Writing in an Endangered World is a course title as well as a description of practice–of a group of people reading, thinking, talking, and writing and, for fifteen weeks, working to become more self-aware, interested, engaged, honest, generous, and collaborative.
Our course blog makes visible our practice. The sidebar includes fifteen weeks of student work organized by author, or activity, under Themes, the weekly essays syndicated from the student’s blogs to this Writing in an Endangered World blog appear under Discussion, and direct links to the student course blogs are listed as Blog Contributors.
How did we do? The Writing Portfolios and the projects below offer one answer. In addition, rather than writing learning outcomes for the students in advance, the students worked together at the conclusion of fifteen weeks to articulate what they have learned: the attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge and understanding, as well as skills and competencies that they are taking with them.
Each blog is a portfolio of writing. At the center are eleven essays and a preface(a total of 12,000 words). The portfolios asked students to take ownership of their presence on the web; to express ideas, and integrate their learning, and interests; to use open-source platforms, build projects using digital tools, and create content using portfolios, exhibits, galleries; and to engage with communities beyond the classroom, construct the web, navigate and critically question digital technologies.
Madison BallouMiss B “This world is but a canvas to our imagination.”―Henry David Thoreau
Ethan Chalmers Eyes of the White Mountains We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.”―Henry David Thoreau
Nick DeCarolis Reconnecting to Nature“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”― John Muir
The projects below began with a question: What might you do with what you have learned by reading, thinking, and writing in the course Writing in an Endangered World? Each student was encouraged to make something that would apply what they learned.
It takes action to make a change. Meghan Hayman’s blogSaving Mother Earth is designed to inform the world about our earth’s environmental crisis and raises money for Greenpeace, a nonprofit environmental organization that helps to give the earth a voice.
What we have come to call student learning outcomes, at least as I understand them, invite teachers and academic programs to articulate for students the expected attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge, and skills and competencies that they will be expected to learn in a course.
To be quite honest, this kind of language does not acknowledge the unique ways that a group of students make sense of the literary and cultural materials I teach. That is, I am far more interested in your own assessment of what you have learned in the course. On the one hand, your prefaces and essays offer one version of what you have learned—in every case, these essays chronicle your thinking about (and with) the books and essays and poems we read this semester. Another version of what you have learned is the list below that attempts to capture the attitudes and habits of mind, knowledge and understanding, as well as skills and competencies that you recorded during our final class session.
Attitudes and Habits of Mind
The environment is everywhere and I am in it
Not to be afraid of what we don’t know and what we do not want to hear
We are not separate from the world but are a part of it and we need to start acting as if this is true
Greater awareness of self and greater awareness of the more-than-human world
Greater awareness of the unknown and comfort with the unknown
Greater awareness of what is going on in our society that harms the more-then-human world and that we have to come together to figure out solutions
Instinctual urge to save the body that nurtures and sustains our life
Knowledge is power and what we do with that power is what will make a difference
The truth is difficult and it is hard to recognize that the problems are because of the way we live our lives. We have made the world the way it is and that is a hard truth to swallow
To become comfortable in the larger questions of life
Knowing and Understanding
I learned about (and learned from) new authors that I had never known about before
I learned to appreciate the many forms of environmental writing: including poems, essays, novels, and memoirs
I understand the origins and history of the environmental movement in the United Sates and the social movements of environmentalism around the world
I learned that the natural world has much to teach us and that we can learn how to be open to how it teaches us
I learned about the responsibility we have to both ourselves and to the more-than-human world
I understand the wild as the ultimate and most powerful force in our lives and in the world around us
I understand environmental issues as social issues
I understand that we are the environment, we are of it and we are in it
I understand that the idea of nature is socially constructed
I learned about the problems that lie within our current understanding of nature as a social construct (and what we falsely recognize as our inherent separation from natural processes)
I understand that the “human privilege” (anthropocentrism) that we have bestowed upon ourselves is the root of the environmental crisis
I understand environmental responsibility as having good manners in a human and more-than-human world, as etiquette, as Gary Snyder describes it in the essay “The Etiquette of Freedom”
Skills and Competencies
I read by listening to what the text says and make meaning through listening and thinking and writing
I read with an awareness of the inter-relatability of the context and the content of a text
I write from the words of the writer and editor Ed Hogan: “Know what you are doing and do it well”
I write as a process of self evaluation, self-identification, and self recognition
I write to find a place in the world and to articulate thought
I write for general audiences by cultivating a point of view and a distinctive voice or presence
I write not to forget about an essay or throw it away but to write in a place (a blog) where it is never over, so I was never motivated to never want to stop perfecting it
“The effective use of words to engage the human mind.”
-Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)
Steven Pinker’s succinct definition of what constitutes style in writing is useful. A cognitive scientist, linguist, and writer, Pinker knows well that the effective use of words is among the most challenging activities the human animal has contrived—and for students, more’s the pity: for whether you are writing a lab report, an abstract, a research proposal or paper, a review article, or a journal entry, writing will challenge you.
Much like an athlete building muscle-memory, writers need to practice and be persistent to become proficient at writing. For this reason learning to write—like learning to ski, surf, or dance—takes time. Writing teaches writing, for sure; but so does reading. “Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the reader—has decided his way of life,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happens to be one of the most helpful literary mentors for readers, thinkers, and writers.
There is, in fact, a broad consensus that effective writing is among the most important outcome of a college education. Working scientists need to be effective writers to contribute to peers in their field of study and to communicate and translate complex ideas for a general audience. Educators must communicate effectively with their students and other stakeholders to assure the integrity of educational institutions and methods. In any professional field of work, effective writing matters. No matter your major or academic interest, you should be faced with (and seek out!) writing in as many different situations as possible. Humanities students need to be writing papers in the biological sciences and science students need to be writing research papers.
