Swimming with the Current

Among the ways college professors stay alive is by swimming in the current with their intellectual peers. Meaningful exchange with students and colleagues beyond one’s home institution strengthens one’s scholarship and teaching. And it contributes to a more productive institutional culture. In fact, a good deal of my scholarship and teaching has its origins in these intellectual streams of thought; and in this post I trace some of my intellectual activities beyond Keene State College during the 2010-11 academic year.

Wall mural in Cincinnati by Rosalind Tallmadge, et alia

On Sunday I returned from a week in Bloomington, Indiana, at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE). The week began along the Ohio River, in Cincinnati, with my friend, colleague and collaborator, John Tallmadge, whose book The Cincinnati Arch had prepared me for this look-and-see tour of the city.

Author and Mentor, Collaborator and Friend, John Tallmadge, on a tour of Cincinnati

When we arrived in Bloomington I made may way to the ASLE Executive Council meeting. No longer a member of the Council, I do try to attend these meetings as a program coordinator. Sitting in reminded me of the ongoing collaborative efforts that have built and sustain  this organization. Our organization has grown in size, to 1400 members, and in breadth, with members from 41 countries and with 24 affiliations with scholarly groups both in and outside of the United States. The close to 800 participants seemed a natural fit with the Brobdingnagian scale of the Bloomington campus. The  buildings are enormous, and the campus spreads far and wide. The grey-white Indiana limestone buildings, some of which date back to the late nineteenth century, loom over the Dunn Woods, the Arboretum, and the rather Lilliputian Jordan River. The wooded areas on campus are littered with downed trunks and limbs from a storm on May 25th that took down over 300 trees across this nearly 2,000 acre campus.

Art Museum at Indiana University

I kicked off the week co-facilitating (with John Tallmadge, Rochelle Johnson, Tom Hillard and Sarah Jaquette Ray) a pre-conference workshop “Staying Alive: A Workshop for Academic Professionals.” ASLE’s tradition of mentoring graduate students and building community has evolved to include the Staying Alive Project, a vision that includes building mentoring relationships with one another across all phases and dimensions of academic life. The workshop that John and I offered at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 2007 and in Victoria, British Columia in 2009 seeks to initiative honest conversations about the challenges and rewards of academic life. During the conference, as the coordinator of the ASLE Mentoring Program, I also organized mentoring meetings between graduate students and faculty members outside their home departments; and talked with other members of the organization about ways to promote international scholarly exchanges in the field of literature and environment.

Academic Building at Indiana University

My conference days revolved around attending concurrent sessions, sharing meals with friends and collaborators, and attending plenary talks. The people who make ASLE their professional home, and with whom I enjoy spending  time when we gather every two years, include John Tallmadge, Mike Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Ian Marshall, Megan Simpson, Randall Roorda, Nicole MerolaAnne Raine, Arlene PlevinAnnie Ingram, Scott Slovic, John Lane, Jim Warren, Dan Payne and Tom Hillard.  The people who find themselves gathering in this biennial eddy in the intellectual stream share a love for thinking, talking, eating, making music and drinking beer.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. . . .” near the Wells Library on the campus of Indiana University

During my week in Bloomington I found myself preoccupied with getting right the argument I had been trying to pin down in the presentation I would give on Saturday, “Frames of Rejection: Frames of Acceptance: Environmentalism in the Classroom” on the panel “Green Without Guilt: Pedagogy and Scholarship for Teaching Environmentalism in the Disciplines.” But most of the week had me moving from session to session, absorbing and discussing ideas, as well as attending plenary sessions by Una Chaudhuri (professor of English, Drama and Environmental Studies at New York University), Helen Tiffin (recently retired professor of English at the University of Tasmania), Zakes Mda (poet, novelist and critic from South Africa), Robert L. Fischman (professor of Law at Indiana University), Marc Bekoff (professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado) and Rubén Martínez (professor of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles). I also attended an evening reading and performance, Wilderness Plots, that began as a book, by Soctt Russell Sanders, of brief tales of the settlement of the Ohio Valley between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The spirited evening performance by Sanders, and musicians Timm Grimm, Krista Detor, Carrie Newcomer, Tom Roznowski and Michael White, was recorded for Indiana Public Television. There were also two receptions honoring senior colleagues in our field: for Lawrence Buell, who is retiring from the English department at Harvard University, and for John Felstiner, from the department of English at Stanford. I list these names and performances to suggest the tributaries that feed into the mainstream intellectual work of the organization. At the same time, I am suggesting the ways that an intensive week of intellectual exchange with students and colleagues  feeds my teaching, scholarship and service at Keene State College.

“Truth is the Daughter of Time,” aphorism and and relief, west wall of Ballantine Hall, Indiana University

Our panel on Saturday afternoon was well attended. I talked about my upper-level undergraduate elective designed to help students understand the social movement we call environmentalism, as well as explore the ways environmental concern shapes the development of a genre of writing. Using Kenneth Burke’s writings from the 1930s to reflect on my course, I offered an overview of the kick-ass books we read: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms, Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge and T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. I argued essentially that environmentalism needs environmental literature. But not to affirm the environmentalist agenda. Nor to pursue its agenda by other means. Rather my conviction is that environmental literature, like most literature worth reading, should remind us that genuine thinking is  less dogmatic and more provisional, less universal and more situated, less earnest and more alive. Environmental literature should encourage us to re-imagine how we think the environment—even as, in some cases, those books are working with the inherently reductive language and discourse of environmentalism.

