Grad student Emma Schneider in her garden holding a book.

From Tufts to Environmental Scholar

English doctoral candidate Emma Schneider uses literature to shape the field of environmental humanities

By Kristin Livingston, A05

When Emma Schneider was a first-year high school teacher, she would walk three miles from her home in Brookline to the school in Roxbury every day; two neighborhoods that are socioeconomically a world apart. “The streets were filled with more and more trash as I made my way to work,” she says. “It’s just not fair,” Schneider says. When she came to Tufts to pursue her Ph.D. in English, she knew she needed to incorporate this type of social environmental work into her program, but how?

On the Maddest Hunts

Schneider’s original focus was 19th-century women’s literature, a passion she honed while an undergraduate at Oberlin College. But she always had a love of and respect for nature, even gardening in her spare time and living in a co-op. After her first year at Tufts, she received an email from Professor Elizabeth Ammons, who was researching an environmental justice anthology with fellow English Department faculty member Modhumita Roy. Did Schneider want to help?

“I was an instant convert,” Schneider says. “I’m lucky that the Tufts Ph.D. English program is small and flexible enough that everyone is connected, even across departments, and often thinking about collaboration.”

The goal to find stories that give a voice to the environment, using literature as a social force to literally save the planet, has led her down a research rabbit hole. “I go on the maddest hunts,” she says, with a laugh. “Imagine trying to find a poem about e-waste.” Schneider explains that computers, batteries, even refrigerators can be toxic if taken apart without proper equipment. “There are cities in China, Africa, and India where their main industry is recycling these dumped parts.” She found just such a poem by Rita Wong to add to the collection.

“There’s a very activist mode to Liz’s teaching, which I love,” Schneider says. 

A list of books recommended by Schneider: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Thinking Beyond Ourselves

Schneider has taken on that activist role in her studies, researching good storytelling that can rally the community behind a cause. “You can give them the data,” she says. Or you can put that data into a story, raising the impact it may have in helping someone shift their opinion. 

“I think it’s really important to combine all science research with questions about what we imagine, why we imagine what we do, and what the ethics of those assumptions are. Literature is a great place to get us to think beyond ourselves,” she says.

Schneider did just that as part of the Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT) program in which she co-taught Environmental Justice and World Literature with Ammons. GIFT not only paired her with a mentor, but it also gave Schneider real-world teaching experience at a college level. She also designed and taught her own first-year writing course, Perceiving Environments. “I’ve been trying different teaching methods, grounding education in assignments and observations around Tufts,” she says. She asks her students to make their writing relevant to the place they live in; their pieces have been published in The Daily and Orion Magazine.

“Liz is amazing,” Schneider says of her mentor. “She’s been such a patient, motivating, kind, and brilliant advisor. She’s a good teacher who shares that practice. And she has faith in me even when I don’t have enough faith in myself.”

English Ph.D. candidate Emma Schneider sits in her vegetable garden with a book.

Beyond the classroom, Schneider grows flowers and vegetables in her Tufts Community Garden plot on campus. (Zara Tzanev /Tufts University)

Uniquely Rewarded

For her unique and original environmental humanities work, Schneider has earned a fellowship from the Center for Humanities at Tufts. She’s also the first environmental literature scholar to be chosen as a Switzer Fellow, given by the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation for driving positive environmental change. “And it is great that Tufts Institute for the Environment has also given her a grant,” Ammons says. “Usually those grants go to scientists, so it is especially exciting that a humanist has been chosen.”

Schneider says she feels lucky to have the fellowships, adding, “I was worried about how I would finish my degree and have enough money to make ends meet. It’s such a blessing.”

Now she has ample time to work, write, and research her dissertation which focuses on contemporary North American Environmental Literature. “A lot of times in western lit, talking or listening to plants and animals is something you grow out of with age,” she says. “I’m interested in books that challenge that. How could we imagine a space where all trees are beings, not just materials?”

Ammons adds, “She’s also concentrating on narratives created by people whose understanding of the natural world remains strong, such as many Native American authors and thinkers. The impact of her work is paradigm-setting in the humanities.”

After Tufts, Schneider aims to teach in a rural or underserved community—and write a children’s book. “I have dreams of writing playful environmental fantasies that give hope.”