But there we are, again, back at that word effective.
In our writing workshops during the first half of the course we have focused most of our attention on becoming a bit more clear about what we are actually doing when we we are writing. Questions of purpose and audience are primary. And, as we have discovered, it is often difficult for a reader (and, as we have also found) and for a writer to really understand what one is doing. This problem is particularly acute for people writing in school.
Guiding Principles Let me offer a set of guiding principles that will help you as you work on your essays in the next few weeks:
Principle 1:Effective writing requires thinking well. It demands the labor of getting thoughts into words
Principle 2:Effective writing earns trust. A reader know when a writer cares and has used that care to write something that engages an informed reader
Principle 3:Effective writing is writing that is not (merely) specialized. In this course, as in most courses, whether you are a declared major in one field or another matters very little. Purpose, evidence, and reasoning—these are precisely the expectations in the sciences as well as the humanities. Context and discipline specific conventions will come into play–but in this course, they are secondary. For whether you are describing the steps in a mathematical proof, articulating the relationship among constituent parts of a complex natural and cultural system, or analyzing a cultural narrative or symbol, the standards are much more alike than different
Principle 4: Effective writing—in this course and in other courses that involve reading—requires working (or thinking) with a text. Every paragraph you write will more likely than not have at least one quotation from the book. You need to explain clearly and precisely why the language you are citing is relevant to what you are writing about. Once you quote (your evidence) you need to explain with precision why that evidence is in your writing (your reasoning) and then connect the language you take to be important to other passages in the book (or in other books or texts) that you find important.
Principle 5: Effective writing is thinking in context In a chapter you read in this course, “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture” Wendell Berry concludes that “moral ignorance” is the etiquette of agricultural ‘process’” (48). Berry is echoing what he calls earlier the cultural dis-ease of specialization, a point that Rachel Carson also makes in Silent Spring when she is arguing for what we might call thinking ecologically or, to use Tim Morton’s formulation, the ecological thought. Both writers are arguing that if we are not asking moral questions our thinking is incomplete.
Entering the Conversation: a Checklist for Writers In addition to the principles above I have pulled together a checklist for writers based on words about effective writing students have generated in some of my classes. These words for effective writing include flow/fluency, authentic/honest, authority, concise (no matter the length of the writing), using the text, thinking and writing in context. Here is the checklist
Be interesting: Your idea(s) matter. Make sure there is a reason that an informed reader would want to read your writing. Take a reader somewhere: begin but do not end with the commonplace. Move from the commonplace to the surprising, the simple to the complex, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the obvious to the less obvious
Be thoughtful Think. Then think again.Tomakesentences that are smart, engaging, exiting to read you will need to move from first to second and third thoughts. The work of writing is to use words effectively to engage other minds
Be ConciseSay what you have to say. Blog posts are relatively short. But effective blog posts do more with less. Every word and phrase and sentence matters. Many engaging blog posts have a three-part structure: a subject (a subject, usually familiar, indicating what the post is about), a turn (can be a “yet” or a “however” or a “but,” and an angle (your stance, what you have to say, the move you make in your thinking that makes what you have to say matter
Be Authentic and Honest. Cultivate a Point of View Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing/ What are you thinking or feeling? What makes you interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? Your tone matters, too: conversational, strong, sharp, inviting—these are terms we use to describe effective writing
Be professional You are publishing your writing. For this reason alone, your prose should be revised, revised, revised. Then (and only then) do you edit. It takes a lot of effort to get things exactly right.
Format: Your essays will be more or less 1000 words. Each essay will include reflection / analysis / interpretation. For example, note key points or passages that you noticed in your reading and spend more time with it, dig in, probe it, try to understand it better, raise questions, suggest answers
Make Connections Experiment with embedding your thinking in thought: in most of your writing you will be quoting from the writing of the books we are reading; but also, make use of the affordances of the Word Press blog. Learn how to make use of hyperlinks; organize blocks of text using paragraphs or bullet lists; use italics (or parenthetical comments) and bold face type, when appropriate
Titles are a lesson in microstyle. Titles will be first and foremost informative, suggestive, substantive; but don’t miss opportunities to write clever, catchy, eye drawing titles. Most good titles are suggestions of better titles. Most often titles are the last thing you revise before you post
Beginnings First sentences matter. Make them count. In most case state your purpose and your angle or point of view or argument. You might also try personal anecdotes, a sentence or a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study. Pay attention to how other writers begin
Details, Details, Details Is the writing error free? If you have issues with spelling (one of my issues as a writer, as it happens) you need to build into your writing process a run through focused just on spelling. Are you using a consistent and unobtrusive system for citation: Are titles of books in italics and chapters, articles (and poems) in quotation marks? Are poems cited by line breaks or are dashes used to indicate line breaks? (“I went into the Maverick Bar / In Farmington, New Mexico.”)
The notes of the editorial assistants on the Workshops page is really instructive. Thank you. I hope that you will talk with one another, too, as some of you have been doing, about what constitutes effective writing.
Meeting with each of you this week in individual conferences—along with our class discussion of Wendell Berry’s writing and our writing workshop—has left me bristling with energy. And now that we are all in, I want to share a few notes on our conversations, some follow-up notes to our discussions, and a few notes on the course.
Conversation Notes I mentioned in class Devon’s question about whether we would be reading literature that offers a counterpoint to environmentalism, or that questions some of the working assumptions of this social movement.
Devon’s question offers an opportunity to remind us that the readings in this course do precisely that. In fact, I had you begin your reading this semester with Ramanchandra Guha’s Environmentalism: A World History for precisely this reason. This book is important as it offers not only a useful description of the first two phases of Environmentalism in the United States. It is a book that critiques this tradition of environmentalism—with critique understood as a fascination with, an appreciation for, and a specific commentary on the limits of an environmentalism focused more on “the rights of plants, animals and wild habitats” (x). On the first page of his “Author’s Preface” he offers the very counterpoint that Devon was asking about. It is no accident, I think, that Devon wrote an essay that began with Guha’s understanding of environmentalism as “principally a question of social justice, of allowing the poor to have as much claim on the fruits of nature as the powerful” (x).
