Sustainable Communities: Teaching the Environment in the English Classroom
By Theresa A. Dougal
As people across the globe grapple with the consequences of environmental degradation, “teaching sustainability” within the context of the humanities is imperative, yet the challenges are daunting for many educators who struggle to address the topic within their disciplinary norms. In English Studies, we have seen this dilemma played out in numerous, ongoing scholarly debates about the practice and teaching of ecocriticism and environmental literature, the relative value of theory versus more experiential learning, and the merit and methods of an interdisciplinary approach and an action-oriented curriculum. Cheryll Glotfelty captures the impulse many of us feel when she says in a letter published in PMLA: ”The question that fires me incessantly is this: how can one, as a literary critic and teacher, contribute to the ecological health of the planet?”1 In addressing this pressing question, those of us sympathetic to the cause bring to the table an array of possibilities that reflect our best intentions as well as the realities of the institutions we teach in and the students we teach. My own experience in teaching sustainability within English Studies at a small liberal arts college has led me to foreground a strongly interdisciplinary approach grounded in ethics, an effort made possible by a curriculum that actively encourages interdisciplinary learning and includes an upper-level category called “The Moral Life.” The thoughts shared here emerge from my evolving efforts over the past several years to responsibly integrate an environmental perspective into my teaching.
The title “Sustainable Communities” originates with a first year seminar I was invited to teach within a new living-learning community on our campus. After having recently experimented with a short section on the environment in my “Moral Life” literature course, I welcomed the opportunity to address the topic more comprehensively within a first-year writing course populated by students who shared a common interest. Unlike literature courses, a general education writing course is easily conducive to the kind of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) that Greg Garrard and others advocate, including but moving beyond mere Environmental Education (EE) to concrete action. Through a variety of readings, films, speakers, discussions, and writing assignments, students examined how threats to the natural environment are influencing our ways of living, and how communities are working to create more balanced lifestyles, social structures, and economies. The course aimed to provide the “fundamental knowledge” that Garrard describes as a “critique of consumerism and advertising . . . an understanding of distorted retail prices and environmental costs, and the contrast in moral values between a technocentric and ecocentric perspective.”2 Students also moved beyond merely thinking and writing about these issues, and participated in multiple hands-on activities, enacting what Stephen Sperling sees as the “primary aims” of education for sustainability – “to develop and link systemic and critical thinking and environmental and social action, or in other words, develop ecoliteracy and political literacy for full and active citizenship.”3 Teaching this seminar and witnessing its effect upon the students, several of whom went on to major in Environmental Studies and to assume leadership roles in environmental initiatives, motivated me to try to find ways to bring this pedagogy to bear within other courses.
Teaching the environment within standard English literature courses is clearly no easy task, as English major courses provide much less room for Education for Sustainable Development, a circumstance that underlies the dilemma of ecocritics who are sincere in their desire to make a difference outside the classroom. Lawrence Buell, Ursula Heise, and Karen Thornber affirm the value of ecocriticism, which, as they write, “begins from the conviction that the arts of imagination and the study thereof – by virtue of their grasp of the power of word, story, and image to reinforce, enliven, and direct environmental concern – can contribute significantly to the understanding of environmental problems.”4 Critics like Garrard, however, worry that too few students exposed to this EE model, which emphasizes the “admirable canon” of environmental literature, go on to make practical use of their knowledge after they graduate.5 Karen Kilcup expresses similar concern when she writes, “The challenge for literary studies is to make an environmental perspective fundamental far beyond the discipline, to avoid making ecocriticsm merely another interpretive system.”6 She asks the pertinent question: “How can a literature course be structured both to meet departmental (and disciplinary) demands and to connect reading with real life – while developing students’ ecological literacy?”7 In my own limited efforts to “teach the environment” within early 19th-century American and British Literature courses, I have been acutely aware of the way the various, important disciplinary demands of these courses conflict with the impulse to foreground practical environmental concerns. At my undergraduate institution, with an English Department consisting of eight full-time faculty and no environmental literature track, English students’ exposure in their courses to environmental issues and/or ecocriticism is minimal, to say the least. In the end, my best effort to address this deficiency has emerged in an interdisciplinary course called “Literature and the Way We Live.”
“Literature and the Way We Live” draws juniors and seniors from across all majors and, in addition to being an English major elective, fulfills an upper-level category in the general curriculum called “The Moral Life.” The deliberately interdisciplinary framework of the course allows us to approach a variety of literary and cultural texts from multiple perspectives, with less of a focus on strictly literary analysis. Our central texts are works included in Peter and Renata Singer’s The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature8 and Simon Blackburn’s short but comprehensive Being Good: an Introduction to Ethics.9 These are supplemented, particularly in the environment section, with a variety of articles and films. For their presentations, students provide the class with peer-reviewed articles from their particular disciplines, which I review and approve in advance for everyone to read. Students maintain an extensive daily journal that includes responses to Blackburn, the literary text, and the reserve article, and a hypothetical dilemma related to the topic. This substantial writing component, along with two formal essays and class discussion, constitute the work of the course.
