Dog-paddling Against the Tide:
Integrating Ecocriticism into a New Graduate English Course in a Southern Public Regional University
Jana M. Giles with Kirby Brasher, Adam Breitenbach, Alycia Hodges, and Valerie Upshaw
This paper recounts the experience of teaching an English MA graduate course in environmental humanities for the first time at a public regional university in northeastern Louisiana. The region is one of the poorest in the United States, there is little environmental activism in the local community, and the students had little formal education in environmental issues or in literary theory in general prior to the course. At the same time, Louisiana is experiencing severe coastal erosion which constitutes a national disaster. Texts used for the course included The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (2011), by Timothy Clark; British Romantic poetry; Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau; The Monkey-Wrench Gang (1975) by Edward Abbey; Ceremony (1977) by Leslie Marmon Silko; Disgrace (2000) by J.M. Coetzee; The Hungry Tide (2006) by Amitav Ghosh; and Bayou Farewell (2004) by Mike Tidwell. While the students appreciated the literary texts and theory, their response to the possibility of activism regarding our current environmental crises was muted and pessimistic. However, after the completion of the course, several students went on to implement change both locally and internationally, or reported that their attitude towards nature had been substantially modified. The paper concludes by considering the challenges to graduate education in literary studies regarding the problem of environmental activism, and recommends that prospective educators consider designing curricula which incite agency and engagement to mitigate the sense of helplessness that can arise from such course material.
Key Words: Graduate education, Literary theory, Ecocentrism, Environmental activism
In the fall of 2012, I taught a master’s-level graduate English special topics course entitled “Literature, Environment, Ecocriticism” at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM). To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time such a course had been offered at our university. Responding to my invitation to contribute to this paper on the pedagogy of the course, one of the former students, Kirby Brasher, confirms: “This was the first (and last) time I have had any formal education with an environmental focus.” Alycia Hodges concurs:
Your class is the only class in Ecocriticism that I have ever taken.
Although I have taken classes that discussed environmental ethics, I
was only exposed to a surface view of environmental issues. In these
classes, the lessons seemed to outline x, y, and z problems as a
result of human interaction with the environment without inciting
self-reflection or the urgency to make specific connections to or
changes in my life, or offering accessible solutions. Your class was
different because it focused on environmental issues and reading texts
through an ecocritical lens rather than just being a unit in a
The fact that courses on the environmental humanities have been largely neglected at my university is not a surprise. In addition to budget cuts2 and other institutional restraints that often prevent a regional university from offering a wider variety of courses, our particular conditions also mitigate against this. The city of Monroe, and its neighbor, West Monroe, which together comprise the greater urban area of Ouachita Parish in northeastern Louisiana, is about seventy-eight miles from the Mississippi River and fifty miles from the Arkansas border, and serves as a commercial hub for the surrounding region, which suffers from economic underdevelopment.3 The oil industry and its lobby have determined the political agenda in the state for decades, creating barriers to environmental action surrounding the health of the gulf and Louisiana in general.4
Photo of Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge, Monroe, LA, by Jana Giles
In our 5th congressional district of Louisiana, the high school graduation rate is 77%5 and the four-year public college graduation rate is 20.2%; at my institution, the University of Louisiana at Monroe, the four-year graduation rate is 18.7%.6 Politically, the region is conservative; about 67% Republican,7 and highly religious, with affiliation dominated by Evangelical Protestant, Black Protestant, and Catholic; northern Louisiana is dominated largely by the former in contrast to Catholic southern Louisiana.8 Although there are political movements among the conservative Protestant community to become more engaged with environmental issues, as Jane Rainey and others explain, the path from opinion to engagement is not a simple one. While data demonstrate that many Protestants consider themselves “pro-environment,”
it is unclear to what degree these views translate into activism at
the grassroots level. Since polls show that self-identified
evangelicals remain somewhat less supportive of environmental concerns
than mainline congregations, evangelical leadership on environmental
topics must not only advocate in the public arena but must be
conscious of ways to bring the rank-and-file on board. Since
evangelical Protestantism includes and is significantly influenced by
those conservative Christians who make up the Christian right on the
political spectrum, the challenge for evangelical environmental
activists is heightened by the fact that the main group of dissenters
among religious leaders come from this group. Pat Robertson said, “I
think the concept of linking Jesus to an anti-SUV campaign borders on
blasphemy, and I regard it as a joke.” Besides associating it with the
secular liberal political agenda, some–Jerry Falwell, for one–find
pagan overtones in this new interest in ecology.9
Although there are some community members concerned about the environment in our parish,10 they are a minority, and in general the region lacks awareness or activism. For example, Monroe lacks city-funded curb-side recycling,11 nor are most citizens aware that they can or should recycle locally. When I taught a unit on recycling as a problem/solution paper in freshman composition over several semesters, most students were unaware that local recycling facilities exist where they could take their waste products. While many universities have had recycling or sustainability programs for many years, such as that begun in 1991 at the University of Oregon,12 in 2012 ULM had no campus-wide recycling program, so it was not setting an example for students or the local community either.13 Given these multiple challenges to a heightened environmental awareness in the region, it comes as no surprise that the students in our class had no formal education in environmental issues.
About the ecological context of the region, a complete picture is impossible for such a short paper, so I will offer only a few salient examples. As the primary artery of the largest drainage system in North America and the fourth largest drainage system in the world, the Mississippi River drains 41% of the continental United States. Its watershed reaches west into Montana and New Mexico, north into Minnesota, and east into Pennsylvania. The Port of South Louisiana is the largest tonnage port district in the western hemisphere.14 The heart of US agribusiness, the Midwest, dumps much of its runoff into the river, which, combined with sewage, produces high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. These conditions have created the largest “dead zone” in North America in the Gulf of Mexico, an area in the ocean which has been depleted of oxygen and therefore cannot support marine life.15 In 2012 the gulf dead zone was about 6700 square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut.16 The Louisiana coast is also eroding, which contributed to the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana contains approximately 40% of US wetlands, but is experiencing 90% of continental coastal wetlands loss at a rate of 25 to 35 square miles per year. The primary cause has been the levee system built in the early twentieth century which does not allow the Mississippi to replenish the wetlands with silt and freshwater from upstream, further exacerbated by oil and gas drilling.17 Not only is this a crisis for the economy of Louisiana, but some believe it is the greatest natural disaster currently occurring in the United States.18
These few facts are sufficiently alarming to suggest that universities across the state, and nationwide, should be integrating courses on the environment into their curricula on a regular basis. Instead, what I found was that most students in our region, a five-hour drive from New Orleans, had little knowledge of this crisis or of environmental issues more generally, even if many of them are avid hunters and outdoorspeople—though not so much the English majors. I therefore designed this course with these conditions in mind: a relatively uninformed, poorly educated population with little knowledge of environmental issues and an economic and political context conducive to maintaining a certain amount of either ignorance or misinformation, with grave consequences for us all.