When Guha came to the United States in 1985 he became fascinated with the field of American environmental history. Before he left Yale University in the fall of 1987 where he was studying, Guha published Radical American Environmentalism- a Third World Critique in the journal Environmental Ethics. I encourage you to read the essay. The essay will help you to think about both the strengths as well as the limitations of the distinction between the anthropocentric and the biocentric that determined the thinking of many environmental philosophers, most notably the philosophical platform of deep ecology, and many environmental activists.
In his essay Guha argues that the discourse of North American environmentalism that grew out of the conservation movement was not particularly useful in forming an understanding of the social dynamics of ecological degradation. As Guha would later point out, the essay was widely admired and widely condemned. In any case, it remains a useful essay for the study of the social movement of environmentalism as it takes shape in the 1960s and 1970s. For further reading I would encourage you to read the essays Guha collected in How Much Should a Person consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States (2006).
In the sequence of essays I have been writing under the category Texts and Contexts you will also find additional counterpoints and critiques. I mentioned in class that the post Slow Violence borrows its title from Rob Nixon’s book Slow Violence: The Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) that, not incidentally, cites Rachel Carson and Ramanchandra Guha among its forerunners. Nixon points to Carson as a writer whose approach “helped hasten the shift from a conservationist ideology to the more socioenvironmental outlook that has proven so enabling for environmental justice movements” (xi). The terms we have used in class in our conversations with Guha have included “the environmentalism of the poor,” “ecosystem people,” “omnivores,” and “socioenvironmentalism” are a product of the work of Guha and his collaborators in the fields of sociology, comparative environmental history, and ecology.
In addition, I have been focusing your attention on the language of environmentalism in the spirit of appreciation and critique I mention above. In the posts The Language of Environmentalism and Language, Discourse, Values I shared with you another counterpoint—notably a talk by Peter Kareiva, Failed Metaphors and A New Environmentalism for the 21st Century. Kareiva’s talk begins with “the amazing writer” Rachel Carson and goes on to make passionate and provocative and polemical claims about the strengths and limits of the language and discourse in North American environmental thinking. One does not need to agree or disagree with Kareiva to appreciate his unsettling counterpoint. It is well worth fifty minutes of your time.
Finally, I have been mentioning other writers in our class discussions whose thinking is useful for us as we engage with the social movement, and the literature, of environmentalism. I mentioned, for example, Rachel Carson use of the metaphor the “balance of nature,” and the biologist John Kricher’s book The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth (2009) that traces this enduring (but biologically rather shaky) metaphor as it develops in the science of ecology, evolutionary biology, and the popular concept of ecology. If you are interested in the ways environmental language and discourse determine the practice of environmental activism and/or restoration, I would point you to the journalist and science writer Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in the Post-Wild World (2011) and to cultural theorist Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007).
Editorial Assistants We are grateful (or at least I am) for Miss B’s question about the intellectual work of the editor. I am grateful as I now have an occasion to explain a bit more about the editorial assistant role in this class. Let me say, first, that I was serious about a revolt: if there is a consensus that the editorial assistant role is not going to help you develop as a writer, then let’s rethink the role. But before we consider any changes, let me elaborate just a bit on editing as intellectual work, and its value for student writers. My elaboration will draw on a few decades as a working editor–first before I was a professor, at an independent press, and now as a regular editor for academic journals and publishers.
First and foremost, editorial assistant should begin with the principle that criticism is as an act of generosity. The editor is not setting out to critique writing. Rather she is practicing identifying and naming patterns—from the phrase and sentence to the paragraph and essay. The work of the editor begins with attention and care, and in most cases descriptive commentary. Second, the examples that the editorial assistants in this class draw out for discussion should not be exemplary of so-called “good” or “bad” writing.
A generous critique of writing would do well to replace good/bad with more effective/less effective writing. In most cases, less effective writing is not “bad” writing. Rather it is less effective given a particular purpose and context and audience. It might not know what it is doing, or it may be trying to do different things, and as a result it may not be doing this thing (or these things) effectively.
If we can allow this shift in perspective to guide our editorial work together this semester then the sites of writing we look at and discuss in our weekly writing workshops will become spaces to practice more effective writing. The first job, as you will likely find out, is to name the dozens of sites in a short essay and then to choose one on which we can spend some time working. In brief, as you read the essays for the week your job is to help us find productive sites for working and reworking.
Course Notes I have made a couple of changes to the course blog. These changes are designed to help you manage the reading materials as well as the weekly writing and other activities. Note well that the page Timeline has an arrow to the right. When you run your cursor over the page/arrow you will see that there is a dropdown menu called This Week. On Thursday or Friday I will post on this page the work for the coming week and will keep it there until after Thursday’s class. This change should make it easier for you to keep tabs on the flow of the course and what you need to do and by when.
I have also added a dropdown menu for artifacts. This change will allow us to add and organize additional cultural artifacts that register environmental concern. At this point there are two pages, Media and Poems. I may create a separate Music page in the menus as well to help us build the soundtrack to environmentalism. If you come across any artifacts, or have suggestions for new categories (like bumper stickers, I have always wanted to get photographs and collect these!)
