How to Approach Literature for Success

Key Concepts

  • The following strategies support the goals of this book for sophomore university students of literature and ensure that they engage in a literary studies course that is relevant to their own lived experiences and communities.

As Laguna Leslie Marmon Silko, Nobel Prize-winning Black novelist Toni Morrison, and award-winning female journalist Joan Didion remind us, we need “stories in order to live” (Didion 2007). Therefore, the strategies below support success in course outcomes by placing literature as an artform for learners to negotiate and research ways to live and coexist with nature and each other.


1) Be an Active Learner

Active learning means to recognize your independent role in your own learning and in offering your  perspectives when you engage in collaborative projects with peers. Even if you are quite shy, your contribution to a group project is as valuable as when you work alone.

  • An active learner takes initiative on course materials to succeed in the assignments.
  • Learning models for effective engagement may vary depending on the type of learner, yet this book serves visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing learners (see model below).
  • To show one’s own learning process, explain concepts with peers in discussions and presentations and also gather and become familiar with key information, concepts, ideas to  express your thoughts on the material in written reflections and when you share ideas from the readings to discuss with peers. This culture of learning ensures successful learning experiences.
  • This book offers you opportunities to ‘process’ information, and to ‘apply’ it in short activities, and to build your ‘knowledge’ of featured material in short writing assignments and with an end of semester sustainability project, which is conducted in small groups.
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy is a model to enhance initial learning to build analysis and understanding and to create independent ideas. Remember that learning is a ‘social’ culture and collaboration.
  • View the model below and visit our glossary on the Active Learning Model.
2) Role of Note Taking

“A strategy for success throughout this book is to take notes on sustainability ‘topics’ and examples of ‘ways to interpret’ a piece of literature.”A strategy for success throughout this book is to take notes on sustainability ‘topics’ and examples of ‘ways to interpret’ a piece of literature. Additional assignments include close-reading exercises and how to apply ecocritical interpretations. The chapters of each of the three sections of this book offer valuable information and examples.

  • Take notes, annotate, and engage with the activities and reading list throughout this book. These shorter, more manageable examples guarantee the building of your own critical reading and thinking skills.
  • Other opportunities to build on the skills set is to write short papers. They also contribute to the development of writing that rewards you with techniques and approaches to interpret and understand the literature on topics that are current and relevant to you. On the Cornell Method of Note taking, go to OER Pressbooks  or  OER On Cornell Note Taking.

The reading list in each chapter challenges learners to engage in the literature of a people who lived in the distant past; yet whose works share commonalities relevant today. This book also offers end of chapter activities and writing assignments to ensure successful experiences of inquiry for engaged active learning experiences to excel in each of the course outcomes.

3) Practice to Identify Key Terms & Literary Devices to Build Critical Reading Skills

“Another strategy for success is to work with key terms and practice identifying literary devices in a piece of literature to continue to build on your critical reading and thinking skills.”Another strategy for success is to work with key terms and practice identifying literary devices in a piece of literature to continue to build on your critical reading and thinking skills. This book offers you growth in literacies on the content of a piece of literature and ways of addressing topics still relevant today, including those that pertain to sustainability, like gender equality, environmental injustice, institutional racism, and life on land and ocean.

4) Engage in Critical Reading & Build ‘Interpretative Approaches’

The scale of representation in this book and its reading lists take into account many communities and the identities of their members. Learners are challenged to close read key passages to sharpen their critical reading. To also ensure that this course introduces literature to learners of numerous communities, this intentional curation of content offers various learning styles, addressing sustainability in different modalities, including through the image, text, film clip, and interactive activities. These various forms guarantee that its subject matter is culturally relevant and that all learners have equal access to their own terms and talents.

For example, when asked, can the UN’s sustainable development goals help ensure that the human rights of the LGBTQ+ community are respected? Proof is demonstrated by the UN’s Free and Equal Campaign (OER on UN & LGBTQI Community Rights). So, as you read and take notes, also work with key passages to engage, and build on ecocritical ‘interpretative’ strategies.

“Interpretative Lenses Guide” shows how to build on ‘initial understandings’ and gain new understandings. The diagram is called a “Hermeneutic Circle.”

5) How to Interpret Works of Literature to Make Meaning

The “Hermeneutic Circle” is a simple diagram of the dynamics of ‘close reading’ and the natural cycle of learning something new by working with literature and on its context. To build critical reading skills, learners read to gain clarity on text itself and on its ‘context’ – such as culture, history, ideology, among others like Ecocriticism, Feminism, Marxism, for example. The process is repeated as new information is learned and considered.

  • Before any learner engages in a critical close reading to interpret, first, know the text well enough.
  • Read and build on impressions and clarify key terms and ideas. Review. Repeat.
  • Then, read about its context – its culture, historical era, and its ideology. Review.
  • Then, apply an ‘analytical’ approach to the same text, in order to build on critical reading and thinking processes. This helps learners to build and gain new understandings of initial thoughts on meaning: Ecocriticism, Feminism, Queer Studies, Marxism, and/or other theoretical approaches. New meanings emerge.

