Worcester PhD Student Wins International Essay Prize

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A University of Worcester PhD student has been awarded a prestigious accolade by the influential European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and the Environment (EASLCE).

Pippa Marland, who is studying for a doctorate in Ecocriticism, has won the EASLCE Prize for the Best Graduate Student Essay in European Ecocriticism, and will receive her award at the organisation’s Biennial Conference in Estonia in April.

A former professional musician and music teacher, Pippa took up her studentship at Worcester in 2011.

She explains: “Ecocriticism is an area of critical theory that studies the representation of nature – or the ‘more-than-human’ world - in literature and other cultural forms, largely from the perspective of anxieties around humanity’s impact on the environment.

“I’ve always been interested in both Green politics and literature, so I was delighted to be able to develop an ecocritical project for a PhD thesis. My formal subject is an ecocritical study of ‘islandness’ in the post-1960s Anglophone literature of the islands around the British and Irish archipelago.

“I’ve chosen to focus on these islands as they seem to occupy a special place in our cultural imagination, often involving a heightened sense of the relationship between the self and the world.”

Pippa’s award-winning essay focuses particularly on the account of Orford Ness in Suffolk, in W.G Sebald’s 1995 work ‘Rings of Saturn’.

Orford Ness served as a secret military base throughout the twentieth century, and was home to atomic and biological weapons testing. Despite now being a nature reserve owned by the National Trust, Pippa says it retains an ‘eerie’ feel.

“Sebald’s description brings out very clearly the associations with some of the darkest aspects of human behaviour and history,” Pippa explains. “He is particularly preoccupied with man’s inhumanity to man as evidenced in war, and the writing evokes – though it never explicitly mentions – images of the Holocaust.

“My essay takes a recent strand of ecocritical theory – ‘material ecocriticism’ – and argues that its focus on our material immersion in the world has perhaps deflected attention too far from the specifities of the human animal, such as human consciousness and its necessary role in the construction of environmental ethics.”

In her essay, Pippa contrasted a recent episode of BBC nature series Springwatch, set on Orford Ness, which celebrates the material decay of the military buildings and the re-encroachment of nature, with Sebald’s version, in which the landscape is still haunted by the traumatic associations of its past.

She adds: “My conclusion is that Sebald’s work shows that there is a vital need to keep interrogating the human animal. After all, it is an animal that has used its technicity to ‘design the end of the world’, has made attempts to eradicate whole racial components of its own species, and is evidently quite capable of carrying out environmental destruction on a massive scale. If we forget our history we lose some of the means of reflecting on and perhaps modifying human behaviour.

After submitting her essay for consideration for the annual prize, Pippa says that the award has helped boost her confidence and her ties to other academics conducting research in this field.

“A lot of the work you carry out as a PhD student is done in isolation, building towards the completion of a final thesis,” she says. “Sometimes it’s difficult to assess the quality of your own work in relation to the wider world of academia, and I imagine that at some point every PhD student experiences a lack of confidence and doubts the value of their research.

“This award is very important to me as it has helped to boost my confidence and vindicate my decision to work towards a PhD. It also strengthens my sense of belonging within the international academic community of ecocritics.

“The award is also testament to the excellence of my supervisory team at the University of Worcester and their unstinting support. Dr John Parham, in particular, has been a leading figure in British ecocriticism since its inception, and has provided me with invaluable opportunities to engage with current ecocritical theory and develop my academic writing.”