Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Writing with Weebly Website Creator
Seth T. Reno
Auburn University at Montgomery
This essay argues for the benefits of assigning a website project in college writing courses focused on ecocriticism and environmental issues. While many scholars have urged teachers to move away from digital media and technology in favor of hands-on, place-based education, this essay demonstrates how a digital assignment can enhance students’ engagement with contemporary environmental discourses and the material world in which they live. If we want our students to develop a love of nature and an understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things on the planet, we must do so in ways that get them to think outside of the classroom, to see their work as part of broader social discourses, and to develop the kinds of interdisciplinary approaches demanded by ecocriticism. The website project discussed in this essay does all of these things. The first part of the essay outlines the pedagogical and philosophical rationale for the digital project. The second part provides a detailed overview of the assignment prompt and a discussion of specific students’ websites, which were created for a first-year writing course at Auburn University Montgomery.
Keywords: Ecocriticism, Composition, Pedagogy, Weebly, Digital
It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.
—Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” (1949).
In his autobiographical epic The Prelude (1805), William Wordsworth makes a bold claim: “Love of Nature Lead[s] to Love of Mankind.” This thesis, expounded at length throughout the poem, forms the basis of Wordsworth’s particular brand of ecological thinking. When we love and care for the natural world and all its forms of life, argues Wordsworth, we necessarily develop a love of humanity: we are all inhabitants of the same world. For Wordsworth, “love of nature” was a love of all things in the world, both human and non-human. This “ecophilia,” to use Aaron Moe’s term,1 is the key to thinking ecologically—that is, a recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things in the world.2 Ecological thinking demands that we act in an ethical manner to preserve and sustain this diverse web of being. Scholars often see Wordsworth’s vision of an interconnected, sustainable planet as the beginning of environmentalism and ecological thinking, and, for Wordsworth and for us, education plays a vital role in developing that ecological vision.3
How can we instill this love of nature, this kind of ecological thinking, in our college students today? How can we initiate the “internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions,” of which Aldo Leopold wrote decades ago (209), in order to become more ethical actors on a more sustainable planet? How can we bridge the seeming gap between our new digital world and the natural world from which many of our students seem increasingly disconnected? These questions lie at the heart of recent discussions in ecocriticism and environmental education. For example, renowned environmental writers Richard Louv and David Sobel have offered ways to move students “beyond ecophobia” and to combat “nature-deficit disorder,” often by proposing radical changes to institutional structures and educational curriculum.4 Our increasing reliance on digital media and technologies, they argue, facilitates the “nature-deficit disorder” in children and adults. As Sobel argues, instructors often use “electronic media” to connect students “with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe.” While motivated by good intentions, these changes ultimately “disconnect” students “from the world outside their doors.” Instead, children should first “cultivate” a love and “understanding of [local] organisms [they] can study close at hand” (Last Childs in the Woods 3). Similarly, David Orr and Greg Garrard have argued for the importance of place-based education in the teaching of ecocriticism and sustainability studies, often in the context of “wilderness” experiences.5
These are valuable suggestions, but difficult to implement at the university level. We are often restricted by financial considerations, core requirements, appropriate course offerings, student interest, and the separation inherent in “disciplines.” In addition, many college instructors typically teach ecocriticism and sustainability studies within English or History or Philosophy courses, so the primary focus is on literature, theory, and writing rather than activism, ecology, and hands-on experience. As a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery, I teach ecocriticism in courses such as first-year composition, critical theory, and specialized seminars in “Green Romanticism.” In other words, there is no designated course for ecocriticism. But this is not necessarily a detriment. Ecocriticism can provide students with a useful framework for thinking about a variety of topics and issues, and, when we utilize digital technology, students can engage with social, political, and personal elements of nature and the environment in a sustained and sophisticated manner.
In this brief essay I’d like to offer one way we can use digital technology to connect students to the natural world. My first-year composition courses at AUM take as their course theme “Nature and the Environment” (see Appendix A). In those classes, my students construct a website using the free Weebly website creator (http://weebly.com). Weebly provides the “frame” of the website, so students do not need to know any computer programming: building a website on Weebly consists of selecting a site “theme” and uploading/organizing images, videos, and text.