I am looking forward to reading your essays on Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. The category for this week’s post is Wendell Berry. And make good use of your self assessment to make sure that your course blog is working well, and that you are up to date with your intellectual work in the course. This stage of reflection and revisionary work is really, really important for you to complete. For we are embarking on a wonderful and wild ride of reading longer narratives over the next few weeks: Linda Hogan’s beautiful and haunting novel Solar Storms, Terry Tempest William’s astonishing exploration of family and place in her nonfiction memoir Refuge, and Edward Abbey’s rollicking narrative romp in the desert southwest The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Please review the following, work on your writing, and prepare yourself for our meeting so that we may make the best use of our precious time. Please check the schedule below and get back to me if there are any errors or if your time and/or day needs to change.
Purpose of the Conference Writing is a recursive process that requires time and dedication to getting it right. This course is set up to keep you writing all semester, and to encourage you to revise your work as you become more engaged with the material and more knowledgeable about the literary and cultural work we are studying together.
Preparing for the Conference Come with a personal agenda: review the work you have completed in the course: including setting up your blog, individualizing your course site, and writing. Consider a list of goals for yourself. How can I help you achieve these goals?
Conference Agenda You should have four essays (approximately 4000 words): First Thoughts, Second Thoughts, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder. Review and revise all of your writing before we meet. Pay special attention to knowing what you are doing and then making that doing direct and accessible to a reader. Consider (and then reconsider) your title. Make sure you have the correct category for each post. Tag each post appropriately.
Your Course Blog You will have set up a course blog on your domain at ksc.open. Make sure you have an About page (and other features that make this blog your own), Licensing of your material using creative commons, a title and tagline, a profile with your name or an alias (for syndication purposes). Is there something else you would like to be able to do with your blog? Bring your ideas.
Your Domain Each of you has a domain (yourdomainname.ksc.open/). On that domain you have installed the open-source application Word Press and a course blog (yourdomainname.ksc.open /engangeredworld/). During the next few weeks you will be making your domain your own. First, we will talk in class about a domain as a digital hub, network (or learning network), or portal (and E-Port). Second, you will build your domain site with the course site as part of your domain. Third, I would like each of you to set up at least one additional site. This site is yours to define and be personal, academic, pre-professional, or some combination of these.
Looking Ahead Your immediate goal is to begin building a site, and working with tools, in preparation for the project you will be working on during the second half of this course. The longer-term goal is to take advantage of the KSC Open Project: “to discover who you want to become by what you want to share.” That is, in the coming weeks, you will be stepping back to thinking about your digital presence across three dimensions: Digital Identity (Taking ownership of your presence on the web. Expressing your ideas. Integrating your learning and interests) Digital Fluency (Using open-source platforms. Building projects using digital tools. Creating portfolios, exhibits, galleries, blogs, or wikis) a; and Digital Citizenship (Engaging with the community. Constructing the web. Navigating, and critically questioning digital technologies.)
As one of the project leaders of KSC Open I am looking forward to working with you to get the most out of this unique and potentially transformative work. We will continue this conversation as the course unfolds: in class, in our next conference, and with our Academic Technology Fellow, Emily Whitman.
Individual Conference Schedule
Tuesday Sept 26
Wednesday Sept 27
Thursday Sept 28
9:00 Devon C
10:00 Devon S
We covered good ground today as we approach the close of the first week of September. And I believe we are ready to dive into Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The book is a literary and cultural achievement and it is one of those books that ya just gotta read.
What follows are a few post-class notes. I was going to write an email but then realized I might have more to say that would be useful to put up here on the class blog.
Reading for Week Three
Get started! The schedule page under Tuesday September 12 lays out the reading: the first 184 pages of Silent Spring and the secondary materials below that will help you understand the cultural and literary context and the extraordinary public reception and controversy.
Read Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. We will discuss Chapters 1-11. 1-184. Discussion Partners: Madison and Chelsea
Read Mark Stoll’s virtual exhibition, Silent Spring, A Book that Changed the World, for an overview of the global reception and impact of Silent Spring as well as the book’s legacy in popular culture, music, literature, and the arts.
Think about Carson’s writing and the popular movement of environmentalism in the United States. Look at the cultural materials on the Media Archive of this course blog and consider environmentalism as a social movement, as well as the social and cultural formations of environmental concern: writing, advertisements, television, music, film
Each day of class when we are discussing a book this semester we will be rewarded with the insights of two discussion partners. The responsibility of the discussion partners is simple: send Mark your notes on the reading by noon on the day of class. Your notes, page references for passages, a draft of the essay you are working on, a list of questions—the form is what you want it to be. Every discussion partner should, however, provide me with at least five page references. I will then post what you send on the Ephemera page and we will use what you come up with as a place to start or to enrich our discussion in class. Also, I will expect you to be a bit more active in class and will look to you to help carry the discussion. I am happy to meet with you before class or talk by email if that will help you to prepare for the responsibility.
Next week: Madison and Chelsea are up for Tuesday and Ethan and Devon are up for Thursday.
The blogs are coming along nicely. Each blog is indicating a living and breathing human being, a unique standpoint from which to take up the literary and cultural materials we are studying. The only housekeeping we have is making sure we use the categories consistently. For Week 1 the category is “First Thoughts.” For Week 2 (due Sunday September 10) the category is “Second Thoughts.” Delete all the other categories from your post and your blog. You can as many tags to a post as you would like!
Our discussion in class was centered on a sentence I find quite useful. It is from the writer and editor Ed Hogan: “Know what you are doing and do it well.”
Know what you are doing. This injunction for writers (for anyone creating something, really) is more elusive than it might at first appear. In class we looked at some writing and precisely how the writing was doing what it does. English majors are familiar with this kind of looking—but all writers need to cultivate this perspective. What did we see? We saw writing that makes connections (to personal experience, other classes, to other texts and contexts. We saw writing focused around a question. We also saw writing less aware of what it is trying to do, or doing a few or many things.
Let me suggest that you go back to your first essay in this class, your blog post titled “First Thoughts,” and ask yourself, “What is this piece of writing doing?” If you find it is evident, go ahead and then ask, is it doing this thing well? Examples might include:
Describing a text
Coming to terms with a question
Making connections (for a reader, between an idea and a personal experience, another text and/or context, etc.)
