Course guide 2017-2018

In this course guide, we aim to provide an overview of courses that focus on topics related to the environmental humanities. The guide is a work in progress: would you like to include your course here, please contact We also warmly welcome course descriptions from other Dutch universities.

Courses at the Faculty of Humanities

Research Master Humanities: Cross-cutting theme in the Environmental Humanities

This cross-cutting theme is ideal for students who have a drive to explore the social and cultural aspects of one of the most pressing concerns facing the planet: the environmental crisis. The question of how we interact with our natural environment is as much a problem of the imagination as it is of rising CO2-levels. Cultural modes of imagining the relations between humans and the environment impact our ways of interacting with planet earth. Scholars in the Humanities possess key tools to explore past and present entanglements of nature and culture across academic disciplines.

Students who choose this theme are encouraged to connect questions, issues and methodologies to probe pressing environmental concerns from the basis of their disciplinary track in History, Literature, or Arts and Culture. In the first semester of your first year, you begin your specialization with a core course in the Environmental Humanities. Building on the knowledge of the field’s key concepts, debates and methodologies you acquired in that course, you specialize further in the environmental humanities in a tailor-made package of courses and tutorials, combining your disciplinary training and knowledge with the interdisciplinary perspective of this specialization. Courses focus on such topics as the role of literature in shaping a sense of planet in the Anthropocene, sustainable design, or the history and cause of natural disasters (course topics subject to change). The environmental humanities specialization thus teaches students not only to apply their disciplinary methodologies and perspectives to environmental issues, but also to make creative connections to other humanities disciplines. Moreover, it trains a generation of students aware of the value of a broad field in the humanities in exploring pressing environmental concerns.

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam hosts the first Environmental Humanities Center in The Netherlands. As a research master student, you will be joining in our interdisciplinary events on such themes as the Anthropocene, nuclear waste, urban health, animal studies, landscape, eco-cosmopolitanism, and more. The Center also invites four students to join its board each year as student members, giving you an opportunity to follow your passion for combining your academic interests with the organization of public events. We have connections to several environmental institutes in the Amsterdam area and beyond, enabling you to pursue a research internship during your two-year programme.

The track prepares students for a (research) career on the cusp of nature and culture in academia, in environmental research institutes, museums, cultural centers, or NGO’s.

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Place and Planet in the Anthropocene
Lecturer: Dr. K. Steenbergh
Period 1, MA English Literature in a Visual Culture /RMA Literature and Contested Spaces
Course code L_ELMALTK001

In 2000, the Dutch Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that our current geological era should be called the “Anthropocene’. Deriving from the Greek ‘anthropos‘ (human), the name refers to the incredible impact of humankind on the planet and its ecosystems. Geologists are still debating whether they will declare the Anthropocene (see the Anthropocene Working Group). In the Humanities and Social Sciences, the focus on the human factor in issues such as climate change, overpopulation, air pollution and the exploitation of natural resources  has sparked an awareness that the problems of the Anthropocene cannot be solved by science alone. As the interdisciplinary RESCUE initiative commissioned by the ESF put it, “in a world where cultural values, political and religious ideas, and deep-seated human behaviors still rule the way people lead their lives, produce, and consume, the idea of environmentally relevant knowledge must change” (qtd in Sörlin 2012, 788).

In this course, we focus on the question of a ‘sense of planet’, and the role of literature and film in shaping this sense of planet. The Norwegian environmentalist philosopher Arne Naess has argued that with respect to humans’ capacity to care for others, “the nearer has priority over the more remote—in space, time, culture, species.” In response, other writers from a range of theoretical frameworks seek to shape a sense of eco-cosmopolitanism, or forms of cultural imagination and understanding that reach beyond the nation and around the globe. In this course, we will analyze two novels and two films from the perspective of these theories, and examine the role of literature in the shaping of a sense of place and planet. Also, we will ask how literature, film, and the humanities can help motivate a shift in environmental consciousness.

