Essay Cluster Introduction
“Teaching the Environmental Humanities”
by Alison Lacivita
Lecturer in English, University of Colorado – Denver
In recent years, humanities classes around the country have been incorporating – or trying to incorporate – environmental issues into their syllabi and their class discussions. To those never presented with the idea that the humanities and the study of the environment can intersect, this idea often seems laughable. However, those of us who have been involved with the design and teaching of courses connecting the study of the humanities to the natural environment know that is a very relevant, timely, and pardon the pun, natural integration of subject matter. The natural world has been a subject of art, in some manner, since art first appeared, and studying the ways in which the natural world has been represented over time and throughout the world, both visually and linguistically, enables students to understand how our own relationship to the natural world has been constructed and mediated by the arts. Teaching students to see the ways in which the natural world has been culturally constructed in the past enables them to see how rhetoric concerning the environment is employed today.
In his landmark text, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the effects on children of the separation between themselves and the natural world. His second book, 2011’s The Nature Principle, extends this disorder to adults. He articulates several “precepts,” which he states are “based on the transformative powers of nature” and “can reshape our lives now and in the future.” 1 A few of these precepts relate directly to the topic of our present issue of Kudzu. One, in particular, stands out: “In the new purposeful place, natural history will be as important as human history to regional and personal identity.” 2 “Natural history” is perhaps not the correct term here; what it seems Louv is reaching towards in this precept is a kind of bioregional knowledge, one that encompasses something larger than the Victorian-sounding discipline of “natural history.”
David Orr, in his seminal 1994 text, On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, asks a substantial question in his opening chapter: “What Is Education For?” 3 Orr decries the focus of much modern education, and argues that “the goal of education should be to connect intelligence with an emphasis on whole systems and the long range with cleverness, which involves being smart about details.” 4 What Orr is discussing here is what I briefly touched upon above; the fact that, today, most people would see a class combining the humanities and the sciences in any way as funny, not seeing how the two could possibly ever relate to one another.
When we are children, our classrooms are often filled with activities that do not call into the question the relationship between different disciplines. Whether it is an activity that urges communities to recycle, a nature-walk undertaken with a scavenger hunt in hand, or a mathematics exercise taught by counting rings on tree stumps, elementary education provides countless ways in which the disciplines can intersect. In summer 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in a weeklong workshop for educators at Teton Science School, a center for outdoor and place-based education in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was the only college professor in attendance; everyone else was a K-12 teacher, with the majority of participants working with elementary-age students. While many of the activities were, indeed, geared towards students of a much younger age, there were several activities that could be adapted to the college classroom and especially adapted to a college composition classroom. For example, our seminars taught us about an activity simply titled “Where Are You From?,” which asked students to creatively represent their hometowns and be conscious of language used that is specific to that region of the country/state/bioregional area. We took a walk in the foothills of the Tetons and, while being presented with some basic geological information, were asked to construct a story about the origin of a particular rock we came across. This assignment allows for the integration of environmental knowledge with composition, and also enabled students to choose which discipline in which they would like to write (their rock could have been presented as a historical text, a geological one, or a fictional one). It is lamentable that Teton Science Schools is directed almost exclusively towards K-12 educators, as any college professor in any field could benefit greatly from the pure exposure to an educational approach that allows different subjects to interact. Perhaps what I suggest here is that in order to expand environmental educational opportunities at the third level, we all return to kindergarten and try to remember a time before history, biology, and English were all housed in different buildings.
It is unquestionably difficult to merge disciplines in the college classroom, wherein knowledge has been strictly divided into discipline-specific discourses. However, the humanities classroom has a unique opportunity to allow these differing disciplines to speak to one another. Marilyn Cooper, in the forward to Sidney Dobrin and Christian Weisser’s Ecocomposition, expresses a fear about practices that “reduce…ecocomposition to a matter of teaching nature writing.” 5 In this special issue of Kudzu, I am pleased to introduce the work of two scholars who teach environmental literature and ecocriticism in the college classroom without reducing the subject matter to “teaching nature writing.” Both present descriptions and analyses of their courses, providing readers of this special issue with concrete examples of how to design a course in environmental literature, and what the difficulties might be in the execution of such a course.
