Nature–Culture–Sustainability Studies

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Core courses in NCSS offer complex approaches to contemporary issues in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities and social sciences. Students acquire a common vocabulary and theoretical grounding but also begin to pursue areas of personal interest. Small class sizes allow students to work closely with program faculty and discover potential collaborations with their peers in the program. Elective coursework across the Liberal Arts provides students with opportunities to further develop their Thesis research.

To meet graduation requirements, students in the 1.5-year NCSS program need to complete:

  • 12 credit hours of core coursework (including the Prospectus Seminar)
  • 15 credit hours of electives (including one taken during RISD’s five-week Wintersession in January/February)
  • 12 credit hours of Thesis work culminating in a critical essay (40-page minimum)

Core courses

Theories of NatureCulture

A critical theory course that lays the foundations for advanced study in the interdisciplinary field of nature-culture-sustainability studies, Theories of NatureCulture introduces students to important authors, texts, theories and conversations in the environmental humanities. Topics include biological and economic materialisms, eco-phenomenologies, science studies, and critical animal studies, among others.

This seminar creates a common vocabulary and experience for all NCSS students. Students will complete weekly reading assignments, regular writing assignments and engage weekly in class discussion. Individual and collective work in this course will be complemented and extended by the materials explored in Inventive Political Ecologies, which is also taken in the first semester. Students will carefully read and discuss a range of theoretical texts centered on questions of “nature”/“environment” in order to investigate what constitutes “nature”/“environment” in a particular text, how it encourages certain forms of comprehension and interaction with “nature”/“environment,” and about the intellectual and material consequences that accrue from particular ways of conceptualizing “nature”/“environment.”

Through taking this course, students will be able to historicize Western concepts of nature and environment; complicate reductive distinctions between nature and culture; develop more complex ways of understanding the relationships between human beings, individually and collectively, and the other agents and forces that constitute the more-than-human world; and situate their own research interests with respect to critical conversations in the environmental humanities.

Three credits, offered in the Fall. NCSS students take this course during their first semester in the program.

Inventive Political Ecologies

This course introduces students to important contemporary case studies and pressing global scenarios in the interdisciplinary field of nature-culture-sustainability studies. The course expands, extends and resituates the foundational theoretical texts studied in Theories of NatureCultures by reading authors who have applied theory as lenses for engaging and understanding issues of global importance. Readings examine varied configurations of land, people, environment, animals and climate across nations and cultures. The course engages with issues of difference and diversity throughout the semester.

Inventive Political Ecologies creates a common vocabulary and experience for all NCSS MA students. In this seminar students will complete weekly readings and regular writing assignments, and will engage weekly in class discussion. A creative and exploratory course, it encourages three forms of inventive thinking. First, it allows students the opportunity to look at the inventive forms of action different groups utilize in environmental and land politics, human and animal rights, and creative protest and political mobilization against exploitative forms of capitalism and industrial development. Second, it encourages students to look at the inventive applications and use of NCSS theories to study global issues. Finally, it encourages inventiveness on the part of the student to relate these themes and methods to their own research interests and encourages them to work with the productive frictions of the same.

Three credits, offered in the Fall. NCSS students take this course during their first semester in the program.

NCSS Research Issues Seminar

In this course, students explore a variety of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary approaches to thinking about cultural production connected to socioecological issues. By building on standard and new research practices, students explore their own research habits, consider those that might be most suitable for the kinds of projects they want to pursue, and explore the viability of more innovative and interdisciplinary approaches. Such an approach is based on not only knowledge about disciplinary methods and epistemologies from the humanities and social sciences (e.g. archival, digital, ethnographic, practice-based, scientific, sociological, textual, etc.) but also about how the intersection of such disciplinary perspectives can enhance analysis and understanding.

Key to the work of the NCSS Research Issues Seminar is the exploration of challenges (definitional, practical, ethical) that arise in doing different kinds of research. It creates a common vocabulary and experience for all NCSS students, which prepares them for the Prospectus Seminar that is taken in the second semester. Through individual exploration of texts, objects, and practices, students are expected to push the bounds of their familiarity and not only build their “research toolkit,” but enhance their capacity for assessing problems, thinking through lines of inquiry, and moving between different perspectives and methods. Students will develop greater awareness of the potentials and pitfalls of research about socioecologies at different scales, from local to global, disciplinary to cross-disciplinary. Run as a seminar, students will complete weekly reading assignments, regular writing assignments, and will engage weekly in class discussion.

Three credits, offered in the Fall. NCSS students take this course during their first semester in the program.

Prospectus Seminar

The Prospectus Seminar is devoted to identifying and developing topics of inquiry that will culminate in the production of a solid, well-researched and intellectually engaging research prospectus. The course is therefore organized around key phases: framing a productive research question; conducting relevant research and locating your work in relation to existing scholarship (which includes identifying a mentor for your thesis); exploring writing and revision strategies; and presenting and communicating your work (which will include the writing of a formal conference paper and a syllabus).

Each section of the seminar is organized around reading and writing assignments that will increasingly be focused on student work and interests as the semester progresses. While the first part of the seminar is focused on the discussion of a number of tenets and case studies of scholarship that will ground the production of a proposal, the second part of the semester is driven by group analyses and workshops of student work. At the end of the semester, students submit their research prospectus to the First and Second Readers of their MA Committee. Acceptance of the prospectus is a requirement for continuing to the Thesis.

Three credits, offered in the spring. Students take this during their second semester in the program.


A Master’s Thesis is a substantive, research-based paper that makes an original intervention in the field. It should demonstrate the student’s theoretical knowledge, research proficiency and ability to situate the object of study in relevant contexts. The Thesis will demonstrate the student's ability to produce original scholarship of publishable quality, one that makes a significant contribution to the field and expands the knowledge base of the particular disciplines it engages.

Students in this course work independently, in conversation with peers and in individual consultation with their Master's Thesis Committee to develop, complete, revise and finalize the Thesis. Students will develop it through in-depth research of the topic (as approved through the Prospectus process), regular submission of work, incorporation of feedback from peers and faculty, and revision of their work.

Twelve credits. Students take this course during their final semester in the program.

Topic-based courses

Designing Post-Carbon Futures: Political Ecologies of Hope, Solidarity and Possibility

Environment and Power in East Asia

Foodways and Sustainable Food Systems

Petrocultures: Utopia and Apocalypse

Inspiring interdisciplinary faculty

In recognizing the urgency of the moment, the NCSS curriculum reflects the passions and commitments of the scholars who lead the program. Representing a vast range of expertise in the humanities and social sciences, NCSS faculty are always seeking new ways to intervene in critical environmental discourses in both their research and teaching.