The course was a one-off, special topics course offered as an elective. I competed with other department faculty by submitting a proposal. Because the course offerings are limited, I assumed that most students would take it to fulfill a requirement rather than because of any strong interest in the subject. Since this was a graduate level course, my primary goal, in addition to exposing them to an exemplary range of fairly canonical literary works, was to offer a range of theoretical approaches to give the students a comprehensive introduction to ecocritical studies, including the following topics:
- Ideas of “nature” and the “natural”
- The role of literature in forming our ideas about nature
- Nature in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class
- How cultural values and belief systems (ideology) may determine our
relation to nature
- Environmental sustainability, extinction and catastrophe
- Development, globalization, capitalism and the environment
- The sense of place and local ecologies
- Animal consciousness
- Environmental ethics
I selected The Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment (2011), by Timothy Clark, as the primary theoretical textbook for its brevity, clarity, useful definitions, and ease of approach. While readers which compile primary interventions, such as The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, edited by Laurence Coupe, or The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glofelty, would have been my first choice, my experience at ULM had shown me that these might present too much of a reading load. I have the greatest respect for the native intelligence and hard work of many of my students. But the fact remains that, through no fault of their own, many of them arrive at our doors underprepared, which takes many years to overcome. Thus, while I considered having the course address theory alone, as might be customary at some universities, particularly at the PhD level, I decided that, given our particular program, and the lack of exposure to a broad range of literary texts of the student population, a course which integrated literary and theoretical works would be best. Indeed, at one point I had to reduce the reading because some students complained to my department head that the load was too demanding.
For the literary texts, I selected from British, American, and World Literature because I wanted the students to make connections across the globe and mitigate the parochialism that already plagues them. The primary texts included British Romantic poetry by William Wordsworth and John Clare, journals by Dorothy Wordsworth, Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau, The Monkey-Wrench Gang (1975) by Edward Abbey, Ceremony (1977) by Leslie Marmon Silko, Disgrace (2000) by J.M. Coetzee, The Hungry Tide (2006) by Amitav Ghosh, and Bayou Farewell (2004) by Mike Tidwell. I selected these for a variety of reasons: they offered provocative explorations of our relationship to nature; they were, in several cases, seminal works of ecocentric literature; and finally because I thought they would be accessible and interesting to my students.19
I emphasized literary texts, rather than the non-fiction traditionally associated with ecocriticism, for several reasons. As mentioned, our students simply needed more exposure to literature, due to the limited variety of our course offerings, including preparation for their MA comprehensive exams. Second, I was familiar with the readings and confident that they would generate the kinds of conversations I wanted to stimulate. Third, I considered that the selected texts raised key issues in ecocritical studies as well, or sometimes better than, many non-fictional readings; Buell, for instance, in Chapter Three of The Environmental Imagination argues that literary texts which dislocate ordinary or “realist” perception and place demands on the imagination in fact bring us closer to the “object-world.” This is not to say that historical or technical accounts are irrelevant, only that for this particular class they would have been less effective. Third, given that our students had little exposure to theory of any kind, I suspected that teaching a strictly theoretical and non-fictional course would pose another level of difficulty that would distract substantially from the topic. Fourth, non-fictional ecocritical texts, I worried, tended to appeal more to those who were already interested in the topic, a predisposition I could not count on, and thus the students might resist such an intense focus over a semester. Fifth, ecocentrism—as Clark discusses—has been accused of being the province of the middle-class elite and side-stepping problems of how social justice and environmental issues might come together in common cause. Given that many of our students are from an underprivileged background, and since this was my first time teaching the course, I felt that I was not yet well-informed enough to know which non-fictional readings would address this issue most effectively; I thought that the fictional texts I chose brought this issue to the table quite pointedly.
Clark’s text was supplemented with other theoretical excerpts which I provided, as described below. Students signed up, on a rotating basis, to give a fifteen-minute oral presentation on the theoretical reading for the day, accompanied by a 750 word summary; thus each student gave two presentations during the semester. Two exams and a research paper on one of the literary texts were also required. The students posted their summaries to our Moodle page, and were invited to post any other notes to share. All notes were accessible throughout the duration of the course for other students to use for exam review and resources for writing their papers. This strategy has worked well for me in courses where the content is challenging: students are less intimidated because they have review materials; they learn how to improve their work by seeing that of their peers; and it requires active learning rather than relying on the professor to provide the answers.
Because this was the first time I had taught such a course, I wasn’t sure what the students already knew. For the first day of class, I assigned the Introduction and Chapter 1 from Clark, and a short writing assignment. Clark introduced several key ideas that offered the students some springboards: anthropocentrism versus biocentrism, reform environmentalism versus radical, and the history of incompatible meanings of the word “nature” or “natural.” I asked the students before class to respond to the following questions in a 1-2 page informal written response:
Screenshot from ENGL 5022: Special Topics: Literature, Environment, Ecocriticism, University of Lousiana at Monroe, 2012.
Course and image courtesy of Jana M. Giles
This assignment proved to be a very effective way to start the semester. I began by sharing some of my own personal experiences with nature, which really helped the students open up about their own.20 One of the interesting revelations was that, despite being a bookish scholar, I had had much more exposure to outdoor activities than my students. I spent my childhood in rural New Mexico, where camping and hiking were regular family activities, and in Puerto Rico, where we lived a short five-mile drive from several pristine and underpopulated beaches. Besides weekly swimming and snorkeling excursions, my father would organize exploratory walks and bike rides around the island with groups of friends; when I was twelve, I participated in a walk across the breadth of Puerto Rico, through the Cordillera Central from Arecibo to Ponce. I’m proud to this day to say I beat my father and walked a total of thirty-three miles out of fifty-two.21 Both my parents, who were Peace Corps volunteers in rural Colombia, are retired educators, and my father especially was concerned to inculcate in me a sense of environmental responsibility from an early age, such as collecting aluminum cans and turning off all lights when one left a room. Ours was a low consumption household.
By contrast, most of my students either were from an urban environment, or else had lifestyles that eschewed much outdoor activity. Several of them commented on parental influence as a controlling factor in their relationship to nature. Others pointed out the emphasis on Louisiana as “Sportsman’s Paradise,” in which the environment is regarded as existing for human consumption and entertainment. What stood out was that most of them felt that while during childhood nature was very present and important to them, as they moved into adulthood that relationship had been mainly left behind. In hindsight, Hodges observes,
I don’t find it surprising that we were close to nature when we were
younger. As little children, we are fascinated by the unknown and we
apply our experiences and reactions as a general principle to
everything. As we grow older, we are conditioned to the teachings of
our surroundings, which are more times than not human-centered.
The fact that we opened up with a discussion about our relationship to
nature was essential in my identification as a part of the problem and
my transition to becoming a part of the solution. Because I had not
been educated on environmental issues, I felt that I was not connected
to the problem, but more of a bystander witnessing an environmental
emergency. After gaining knowledge on these issues, I became conscious
of my habits like wasting a lot of paper, water, plastic, and energy.
I was also motivated to change because I not only want the best for my
children but I want them to be the best version of themselves, which
includes being able to connect with, and be responsible for, the world
around them, not just the human life.22
Adam Breitenbach added the following observation:
Nearly three years have passed since my first interaction with Dr.
Jana Giles as a first-semester English graduate student in her
Ecocriticism course, and I would strongly assert that the experience
has had a lasting impact on my overall understanding of humankind’s
relationship with natural world. Reading through my introductory
assignment in the course and recollecting our initial discussions, I
realize that many of my statements reflected a tremendously
self-centered view of nature, more obviously as I discuss the aim of
environmental preservation as an act of self-preservation, and more
subtly as I mention the pleasure I get from a nice walk in the park.
