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Does the environment belong in comp class? (Dan Platt)

November 26, 2009

A few years ago, I worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in New Jersey. I spent part of my time teaching the 3rd and 4th graders of New Brunswick about watersheds and run-off pollution. In hindsight, it’s easy to romanticize the experience. I was a tourist, breezing through their school for an hour at a time. At the end of the day, I didn’t have to worry about whether they were learning basic skills or how they would perform on standardized tests. I went home feeling like a responsible citizen of the Earth.

Now, like many of you, I have a little side job teaching composition. It’s nice work, really, and I’m grateful for it. But when it comes time to talk about environmental issues in the comp classroom, part of me longs for the days of construction paper pollution activities and old-fashioned environmental didacticism.

Part of the U of O’s composition pedagogy is based on discussion of course readings, and the readings are usually related to issues that the class can debate. In the past, I’ve organized units on problematic speech on campus, drugs and addiction, gender and sexuality . . . and, this quarter, environmental issues.

Discussing environmental issues in the classroom gives me a trinity of anxieties:

First, I worry that I will stifle discussion by subtly asserting some kind of environmentalist agenda.

Second, I worry that I really don’t have that much to teach students about the environment, or that I don’t know what’s worth teaching.

Finally, I worry that the environment is just not a great subject for the kind of argumentative writing we do in 121 and 122.

The first anxiety is nothing special, really: all teachers are, to some extent, called on to check their political agenda at the door. I worry about politics most when we talk about environmental issues because those are the issues that are closest to me. When it comes to issues like campus speech, I have a viewpoint, but it’s not as intertwined with my sense of self as, say, my feelings about global warming. Maybe it would be better if we could, as Stanley Fish suggests, teach composition as a study in form — without these “hot topic” discussions. That’s not the pedagogy we have to work with here, though. At least for now, I feel like the best I can do is to do the best I can to be fair. But where do we draw the line? Does the existence of climate change have to “at issue?” What about the evolution of species?

The second anxiety comes from the idea that for some (perhaps most) of my students, the three class periods we spend talking about Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams and some others may be the only (class) time they spend discussing environmental issues in college. Putting aside the question of politics, what do I want them to take away from the discussion? That environmental issues are more complex than they think? That these are issues that warrant further inquiry? The possibilities are staggering, and thinking about this question for too long leaves me sort of paralyzed.

Of course, I’m not paid to teach students about the environment. I’m paid to teach them to write better and construct more effective arguments. This brings me to my final concern:  Is the environment an issue that can generate good written arguments in 121 and 122?

One problem is that environmental issues often come back to questions about science. And in a class where research is discouraged, I feel like students often hit a dead end here. Does it do students a disservice to suggest that they can make an argument about environmental policy without doing research?

Also, far more than with other issues I think, students’ arguments about the environment (and, to be fair, some of my own) tend to pander. One of my students, responding to bell hooks essay “Touching the Earth,” wrote a great paper arguing that she doesn’t feel a connection to nature and that doesn’t make her a bad person. Others aren’t as honest, though. I feel like many students make simple arguments for environmental ethics and environmentalist policies not from personal conviction, but from a sense that not caring is heretical. (Perhaps a kind of soft green cultural discipline is stifling our environmental imagination.)

So…is it worth the hassle? Is the environment really any different from the other issues we discuss in comp, or am I just being neurotic? What are your experiences talking about environmental issues in the classroom? What’s worked for you?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 29, 2009 12:58 am

    Yeah, I just taught an environmental unit myself, and it was notably less dynamic than my other units. I wonder if this might simply be a matter of UO undergraduate demographics. I suspect that many of our students are the children of loggers and miners and oilmen and all sorts of less-than-green occupations. When disturbing/destroying local environments literally puts bread on the table, it’s a bit hard to gain some perspective.

    Like you, I have had mild success in saying “you don’t have to argue for environmentalism, you can address the other side, after all.” I got a nice set of well-argued anti-environment papers. I’ve had more success, though, in asking them to engage environmentalism through an interpretive lens. How does science view environmentalism? How does religion view environmentalism, etc. I think that lens offers them a critical distance they might not otherwise be able to achieve.

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