Linking a text to a context or event
Forwarding or recirculating selected passages from a text for others (your readers) to consider
And so on. Now, if you find that your First Thoughts post is not really aware of what it is doing; then please take some time to revise what you have written. This process will help you prepare for your essay this week. (nota bene. Most writers, and surely for me, find it difficult to see clearly what something is doing. We are always looking through a glass darkly as an author. So consider sharing your writing with a reader (friend, partner, whoever) and ask them to tell you what she or he things the writing is doing. This exercise can be exasperating, but it most always leads to a productive revision.)
Now, for your essay this week: please categorize it as “Second Thoughts.” I recommend that you have a look at the essay I wrote before class as one example of an essay that is doing something and attempting to do some of the things that work well when writing a digital text. When you sit down to draft your essay, think about a mode of expression that is inclusive (people who don’t know about the topic you are writing about or the context); consider taking the reader through hyperlinks to relevant or related materials; link to video or audio resources.
When I look at the essay Slow Violence, and I ask what it is doing, I guess I would say that it is thinking about how we might move from a prevailing discourse and vocabulary about nature (violence) and then recognizing that human reasoning is fallible which creates the challenge of gathering support for addressing environmental crisis (in this case anthropogenic climate change).
Do it well: throughout the semester we will be talking about ways of doing things with texts. I like what the writer and teacher Joseph Harris says about what English majors are usually doing when they sit down to write about texts: “to make interesting use of the texts you read in the essays you write.”
This is sensible advice. But we will have to do some talking about that word “interesting.”
One of the things I might add here about the post I wrote this morning called Slow Violence (a title with an implicit reference to Rob Nixon’s seminal 2013 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor) is that its attempt to do this thing well (connect the crisis to the way we think) is based on moving from one place to another. As I said in class, I am starting to reread Rachel Carson. I read Kolbert’s commentary in this week’s New Yorker. I got wind that Rebecca Solnit had written something interesting (as usual) in The Guardian. I thought about Rob’s book. I then made a connection somehow to reading about recent research on the challenges of reasoning and all of a sudden these connections began to take shape.
What is that shape? My essay, an attempt, begins with a specific passage from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, moves through a series of related texts engaged with the same scientific and moral questions, comes back to more passages from Silent Spring to anchor the essay, and then ends up somewhere quite different from where the essay started. That different place has to do with thought and action, human fallibility, collective knowledge, and so on. One of the ways I am trying to write, I might add, is by thinking with (as opposed to about) the authors and ideas I am discovering in connecting their texts.
I am looking forward to reading your Second Thoughts on Monday. Have fun. I’ll see you next week.
We accomplished a lot in class on Thursday; but I also want to make sure you know exactly what is expected of you before we gather on Tuesday next week. Please read the following and get to work in the areas below.
Make your Blog Your Own In managing your blog you are exploring the implications of how you represent yourself in a public space—empowering you to move beyond the passive consumption and toward more active production of content in the digital commons
Send me your course blog URL by Friday September 1
Work on your course blog before we meet on Tuesday.
He has chosen a theme with a large header/landing page and slider
He has a “kick ass” title. The branching out metaphor is connected to the image. This is what I mean by a blog having integrity (the parts fit into the whole)
An inviting and interesting “tagline” that is a quotation from a writer (John Muir) who is part of the tradition of writers we are studying
A blog with a sidebar (currently on the right margin) with the current widgets: Search, Recent Posts, Recent Comments, Archives, Categories, Meta
Your to do list begins with going to your dashboard and setting up a course site that will be inviting and engaging for your readers:
Play with themes and find one that you like
Work on your title and tagline
Organize widgets in the sidebar and/or delete inactive widgets
Consider pages to organize information
The checklist below will develop your skills (such as adding images and links) and establish habits, or protocols, (such as including categories and tags when you publish a post. Do what you are able before next week—some of you will move further along in the checklist than others. But make a note to consider and complete all of the tasks below, at a minimum, before the end of week 3 in the course. My assessment of your work in the course will be in part based on the timely and thoughtful engagement with these activities:
(Re)consider your theme You are welcome to experiment with different themes. Word Press has hundreds of free themes for you to try. Don’t worry: you can try one out and if it does not work you can always switch back to your original or default theme
Clean up your theme delete default pages, links that are not relevant, widgets in sidebars or footers that you are not using; organize the sidebar or footer to make the site easier to navigate, making sure there is a list of “Recent Posts” so that a reader has a table of contents; try a “sticky post” that will welcome readers to your site and will be “above the fold” for visitors of your site;
Edit your “About” page: Readers want to know who is writing and you are in control of what a reader will know. Remember that you want to be taken seriously and so what you say (or do not say) will shape a perception of you
Add an Image to your About page Consider justifying image left or right and wrapping text using image editor. If you choose not to use an image of yourself, choose an appropriate image that you would like your readers to associate with you
Learn to use images in your postsUse your own. You can use Google Search to poke around on the web and find images that free to use. Use embedded links to relevant materials and resources, as well as media, in your posts. Use your own images. Visit Unsplash, a community sharing site with over 200,000 free do-whatever-you-want high-resolution photos. Or use the Penn Libraries Public domain Images portal for access to other image archives.
Add or Modify your Blog Header You don’t need a splashy header. And what you can do with a header is in some cases determined by the theme you have chosen. Still, headers are attractive and can serve to reinforce or echo the blog theme.
Add a Links or Blogroll Widget (if you do not already have one) Delete default WP links that do not seem relevant or necessary. Consider context, perhaps adding the College home page (Title of the link should be the name of the College). Link to course web page. As your projects develop later in the course you will likely want to add to the list of links.
