmental issues through literature may also like to take ENGL 361 Environmental Literature, a course that explores how literature has played a role in exposing and resisting environmentally harmful thoughts and actions. Taught by Susan Comfort (Department of English), the course explores the creative uses of form, voice, and style of storytellers, poets, and writers who have protested and intervened in environmental degradation. Readings include a variety of cultural perspectives and historical eras, exploring environmental thought and literature by authors such as Henry David Thoreau, Louise Erdrich, Rachel Carson, Helon Habila, Han Kang, Jesmyn Ward, and Cherie Dimaline. The course examines how literature can help envision and create a more socially just and sustainable future. ENGL 361 Environmental Literature will next be offered in fall 2024.