It wasn’t until I read the great diversity of texts that Dr. Giles
selected that I was faced with this realization, and my perception
As these comments reveal, asking students to begin the semester reflecting on their personal experience helps them frame their subsequent readings explicitly in relation to their own lives. While as teachers we may assume that readers will naturally make personal connections to a literary text, these often remain unconscious or inarticulate without the explicit invitation to reflect deliberately on them. Our first meeting turned out to be very emotional class, and created a strong bond for our small group.24
Clark’s Cambridge Introduction to Literature and the Environment begins with the Romantics, so I adopted his approach and initiated our literary readings with selections from William and Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare. I supplemented Clark with chapters from Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature and Raymond Williams’s “The Green Language” on Wordsworth and Clare from The Country and the City. Merchant’s ecofeminist text examines how the ideology subtending the Scientific Revolution sanctioned a mechanistic world view which encouraged the exploitation of nature, unbounded commercial expansion, and the subjugation of women, who had traditionally been associated with the state of nature. In addition to setting the context for the Enclosure Movement, which energized the British Romantic interest in nature, her book’s concern with the historical association between women and nature was useful for considering the contrast between the creation and reception of William’s poetry versus Dorothy’s journals. We discussed, for example, how in “Tintern Abbey” William infantilizes his sister as remaining in the relationship to nature which he left behind as a boy, no matter how nostalgic he feels about that childhood self. He thus equates her with the material, earthly world while the mature Wordsworth has moved on to the transcendental sublime which uses nature as a means to access man’s telos as an end in himself. Wordsworth similarly romanticizes the poor as closer to nature.25 Brasher reflects on how Wordsworth’s attitude resonates with popular cultural perceptions of the American South today:
Wordsworth equates nature with childhood, suggesting naivety and
ignorance, which is still an idea in effect today. While nature is
considered admirable and even venerable during childhood, adulthood
rejects the idea that nature is an entity in itself and not something
to be consumed. It is interesting that the rest of the country, and
even the world, connects the South with nature, spurred by popular
television shows such as Duck Dynasty and Swamp People. These
shows play on the favored (and stereotypical) idea that Southerners
are “backwoods rednecks” who find sport in the woods and water while
wielding guns and other weaponry. We are seen as one with nature, but
the result is that this intimate relationship with nature indicates
backwardness and stunted growth as seen by the ignorant antics and
commentary displayed. This equation of the South with nature in
popular media suggests that nature is an anthropocentric resource to
be exploited by ignorance and backwardness, rather than a biocentric
one which sees it as a being to be revered and protected.26
Brasher’s connection between British Romantic poetry and contemporary reality television demonstrates how literature and culture of the past shares continuities with the present, and how these different media nevertheless serve the same function of transmitting cultural values to their audiences. Wordsworth was famous from the 1820s, and was named Poet Laureate in 1843, arguably reaching at least a proportionally large audience in comparison to the two television shows. Although fewer people may read Wordsworth today outside of classrooms, nevertheless his influence is perhaps immeasurable at this point, and arguably can be discerned through the continuation of Western values like those revealed, or fabricated, in Duck Dynasty or Swamp People. It’s these sorts of insights like Brasher’s which should be mobilized to defend the relevance of teaching literature and the humanities. Regardless of the media, cultural values are carried across places and times and therefore should be examined diachronically as well as synchronically.
To Wordsworth’s Romanticism as Kantian idealism we contrasted John Clare’s more biocentric approach. Clare’s work presents the “dispossession of labor by capital”27 caused by the Enclosure Movement, and a poetic “green language” of nature that would express the feelings of all things, not only of humanity. Timothy Clark, however, points to the difficulties Clare and his advocates, such as Jonathan Bate, raise regarding the question whether literature can and should be regarded as a vehicle for political action: “The most challenging question for the eco-romantic reading of Clare could be: how far is the celebration of the poetic as a kind of green psychic therapy the wishful illusion of an industrial consumerist society rather than a site of effective opposition to it?28 Because this problem arose in a very pointed manner at the end of this course, I will return to this question when I discuss the student responses to the course overall.
We moved on to American Romanticism and Transcendentalism and excerpts from Walden, supplemented by Leo Marx’s “The Machine in the Garden,” and selections from Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination. Marx explores how American literature from 1840-60 was significantly impacted by rapid industrialization. During and after this time period, American writers increasingly began to depict “the machine as a shocking intruder upon a fantasy of idyllic satisfaction.”29 Buell’s text was less accessible to the students, though his notion of an environmentally oriented text as one in which the nonhuman environment requires us to recognize that human interest is not the only legitimate interest is an important one.30 However, the students had trouble coming to grips with Thoreau’s self-relinquishment and desire for intimacy with nature on its terms. Our discussion tended to focus on the economic, rather than naturalistic aspects of his text, troubled as they were by his hectoring tone on the value of retreating to nature when his own temporary escape was a symptom of his privilege. Valerie Upshaw recalls that Walden sparked
an interesting discussion about the availability of nature to the
wealthy versus the working class. Thoreau was able to experience
nature as he did because he could afford to; however, the working
class, then and now for the most part, were concentrated in the city
far removed from nature and did not have the means to experience it as
Given, however, that the goal was to take on a broad set of issues regarding our relationship to nature, including class, the conversation was productive.
We turned to Abbey’s The Monkey-Wrench Gang. One particularly strong research paper, by Adam Breitenbach, investigated the extent to which Abbey was critical of saboteur environmentalism, arguing that the author should not be conflated with his characters. Breitenbach wrote, “Though the four characters do have an undeniable love for their natural world, they [present] numerous contradictions to the embodiment of a person wholly concerned with the environment. For example, the group drains harmful oil onto the land, destroys heavy equipment in the waters, and starts numerous fires which could lead to larger scale destruction.”32 While I was impressed with Breitenbach’s research and argumentation, I was also surprised at the class’s general hostility towards the outlaw saboteurs. The Monkey-Wrench Gang, as Buell explains, and Breitenbach mentions in his paper, helped energize the early radical phase of the EarthFirst! Movement. According to Buell, while Abbey wrote the preface to founder Dave Foreman’s how-to manual for EarthFirst!,33 Ecodefense (1985), and appeared at the organization’s rallies, the novel was his most influential contribution, making it “one of a very few texts in U.S. literary history to have exerted a demonstrable ‘real-world’ environmental impact, whatever one thinks about that impact, or about the relevance of an impact yardstick to judgments of artistic merit.”34 Since the late 1970s, however, it has become clear that
left-green efforts to distinguish between carefully targeted sabotage
and terrorism proper and to turn the ecoterrorist label against state
and corporate violence against environment failed miserably before
9/11; and furthermore that this happened despite repeated insistence
on the left that Eco militants sought to target property and not
people, and consensus on both sides— including even Senator
Inhofe—that no human death had yet resulted from such activity, at
least in the United States.35
I read the students’ resistance to the saboteur characters as due to an admirable respect for law and order, but also the result of the general shift away from counterculture political movements and youth activism since the 1970s. Students from this region are not, compared to some parts of the country, comfortable with the idea of political protest. They were also nonplussed by the rampant machismo of the main characters, one of whom is a Vietnam veteran. Here also I could discern—and tried to explain without justifying—a wide generational chasm between I, who have been exposed to many post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate novels and films from the 1970s featuring counterculture macho heroes, and my students, who have had little exposure to them. The fact that I am not an Americanist by training may partly explain why I did not anticipate their response. Abbey’s novel was a challenge to them on many cultural levels. In retrospect, I wish I had pushed them harder on the implied question Abbey raises of how best to motivate an apathetic populace on the importance of environmental issues, and what forms of intervention might be most effective. Breitenbach reflects on the influence reading Abbey had on him:
Edward Abbey became one of my favorite authors, and I often find
myself thinking in awe of his autobiographical Desert Solitaire for
its powerful, humble, and certainly non-traditional approach to
nature-writing. Reading his memoirs made me realize the fundamental
flaw with my perception of nature – that, like Wordsworth and Thoreau,
my appreciation for it came from the satisfaction and sustenance I
gleaned from it. On the other hand, Abbey’s admirable relationship
with nature stemmed neither from self-satisfaction nor preservation,
but from a deep-seated sense of symbiotic respect.36
I originally chose The Monkey-Wrench Gang rather than Desert Solitaire because I wanted to focus on fiction, and to confront the students with the question of direct action in service of protecting the planet. Including both texts by Abbey might better provide a more complete vision of his nature writing, and incite productive conversations about how to approach environmental solutions in times of crisis.