The first essay in this issue is by Jana Giles, Associate Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. At the 2014 MLA in Chicago, I had the pleasure of attending Jana’s talk on this same subject, and her talk inspired me to subsequently organize my own roundtable on the teaching of the environmental humanities for 2014’s SAMLA in Atlanta. Thus, I am very pleased to have Jana’s contribution in this issue of Kudzu.
Dr. Giles’s essay, “Integrating Ecocriticsm into a New Graduate English Course in a Southern Public Regional University,” is an account of how she developed her M.A. course and why, how the course went throughout the semester, how the students responded to the course material, and is filled with her own reflections upon the course. It is a fascinating insight into the pedagogy of an accomplished scholar and educator, and a wonderful resource for anyone interested in or currently engaged with the development of environmentally-themed literature courses.
The course, titled “Literature, Environment, Ecocriticism” was (as far as Giles knows) the first ecocriticism course to be taught at ULM. Having developed and taught several environmentally-themed courses during my two years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, I know firsthand about the lack of precedent when introducing such course material in the Deep South. This is not to say that the interest is not there, but institutionally and culturally, the importance of the environmental humanities is not necessarily obvious, as it would be at, say, Evergreen College, or Williams College, or the University of Oregon.
Giles begins her essay by setting the stage; she discusses Louisiana’s economy and politics, its demographics, and how these elements have helped contribute to a culture that is woefully illiterate in terms of the environment. Though Giles stresses the innate intelligence and work ethic of her students, she does not beat around the bush when it comes to the preparation of many of her students, especially in terms of environmental issues. She begins the semester with a short writing assignment urging students to write about their own relationship to nature, and also shared her own experiences. Giles acknowledges her own privilege in this situation, and makes such discussions of class and privilege integral to the classroom discussions of the environment.
“Literature, Environment, Ecocriticism” is, as Giles states, influenced significantly by the syllabi bank on the ASLE website, and thus, not too “out there” in terms of its chosen texts. She assigns Wordsworth, Clare, Edward Abbey, Amitav Ghosh, J.M. Coetzee and others alongside critical readings by such seminal ecocritics as Carolyn Merchant and Lawrence Buell. What is remarkable about her class, and about this paper, is not necessarily the syllabus – it is Giles’ astute ability to reflect upon her own teaching and her students, and theorize the “why” and the “how” of the results of her pedagogy. With regard to the teaching of the final text, Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, she laments: “Especially when we got to Bayou Farewell the primary reaction was defeatist. I had rather idealistically imagined that the students would be galvanized into outrage and perhaps even political engagement by Tidwell’s text. Instead, they felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem […].” 6
Giles includes specifics of assignments and detailed footnotes outlining her reasoning for choosing (or not choosing) particular texts or approaches, both of which are terribly useful resources for other educators. This essay is remarkable not only because of Giles’ clear, informative writing, but also because of the input from several of the students who were in that first “Literature, Environment, Ecocriticism” course. The words of Kirby Brasher, Adam Breitenbach, Alycia Hodges, and Valerie Upshaw bring this essay to life, and show readers, firsthand, how students respond to a course in environmental literature. A particularly standout insight is by Kirby Brasher, who connects Wordsworth’s infantilization of his sister and subsequent alignment of her with nature in “Tintern Abbey” to the way in which American culture often connects the South to the natural world and, thus, equates “the South with being child-like and immature.” 7 Another wonderful aspect to Giles’s essay is her inclusion of student comments about how her class impacted their lives on a larger scale; from one student’s anecdote about her efforts to promote recycling to another student’s experience teaching environmental education in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, Giles shows readers just what effects a class in environmental literature can have on its students.
This essay is not strictly a “how-to” of Giles’s M.A. class, however; it is also a clever comment on the difficulties of actually operating in a interdisciplinary fashion in many universities, an insightful exploration of how the location of an educational institution impacts the way in which material must be taught, and a complex inquiry into the role of activism in the classroom. I am thrilled to be able to present her work to the readers of this volume of Kudzu.