The course hub I created for this class: http://english1020nature.weebly.com.
The website project contains five separate pages. Each of those five pages represents a discrete assignment that must include a 300-500-word essay and various forms of visual media. Moreover, each page corresponds to a thematic unit of the course: (1) ecocriticism; (2) food studies; (3) animal studies; (4) nature writing; and (5) research, where students develop a project focused on one of the course units (“Nature and Culture,” “Food and Culture,” and “Humans and Animals”). Each of these digital essays requires students to think critically about the environment, respond to assigned readings, engage personally with issues of sustainability, and perform extensive research on a particular ecological topic. Ideally, the website project achieves the kind of internal changes called for by Leopold. In practice, of course, these changes differ drastically, from a student who decided to become a journalist after writing a research paper on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to a student who told me, after reading Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” that he would no longer throw trash on the highway because he had never before thought about where that trash ended up or how it might affect the local environment.
It may seem strange to advocate for a digital project in teaching students about ecocriticism and sustainability, but it has several benefits. First, digital writing is more accessible to freshman students, who are increasingly more accustomed to writing online than writing research papers and other paper-based academic assignments. Students are thus more willing to engage immediately with the assignment, and the digital environment holds their interest throughout the term.6 Second, the digital environment works in tandem with place-based activities and trips. In my class, we take three trips that correspond to two of the webpage assignments: (1) a modest trip to our university’s quad during the first week of class, where students reflect on their everyday interactions with the natural world; (2) a full-day trip to the Montgomery Zoo during our unit on animal studies; and (3) a full-day trip to a local park, where students gather material and inspiration for their own creative nature writing. Students then translate these placed-based activities to the digital sphere of their website, where they further share, reflect on, and engage with their experiences in local environments. These are surely not “wilderness” experiences, but they are effective forms of place-based education in an urban area. Third, the website project is at its core a writing project: students write about these topics on a daily basis, so they research and write a great deal. The website project takes this thinking and writing to the digital, public sphere, thereby enhancing students’ engagement with contemporary discourses.
Here is the assignment prompt for the website project:
For this assignment, you will create and maintain a website throughout the semester that will be linked to our class website at http://english1020nature.weebly.com. You are free to customize your website in any way you see fit—be as creative as you’d like. The website will have five specific assignments/pages, and it will be an ongoing assignment—you’ll have a page due about every three weeks (see the daily schedule for specific due dates).
One major goal of the site is to allow you to work on writing for a public audience, as opposed to the academic audience of your other major papers. I’ve already created a sample website with my versions of each of the assignments so you can get a sense of what you can do. You can also look at previous students’ websites, which are linked on the course hub (link above). Each page directly relates to the course readings and units, and we’ll discuss the specifics of each web page in class. Each page should contain approximately 300-500 words of your own writing as well as images and/or design elements. The following are general prompts for each page:
(1) Introductory Post
For this page, you will introduce yourself to the class by revising and re-framing the essay we’ll write in class during week one: “What is ‘nature’ to me?” In addition to anything you’d like us to know, I want you to write about your ideas, experiences, and feelings about nature. I don’t want you to cut-and-paste your essay into the website but rather to use that essay as a springboard for this first post. Use the readings by Thoreau and Soper as examples of how you might approach this first essay.
(2) Food Page
You have two options for this page. Option #1 is a restaurant review. For this option I want you to write a professional restaurant review modeled after a review you might read on a professional blog or magazine. As we’ll discuss in class, these kinds of reviews tend to focus more on the experience of eating at the restaurant rather than on critiquing the food in an elitist manner. Option #2 is a recipe history. For this option, I want to select a family recipe, a famous local/regional dish, or a favorite recipe and trace its history: Where and why did the recipe originate? How did it take is current form? How is the dish served? At the end of your essay, write out the recipe (and, if you’re a cook, I encourage you to bring the dish on our food tasting day).
(3) Animal Analysis
For this page, you will select one animal and perform some research: where does it live? what does it eat? what are its unique characteristics? what’s cool about it? and, importantly, how is it used, represented, and thought about in our culture? I want you to think of this page as a kind of cultural case study of an animal.