Having examined white male writers, we turned to feminist Native American with Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977). Like The Monkey-Wrench Gang, it takes place in the American desert West, offering an ecological counterpoint to Louisiana’s lush riverine habitats. Silko’s novel parallels the need for healing of a Laguna Pueblo Indian veteran of World War Two with the need for healing the land which has been mined for uranium, and the Native community as a whole, which has succumbed to self-destruction in the face of centuries of oppression.
Here was the added challenge of familiarizing the students with the different values of Native culture which are not represented in Clark, although he has chapters dedicated to “The Inherent Violence of Western Thought” and “Language Beyond the Human.” I chose the chapter entitled “The Problem of Creation” from God Is Red by Vine Deloria, Jr., which explains that while Christianity views creation as an event, Native culture regards it as an ecosystem present in a particular place. While Native peoples do not conceive of their deities anthropomorphically, Christianity does, leading to the corollary that when man falls from grace, the rest of nature also falls out of grace with God. As a result, Christianity has conceived of the natural world as the abject other, and the transcendent afterlife, cleansed of material impurities, as the true goal for the saved. As I expected, given our location in the Bible Belt, this chapter proved to be one of the most provocative, yet highly productive. The students were admirably willing to engage Deloria’s challenging ideas, and rethink their own beliefs without necessarily abandoning them. For instance, Hodges writes:
If you had asked me before or even during the class if I had planned
to get others involved in recycling or environmental issues, my answer
would have been “What’s the point?” However, my education and
awareness, especially my participation in this course, has caused me
to see that my relationship with nature needs work, especially as a
Christian. For me, Genesis is not an excuse to rape or abuse nature,
but to respect nature as God’s creation just like human beings.37
In retrospect I wish I had dedicated two class periods to discussing these ideas before going on to the novel.
Because Silko’s novel also involves medicine men, and a woman, Ts’eh, who guide the protagonist, Tayo, through his healing ceremony, as well as ideas of witchcraft, I included Merchant’s chapter on the association of nature as disorder with witches and nature as nurturing with virgins. This material proved mesmerizing, especially because most students are not familiar with the historical and ideological contexts behind the European witch hunts of the early modern period. In combination, these texts offered multiple entryways to think about the power of storytelling, that is, discourse in its many forms, to heal and to destroy. We also considered again the association of the feminine with the life-giving but abject, and the masculine with intellectual achievement but also its concomitant destructive tendencies. These polarities are expressed in Ceremony by the contrast between the power of the mountain, embodied by Ts’eh, and the power of the European-American atomic bomb, first tested at the Trinity Site merely thirty years before the novel’s publication. Brasher writes,
This novel was easily my favorite because it was the first time I was
confronted with the idea of nature being a part of identity and the
effect war has on that identity. During war, Native American soldiers
especially are fundamentally distanced from their mutual relationship
with the land and their belief that they are connected with the earth.
War inherently strips away this bond with the earth by calling for
mass annihilation of the earth and of people. While the American
Indian soldiers do, at least temporarily, become a part of the
collective body of the military and do feel as if they are established
in white society, they are doing so at the expense of the very crux of
their identity. Tayo is conflicted by his actions during the war; if
everyone and everything are interconnected, then his hand in the
destruction of the land and its people has a direct and destructive
effect on his sense of self.38
Ceremony was by far the most popular literary text we read, and the most successful in provoking student empathy for both the earth and its people, and generating curiosity about non-Western relationships to nature.
After these American texts, we turned to contemporary world literature. With J.M. Coetzee’s post-apartheid South African novel, Disgrace, we explored how the protagonist, David Lurie, instrumentalized the “other”: black Africans, women, and animals. Coetzee challenges the transcendental assumptions underlying key Romantic ideas, promoted by Lurie as a Wordsworth scholar, and the presumed dominance of the white patriarchal economic order. Disgrace additionally required the students to think differently about animal selfhood, ending with a very controversial scene in which Lurie allows a dog who loves him to be put down. Although for lack of time I did not include Coetzee’s well-known “The Lives of Animals,” an essay in the guise of fiction on the subject of animal rights from his novel Elizabeth Costello, such a pairing would have been beneficial.39
Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide similarly considers animals and the environment, but brings into play the natural disaster of the cyclones in the vast Sundarban mangrove forest in the Bay of Bengal, which historically have killed hundreds of thousands of people. On the one hand, the Sundarbans are the last refuge of the Bengal tiger, an endangered species which preys on the local human inhabitants. The forest is also home to the rare Irrawaddy or Orcaella dolphin, considered a vulnerable species. On the other hand, the novel tells the tale of the Morichjhapi Incident of 1979, in which Bangladeshi refugees from the 1964 East Pakistan genocide who were resettled in India made their way back to the Sundarbans. The government of West Bengal besieged them and then forcibly removed them, killing anywhere from two people to one thousand.40 The novel presents, but does not resolve, the competing needs of the animal and human residents, and emphasizes our mutual vulnerability before the power of nature.41 The fact that the Sundarbans constitute part of the Gangetic Delta, the world’s largest, was a point of commonality with our location in Louisiana.
This novel also resonated with the students, especially Upshaw who wrote her research paper on it. However, given their little knowledge of the Indian subcontinent, they experienced a much steeper learning curve in terms of settling into the reading. This was not the case with Disgrace, a much shorter novel which focalizes the narration on the very personal experiences of a white, male, bourgeois protagonist; indeed, David Lurie’s problem, in a nutshell, is that he is too detached from South Africa as a local ecology and culture.
The theme of the river delta offered a natural transition to our final text, the non-fiction Bayou Farewell, which exposes the Louisiana wetlands crisis. With this reading, I had hoped to turn our discussion towards local concerns of immediate pressing interest, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which had occurred only seven years before and was still fresh in people’s minds. Tidwell’s is a powerful exploration of Cajun country, where he discovers that while Louisiana contains 25% of America’s coastal wetlands, comprising approximately three million acres, they are disappearing at the rate of an area the size of Manhattan every ten months. Yet few Americans are aware of this impending disaster, including many in Louisiana.42
Generally speaking, I thought the class was successful, although it depends on what outcome one wants. The students definitely were engaged with the literary works and made significant strides towards understanding the many gender, race, class, religious, and other ideologies attached to our relationship to the environment. I was also very proud when three of them—Breitenbach, Upshaw, and Stephanie Baer, were chosen to present at ULM’s annual Student Research Symposium, and also a graduate student joint conference with neighboring Louisiana Tech; Breitenbach took first place on both occasions.43
On the other hand, my activist agenda (for I confess to loving the planet and not wanting to move to a space station), only somewhat unspoken, was not fulfilled to my personal satisfaction at the time. 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, and revealed the deep cynicism among the state residents about the Louisiana political process, perhaps unsurprising given its political history. About this they were surprisingly frank. Breitenbach explains retrospectively:
I was fortunate enough to have read Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell as
an incoming freshman undergraduate student seven years prior to this
course. The book, a summer reader for all incoming freshman to be
discussed in a required orientation class, was only two years old at
the time, and we had only just starting discussing it during my first
week when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Even before this
tragic occurrence, the book revealed a grim prognosis for Louisiana’s
coastal wetlands. I remember the temperament of that freshman class
being similar to that of our Ecocriticism class many years later –
defeat. This was in part, as Dr. Giles says, due to the chronic
cynicism borne from generations of our state’s political corruption
and inoperativeness. Also, Tidwell’s depiction of the severity of the
problem, coupling scientific facts and statistics with the deep
emotional toll on the area’s people, came across as far more
disheartening rather than inspiring.44
Clearly, the scale of the erosion of the Louisiana coastline seems so unstoppable that the only possible reaction appears to be helplessness. I admit to feeling this way myself many days. Yet, while we did not actively investigate possible solutions, time having run short, some are being explored,45 and anyone interested would be capable of learning more if they chose.
