Fall 2020

Encounters with Nature

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-110

Moodle site: Course


Nicola M. Courtright (Section 01)


What is our place in nature? How do we feel about natural spaces we encountered growing up
and how do we view the environment of Amherst College and its setting in New England? How did people in the past think about nature and how did they change their environments as a consequence? Did different races experience and alter nature in different ways? How have the ideas and experiences of the past affected us today? And how do we imagine the future of the natural world? Has the current pandemic permanently changed how we think about nature?

This course will explore how our ideas of nature have changed over time. We will give particular attention to the ways we have recreated particular kinds of natural spaces and how we have depicted nature in images. We begin with walks in the nearby wildlife sanctuary, discussions of our past encounters with nature, a study of the Amherst Campus, and, while the weather is still warm, a hike or two. During these excursions we will discuss what we see, take visual notes on the landscape through drawing (no expertise necessary), and discuss and write about how our experience with the land might differ from how people experienced it in the past. We then will explore New England further, discuss ideas about wilderness in the United States, and look closely at American landscape painting. Where do our deeply held assumptions come from? To find out, we will look at poetry, philosophy, Western painting traditions, and scientific illustration. We also will think about why people collect and draw natural specimens, and how they mapped their environments from the Renaissance through the Aztec empire to the current day.

The course will provide an introduction to liberal studies by helping students learn how to read and comprehend complex texts and images, respond to them in sophisticated ways, and engage in critical reasoning. We expect students to be active participants in class discussions. Students will write brief abstracts every week about the readings and every other week or so perform close readings of texts, art, maps, and even gardens and landscapes.

In-person teaching in tent until bad weather, then class in classroom and teacher remote.
In-person hikes.
Office hours outdoors and remotely.
Visits to Mead Art Museum when possible.
Options for online-only participation will be available for those students unable to be present in person.


Attention to Issues of Class, Attention to Issues of Gender and Sexuality, Attention to Issues of Race, Attention to Speaking, Fine Arts for Non-majors, Transnational or World Cultures Taught in English, Writing Intensive


2020-21: Offered in Fall 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018, Fall 2020