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