In advance of the environment section, students read literature and secondary texts that explore the theme of identity, and they absorb a good deal of the Blackburn ethics text – all of which primes them for ongoing discussion about civic life, personal lifestyle, and moral decision making. In the identity section we consider issues having to do with race and gender, money and ambition, education, technology. With Blackburn, as we lead up to and engage in the environment section, we discuss, among other things, the concepts of relativism, egoism, desire and the meaning of life, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, rights, and unreasonable demands. All of this material, when read in conjunction with provocative literature and related secondary articles, is conducive to preparing students to think about and analyze various beliefs and behaviors regarding the environment. If, as Al Gore claims and many of us believe, the environment is essentially a moral issue and crisis,10 using ethics to frame a literature course both preserves the ideal model of liberal learning and grounds the discussion within universal concepts rather than partisan positions, allowing for dialogue that, though challenging, doesn’t turn off students who are skeptical or under-informed, that compels them to think broadly about concrete problems.
One cornerstone of the course is the use of interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed secondary articles submitted by the students. In addition to presenting on the central readings, students lead the class in discussion over environmental topics related to their majors or to careers that emerge from their majors. So, for instance, we’ve learned together about “Assessing Ozone-Related Health Impacts under a Changing Climate” (nursing), “Extinction Risk from Climate Change” (biology), “Psychology and Environmental Sustainability: A Call for Integration” (psychology), “The National Environmental Literacy Project” (education), “A Regional Dynamic General-Equilibrium Model of Alternative Climate-Change Strategies” (mathematics/economics). I name these articles at length because the titles, so alien to an English course, work well as a supplement to our discussion about the primary texts. I have found that when students are encouraged to seek out and share information that is relevant to their own scholarly and career aspirations, they process all the course material more fully. Although students are not participating in any actual hands-on activities within the course, they’re integrating course content into their own frame of reference. Nursing students begin to consider the ways in which climate change is impacting public health. Education students are motivated to introduce environmental literacy into their classrooms. Psychology majors recognize the potential effects of dramatic and ongoing weather changes on people’s psychological well being. Everyone in the class benefits by being exposed to a variety of perspectives on pressing environmental issues, and the practice contributes to the kind of “transformative teaching” that Hayden Gabriel, Greg Garrard, and Steve Pratchett call for within a pedagogical framework that includes “awareness, analysis, evaluation, and participation.”11 12 The ideal is that, by relating the environment to what they already know and care about, students gain a measure of control. And as David Sobel says in “Climate Change meets Ecophopia,” “A sense of agency and control leads to the knowledge of issues and action strategies, which lead to an intention to act, which under the right precipitating conditions, leads to environmental behavior.”13
Because “Literature and the Way We Live” is, at its core, an English course, we pay close attention to the rhetorical practices of our texts, and one Communication student’s secondary article was particularly useful in this regard. The article, “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement,”14 helped us to consider the extent to which the novel, articles, and films we were using in class were effective in truly engaging us in our topic. As I continually seek out the best material to use in class – cultural texts, dystopian or apocalyptic novels, nature writing, non-fiction and journalistic pieces – articles such as this one on “frames,” found and presented by a student in the class, are successful in drawing students into an even larger conversation – about the importance of communicating environmental issues to the public at large, and about how literature and other arts can play an essential role. “Literature and the Way We Live” is an interdisciplinary course but it is also firmly aligned with the belief that the humanities are crucial to achieving environmental awareness. As Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote argue, “the humanities are especially suited to speak to the rhetoric of crisis and to problems of futurity and scale because they demand that we understand how narratives about place, about value, and about the relation of social actors to those ideas are made.”15 Our study of such narratives and their effectiveness is central, and it is enhanced by the valuable insights and information brought into our deliberations from scholarship in a variety of disciplines.