Indeed, the question of how one becomes an agent of change or believes in one’s agency runs deeper than any single course can reveal. Hodges discusses how questions of activism are deeply imbricated with a sense of personal power or powerlessness:
At the time of the course, I do agree–as a personal testimony–that
there was a sense of hopelessness. However, my sense of hopelessness
did not solely concern economics, politics, or environmental issues.
In my opinion, my sense of hopelessness concerning environmental
activism was less about external issues and more about a sense of
voicelessness that seemed to result from my socio-economic status
and racial identity. Looking back, I see that this feeling originated during
my undergraduate studies when I realized that I was underprepared for
not only college, but life. This was a strong distinction from my high
school years where I was overly prepared when compared to my
classmates. For the first time, I realized that with all of the
experiences and opportunities that I had had as a result of my
mother’s hard work, I was still underexposed to culture and academia.
As a result, I was intellectually insecure when comparing myself to
other students. I did not connect this feeling to my socioeconomic
status and racial identity until my senior year at an honors reception
where a white businessman insinuated to me that even though I was an
honor student who earned two bachelor’s degrees within five years of
graduating high school, the fact that I am black, a woman, and a
single mother was an extreme disadvantage to my success. Therefore,
the feeling of unpreparedness and underexposure combined with the idea
that I was disadvantaged because of my socioeconomic status, gender,
and race not only overwhelmed me, but made me feel powerless to change
anything, even my life. The fact that there were only a handful of
blacks in my graduate program reinforced this idea.
I often think that these feelings are also linked to the fact that
American society conditions us to be better than others rather than
the best version of ourselves. Because of this, we develop
insecurities because we chart our progress by looking at others
instead of reviewing the personal progress that we have made. It was
not until I was able to identify and articulate the source of
voicelessness in my life, realize that I had something to offer that
no one else could, and connect to those around me to whom I felt
intellectually inferior as well as give and receive encouragement from
them that there came a change. My academic advisor, Dr. Jana Giles,
made a huge difference in my life because she worked with me, gave me
verbal affirmation, and pushed me to reach my full potential. I think
that to counteract voicelessness, which shuts us down, we should open
up and expose ourselves to new, productive experiences, people, and
cultures. Although finding my voice was a dark, frustrating process,
connecting with those who are different from me, whether racially,
financially, or physically, allowed me to have confidence in my
intelligence and skills because I realized that we could help each
other. Because I had missed out on so much, I could not have overcome
this alone. I definitely needed more step-by-step guidance than the
other graduate students in certain aspects. At this point in my life,
I am able to think independently and effectively articulate my
thoughts to others. Any time we perceive ourselves as voiceless we
will fail to have any sense of activism regardless of the
circumstances, even if we are knowledgeable concerning the matter. For
this reason, the question for me at that time was not can I contribute
or promote change for my community and peers, but what’s the point in
Breitenbach points to the need for a large-scale environmental education:
Considering this course as a study of the budding Ecocriticism
movement, it, at least in my opinion, was tremendously successful.
However, with regard to this course being an outlet for inspiring
students to take action, I’d say it was somewhat less successful. I
strongly agree with Dr. Giles in that a more thorough understanding of
our region’s unique ecosystem and the man-to-nature relationship as a
whole is crucial to the sustainability of our environment, both on a
local and global scale. But, for this message to truly resonate, we
must expand its outreach far beyond a small group of twentysomething
English graduate students whose post-degree ambitions may be less
flexible than a younger audience. While incorporating Bayou Farewell
as a Freshman reader was an excellent start (though, to my knowledge,
a title of similar topic hasn’t been used since), I believe that an
eco-centered class driven by activist motivation should be taught
early in a student’s collegiate career, and should survey ways in
which students can incorporate environmental preservation into their
desired fields, whether they be science, technology, humanities, etc.
Perhaps doing this would inspire a larger audience of more diverse
I couldn’t agree more with Breitenbach’s observation that environmental issues should be taught often and early, and from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Yet it remains a challenge for me to understand the students’ sense of political apathy regarding environmental issues, which only mirrors the larger American population. I cannot blame them for absorbing the models that most adults in our country offer them. At the same time, I have mixed reactions to their proposed possible solutions to addressing environmental issues in higher education.
A constant frustration I experience, regardless of the course topic, is the difficulty in encouraging students to adopt a more active approach towards their own learning. This includes not only wishing they would explore the readings more carefully, but also applying their research skills to learning independently about news of the day and the world around them. The university can only facilitate adult learners to become the problem-solvers our world needs; it cannot provide all the answers to all problems. At the same time, universities need to do more to provide students with the skills, but more importantly the outlook, of lifelong learning and self-empowerment through intellectual growth. Across the United States today there is great pressure at all levels of education to provide a complete set of life skills that are often not taught at home or in the larger culture. Yet teachers will never be able to fulfill all the needs of all students, nor will educational institutions be able to provide all forms of financial or psychological support. In contrast to these pressures, there is an opposite movement to turn higher education into vocational-technical training which eschews the need for those “soft skills” that the humanities have allegedly traditionally taught. American education is, at the moment, in a state of incoherence (I prefer that term to “disruption”).
Reading over the students’ comments several years later, it is clear that what would have moved them to feel more empowered would have been more hands-on or practical projects. Upshaw generously suggests:
Though handing students information, be it practical or theoretical,
both of which I believe are valuable to this discussion, will save
precious class time, assigning students a focused research assignment
where they can discover this information for themselves will allow
them to “own” the information and hopefully galvanize them into a more
proactive approach to the problem because they won’t see it as one
huge problem presented all at once but rather several small problems
to be encountered and overcome one-by-one just as they found them in
their research. I would also suggest a class project. If not something
hands-on such as starting a recycling drive on campus (like we tried
to do with Sigma Tau Delta), then something more ideas-based like
talking with our student representatives and getting them involved.
Even if we weren’t able to accomplish something in that one semester,
we could have possibly started the conversation on the campus as a
On the one hand, I see the value in such an approach, which I took when I taught the recycling paper in freshman composition. Integrating contemplation and action would undoubtedly have provided a valve for relieving the pressure built up by a semester of readings which depicted the problem but no practical solutions.
On the other hand, student calls for more concrete tasks raise the question of what approach one should take regarding graduate education in a literature department. I return to Clark’s question regarding John Clare: “how far is the celebration of the poetic as a kind of green psychic therapy the wishful illusion of an industrial consumerist society rather than a site of effective opposition to it?”48 This question lies at the heart of a current debate in higher education, the utility and relevance of the humanities in general, and literature in particular.49 I certainly think that literature is flexible enough, powerful enough, and culturally meaningful enough to offer opposition to systemic oppression on its own, without having to embellish it with hands-on projects, even if that is not immediately evident to students during the semester. The influence of The Monkey-Wrench Gang on a generation of environmental activists of all stripes is a case in point, and the students missed the irony that, of all the texts we read, Abbey’s offers the most direct call-to-action and specific strategies which could easily be modified, yet was also the one they resisted the most. One idea to facilitate deeper consideration of this problem would be to ask students to come up with an alternative list of interventions that would be less drastic, yet as or more effective, than the saboteurs’ actions. Those could range from actions that individuals would take (recycling, driving hybrid cars, reducing their consumption levels, participating in petitions, etc.) to policy-making decisions (the list is long here). Yet I suspect that, in the end, the problem would have boiled down to the same: the challenges are tough and require more sacrifice than currently some are able and others are willing to make. Abbey’s book offered extreme actions because small gestures and lip-service just didn’t seem to be enough.