The Hermeneutic Circle Diagram guides learners on interpretation CC

6) Build Learning Experiences by Making Inquiries – Ask Questions!

Traditionally, learners of literature always anticipate questions. Inquiries about authors and poets and ways to understand their works. This book also challenges learners to ask about the communities that care for their storytellers and poets, to inquire about the roles literature serves. Works of literature challenge all of us. They assist us to learn about ourselves; they always address our shared experiences because storytelling traditions from all around the world have always taught us about “life itself”(Glotfelty and Fromm 165).

To succeed, also inquire about general aspects of a piece of literature, while you also ask about how a poem, or song, or story challenges you to think about personal and current concerns, like inequality and climate stability.

7) Inquiries for Student-Centered Learning

In light of today’s climate challenges, the discipline of literary studies is more relevant than ever. This discipline offers opportunities to pursue the many facets that support how we live, including equity, social justice, environmentalism, and sustainability.

Inquiries for Student-Centered Learning

  • What is literature?
  • What roles has literature served?
  • What role can literature play in our challenging times on equality and climate stability?
8) Work with Varied Cultures to Collaborate for a Sustainable Future

A literary studies course is a relevant undertaking. Therefore, works of literature from varied cultures and their historical legacies are featured. We learn about their aesthetic merits and roles in the past, so we in the present can turn to storytelling “in order to live,” especially as we learn about sustainability. As Joni Adamson states,

“If we want to create landscapes different from Euro-American landscapes of dominion and control, we will need to articulate our different positions, analyze and explicate the underlying bases of social and ecological injustices, and find common ground by exploring our shared situations and responsibilities” (Adamson 2001).

Storytelling traditions are also crucial to learn about morals and values – the social practices that expose not only how we treat each other but how we treat nature – the nonhuman aspects of nature on Earth.

Students navigate many cultures and communities across regions, timelines, and worldviews throughout this book with featured poets, storytellers, writers, and playwrights. Each chapter features several literary works to demonstrate their literary merits – from hymns and songs to origin stories and the epic and folklore story collections and Elizabethan theater, to point to areas of interest on relevant themes, such as systemic inequalities, environmental devastation, and peace and justice.

Featured literature is also relevant on aspects that pertain to sustainability. Hence, regardless of the era and tradition of a specific literary tradition, many works shed light on challenges that we also face, especially in our tantamount era of climate instability – like the overuse of the earth’s resources and relying on fossil fuels, while practicing unjust hierarchical views of humans and nonhuman. Assignments are both collaborative and involve independent critical thinking and writing.

Another strategy for success is to become familiar with the United Nations Sustainability Guide (UNSDG).

9) Familiarity with United Nations Sustainability Guide

Another strategy for success is to familiarize yourself with the United Nations Sustainability Goals – the image is a brief outline of its main seventeen goals. It features aspects of our global village that relate to all of us as we continue to learn more about what it means to live in a sustainable world as members of the web of life.

Curricular Guide on United Nations Sustainable Development Guide CC

To engage with the UN SDG, briefly download this video: UNSDG Video.

10) How Do Lived Experiences Guide You to Address 21st Century Challenges?

This goal is understood as part of current scholarship on ecological and environmental justice and equity in class, gender, and race, which are subtopics among sustainability initiatives. They intersect in literary studies to aim for “intergenerational equity” (OER on intergenerational justice) in a sustainable world. We rely on ‘ecocritical’ perspectives to interpret and learn about how literary works inform both our concerns about racial and social justice and the rights and protection of the environment and ecology.

*End of term team-led sustainability project fulfills course objectives on conducting research to demonstrate critical literary approaches.

11) A ‘How to Approach’ Interpretative Methods 

The course outcome is to demonstrate basic methods of literary analysis. This means to engage with literature to gain knowledge through interpretation. This is a process that starts with initial close reading to critical analysis. To meet this goal, the guide below shows you the process from familiarity to understanding.

  • First, approach a piece of literature to familiarize yourself with its content, so you can easily summarize and paraphrase it, as well as to be able to identify and describe a few of its elements of fiction – like character and theme – or poetic forms and language –  like metaphor and imagery.
  • Then, once you become familiar with its ‘content’, you can engage with the same piece of literature to analyze a relevant topic.

To go beyond summarizing and identification means to engage in gaining knowledge, an understanding of the literature where you offer your insights in an interpretation. The next step contributes to the development of your analysis and interpretation:

  • The course outcome to apply interpretative methods in the literature – through different critical and theoretical perspectives, like ‘ecocriticism’ –  means to rely on an interpretative method to help you to gain knowledge and develop your interpretation.

So, while initial close readings of a piece of literature serve as ‘icebreakers’ of familiarity, interpretative methods assist in practicing critical understandings. “Yet, this book focuses on topics explored in traditional criticism as well as readings informed from ecocriticism to also consider representations of nature, the nonhuman.”Refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Some of the most known approaches are new criticism, feminism, Marxism, queer and postcolonialism criticism. Yet, this book focuses on topics explored in traditional criticism as well as readings informed from ecocriticism to also consider representations of nature, the nonhuman.