Consider moving the content of your blog out into other social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) that you use. You can easily add a twitter widget to your blog, for example.
License your Content As authors creating and publishing content on the web, you need to think about copyright and the commons, digital communities, collaboration and sharing. Here is what you need to do:
Choose a license. I recommend and use the least restrictive license. The 4.0 Licenseallows others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon our work, even commercially, as long as users credit us for the original creation. You retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make non-commercial uses of your work. Once you have chosen a license, add a Text Widget to your Blog. Copy and paste the code into the text window. Update to save changes.
We will be talking about working in the open as the course as the semester unfolds.
General guidelines for writing are on the Writing Projects page on the Writing in an Endangered World Web Site. The length of your post will be around 1000 words.
There are so many things to write about as you enter into the study of a subject like environmental literature. Look at the An Introduction to Environmental Literature. Read and perhaps begin writing about the questions in the course description. Write about why environmental literature might matter. Look at the kinks on the course site and search a term or terms that intrigue you and educate your reader. There are many other questions. How do I understand myself and my relationship to the more-than-human world—to natural and built environments, to places like cities, forests, ponds, oceans, animals, gardens, wilderness areas, parks? What is environmental writing? What is environmentalism? How might we think about environmental writing in relationship to the social movement of environmentalism? What can we learn by studying environmental concern in the twentieth century through forms of journalism, advertising, music, popular culture?
Before you publish:
Have you edited and formatted your text?
Do you have a concise and thoughtful title?
Have you considered an image or images in your post?
Have you considered linking to other digital sites or resources?
In the editing screen, add the category “First Thoughts” and then add tags to the post. Include at least three tags with each post. The tags will be names, key terms, places, etc.
Publish your first blog post (and delete the default “Hello World” post). Once you publish, you will likely want to go back and make changes. I encourage you to curate your blog posts as the course unfolds.
Read Ramachandra Guha, “Part One: Environmentalism’s First Wave,” in Environmentalism: A Global History, 1-62. As you read, note the mention of the writers Guha mentions, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Alexander von Humboldt, Dietrich Brandis, George Perkins Marsh, Miguel Angel de Quevedo
Welcome to Environmental Studies 363 and English 390! I am writing to welcome you to the course, and to provide you with some information about our work together this semester.
This cross-listed course is designed for students in the sciences and in the humanities. The course offers the time and space to read some of the most beautiful, provocative, and culturally significant environmental writing from the 1950s to the present. The literary and cultural history of environmental thinking is a history that makes visible many of the most pressing personal, social, cultural, and moral questions facing humankind in the present moment.
The books for the course are available at the Keene State College Bookstore, although they can also be purchased at a local bookstore, or new or used at an online book vendor. Please order or purchase your books before the second week of class. If you are having any problems accessing your library for the course, please let me know and we can work together to make sure that you have the books for the class. Supplementary reading and materials are available in digital format and are embedded in this course site.
In addition to getting the books for our class you will be setting up a digital domain for your work in this class-and beyond. During our first week we will be setting up your domains and then you will be installing the application Word Press to set up a process blog for the course.
On Tuesday during our first class session you will request an account using this Google Form
You will then receive an email by Wednesday at noon with a link to create a domain on KSCopen
On Thursday, in class, you will create your domain and create a blog for the class. Before we meet, I encourage you to look through the materials on the KSC Open site. It would be helpful, too, for you to look over the KSC Open Terminology page
For now, please read the other two posts: Welcome to KSC Open and The Web Log as Genre. The other activity worth doing before we meet is browsing each of the pages in the top menu of this course blog, including the syllabus. And, if you want to begin building your awareness of the movement of environmentalism, go ahead and poke around on the links to resources and web sites in the sidebar.
Please bring your laptop or tablet to class. If you do not have a portable machine, let me know and I will work with you to make alternative arrangements so that you can participate in the in-class writing workshops and activities. And send along any questions.
Writing in an Endangered World is a course in literary and cultural studies that is designed to improve your writing, as well as to empower you with the critical and rhetorical skills to communicate effectively with audiences beyond the classroom—whether you are majoring in sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities.
Developing these skills and habits of mind will make a difference in both the personal and professional dimensions of your life. However, because digital-mediated forms of communication have become ubiquitous in our lives, digital fluency and literacies are imperative. As educated citizens, we need to engage with the personal, social, cultural, and political complexities of the web, as well as navigate, and critically resist, digital technologies.
For more than twenty years my students have worked with digital tools as well as considered the relationship between literacy and technology-whether in academic and professional practice, through building intellectual networks, sharing intellectual work, constructing e-portfolios, or developing online profiles; or in critical thinking about technology, by reflecting on digital platforms, considering the ways that digital technologies constitute identities and social relations, and understanding how digital media both create and reproduce social institutions and structures.
For the past year I have worked to create a learning opportunity for my students that students and faculty at other institutions have been developing—including The University of Mary Washington, Emory University, Middlebury College, Davidson College, and the University of Oklahoma. The opportunity is to participate in a own Domain of One’s Own project, KSC Open.
KSC Open is a collaboration with a talented information technologist (Jenny Darrow), and a visionary colleague in Biology (Dr. Cangialosi), that allows you to register a personal domain name and to begin working in a free, hosted web space. KSC Open is designed to empower you to use the web as a platform for creative expression, critical thinking, and integrative learning— inviting you to connect your learning in unique ways based on your experiences and interests.
KSC Open is at the same time a deliberate pedagogical project, a project based on values that reflect a critical philosophy of education, and a conviction that the digital platforms (and spaces) we use for teaching and learning can be more: as one of the creators of Domain of One’s Own, Martha Burtis, puts it succinctly: “More critical. More relational. More flexible. More beautiful.”