Another way I have found to mitigate the difficulty students have in connecting literature to the “real world,” and which I would implement in future iterations of this course, is to ask students to reflect on why they are studying literature, what real-world impact it could or should have, and to write their own “apology for poetry.” Having used this approach in other courses, I have found it to be an excellent exercise in metacognition which forces students to own their field of study and consider how to justify it in the face of cultural disparagement. Rather than immediately capitulate to student demand for other forms of classroom media besides literature, offering assignments like this ask them to think more deeply about why, even if, we should study literature at all, and to consider Buell’s question about the relevance of impact as a measurement of artistic merit, and indeed the much-debated question of whether literature is obligated to provide solutions to any problem.
Regarding graduate study in particular, I would pose the following questions: Should graduate students, unlike freshmen, not be responsible for overcoming their feelings of defeat on their own, without the need for step-by-step guidance from an authority figure? Is not the purpose of graduate education and, in theory, undergraduate education to encourage students to become independent thinkers and problem-solvers? Should one of the roles of the faculty member be to gauge, through assessment devices like seminar participation and research papers, the ability of each student to think critically on his or her own beyond the obvious, in preparation for later judgments that might be required, such as letters of recommendation for further graduate study or employment? My answer to these is “yes.” With or without my class, therefore, it seems that higher education often fails to inculcate a sense of agency in some of those who pass through our halls.50
My approach to the course design was heavily influenced by my own graduate experience, in which literary primary texts and theoretical secondary texts took the stage. In fact, most faculty do not receive any formal training or on-the-job mentoring in how to teach graduate classes.51 We therefore fall back on our personal experience, researching what other faculty do, or sheer invention. Practical approaches were certainly not part of my graduate coursework in literary studies, even if we might talk about some of those, just as we did in our class.
Indeed, the higher one goes in graduate studies in English, the more theoretical the approach tends to be. There are good reasons for this: theory offers a critique of the ideological assumptions underpinning our practical actions. By so doing, it allows for a sharper understanding of how the individual is shaped by, and shapes, larger systemic forces. Thus, for example, reading Merchant, one can see that attitudes towards women and nature before and during the Scientific Revolution and the capitalist revolution which accompanied it comprised a kind of feedback loop; Merchant reveals that our individual actions are not independent, but part of a network of power dynamics. Or, one can see in Deloria and Silko how Native ecologies were eclipsed by the imposition of a Christian worldview which abetted the scientific instrumentalism of nature. These approaches are on a scale quite different from grassroots projects such as organizing campus recycling because they ask the student to understand the ideological dynamics that have brought us to where we are today–a world in which climate change threatens to eclipse humanity once and for all in the near future.52 Of course, both approaches are needed for effective change. My point is that graduate education ought to be focused on higher-order challenges, like ideological critique, since that is a much more difficult level of analysis that usually requires faculty intervention, unlike figuring out where to recycle in one’s town. Even freshmen ought to be able to figure that out, but it is easier for me to accept and understand why they don’t, given the deeply troubling state of public education, and the news media, in the United States.
Furthermore, the role of universities is not necessarily to implement activism, even if individual faculty members may be involved in activism53 and academic learning should offer information about a wide range of issues, including possible activism. There are many non-governmental organizations, and government organizations, that exist for anyone to participate in, or even start on their own, including some which collaborate with universities. The purpose of the class was to spur deeper thought in the students, and encourage them to consider what further action might be appropriate for them to take on their own in the future. Faculty are human, too, and often feel a sense of despair when their efforts to foster a greater sense of agency fall on deaf ears. I cannot be personally responsible for each adult student’s willingness or unwillingness to take further action regarding a situation that they, at least philosophically, believe should change.
To the extent that two of the invited respondents indicated that they did go on to implement change, on the international and local level, I regard the class as a success regarding concrete action. Although Hodges felt powerless at the time of the class, she was subsequently motivated to incorporate what she had learned into change at the local level in her home town of Tallulah, Louisiana:
Because of this class, I teach my children to recycle. Instead of
throwing uneaten scraps of food away, we put them outside for the
birds. I have also gotten my church to recycle our Sunday service
program and plan to extend this practice when I am financially stable.
Additionally, as a school teacher, I plan to incorporate recycling in
my classroom. However, in Tallulah we have no recycling program. In
order to recycle, we have to take initiative with the understanding
that we do not have the communal support to change the way that we
care for the environment. In addition, if one does decide to make a
change by recycling or “going green,” it not only takes more effort,
but costs money because it is the individual’s responsibility to
transport the materials to the recycling plant or to make the
necessary changes to their lifestyles. As a result, the cost-benefit
analysis for an individual in this type of community registers that
there are more costs than benefits to caring for the environment
because it takes extra time, effort, and money. That said, the few who
may be educated in understanding environmental issues and solutions
may feel that the small amount of good that they can do for the
environment independently is drastically outweighed by the cost and
Upshaw also found that her feelings of hopelessness changed over time into a more activist approach in which she took the giant step of joining the Peace Corps:
Though I must admit that I did leave Dr. Giles’ Ecocriticism class
feeling overwhelmed by the problems faced by Louisiana and the world
in general in respect to nature and the environment, her class did
grant me a new understanding and a renewed interest in the world
around me. I began to pay more attention to my surroundings and to
research on my own various ways to be more proactive in respect to my
impact on the environment. A year later I decided to apply for the
Peace Corps and was eventually invited to serve as an Environmental
Education Volunteer in Nicaragua. Though I was originally hoping for a
spot in the TEFL program, I accepted my invitation because I believed
I would have a chance to be involved in grassroots movements that
could change the way people viewed nature. I owe this choice at least
in part to Dr. Giles’ class, and the way she made me rethink my
relationship to nature and what I personally could do about the
problems facing our environment today.
Nicaragua right now faces many ecological challenges. Deforestation in
Nicaragua has caused the country’s forest cover to drop to 40%, and
not even the 71 nature reserves are safe from illegal logging.55
The Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal, a 173 mile project that will
cut across Lake Cocibolca and other nature reserves and biospheres,
including a beach where sea turtles come to nest, will have an
unimaginable impact on the environment and the people of
Nicaragua.56 These are just some of the ecological challenges in
the country. As an Environmental Education Volunteer, I spoke to the
people in my town daily about issues like deforestation and recycling,
even once appearing on a radio station to speak about the impact of
deforestation and the importance of replanting trees. I participated
in community projects to grow and transplant trees into barren areas
that had been cleared. At the town’s elementary school I taught
science, and my student and I created a tree nursery and a vegetable
garden to supplement the school’s lunches. And even though I was not
supposed to take sides on political matters in my host country, I did
talk to my new friends about what they thought of the new canal.
Upon returning to the United States, I have realized that there are
few people who know where Nicaragua is, much less who know that there
is a canal about to traverse the country. I have kept myself abreast
of events there – the canal’s progress, the protests, the ecological
surveys – and I have tried my best to inform others as well. I realize
now how Dr. Giles must have felt during our Ecocriticism class, but
perhaps the spark will take hold in one person and ignite a change.