(4) Nature Page
This page will be based on our class trip to the Montgomery Zoo. This page can take the form of a traditional essay, a creative work (fiction, non-fiction, or poetry), a digital media project (i.e., collection of photographs, documentary, website, or PowerPoint), or anything else that fits the genre of “nature writing.” This is your chance to do some creative writing of your own, if you so choose, or to develop a study of zoos like the essay by John Berger.
(5) Research Page
The goal of this final page is to consider how you can present your research project to a public audience. You will use this page for a three-to-five-minute research presentation during the last week of class. This is the challenge: how can you present your eight-page research paper to the rest of the class in only five minutes? No one else knows the specifics of your research, so you’ll need to present your project in a clear and accessible manner.
You have two general options for the research page/presentation. Option #1 is to write a 300-500 word essay and read that essay verbatim (it takes about five minutes to read 500 words). This is the more formal approach. Option #2 is a bit more informal: you can design your page with images, charts, statistics, key words, a PowerPoint, or anything else, and you can use these elements to discuss your project (that is, without reading an essay verbatim). For either option, you will need to practice your presentation in advance to make sure you don’t go over the five-minute time limit—give the presentation to your family, friends, roommates, or anyone else. This is your chance to share all of the knowledge you’ve produced throughout the semester.
As the initial description states, one goal of this project is that students will learn the differences between public and academic forms of writing—in essence, how to write for different audiences. This is an especially important point for teaching ecocriticism and sustainability: I don’t want my students to think of their work as belonging solely to the private, artificial sphere of the classroom but rather as part of the ongoing, public discourses that shape our world. Students’ websites are searchable and fully available online, and students are made aware of this fact. As contributors to the conversation, students spend more time thinking carefully about their ideas, arguments, and writings. In fact, I find evidence to suggest that they often spend more time polishing their websites than their traditional paper-based essays.
While one might erroneously assume that digital media would disconnect students from their local environment, most of my students write about local topics and issues. For example, one student, Eva Valentine, developed a research project on Alabama’s biodiversity and the reasons behind the state’s increasing extinction rates (http://evalentine.weebly.com/research.html). Drawing from her training in biology, Eva identified several endangered species and outlined practical ways the state could address this problem.
Another student, Joanne Spotswood, wrote a recipe history on gumbo, a dish specific to southern Louisiana and, as it turns out, her hometown of Mobile, Alabama (http://blythebird.weebly.com/food-page.html). During our food-tasting day in class, Joanne explained the differences between Cajun and Creole gumbos, and she brought in her own version of the dish (which I have since made several times—the recipe is on her website).
In fact, this food-tasting day—during which several students and myself brought in dishes to share and discuss—is another form of place-based education (taste-based education?). In conjunction with our unit on food studies, this tasting-day provides a space to reflect on sustainable food and farming practices. For example, I brought in two dishes: chicken tikka masala and pop tarts. First, we compared the ingredients: I used almost all local and organic products in the tikka dish, while the pop tarts are primarily made with chemicals and genetically modified forms of corn and soybean.7 The pop tarts, of course, are much cheaper, due in large part to the structure of U.S. farm subsidies, which encourage mass production of corn. We linked these facts back to our previous discussions of assigned readings and films: Massimo Montanari’s Food is Culture, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Rachel Laudan’s “Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food,” and the documentary Food, Inc. Students thus reflected on the complex interplay of sustainability, class, convenience, government policy, and ethics, which make up the American food system. After the discussion, we ate the food, and, for the most part, students preferred the “real” tikka to the “artificial” pop tarts.
In addition to place- and taste-based activities, the website project allows students to write creatively and to develop writerly voices expressive of their personalities. In one of my favorite websites from the past year, a student named Casey McCluskie continually surprised me with his humorous essays on all things Alabama (http://caseymccluskie.weebly.com). On his site, entitled “Who I Am,” Casey introduces himself as a “native to the state that holds the world record of the world’s biggest alligator,” and, in successive pages on making his own deer jerky and hunting “gobblers,” explains how he is “a southern boy who loves to be outside…except on Saturdays when Alabama is on the TV and on Sundays when them sweet cars are going round them tracks.” By adopting this tongue-in-cheek tone on his site, Casey crafts a writerly identity that both celebrates and satirizes southern stereotypes. In addition to Casey, several other students take up creative writing in their website projects, writing poetry (http://deirvindavis.weebly.com/nature-page.html), personal narratives (http://frosca.weebly.com/introductory-post.html), and photo essays (http://frosca.weebly.com/nature-page.html). Through the creative nature of the project, students can express and shape their identities, feelings, and emotions in ways that they cannot in more formal writing.
