COOL CLASSES: “The Premodern Life of Trees”

From Shakespeare to Virgil, Visiting Assistant Professor Danielle Allor’s class explores early literature’s portrayal of trees.

Class name: “The Premodern Life of Trees: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Study of the Past”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of English Danielle Allor

Says Allor about her class:
My class is about trees in old books. We’re reading literature from before the year 1600 that portrays trees in some way, including Virgil’s Georgics and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Alongside these works, we are also examining different theoretical models for engaging with the past, including queer theory, history and sociology of science, Indigenous studies, and anthropology (among others). We are also making great use of Haverford’s Arboretum, which lets us also encounter trees and their management experientially. The Arboretum is teaching students how they keep records on the trees and we have also scheduled a hands-on planting workshop. 

All of this together will help us think about how we might study trees of the past holistically and interdisciplinarily. The trees described in classical, medieval, and early modern literature are words on a page, so how can we help them come alive? And although the course is themed around trees, I hope that the theoretical context will be useful to students studying any aspect of the past.

Allor on why she wanted to teach this class:
I study representations of trees in Middle English literature, so this is my dream course to teach! I’m fascinated with the many ways that writers at the formation of the English vernacular canon used trees to signify topics related to poetry, like the relationship between form and content or the debt a writer owes to their sources. I am also looking forward to the students’ writing, particularly reading their tree journals. Each student is going to pick a tree on campus and spend 15 minutes per week observing it and composing a journal entry about their experiences and observations. The students can be as creative as they would like in the journal entries, so I’m delighted to read them over the course of the semester.

Allor on what makes this class unique to her department:
This is a highly interdisciplinary and experiential course. Over the course of the semester, the students are compiling a robust and varied toolkit to examine representations of trees from centuries ago and compile knowledge about them. I view these techniques as complementing the standbys of literary analysis. While the course is definitely rooted in the English department and the study of literature, it is enriched by the collaboration with the Arboretum and all the opportunities Haverford offers to be truly interdisciplinary in our approach.

Learn more about other courses offered by the Department of English