Hopefully one person will want to see for themselves, as I did, and
some small change can be affected.57
While Upshaw provides the strongest case for how graduate education in literature, however textual, can lead to action in the “world,” Hodges and Brasher testify to the fact that deeper thinking about ideological and systemic issues also had a positive effect. Hodges writes:
Because this class made me aware of my human-centered mindset, I
determined that I didn’t want my children to grow up unaware of the
importance of nature. While I may not participate in any protests or
boycotts to promote environmental awareness, I can be the rock that
starts the ripples in my community. I will make others aware that we
are intricately tied to nature and encourage them to make better
choices for our environment. I will begin to change the culture and
the conversation in my community concerning environmental issues by
being the example for my church, my children, and my students. Without
this course to make me aware of these issues, I would still be blind
to the effects that we have on nature. As a result, I believe that the
more upfront and forward that we become about environmental issues,
the more people will become aware. It is my awareness of the situation
that has served as my call to action.58
It is fruitless to educate a society about problems and then leave
them feeling helpless regarding a solution. While all of the texts
were enlightening, none of the literature offered a viable plan of
action that seemed plausible for low-income and mostly ignored North
Louisianans. However, perhaps the most obvious and effective plan
would be to educate the masses and reform our perspective of nature.
While we are certainly involved with nature in the form of hunting,
fishing, hiking, boating, and other recreational activities, we have
an inadequate biocentric view of nature. Better environmental
education could illustrate the idea of nature being a separate and
complete entity in itself, which would propel action to change our
relation with the land.59
While I don’t agree with Brasher that educating people about problems without offering explicit solutions is fruitless, I do understand her perspective. And indeed, as a result of the class, she proposes what the others also regard as the long-term solution: a greater national commitment to environmental education from early childhood onward.
Reflecting on the student feedback, several possible approaches for a future iteration of this course come to mind. One would be to keep the course’s basic principles and structure, but modify the number, length, or choice of readings. Introducing a non-fiction text at the inception of the course that provided an overview of environmental and political conditions to introduce the students to the major issues could set the terms of the debate, although it could take away from the literary focus and direct attention to current policy issues.60 By making more room in the curriculum to flesh out those conversations about defeatism, I could have also come up with counter-narratives or assignments to mitigate that feeling on the fly. Whatever their frustrations at the time, since these students do testify to the effectiveness of the course over the long term,61 I feel good about what we accomplished.
To reduce the “despair” factor more quickly, another possible solution would be to teach the course as an interdisciplinary one, in which a range of factors like politics, science, literature, and literary theory could be approached. Certainly by engaging literature in light of environmental issues, the course was already interdisciplinary, as any English course which does more than formalist analysis must be.62 Unfortunately, while many universities do encourage explicitly interdisciplinary courses, others may wish yet are unable to remove obstacles to implementation. For a single professor such as myself to teach such a course would require an enormous amount of class preparation, in my case on top of an already bursting workload, with the added danger that I might make the errors of a non-expert when it comes to selecting materials. To team-teach a course requires that either the faculties’ disciplines sacrifice courses from the regular rotation, or else add electives to the curriculum. The former is undesirable because it diminishes student exposure to disciplinary material when often they need more rather than less. The latter is often impossible given the budget cuts many universities have sustained. Furthermore, electives are just that, as this course itself was, and would not answer the call to engage the population at a consistent and broad level.
A final challenge at public regional universities like my own is that many students are radically underprepared for college, as is substantiated by the educational achievement statistics I cited earlier. While I only have praise for the native intelligence and dedication of most of the students in this particular class, I am all too aware that by and large the level of student preparation is severely lacking, particularly in comparison with their cohort at selective liberal arts colleges or Ivy League universities. What might be considered basic undergraduate training in, say, Platonic idealism, at an elite university which requires philosophy courses may be unavailable at a school like my own where philosophy has been completely eliminated from the curriculum. Thus, when designing the course, I had to take into account the fact that I could not assume much fore-knowledge at all about environment, ideology, or literature beyond whatever exposure they might have had from the popular media and their limited educational preparation.
Regardless of one’s course design, the fact remains that the global environmental challenges we face in the age of the Anthropocene63 are staggering. Perhaps it is indeed too late to solve them, though we won’t know unless we try. If we are to face these challenges, we have to accept that despair is a natural, predictable response, though it does not have to be the only response. Perhaps what we need more than anything is to develop resilience, agency, and determination, and reminders that, over the course of history, there have been many occasions when small groups of people overcame enormous odds. Teaching has always been one approach to attempting to overcome those odds. At its best, the classroom can be an invigorating, challenging, affirming, and life-changing space for student and teacher alike. Some pedagogical strategies, however, foster this better than others. I hope that my account can offer useful starting-points and areas of difficulty for those thinking about teaching their own environmental humanities courses. The approach I took, offering the students a broad introduction to environmental issues in literary study, coupled with a survey of seminal British, American, and World literary works, could easily be modified in a variety of ways suitable to a particular place, time, and student population.
Above all, I would encourage prospective teachers to choose texts and assignments and incite discussions that model and encourage agency and engagement over and above complete “coverage” of particular information sets. While it is important to introduce key concepts as a guideline, if these do not strike a chord in the student’s mind then their introduction is less effective. Although my students felt despair at the time of the course, their later reflections and actions reveal a lesson worth repeating: learning does not end with the semester. Sometimes the effects of a class can be realized only after we have had time and space to process our new knowledge in the privacy of our thoughts and on our own schedule. By generating investment in the subject, we are more likely to encourage our students to seek more information on their own accord after they have left our class and, I believe, come closer to meeting the goal of education. And so, I will end by thanking my former students for enthusiastically entering into this ongoing conversation with me. They continue to inspire me, and alleviate the forces of despair.
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Knoblauch, Abby. “Teaching Graduate Students.” ProfHacker. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 Mar. 2010. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
Kraul, Chris. “Nicaragua Canal: A Giant Project With Huge Environmental Costs.” Yale Environment 360, 5 May 2015. Web. 19 July 2015.
“Louisiana Coastal Wetlands: A Resource At Risk.” Coastal and Marine Geology Program. United States Geological Survey, 2015. Web. 4 Aug. 2015.
“Louisiana Employment and Wages: 2013.” Louisiana Workforce Commission. Louisiana Workforce Commission, Nov. 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
Marx, Leo. “The Machine in the Garden.” The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. Ed. Laurence Coupe. London: Taylor & Francis Routledge, 2000. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature. New York: HarperOne, 1982. Print.
Mitchell, Michael, Vincent Palacios, and Michael Leachman. “States Are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels.” Research. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 1 May 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. Web.
“Mississippi River Facts.” National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior, 2015. Web. 4 Aug. 2015.
“My Congressional District: 113th Congress.” My Congressional District. United States Census Bureau, n.d. Web. Accessed 4 May 2015.
“Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone.” Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2015.
Paarlberg, Robert. The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. Nook file.
Preston, Alex. “The War Against Humanities at Britain’s Universities.” Education. The Observer/The Guardian, 29 May 2015. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
“Printable Maps: Congressional Districts: 113th Congress.” The National Map. United States Geological Survey, 18 May 2015. Web. 4 May 2015.
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Reisz, Matthew. “The Core Connection.” Times Higher Education, 7 Jan. 2010. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
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Schimke, David. “A Theorist Unchained.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 Aug. 2015. Web. 5 Aug. 2015.