Nuclear Aesthetics

Lecturer: S. Lutticken
Period 1 + 2 + 3
Course code: L_KAMAKGS027

This year’s Seminar Contemporary Art is titled “Nuclear Aesthetics” and focuses on artistic responses to the nuclear regime from Hiroshima to Fukushima and beyond. Inhabiting, as we all do, a planet that has become a global
nuclear laboratory, artists have made work about nuclear energy and nuclear arms for a variety of reasons, including political and ecological concern; the boundaries with activism can be fluid. In many practices we also see an interest in what can be regarded as the fundamental aesthetic challenge of atomic energy: the invisibility or “insensibility” of radiation. As the anthropologist Joseph Masco puts it: “While the prosthetic devices that populate nuclear physics
laboratories enable scientists to enter the subatomic realm and measure the material effects of plutonium and other radionuclides, most people in the nuclear age remain literally senseless to radiation, dependent in everyday life on biological, not machinic, insights.”

In this respect, artists are part of “most people.” And yet: can art provide ways of imagining and thinking the nuclear, the subatomic? Modern art has often replaced representation with abstraction, declaring new realities and new visions beyond, above or below mundane realism. In 1945, modernism and the avant-garde got more than they bargained for; from that moment on, from the Surrealists and Situationists to Conceptual art, we see a frequently ambiguous encounter with the nuclear, its lure and its horror. After the end of the Cold War interest waned, but since the Fukushima disaster radioactivity (its in the air for you and me, as Kraftwerk put it) is back on the agenda in contemporary art.

Is there an aesthetic politics or political aesthetics that can be gleaned from various practices? What theoretical and historiographic tools do we need when studying such aesthetic practices (which may themselves be research-based or include a theoretical component)? We will read key texts by authors from various disciplines, view films and have discussions with artists; each student will select a research topic that can be monographic or thematic in nature, and present their
findings in the form of a presentation and in writing.

Digital and Environmental Humanities

Course coordinator: Prof. dr. I.B. Leemans
Period 2, RMA Humanities
Course code: L_AAMPALG007

This course offers an introduction for all Humanities Research Master students into the present state of Humanities research, specifically to the VU research environment, and the cross-cutting themes Digital Humanities and Environmental Humanities, as examples of relatively new, dynamic interdisciplinary research fields. Introduction to these fields
will provide insight as tot how humanities research can connect to other sciences and how can we connect Humanities research with societal challenges.

History of Natural Disasters

Lecturer: Prof. dr. P. J. E. M. van Dam
Period 2+3, RMA Humanities
Course code: L_GEMPGES002

To the preservation of our planet for future generations is given top priority by local, provincial, national and supra-national authorities. Often discussions focus on sustainability and quality of life. Also attention is paid to threats imposed on mankind. The course will focus on ’nature-induced’ disasters during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taking for granted that most natural disasters have a human component. Examples of natural disasters with great impacts are the Tambora earthquake of 1815 in Indonesia and the Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Japan, the floods of the Zuiderzee estuary in 1825 and 1916, the tsunami in de Indian Ocean of 2004 and the Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005. How do we describe and explain such natural disasters in terms of human and natural agency; how do societies cope with natural
disasters? What were causes and what the consequences of these disasters in terms of collective or individual remembrance, new prevention policies, and landscape management? A wide array of questions will be posed and addressed from global environmental, institutional, and socio-economic history, and memory studies.

Global Water History

Lecturer: Prof. dr. P.J.E.M. van Dam
Period 4, BA History (specialization Global History)
Course code: L_GEBAGES211

In this course we focus on the complex historical relationship between humans and water. It is connected to large global processes like population growth, industrialization, technological progress, the nation state, and urbanisation. Humans contributed to large changes in the watery environment including creating plastic soup and other pollution, desertification, damming of surface water, and large-scale withdrawal of groundwater. How does this affect human societies? Water history has many aspects. Water is an important ressource as for drinking water and for production processes (ground water, rain water) and an important means of transport (canals, rivers, seas). But water can also be a
safety threat in particular in the low-lying regions on the coasts of oceans, where many cities are situated. Since water is so essential for life in many cultures it has acquired special religious meanings (baptism) and controling water often is an expression of political and cultural power (decorative fountains in cities). We concentrate on the period 1800-2000, when cities exploded worldwide.We compare developments in some global regions, in particular Europe (Netherlands, England and Germany), USA and Asia (Indonesia, India and the Middle East).

Courses at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

See the Green Office’s inventory of courses on relevant themes at our university:






Course guide 2016-2017



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