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From Goethe to Green Literature

German Professor Heather Sullivan brings a humanities approach to environmental studies. Plus teaches the startling origins of fairy tales

By Russell Guerrero 83

February 2011 –  Heather Sullivan, associate professor of German, has always been attracted to environmental questions. Along with her interests in German literature and culture and science (she received her bachelor’s degree in biology), Sullivan is drawn to fundamentally rethinking our connection to the material world and to nature.

Linda Salvucci

Heather Sullivan, associate professor of German

For the last several years, Sullivan has been researching and writing on ecocriticism, a relatively recent movement that addresses environmental concerns from a literary perspective.

And thanks to Trinity’s encouragement of interdisciplinary work, Sullivan has been able to incorporate her research into the University’s environmental studies major.

Sullivan teaches a course titled World Literature and the Environment, which is paired with a biology course called Novel Environments: Global Ecology taught by biology professor James Shinkle.  This unique partnering of classes, developed with help from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was created, in part, to help teach science to non-science majors. The two professors each take an hour to teach the same group of students.

For her class, Sullivan introduces students to texts from around the world where environmental themes are present, if only in the background.  For example, in the novella Brigtta by Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, the author  romanticizes pastoral life and paints the city as a place of lost souls who feel disconnected from their surroundings. 

Another selection, Tales from the Garbage Hill by Turkish writer Latife Tekin, features the stories of families who work or live by factories emitting toxic waste outside of Istanbul. 

Sullivan said her goal is to show students that nature is not some distant place but an inseparable part of their lives.

In addition to teaching and researching ecocriticism, Sullivan teaches a course on fairy tales.  “There is so much fabulous scholarship in fairy tales,” she said, explaining that fairy tales as literature grew during the time of Goethe and the Romantics, around 1750 to 1850, the era she researches.

“Students are just fascinated by it,” said Sullivan. What really surprises them is that many of the stories they learned as children, which seemed tame or wholesome, have very different beginnings.  For example, an early version of Little Red Riding Hood does not have a woodsman coming to her rescue and killing the wolf dressed as grandma. Instead, before getting into bed with the wolf, Little Red takes off her clothes one article at a time, and uses her striptease to escape, naked, to safety.  Oh, and in this version, she does not wear red. 

Sullivan introduces students to the research on fairy tales and guides them through the ways they can read the texts. The students then debate the meanings behind the childhood stories in the classroom and often argue about race, gender, and class issues. “I think that is what education is all about – informing yourself about your own cultural assumptions and being able to rethink them with a lot of great scholarship.”

In the fall, Sullivan will broaden the environmental studies major by teaching a new course titled Science Fiction and the Environment. “I’m really looking forward to the course. Because there is so much great science fiction that deals with environmental issues in various ways,” said Sullivan, adding that many stories deal with post-apocalyptic, dystopian, and utopian worlds.  “I think it will be a popular course.”

Courses Taught

  • First-Year, Second-Year, and Advanced German
  • Introduction to German Literature and Culture
  • Introduction to Comparative Literature
  • World Literature and the Environment
  • German Literature in Translation: Fairy Tales
  • First Year Seminar: Readings in Science and Religion

Selected Publications

“The Dynamics of Goethe’s Novelle: The Never-Ending Journey to Newton’s Burg,” 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 17, 2010.

“Unbalanced Nature, Unbounded Bodies, and Unlimited Technology: Ecocriticism and Karen Traviss’ Wess’har Series,” Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society 30.4, 2010.

“Ecocriticism, the Elements, and the Ascent/Descent into Weather in Goethe’s Faust,” Goethe Yearbook 17, 2010.

“Ecocriticism, Goethe’s Optics, and Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten: Emergent Forms versus Newtonian ‘Constructions,’” Monatshefte 101.2, 2009.


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