Working in your digital domain will enrich your learning. It will at the same time empower you to shape a critical perspective on how current web architecture works-specifically, how it extracts users data through persistent surveillance, data mining, tracking, and monetization. As Professor of English at Macomb Community College, Keith Gilyard, notes in his essay Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms, participation on the web raises difficult questions about access and equity. For “web based surveillance, personalization, and monetization works perfectly well for particular constituencies, but it doesn’t work quite as well for persons of color, lower-income students, and people who have been walled off from information or opportunities because of the ways they are categorized according to opaque algorithms.”
These cultural and economic questions are questions that have become imperative for everyone in institutions of higher education-indeed, for anyone. As Gilyard writes,
The fact that the web functions the way it does is illustrative of the tremendously powerful economic forces that structure it. Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online.
These forces are one of the reasons we need to be thoughtful about the uses of educational management systems. They are also the reason why I am making visible the risks and rewards of participating in the digital spaces we too often simply accept.
I will add, finally, that the Domain project got its start at a peer institution, a public liberal arts college not unlike our own, The University of Mary Washington. If you are curious about the emergence of the Domain of One’s Own project, read Part One and Part Two of a Brief History by Jess Reingold and Jesse Stommel.
Welcome to KSC Open! Setting up and managing a domain will enliven your reading and thinking and writing in this course, as well as engage you with the literary and cultural questions inherent in digital participation and exchange.
Most of the writing you complete in this course will be on a blog (an abbreviation of the phrase web log). Below is a reflection on the blog as genre, a few thoughts on why blogs might offer pedagogical opportunities for learning to write, and a few examples of blogs and blog posts by former students.
The blog post is a form of writing that raises interesting questions for writers. In a four-part essay on blogging written in the summer of 2012 the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh makes the case for the blog as a distinctive form of digital writing. “The blog is to a much greater degree shaped by the tastes of its maker,” he suggests. “With the pressures of the Here-and-Now removed, it is also one of the few virtual forms that is no longer primarily utilitarian.” The blog post, he argues, is less determined by commercial and social utility of popular media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The structure of the blog post is more like the essay, for it encourages an extended use of language.
It is interesting to think about what distinguishes the blog post, and the blog, as a distinct artifact, object, or genre. The blog first helped me work with words and images during a year living and working in India on my Far Field blog.
Of course making a text with words and images uses a traditional form of representation. With Ghosh, I have thought about the beautiful ancient Chinese Handscrolls that incorporate colophons and commentary, for example, or Medieval illuminated manuscripts.
The blog also changes the material conditions and economics of publishing as an enterprise. “If this process gets under way,” Gosh writes, “it will have far-reaching consequences: there would be nothing for example, to prevent writers from creating unique versions of their books for special patrons – by including say, an extra chapter or character, or by changing a name or a setting (it is of course, a common practice for painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to tailor their work to the needs of specific patrons). This would transport us not only to the age of the illuminated book, but also to the age of the ‘recension’, when the meaning of a book had to be deduced by comparing variant versions of the text.” What is more, the blog form is open to revision by the author and so there are no limits to the process of revising and re-editing and curating the digital text.
Ghosh’s commentary frames digital writing as a complement (as opposed to a threat to or erosion of) our literary and cultural activities:
Nothing that I have said in these posts is intended to deny or diminish the strengths of the print media. The process of publishing in print consists of a collaboration between authors and a great number of others: editors, agents, book-designers, jacket-artists, proof-correctors and so on. Every one of these people puts something into the process and the finished works are, without a doubt, vastly the better for it. This process adds enormously to the quality, value and significance of books. That is why the institutions of print will not disappear: they are irreplaceable.
In the classroom, where the process of writing is the subject and the practice, might the blog help to emphasize the dynamics of thought as it takes form in words, phrases, and sentences? More than that, might the digital space in which these words appear reinforce the idea that thoughts are not really in us but rather that we are in thought?
While all of us are still working out the conceptual implications of these new technologies, the advent of blogging has created pedagogical opportunities to think about (and with) the digital tools that we use to represent and understand ourselves, and the world.
Blogging offers exciting opportunities for student writers:
A blog can help shift the motivation for writing from the assignment to the writer. My hunch is that one of the obstacles to growth as a writer is the writing assignment: that is, more often than not, writing assignments motivate writing for a purpose other than one’s own. For these reasons, I will encourage you to view your blog posts as focused on questions and problems rather than on an assignment, on the thoughtful (and creative) exploration of ideas as opposed to more mechanistic forms of response to the readings;
The relatively short form of the blog entry encourages concise and purposive writing. Managing to say exactly what you need to say in fewer words will challenge you as a writer and hone your skills with the written word;
The likelihood that the blog will actually be read will help you become more rhetorically aware—of the conceptual, linguistic, social, emotional and ethical concerns a writer must address to write effectively for any audience;
Writing in a digital format (a web log, or blog) enacts (and represents) the complex process of thinking and writing that takes place in a college-level course; in fact, we will use your writing experiences, and the archive of writing that we create, to reflect on your learning process, and the role of writing in that process;
Designing and managing a blog offers experience using one of the digital technologies we use as readers and writers. Digital writing requires all of the knowledge and skill writers use in other formats in addition to the new ways digital writing blends modes of representation (visual and verbal) and creates opportunities for fresh conceptual and material connections;
Finally, from a standpoint of sustainability, a blog allows for drafting and composing and sharing your thinking without using reams of paper. While the resources to sustain the electronic networks consume vast amounts of energy, we will at least be using and recycling less paper.
The examples below demonstrate forms of engagement with reading and with the thinking of other writers–one of the elements I am asking you to include in your writing this semester. Please take some time, too, for browsing in the blogosphere to learn how writers use blogs.