American Literature Association, Boston, Massachusetts

In late May I spent a day at the annual American Literature Association Conference in Boston. In addition to attending discussions of the work of the nineteenth century American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I chaired a session I organized called “American Literature and the Ecological Thought” framed around recent theoretical work by Timothy Morton, professor of English at the University of California Davis, and author of Ecology without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010). Cathleen Rowley, from Stony Brook University, presented “An Ecological Reading of Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables,”  Amy Campion, University of Minnesota, presented “John Cheever and the Ecological Thought,” and Heather Houser, University of Texas at Austin, presented “Visualize or Describe? The Contemporary Novel, Visualization and Environmentality.”

Emerson was right. . . . books are for a Scholar’s idle times

Modern Language Association Convention, Los Angeles, California

In January I traveled to the Modern Language Association convention in Los Angeles, California, where I presided at the session I have been organizing for a number of years, “Teaching in the Small College Department,” an annual event sponsored by the Association of the Departments of English. I centered the 2011 small college session on the small college department and the curriculum. The central question I asked the panelists to address was how small college departments are (re)configuring the English major, designing courses and doing collaborative work around courses in the major or in the general studies curriculum, especially in light of the mission of smaller institutions—as well as in relation to the profession-wide conversation about the English major, for instance, in the 2008 Report of the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature.

In smaller institutions and departments, faculty and students routinely work together in collaborative and cooperative endeavors. And the session suggested that much of this work is devoted to rethinking the English major. It is not surprising that faculty in smaller settings have been generating innovative ways of thinking about English, as the 2003 special issue of the ADE Bulletin on “The English Major” demonstrated. The faculty in small college departments, focused primarily on their mission of undergraduate education, tend to be more broadly involved in teaching at levels of the curriculum, and hence are more able to create opportunities to rethink and refashion the undergraduate major in English. The 2011 session features faculty from institutions that are part of the Council on Public Liberal Arts Colleges, COPLAC, a consortium of colleges seeking to offer high-quality, public liberal arts educations.

Lunch at the Runcible Spoon, Bloomington, Indiana

Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland

In the fall of 2010 I spent two days at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, where I was invited to present the annual Sophie Kerr Lecture and to lead a college conversation for faculty on writing and the curriculum. My Kerr Lecture and slide presentation, co-sponsored by the Center for Environment and Society, was entitled “John Muir and the Mountains of California: Prospects for Environmental Thinking and Writing.”

My first talk on writing was a standing-room-only workshop for faculty in the Global Research and Writing Seminar Program called “Thinking, Writing and Research in the Undergraduate Writing Classroom: A Case for Sustained Writing Projects.” I also presented a college-wide workshop for faculty and students, “Thinking about the Values of Writing.”

One of many opportunities for cultural exegesis in the scholarly stream

The Natural History of Reading, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

The 2010-11 academic year began for me in June of 2010 when I traveled to the University of Washington to speak at an undergraduate honors conference at the University of Washington.  Seattle entitled “The Natural History of Reading.” The conference, organized by Leroy Searle under the auspices of the Simpson Humanities Center, was the culminating event in a course designed to examine the activity of reading as an essential component of learning and inquiry. The course and conference began with the historical tropes pertaining to ‘The Book’—or, as Leroy framed it, “the Book of God, the Book of Nature, and the productions of Man”—in literature, philosophy, and science, art, photography, and architecture. Students read The Bible  (King James version), The Qu’ran  (Abdullah Jusuf Ali translation), Gerald Holton: Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought, James Gleick: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Lee Smollin: The Trouble with Physics, Charles Sanders Peirce: The Essential Peirce, vol 1, William Blake: Complete Poetry and Prose and William Faulkner: Light in August. They also discussed Plato, the Phaedrus, Johannes Kepler, The Six-Sided Snowflake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, selections from Biographia Literaria and The Friend, Louis Sullivan,  Selections from Autobiography of an Idea and Kindergarten Chats and Nathan Lyons, Selections from Photographers on Photography.

I was one of three invited speakers whose work on the activity of reading would contribute to this course of inquiry. Each of the undergraduate students presented a talk at the conference and there were social events to continue the conversations that emerged in the academic session. My talk, “The Problem of Reading, the Practice of Writing,” began with a theoretical question: what is the relationship between reading and writing? As I reminded the audience of undergraduates, graduate students and professors, the problem with asking this question is that most responses immediately call on a set of commonplaces about the practice of teaching writing in school. For students in primary and secondary grades are to be introduced to the practice of writing mostly through routine tasks that promote mastery of a discrete skill set; college undergraduates are asked to produce essays, for the most part, that demonstrate whether or not they have a working understanding of course content; graduate students produce readings of books that apply ready-made protocols to generate arguments as a quantitative measure for professional advancement; and professors, having internalized the imperative to publish, produce reams of writing that very few people have reason to read. (The situation, as I explained, is a perfect case of what the critic Kenneth Burke once called the beauracratization of the imaginative—a phrase, as he put it, as bungling as the situation it seeks to describe.) I then when on to talk about how at most colleges and universities our first-year students therefore find themselves writing essays with little to no intellectual investment; how their teachers find themselves reading essays that no one should ever be asked to read; and how most tenure-stream faculty have abandoned the first-year course while quietly ignoring the working conditions of the contingent faculty they hire to teach it. Is there a better way? My essay drew on my own study of theories of reading and writing as well as the pedagogical  experiment underway at Keene State College with the first year course. My argument was that when students are actually thinking and writing, the activity of reading becomes, quite naturally, a central intellectual activity in the course. My essay was later published in the fall in the conference proceedings, The Natural History of Reading.

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