Dec. 8, 2020

English student explores how we understand climate change through narrative

PhD student, Killam Laureate Leah Van Dyk examines the literature of climate change

Understanding the climate crisis underpinning our current zeitgeist isn't only the domain of the environmental sciences. Climate change is increasingly woven into our self-understanding across forms of narrative from television and movies to fiction and non-fiction literature to social media and memes. It’s proving to be a rich field of inquiry for Leah Van Dyk, a 2020 Killam Laureate and English doctoral student.

Over decades of transformative thought, English as a discipline has come to encompass a far broader field than the study of traditional literary classics, with specialists now applying theoretical tools to new areas of inquiry.

 As a master’s student, Van Dyk began to see a wide horizon of possibilities to study at the bleeding edge of the discipline.

English and environmental criticism

“I realized the department had diverse opportunities for studying in areas like environmental humanities and literature, Indigenous studies and cultural theory, and other interesting specializations,” says Van Dyk. “My supervisor, Dr. Morgan Vanek, PhD, specializes in trans-Atlantic and environmental literature. I was motivated to work with her for her expertise in these areas, as well as her theoretical expertise in environmental criticism.”

Van Dyk’s doctoral work focuses on climate change literature. “Working from a broad definition of literature, I’m interested in the different kinds of stories that can be ‘told’ by different kinds of text,” she explains, pointing to ephemeral forms of media like news stories as examples of other kinds of text worth investigating alongside non-fiction and fiction works that address climate change.

“We can look at a text and ask how it demonstrates community,” says Van Dyk. “What different forms of relationship are evidenced in text? For example, is there evidence of a relationship of people with the land?”

Activism and academia

A key figure in Van Dyk’s research is journalist David Wallace-Wells, whose 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth forecasts a doomsday world by exploring what science currently tells us about climate change. “Wells is trying to bring environmental awareness to popular consciousness,” says Van Dyk. “It raises important questions: are there different types of narrative that are more effective in engaging people?”

Van Dyk is drawn to the crossroads between activism, community work and academia, seeing a potential for her research to have a real-world impact. “Arts and literature are the birthplace of activism,” she says. “There is often something in literature that is deeply relational, that calls you in to be part of that for a short time. What is the effect of that on your consciousness? Those relational imperatives that literature calls for are unique to the arts. Scientific and policy reports don’t make the same kind of emotive connection.”

Interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability

Van Dyke's approach demands a high degree of interdisciplinarity, as she finds herself bridging the channels between literary study, environmental science, political science, and Indigenous ways of knowing.

“Leah’s work is timely and important in showing that the drive toward clean energy and sustainability mobilizes innovation across a broad range of disciplines,” says Dr. Robin Yates, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies. “Her work demonstrates just one of the ways that our graduate students help make the University of Calgary a leader through times of great change. Her Killam award certainly speaks to the spirit of ingenuity and optimism at the foundation of her research.”

Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarships

The Izaak Walton Killam Doctoral Scholarship is worth $36,000 per year for two years. As one of five Canadian universities supported by the Killam Trusts, the University of Calgary recognizes Killam Laureates as being among the most promising doctoral scholars in the country.

“It’s incredible to be recognized as a scholar worthy of a Killam award,” says Van Dyk, who is also a recipient of a SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship. “As an arts scholar, it’s especially important, and it’s wonderful to have my research validated this way.”