Saturday, June 9, 2012

Environmental Literature: An Experiential Summer Course

Summer 2012: I began this semester in a new way. 

Who are the students in this class?  Some of my students in this current course know a fair amount about environmentalism, some know very little. Some plan to spend their lives committed to "saving the planet," while others take the course of out curiosity--to learn something new and to get out of the classroom in good weather, as our plan is to meet for each session in the out of doors.

On Thursday of last week, in the fourth class meeting, a dam broke.  Several students revealed important things about themselves and their lives that have everything to do with the course topic and opened up  our thoughts to profound issues related to environmental justice, poverty and 'place' (in every sense of the word).  I will come back to all of these conversations in more detail in subsequent posts.

At the moment, I'm reeling from these provocative conversations.

This summer course is different than anything I've ever taught before:

For one thing, we only meet in 'natural' surroundings (not inside buildings).  It's been a long winter and we all need to be outside in beautiful and green places.  I know I do.  Talking about nature while sitting/walking/swimming outside enhances the experience of what we're learning.  Closing our eyes, listening to bird sounds, soothes and opens up creative channels.

Additionally, we confront our concepts of what we 'think' nature 'is'.  Reading about human intrusions into nature in the work of Bill McKibben, for example, while directly experiencing the invasive and unpleasant sounds of airplanes, leaf blowers, cars, and so forth, provokes deeper conversations about what it means to "be" in nature in this day and age.  We examine our nostalgic longings, our disappointment, our love of the natural world and what it 'represents' for each of us.  This fits in with our 'eco-critical' readings drawn from the work of Timothy Morton and others.

We started, fittingly, in a park called Avalon.  Avalon--a lost reality.

So far we've been to two large parks, a nature preserve, and a horse rescue farm. We'll be going to a wolf preserve, volunteering and camping out at the large environmental music festival Clearwater Revival, and visiting with and learning about the work of an organic farmer and eco-literacy specialist, Heather Forest, of Foxhollow Farms.  Heather created a community garden for a Section 8 Housing residents on Long Island.  We will visit this community garden.

I've never taught such an non-traditional course before.  So far, every class meeting has been remarkably inspirational.  I grew up going to alternative schools and hiking/camping and doing many unusual things with my teachers and classes, so it is familiar to me.

As a student I loved experiential learning.

I love it now as a professor as well.

It sure beats the heck out of standing at the podium in large lecture halls.

So what are we reading as far as the literature goes?

Because it is a short semester (only five weeks), I have to limit the reading list.

Still, we cover some significant ground:

T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth
Ruth Ozeki's  All Over Creation

Recommended Films: 
Erin Brockavich
Earth 2100
Food Inc
No Impact Man

Essays and excerpts from:

Alice Walker: "Am I Blue", "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens."
Wendell Berry The Making of A Marginal Farm
Bill Mckibben The End of Nature 
Thoreau Walden Pond and Journals
Arne Ness Deep Ecology
Robert Bullard Dumping on Dixie
Linda Hogan Dwellings

Orion Magazine May issue

Loads of poetry from:
Mary Oliver
Wendell Berry
Luci Topahonso
Joy Harjo
Robert Frost
Alice Walker
and others...

Tools needed: a large empty and unlined journal, pens, colored pencils, water colors.  A water bottle, snack, and a towel to sit on.

We begin each class with hiking to our "spot".  We walk in silence and observe.  We sit and practice more silence and listening and then we write.  Some students draw or paint.   I ask them to reflect in their journals on where we are, what they hear and sense.   After a time, I read a poem out loud.

We then share their written work, and talk about the assigned reading for the day.

They also share journal writing they have done on the assigned reading from the novels and essays.

For the course: students are required to read my summary of Key Environmental Issues Today. This particular summary was originally created by students of mine from previous environmental literature classes (now updated). The list of topics is not complete, but it offers helpful explications of Fracking, Nuclear Power/waste, Toxics, Climate Change, Water rights, and the Tar Sands/Keystone Pipeline.

My next posts will describe some of our conversations and experiences in more detail.  Hang on to your seatbelts.


guayabapr said...

Heidi, what a wonderful way to teach sustainability!! I wish I had had a class like yours!! Great work!

.Ecofeminist and Mothering Ruminations said...

It really is an terrific class... but the whole experience depends on the student population and engagement, and these kids are amazing. I'll be posting some of their words, pictures and poetry. This weekend we're at the Clearwater Festival working in the Green Cities tent. The focus is on environmental justice.