In light of today’s climate and sustainability challenges – like ecocritics of environmental literature –  students generate both culturally and environmentally relevant projects, as they work out “an idea of nature that includes human culture and human livelihood” (Wilson qtd. in Armbruster and Wallace 2001). This is an ‘ecocritical method.’ Ecocritical approaches also honor culture, as an interpretive method to learn about cultural norms and  topics on nature. This book addresses the historical context of works of literature to challenge learners to identify and learn how literature reveals the cultural norms, worldviews, and values of a people, like those outlined by the United Nations Sustainability Goals (UNSDG).

To demystify representations of nature in literature, topics on sustainability are featured in ‘end of term’ project; learners can address twenty-first century concerns that matter to them in practical terms. This is a form of praxis. These projects engage learners in problem-solving projects to exercise their own agency in making real change. “Environmental readings of literature and culture may need to engage more directly…keeping alert to the need for more direct kinds of activism”(Clarke 198).

Ecocriticism recognizes ‘since the 1990s we have reached the age of environmental limits’ (Dodd 2015).

So, while learners develop sharper ‘close reading’ talents to identify literary elements –  like the use of imagery and metaphor, or the causal structure of its plot or emerging themes – they also build on a familiarity of literature beyond aesthetics, by applying an ‘interpretative method’, like an ‘ecocritical method’ to read and learn beyond human matters; since the 1990s “we have reached the age of environmental limits” (Dodd 2015). Twenty-first century forms of global ecology and health challenge literary studies to begin to understand commonalities between racial and gender identity injustices and the misuse of nature, the nonhuman. An ecocritical interpretative method encourages “An ecocritical interpretative method encourages all students of literary studies to see how literature can offer insights into living in a more just world between ourselves and in how we interact and treat the nonhuman; nature.”all students of literary studies to see how literature can offer insights into living in a more just world between us and in how we interact and treat the nonhuman; nature. In conclusion, this book offers readings and examples to engage students to begin reading as ‘ecocritics’ for the purpose of understanding how nature is represented, which inspires innovative interpretations on the multifaceted components of sustainability.

What does Intersectionality mean?

For our introduction to literary studies course, let’s begin to build on our initial understandings of injustices witnessed in the literature, while considering the role of nature in those same texts.

Let’s slowly start to build and learn how to approach intersections without overwhelming our close readings of a text and to avoid interpretations that do not hold much merit and validity.

How to Read to Identify an Intersection?

Here is a method to read and build on initial understandings to then consider an intersection between an injustice and the representation of nature. Remember that in one piece of literature, we can learn about both an injustice suffered and how nature is treated.

An example on close reading to identify an intersection in poetry:

The poem The Stolen White Girl (1868) by Cherokee American John Rollin Ridge shows how one injustice intersects with another. In this case it is racism and miscegenation. John Rollin Ridge grew up in a more integrated community among both Cherokees and those of European descent like his father. Let’s close read a few lines from Ridge’s poem (see below). His poem reads like romantic poetry. It is about two lovers who escape, and it is set in the wilderness. The source of conflict in the poem is racism, because each of the two lovers are from different cultural heritages.

Though he stole her away from the land of the whites,
Pursuit is in vain, for her bosom delights
In the love that she bears the dark-eyed, the proud,
Whose glance is like starlight beneath a night-cloud.

In a close reading analysis of these lines, it shows that both of the lovers experience an injustice, because they are not allowed to freely choose. Let’s focus on the male. His unstated background is quickly revealed when we know that the girl is of European descent. This helps us to infer that he is of the Cherokee nation. The couple must run and hide in the wilderness.

  • Identify how it intersects with the representation of nature?
    • Yet, what further is learned once we take this view of a male Cherokee and identify how it intersects with the representation of nature? This intersection invites more understandings of the male lover, because being Cherokee also means that the place he took her to may be imagined – “Intersections between a Cherokee and nature opens new readings and understandings.”the Cherokee people suffered genocide as the Trail of Tears shows. Intersections between a Cherokee and nature opens new readings and understandings to address racism, misogyny, and nationalism as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the genocide of Indigenous communities.
  • An Ecocritical Reading
    • An ecocritical reading continues this line of inquiry and analysis, by asking about the fate of the ancestral land of the Cherokees.
      • Recommended sources for research are provided at the end of each chapter. They serve your success in the ‘end of term’ sustainability project.

Key Points

  • An identified intersection invites more understandings
  • Learn to approach intersections without overwhelming a close readings of a text
  • An ecocritical reading continues this line of inquiry and analysis on identified intersection
  • Consider an intersection between an injustice and the representation of nature


How to Approach Literature to Learn about Sustainability?

  • Literary studies is an optimal platform to identify sustainability topics outlined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG) – across cultures, geographies, and disciplines.
  • Common critical approaches to assist in interpretation and understanding are Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, Feminism, Indigenous Studies, Marxism, Queer Theory and Postcolonialism are examples of critical approaches. While referencing these approaches, this class relies on ecocriticism, because literary themes address how we treat each other and nature.

Sample Self-Assessment Rubrics


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Literary Studies For A Sustainable Future Copyright © 2024 by Lisette Helena Assia Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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