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- Brasher; Hodges. ↩
- Following the national recession that began in 2009 and under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana state public higher education allocations dropped 43%, leading to increased cuts to course offerings and variety. See Mitchell, et al.; and Wong. ↩
- “Louisiana Employment and Wages: 2013.” ↩
- See Mike Tidwell, Bayou Farewell; and Nathaniel Rich, “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” ↩
- According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school graduation rate for the state of Louisiana was 71% in 2010-11, in contrast to the national average of 79% (“Regulatory Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, All Students: 2010-11”). The 5th Congressional District of Louisiana includes Morehouse, W Carroll, E Carroll, Madison, Tensas, Franklin, Richland, Ouachita, Lincoln, Jackson, Winn, La Salle, Catahoula, Concordia, Caldwell, Grant, Rapides, Avoyelles, St. Landry, W Feliciana, E Feliciana, St. Helena, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes (“Printable Maps: Congressional Districts: 113th Congress”). Total population is 754,131, of which 61.6% are white, 35.6% black, and 2.8% other. The median household income is $34,243. For all people, the poverty rate is 24.8%, but for those under 18 years, it is 34.4% (“My Congressional District: 113th Congress”). For the slightly smaller twelve-parish region of Northeast Louisiana (Caldwell, E Carroll, Franklin, Jackson, Lincoln, Madison, Morehouse, Ouachita, Richland, Tensas, Union, and W Carroll), the high school graduate rate for 2012-13 was 73.6% (“District and State Graduation Rates (2005-2006 to 2012-2013”). Bachelor’s degree attainment is 12.5% (Eisenstadt). ↩
- Data set includes 2010-13. “Louisiana Public Colleges (4-year).” ↩
- In 2012, the US House of Representatives races recorded 67.02% voting Republican and 21.06% Democratic, and 11.92% minority parties. “Statistics of the Presidential and Congressional Election of November 6, 2012.” ↩
- “Religious Composition of Louisiana.” ↩
- Jane Rainey, “Religion and Politics in the United States: Contemporary Questions,” 3. ↩
- For example, one organized group is Friends of Black Bayou which supports the local Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. “Friends of Black Bayou;” “Black Bayou National Wildlife Refuge.” ↩
- Private curbside recycling has recently become available for $20 per month, but few people utilize it. ↩
- “University of Oregon Campus Zero Waste Program;” see also “11 College Recycling Programs That Put All Others To Shame.” ↩
- In the spring of 2015, ULM began a small-scale recycling program, but there are only a few bins for paper recycling hidden outdoors next to garbage dumpsters. No university-wide campaign, other than a brief email, occurred, thus there is little awareness or education being offered about why recycling is important. Without a more concerted push on the part of the university administration, staff, and students to educate the community about the importance of environmental issues, the message sent is that recycling is not that important, and the project is likely to fail. ↩
- “Mississippi River Facts.” ↩
- Bruckner. ↩
- “Northern Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone.” ↩
- “Coastal Erosion: Facts and Figures.” See also Tidwell. ↩
- “The Crisis: Coastal Land Loss is a Loss for All.” ↩
- While deciding which texts to include, I reviewed a graduate course I had taken myself, and also the syllabi posted at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). While a great many options were on offer there, my selections came down to evaluating how much I could ask the students to read (length and complexity of work), how much preparation I would have to undertake (I teach a 4/4 load, and often a four preparation load), and how fundamental I thought the readings were to the field of study, given that this was likely the only course the students would ever take on the topic. Thus, for instance, while Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was tempting, I was hesitant to include speculative fiction in this first teaching attempt, preferring to emphasize the realist tradition. For sample ASLE syllabi, see “Sample Syllabi.” ↩
- Unfortunately, this assignment was handwritten, and I returned the work to the students, so I cannot offer any direct citations. ↩
- “Gals Lead Finishers in Marathon Walk.” ↩
- Hodges. ↩
- Breitenbach, email interview. ↩
- Another early assignment was to watch, outside of class, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth (dir. Guggenheim, 2006).We did not spend enough time discussing the film because I wrongly predicted that the students would find it persuasive. Rather than delay the schedule with an extended discussion of the film, I elected to move on in the syllabus and think about how I would do it differently in a future version of the course. ↩
- Harrison. ↩
- Brasher. ↩
- Williams 138. ↩
- Clark 23. ↩
- Marx. ↩
- Buell, The Environmental Imagination 7. ↩
- Upshaw. ↩
- Breitenbach, “The Monkey-Wrench Gang and Environmental Radicalism.” ↩
- EarthFirst! is a radical environmental advocacy group begun in 1979 which takes direct action in contrast to what they regard as the selling-out of mainstream environmental groups. See “EarthFirst!” ↩
- Buell, “What Is Called Ecoterrorism” 154. ↩
- Buell, “What Is Called Ecoterrorism” 157. ↩
- Breitenbach, email interview. ↩
- Hodges. ↩
- Brasher. ↩
- See Giles, “Of Gods and Dogs.” ↩
- Bhattacharya. ↩
- See Giles, “Can the Sublime Be Postcolonial?” ↩
- Tidwell 6. ↩
- “Winners of ULM’s 13th Annual Student Research Symposium announced;” “15th Annual Louisiana Tech University and University of Louisiana at Monroe Graduate Conference.” ↩
- Breitenbach, email interview. ↩
- “Louisiana Coastal Wetlands: A Resource At Risk.” ↩
- Hodges. ↩
- Upshaw. ↩
- Clark 23. ↩
- See, for instance, Baker, Billotte, Preston, and Reisz. ↩
- The reasons for this are probably many; for lack of space I decline to analyze them here. ↩
- Knoblauch. ↩
- Jamail; Zielinski. ↩
- Many faculty, however, do find themselves moving from contemplation to action. See, for instance, Schimke. ↩
- Hodges. These points raise the problem of how environmental activism and social justice interrelate. Tallulah is a city of 7,335 located in one of the poorest areas of the nation along the Mississippi River, Madison Parish, LA. The town is 77% African American and 21.5% white. Median household income is $25,300, and the poverty rate is 40.9%. “Tallulah (city), Louisiana.” ↩
- Rogers. Citation provided by Valerie Upshaw. ↩
- Kraul. Citation provided by Valerie Upshaw. ↩
- Upshaw. My emphasis. It should be added that Upshaw already had some experience in environmental education before she took my course. ↩
- Hodges. ↩
- Brasher. ↩
- For instance, the recent book by Robert Paarlberg, The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism, offers trenchant commentary on why the US fails to enact strong policy measures against both climate change and obesity due to its abundant natural resources, political institutions, and particular cultural attitudes. ↩
- The student participants here constitute about half the total number of students who took the course, and thus cannot be said to be fully representative. I invited their participation because I have maintained relationships with them after the end of the course. ↩
- A fact lost on many administrators, librarians, and even faculty, who do not understand that any literature course is fundamentally interdisciplinary when it engages culture, history, economics, science, anthropology, psychology, religion, sociology, philosophy, feminism, critical race studies, and so on. Any course that does more than teach rhetoric and formalist analysis (e.g., prosody) will be, effectively, interdisciplinary to some degree. ↩
- The recent term used for the impact of human activity on the planet is the “Anthropocene,” so called to account for the time period when humans began to act as a nonhuman geological force on the planet (Crutzen and Stoermer; see also Chakrabarty 2). It has been characterized as a contemporary version of the sublime, in which we feel overwhelmed by the incalculable cost of global resources (Stoekl 44). Now that the illusion of inﬁnite resources characteristic of the expansion of industrialism, capitalism, and empire has passed, “Why would the human be superior to any other species, given that all species are subject to the same environmental and energetic constraints” (Stoekl 53). I discuss these issues in more depth in my article on The Hungry Tide (“Can the Sublime Be Postcolonial?”), which was in progress as I taught this course. Introducing the concept of the Anthropocene would be another important, and timely, addition to a revised version of the course, although I suspect doing so would not redress the despair factor. ↩