You will notice that each entry shares certain qualities:
First and foremost, note how the entries are examples of writing about language and discourse (these are the subjects of this course, after all)
There is a brief and yet suggestive title
the author’s purpose is clearly stated or, in the second example, is implied in the title and controls the content and organization that follows
The writing is exploratory, reporting on the discoveries and connections the writer has made
The writing is exploratory, seeking connections and suggesting more possibilities, in bringing into the conversation it is having with other writers the texts a reader might seek out on her own
The writing is making connections between other pieces of writing, weaving together textual passages into a coherent whole
We will be reading one another’s writing and we will workshop your writing in class to help you develop your thinking and writing this semester.
Example 1: We are It
The first line of American poet Walt Whitman’s “This Compost” expresses a fear of nature and its power to give (and to take away) life. “Something startles me where I thought I was safest.” “What chemistry!” the speaker of the poem exclaims as the poem turns, in the penultimate stanza, toward an acceptance of the fact that our lives are subject to natural processes.
Are we a part of or apart from nature? More recently, Gary Snyder shows how complicated such a question really is. Here is a poem from his 1974 book Turtle Island called “By Frazier Creek Falls”:
Standing up on lifted, folded rock
looking out and down–
The creek falls to a far valley,
hills beyond that
facing, half-forested, dry
strong wind in the
stiff glittering needle clusters
of the pine–their brown
round trunk bodies
rustling trembling limbs and twigs
This flowing land
is all there is, forever
We are it
it sings through us–
We could live on this Earth
without clothes or tools!
Snyder’s saying that we are the world around us (“all there is,” “we are it / it stings through us”) in this early poem is elaborated in the essays collected in the Practice of the Wild. The argument that we are apart from nature makes some sense to me, and Snyder acknowledges this standpoint as a member of a materialistic and modern culture. But Snyder’s case that “we are it” is consistent with new research in biology. To take one example, researchers now know that bacterial cells outnumber human cells in the body by a factor of 10 to 1.
The “human microbiome,” as it is called, may even have more to do with our individuality than in our own genes. A good summary of this research into the microbiome is by Jennifer Ackerman in the essay “The Ultimate Social Network.” The question for me is how these poetic and scientific realizations might change how people think about their bodies and the world.
Example 2: We are It
Since arriving at Keene State College I have been studying ecology. But it was not until recently that I realized how the study of how living things interact with their environments offers a way of thinking about the human body as a habitat. This way of thinking, more importantly, has challenged my ideas about environmental action.
In her book Having Faith, the scientist and writer Sandra Steingraber describes her realization that in becoming pregnant, her body had become a habitat for her developing child. “So I turned my scientist’s eye inward,” she writes, “and began to study in earnest the biological drama of new life being knit from the molecules of air, food and water flowing into a woman’s body from the outside environment. I looked also at the environmental threats to the bodies of pregnant and breastfeeding mother,” a way of looking that led her to a series of questions:
How do toxic chemicals cross the tough sponge of the placenta? How do they find their way into amniotic fluid? How do they enter the milk-making globes in the back of the breast? What are the effects of the child on of theses earliest encounters with synthetic chemicals? (ix)
As a student of ecology I had yet to even consider these questions. And they are fascinating to me—as well as troubling. For as Steingraber says, “The answers to these questions seemed essential to my new responsibilities as an expectant mother. And they all pointed to a simple truth: protecting the ecosystem inside my body required protecting the one outside.” This “simple truth” is convincing, as the author provides forty pages of source notes—scientific articles and books to support her argument. Reading a passage at the end of the book I found myself thinking about Rachel Carson’s precautionary argument. We would do best, in the words of Steingraber, to “err on the side of caution whenever a situation seems potentially dangerous” (284). Or, as she goes on to remind us in quoting a policy guideline from the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, “Where there are threats of serious irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” For me, the link between the biological experience of becoming a mother and advocating for protecting the ecosystem helps me understand the impulse of the environmentalist.
Steingraber’s book appeared on a web site when I was following up on Rachel Carson’s chemistry lesson in her chapter “Elixirs of Death” where she says that the “breast-fed human infant is receiving small but regular additions to the load of toxic chemicals building up in his body. It is by no means his first exposure, however; there is good reason to believe this begins while he is till in the womb” (23). My question is why these concerns are not taken seriously or are secondary to other human concerns.
For more on Sandra Steingraber, visit her website .
Example 3: The Understanding Eye
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is a book I would not have picked up on my own. One passage that has stayed with me concerns how little we actually see (and know) about the world:
Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived about us. So it is that the activities of the insect predators and parasites are known to few. Perhaps we may have noticed an oddly shaped insect of ferocious mien on the bush in the garden and been dimly aware that the praying mantis lives at the expense of other insects. But we see with understanding eye only if we have walked in the garden at night and here and there with a flashlight have glimpsed the mantis stealthily creeping on her prey. Then we sense something of the drama of the hunter and hunted. Then we begin to feel something of that relentlessly pressing force by which nature controls her own.
The environmental writing I have read echoes this idea of the “understanding eye.” The metaphor of walking at night with a flashlight (something I have myself done) and glimpsing only the part of nature in the light is a memorable reminder of how vast the darkness of nature is, or how little we really know.
Also, in reading about Sandra Steingraber, an author mentioned in class, I also found an excerpt from an essay she wrote that attests to the legacy of Carson’s environmental writing:
For my father, who served as a teenage soldier in Naples where the pesticide DDT was first deployed, Silent Spring was an antidote to wartime thinking. Dad had no stomach for waging war in his backyard garden…. For me, who did not actually read Rachel Carson until I was a college professor myself, Silent Spring was the reason I left the laboratory and became a science writer. Silent Spring was my father’s armistice. It was my call to arms.
The passage was published in the essay, “Silent Spring: A Father-Daughter Dance,” in the book Rachel Carson: Courage for the Earth, ed. Peter Matthiessen (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
literature and environmentalism at keene state college