The second essay I have the honor of introducing is written by Seth Reno, who teaches composition at Auburn University at Montgomery. “Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Writing with Weebly Website Creator” is Reno’s discussion of his pedagogical approaches to the teaching of composition, a course he typically themes as “Nature and the Environment.” Composition courses are, other than those specifically geared towards nature (such as Giles’s), are perhaps the easiest courses in English Departments to center around the theme of nature (as opposed to, say, a required class on Shakespeare, or a required class on British Literature 1900 to Present; these classes often require the coverage of specific canonical texts and themes that, while able to be discussed in terms of the environment, might not always be able to be if the students are to come away from those classes with particular knowledge). Theming a composition course in terms of the environment is smart for several reasons; it provides students with a broad range of possible subject matters, it presents students with “real-world” issues, it enables students to undertake variety of assignments, it is applicable to students in all disciplines, and it is a subject with which every individual, in some manner, has personal experience.
Reno begins his essay with a quote by the ecocritical hero Aldo Leopold, asking “[h]ow can we initiate the ‘internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions’ […] in order to become more ethical actors on a more sustainable planet?” 8 Connecting this question, and others, to the work of Richard Louv and advocate of place-based education (or “PBE”), David Sobel, Reno then introduces his signature project for his composition courses, a project which might, on the surface, be antithetical to Louv’s articulation of the “nature-deficit disorder”: a webpage project. Reno acknowledges the possible issues here; using technology, even to learn about the natural environment, may ultimately have the adverse effect because it further alienates and commodifies that environment. However, Reno continues, no required composition course could possibly meet both the ideals of all environmental educators and still fit within the constraints of the university, and so, he chooses to assign a project wherein his students create a webpage using the “Weebly” website creator.
Throughout this essay, Reno elaborates on the specifics of his “Weebly” website project. This project, as Reno explains, invites easy engagement on the part of the students strictly because it involves technology, and the manner in which he has structured the assignment allows for a substantial amount of freedom, creativity, and development of individual voices and styles. The website project requires the creation of five separate pages, each page requiring an essay/media presentation on the following topics: ecocriticism, food studies, animal studies, nature writing, and research (the latter being a space wherein “students develop a project focused on one of the course units.” 9 “Ideally,” Reno continues, “the website project achieves the kind of internal changes called for by Leopold.” 10 However, Reno acknowledges that the execution of the course naturally differs from the idealism behind the creation of such a syllabus, and he, like Giles, reflects on the difficulties of the course, providing valuable pedagogical insight for other educators.
Reno draws heavily upon the idea of PBE (place-based education), a pedagogical approach that uses the local to teach larger concepts. His composition course takes three field trips throughout the semester, ranging from a short trip to the university quad to Montgomery Zoo, and Reno urges his students to incorporate their experiences and observations from these field trips into their essays for the Weebly website. These field trips are not into any great wilderness or National Park; they are to local places that might often be overlooked, and are, as Reno concludes, “effective forms of place-based education in an urban area.” 11 It is easy to see the natural environment when visiting, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone, but it takes a keener eye and a more attentive observer to see the same environment along the side of the road or in the spaces between buildings at a university. These experiences of urban nature is indicative of a larger shift in ecocriticism, one that moves away from the idealized vision of “wilderness” to one that focuses on the way in which the natural world is present everywhere and in every life.
The courses developed by both Giles and Reno, while different in course level and focus, share many important similarities. Both courses strive to show students that they already have a relationship with nature, and that exploring this relationship through the humanities is important to their own day-to-day lives. Nature and place are closely interconnected, and a consciousness of the natural world and the way in which it is represented linguistically is crucial to how we find our “place” in the world. Both courses also seek to impart a sense of stewardship through their focus on the local; for Giles, it is through the teaching of Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, and for Reno, it is an exploration of the local environment around Auburn University. Both Reno and Giles seek to instill knowledge about the environment in their students that extends far beyond the classroom, and both encourage their students, as Reno writes, “to see their work as part of broader social discourses.” 12