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Ecocomposition and the Environmental Crisis (Stephen Siperstein)

November 29, 2009

Thank you Dan for posting about the place of environmental thinking in the 121 classroom and for starting the conversation about how our work in Environmental Literature, and specifically in 670, might inform the work we do in our other (and perhaps more important) roles at the University of Oregon. I am just now taking a break from reading through my students’ latest essays, and wanted to respond to your great post and meditate on some of my own thoughts about ecocomposition.  The students’ essays which I am reading through had to in some way respond to “environmental issues” and specifically to several of the readings from our recent unit on the environmental crisis, which included selections from Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Joyce Carol Oates’ “On Nature,” Martin Lewis’ Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism, as well as several handouts and flyers about climate change that I collected from 350.org.  I began this latest unit with similar anxieties as those you describe in your post, but found that the joy and exhilaration of being able to engage with my students about issues that I feel passionate about more than made up for those fears.

As for the first two fears that you bring up; I don’t think we need to worry about our own political leanings or our own (lack of) expertise on the issues if we are forthright with our students about where we stand.  I made it clear at the beginning of the unit, and for that matter at the beginning of the term, that the whole reason I was at the University of Oregon and even in front of their class was because of the environmental crisis.  It’s the same reason why I’m in 670.  So clearly I have certain opinions about the issues, but that doesn’t mean they are right and it certainly doesn’t mean they can’t be debated.  Similarly, I make it clear that I am not an expert about the environment and that I, like them, am in the ongoing process of negotiating some very complex and multi-sided issues.  Most importantly, I tell them that people shouldn’t feel like they need to be experts before they can discuss important issues.  And, as I’ve found in reading their essays, the non-experts often can see the issues more clearly.  By not being bogged down in one particular perspective or one particular discipline, the students were able to look at environmental problems holistically and from a wide range of perspectives.  Most students came to the conclusion that the environmental crisis (broadly conceived) can only be addressed through a combination of politics, new technological developments, and a significant change in how most people live their everyday lives.   No one solution will be a quick fix.  Some students offered their own critiques of classic environmentalist positions (like wilderness conservation and preservation) and focused on urban issues as both the problem and the solution to the environmental crisis, while others made strong cases for the importance of “reconnecting with nature.”  However, in both cases all of the arguments ended with some sort of call for “action now!”  This was not something I stressed during our class discussions.  I tried to approach the issues intellectually, debating the pros and cons of various diagnoses and solutions without the political and social fervency that is usually associated with them.  However, the issues were obviously important to the students on their own merit as they all made appeals to ethics and action.  Here’s a few excerpts:

“The public as a whole knows that the environment is in trouble, and yet that alone is not enough to solve anything.  Technology must be used not only to spread knowledge about the current problems but to also invent new ways to prevent more damage…This is our world…ours to protect.” – Nicole

“We have already done serious harm to our environment, but technology is giving us environmentally safe and effective methods for us to right our wrongs.  It’s nice to talk about living in a world where everything is eco-friendly.  But in order to get to that point, we have to come to terms with the crisis staring us directly in the face…. We are the ones who determine what kind of world future generations grow up in.” – Evan

“Many people have different ideas on how to solve the environmental crisis.  What the idea is, is not that important.  The important thing is just getting the ideas accomplished.  Whether it is starting a petition for your town to become more eco-friendly or just carpooling with some friends to school or work.  Whatever you decided to do will make a huge difference.  Just remember that getting started is perhaps the hardest part.”  – Mason

Unlike the other units/topics we have discussed this term — globalization, the media, censorship — the environmental issues we discussed generated the most emotional and call-to-action type responses.  I think this was a combination of both the urgency and ubiquity of the problems and those problems’ argumentative and critical possibilities in the comp classroom.

However, I don’t think we necessarily have to deal with environmental issues to think of our classrooms as environmental.  In recent years the field of ecocomposition has been flourishing, with a wide array of scholarship and panels at both CCC and ASLE conferences.  While ecocomposition often includes the study of what are thought of as classically environmental issues in the composition classroom, it is more broadly conceived of the intersection between literacy and ecology, between place and discourse.  Dobrin and Weisser make a bold claim when they assert that ecocomposition does not need to address the environment as “merely another subject students may write about, but rather [as] a critical instrument for understanding the very function and operation of writing” (2002 Dobrin and Weisser 275).  It is a way to push our students to become aware that the relationship between their writing and the environment (or place) is both “reciprocal and dialogic” (269).  For those of you who might be interested in reading more about ecocomposition, a good starting place would be Dobrin and Weisser’s 2001 Ecocomposition and their 2002 article “Breaking Ground in Ecocomposition: Exploring Relationships Between Discourse and Environment,” Derek Owens’ 2001 Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation and, if you’re interested in the roots of the post-process movement, Marilyn Cooper’s 1989 essay “The Ecology of Writing,” which you can find in numerous comp-rhet anthologies.

So my answer would be, yes, the environment does belong in the composition classroom.  And in fact, it’s not really our choice anymore.  Environmental issues (topics, problems, crisis, whatever you want to call them) affect every part of society and every level of the institutional structures of the modern university.  There’s no way we can keep the environment out.  And if part of the job of the composition class is to help students become not only responsible writers but responsible citizens, then asking the question–what makes a responsible citizen in the 21st century–is maybe the most important question we need to answer as educators.

At a recent Mesa Verde reading group meeting, Dale Jamieson, a visiting professor at the UO from NYU’s Environmental Studies department, discussed with us the ethical issues of climate change and other environmental problems and made the best case I’ve heard since I arrived here at the UO for why we do what we do in the composition classroom.  He said that one of the biggest terrors of the climate crisis is that we don’t have the real discussions.  Instead of hiding behind the rhetoric of science or religion or economics or aesthetics, we need to be up front about the fact that we’re answering ethical questions.  We have an ethical obligation to future generations, the poorest citizens of the world, and non-human nature.  Therefore, even if we can’t get people to change their behavior we can at least get people to think more critically, clearly, and ethically about the issues that matter.  Whatever political opinions or scientific expertise we can or can’t, should or shouldn’t, bring with us when we step in front of the classroom, it serves our students well just to know that when they’re talking about environmental issues what they’re really talking about is language, value judgements, and ethics.

So reflecting on what we have accomplished this term in 670 and on my own recent experience teaching environmentally in the comp classroom, I’ve returned to the idea which is perhaps quite obvious, but which got me into this field in the first place: environmental problems are language problems, and language problems are ethical problems.  When dealing with one there’s no getting away from the other two.  And thinking about the intersection between language and environment, the urban and the rural, the social and the natural, is what I try to engage my students with, whether or not we happen to be talking about recycling, renewable energy, Disney, hip-hop, or national parks.

(I want to take a moment to thank my 121 students this term, both for giving me the go-ahead to write this post and cite from some of their fantastic essays, and for teaching me and expanding my own thinking about the environmental crisis.)

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