Ultimately, my students have learned much from this website project, and I think digital-based assignments have the potential to connect our students with the natural world in surprising ways. If we want our students to develop a love of nature and an understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things on the planet, we must do so in ways that get them to think outside of the classroom, to see their work as part of broader social discourses, and to develop the kinds of interdisciplinary approaches demanded by ecocriticism. The website project does all of these things, and I hope it’s something my students will continue to think about and look back on long after they’ve graduated.
Appendix A: Reading List
You can find the full syllabus on the course hub: http://english1020nature.weebly.com.
Henry David Thoreau, selections from Walden, or Life in the Woods
Kate Soper, “The Discourses of Nature”
Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic”
Al Gore, “Environmentalism of the Spirit”
An Inconvenient Truth
Laura Johnson, “(Environmental) Rhetorics of Tempered Apocalypticism in An Inconvenient Truth”
Anthony Bourdain, “Food is Good”
Massimo Montanari, selections from Food is Culture
Eric Schlosser, Introduction to Fast Food Nation
Rachel Laudan, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food”
Erica Fudge, Introduction to Animal
Stephen Colbert, “Animals”
John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”
Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Chisholm, Dianne. “The Art of Ecological Thinking: Literary Ecology.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 18.3 (2011): 569-93.
Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2004.
—. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 359–383.
—. “Problems and Prospects in Ecocritical Pedagogy.” Environmental Education Research 16.2 (2010): 233–245.
Hayward, Tim. Ecological Thought: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 1995.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, 2008.
Moe, Aaron. “Trees, Ecophilia, & Ecophobia: A Look at Arboriculture along the Front Range Cities of Colorado.” Journal of Ecocriticism 3.2 (2011): 72-82.
Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.
Orr, David. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004.
—. Ecological Literacy. New York: U of New York P, 1991.
Ottum, Lisa. “Reading, Romanticism, and Affect in Environmental Education.” Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century. Ed. Lisa Ottum and Seth T. Reno. Durham: U of New Hampshire P, forthcoming, 2016.
Sobel, David. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Orion Society, 1999.
—. Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities. Orion Society, 2004.
Wordsworth, William. The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. New York: Oxford UP, 2008.
- See Aaron Moe, “Trees, Ecophilia, & Ecophobia: A Look at Arboriculture along the Front Range Cities of Colorado,” Journal of Ecocriticism 3.2 (2011): 72-82. ↩
- See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010); Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2004); Tim Hayward, Ecological Thought: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 1995); and Dianne Chisholm, “The Art of Ecological Thinking: Literary Ecology,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment 18.3 (2011): 569-93. ↩
- See Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1991); and Lisa Ottum, “Reading, Romanticism, and Affect in Environmental Education,” Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Lisa Ottum and Seth T. Reno (Durham: U of New Hampshire P, forthcoming, 2016). ↩
- See Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008); and David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (Orion Society, 1999), and Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities (Orion Society, 2004). ↩
- Garrard takes a more skeptical position on place-based education than Orr, arguing for balance between hands-on experiences and rigorous literary and theoretical analysis. See David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect (Island Press, 2004), and Ecological Literacy (U of New York P, 1991); and Greg Garrard, “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 359–383, and “Problems and Prospects in Ecocritical Pedagogy,” Environmental Education Research 16.2 (2010): 233–245. ↩
- It is important to note that the website project does not replace traditional paper-based assignments: in addition to the website project, students write a two-page analytical review of a scholarly essay; a four-page comparative analysis paper; a formal research proposal and bibliography; and a six- to eight-page research paper. ↩
- Tikka masala is, of course, far from local Southern cuisine. My own “Food Page” details how I first ate Indian food on a study abroad trip to England, and how that experience opened my eyes to the intimate connection between food and culture (http://english1020nature.weebly.com/food-page.html). ↩