In addition to the students’ interdisciplinary articles, another important interactive practice in the course involves the hypothetical dilemmas that students regularly write and deliberate upon. For each moral issue addressed by the texts, students practice articulating truly difficult dilemmas for themselves – ones that have no easy answers and that tend to generate intensive debate in class. During the environment section, such dilemmas have involved choices about where to live and how to transport oneself, how much stuff to buy, what profession to pursue, what energy to consume, whether to become vegetarian or vegan. Students are encouraged to make direct applications of moral issues to their personal lives and professional aspirations in a way similar to what Richard Kerridge calls for in his article “Ecocriticism and the Mission of English” when he suggests that impersonal scholarship should be brought into dialogue with “personal narratives of reading, including emotions and bodily reactions, and the influence of other things going on in the person’s life at the time of reading.”16 In “Literature and the Way We Live,” our goal is to do more than merely read and learn about environmental issues. The hypothetical dilemmas and student-chosen interdisciplinary articles are meant to compel students to internalize and be deliberate about tangibly dealing with environmental challenges that many of them admittedly would rather ignore. Such classroom practices also have the added benefit of shielding the teacher from the charge of being activist in the classroom, since discussion emerges from peer-reviewed scholarship and student-centered dilemmas, all considered within the context of universal ethical concepts.
Obviously, no one course is likely to propel students toward environmental action, and only anecdotal evidence is available about how students have gone on to behave after taking the course. Ideally, as Julie Matthews recommends in “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education,” students are exposed to a number of approaches, including the “whole of institution” approach, which alongside theory, invites all constituents on campus to participate and to “think differently about life.”17 Students might also benefit from a pedagogy that, as Stacy Alaimo argues, recognizes the problematic nuances of the very term, “sustainability,” with its techno-scientific perspective, and endorses a more “embedded, passionate, and purposeful” mode of knowledge such as what the humanities can provide.18 In any case, since I began polling students at the beginning and end of our “Way We Live” course, I have seen a dramatic surge in the number of students who conclude that the environment is our most pressing moral concern. These students, and those who have yet to be reached, certainly deserve our continued efforts to find a pedagogy that works.
- Balaev, Michelle. “The Formation of a Field: Ecocriticism in America-An Interview with Cheryll Glotfelty.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 610.
- Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 376.
- Huckle, John, and Stephen R. Sterling. Education for Sustainability. London: Earthscan, 1996, 35.
- Buell, Lawrence, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thornber. “Literature and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment & Resources 36. (2011): 418.
- Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 378.
- Kilcup, Karen L. “Fresh Leaves: Practicing Environmental Criticism.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.3 (2009): 847.
- Kilcup, 849.
- Singer, Peter, and Renata Singer. The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005.
- Blackburn, Simon. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Gore, Al. “Former U.S. Vice President Gore’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.” Current 499 (2008): 9.
- Gabriel, Hayden and Garrard, Greg. “Reading and Writing Climate Change.’” In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. Garrard, Greg, ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 122-123.
- Pratchett, Steve. “A Model for Sustainable Development.” Primary Geographer 68 (2009): 26.
- Sobel, David. “Climate Change Meets Ecophobia” Connect November/December, 2007, 16.
- Nisbet, Matthew C. “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement.” Environment 51.2 (2009): 12-23.
- LeMenager, Stephanie, and Stephanie Foote. “The Sustainable Humanities.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 576.
- Kerridge, Richard. “Ecocriticism and the ‘Mission of English’.” Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 20.
- Matthews, Julie. “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education.” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 33.3 (2011): 271-275.
- Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA: Publications of The Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 560-561.
Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 558-564.
Balaev, Michelle. “The Formation of a Field: Ecocriticism in America – An Interview with Cheryll Glotfelty.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 607-616.
Blackburn, Simon. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Buell, Lawrence, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thornber. “Literature and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment & Resources 36. (2011): 417-440.
Gabriel, Hayden and Garrard, Greg. “Reading and Writing Climate Change.’” In Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. Garrard, Greg, ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 117-129.
Garrard, Greg. “Ecocriticism and Education for Sustainability.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.3 (2007): 376.
Gore, Al. “Former U.S. Vice President Gore’s 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.” Current 499 (2008): 7-10.
Huckle, John, and Stephen R. Sterling. Education for Sustainability. London: Earthscan, 1996.
Kerridge, Richard. “Ecocriticism and the ‘Mission Of English’.” Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. 11-23. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Kilcup, Karen L. “Fresh Leaves: Practicing Environmental Criticism.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 124.3 (2009): 847-855.
LeMenager, Stephanie, and Stephanie Foote. “The Sustainable Humanities.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127.3 (2012): 572-578.
Matthews, Julie. “Hybrid Pedagogies for Sustainability Education.” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies 33.3 (2011): 260-277.
Nisbet, Matthew C. “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement.” Environment 51.2 (2009): 12-23.
Pratchett, Steve. “A Model for Sustainable Development.” Primary Geographer 68 (2009): 25-27.
Singer, Peter, and Renata Singer. The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005.
Sobel, David. “Climate Change Meets Ecophobia.” Connect November/December, 2007, pp. 14-21.