Intercultural Competence and Sustainability

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In this reflective essay I am going to elaborate some of my thinking about teaching and learning at the convergence of intercultural competence and sustainability.

My approach to the College-Wide Learning Outcomes (CWLOs) is perhaps best defined as an orientation. This orientation is grounded in my interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary practice in the classroom. Most recently, in the spring of 2020, I co-taught Sustainable Wildlife Management with Scott Semmens, an educator, skilled wildlife tracker, and adjunct faculty member in Environmental Studies.

In a blog post about the class, I described how we designed the course using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals allowed us to enact convergences between two of Keene State’s college-wide learning outcomes: Intercultural Competence and Sustainability.

The SDGs offered us a framework for engaging students with intercultural competence and sustainability—that is, working with others around the world who are working to end poverty, fight inequality & injustice, and protect the planet. We were planning to travel with the students to the terai arc, the lowlands of Nepal, after all, to work with local communities and the Nepal Tiger Trust tracking tigers in the buffer zones around Chitwan National Park. Our goals for the students, to call on the language of the CWLOs, was to reflect “critically on their own culture and on the intersectionality of culture and social location” and to demonstrate “knowledge of a diversity of cultures,” and to explore “their place in interconnected natural and human systems” and evaluate “the personal, social, and environmental impacts of their choices.”

One of the ways we worked toward these goals was through a collaborative writing project. At the time, I was enrolled in a course hosted jointly by Keene State and Wiki Education. The project began with students enrolling in a Wikipedia community dedicated to contributing content to the encyclopedia and collaborating with others dedicated to improving the online information. Scott and I decided that we would focus student work on WikiProject Nepal and Wikipedia’s coverage of Nepal related topics. This work would involve students with Wikipedians in Nepal as well as around the world.

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This year, I continued to work at the convergence of Intercultural Competence and Sustainability. But the convergence of Intercultural Competence and Sustainability, I began to realize, had deeper roots. As I prepared to teach my cross-listed class in English and Environmental Studies, Writing in an Endangered World, I found myself thinking about what I had learned during a 2008 sabbatical in India––from undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty colleagues at colleges and universities––about the distinctive ecological history of the subcontinent.

Years earlier, during my junior year at Ithaca College, I had researched and wrote a family history of my Norwegian ancestors in an ethnic history course that introduced me to the field of environmental history. This experience then led me to design an independent study on environmental history with a historian at the college. The reading list I compiled included Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (1977), William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983), among other works.

What has stayed with me, though, was an essay on my reading list by the Indian historian Ramanchandra Guha that had recently been published in the journal Environmental Ethics, “Radical American Environmentalism: a Third World Critique.” Guha’s argument proved to be another formative moment in my intellectual development. Guha unsettled my ethnocentric perspective on environmental ideas in North America. In fact, when students become interested in the complexities of this comparative history of ideas I recommend Guha’s essay––as well as his thinking in the collection How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States (2006).

During our stay in India, in 2008–09, I was invited to lecture to students studying English Literature as well as Zoology. When I returned to India to present a keynote address at an international conference in 2015, I was also invited to sit on a panel that included a fisheries biologist, a solid-waste engineer, and a community activist. Once again, I was coming back to Guha’s insight that environmentalism in many countries outside of the United States was principally a question of social justice.

This dimension of environmentalism was underscored for me as the chair of a book awards committee, too. One of the books we considered was written by Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011). The book brought together thinking in environmental and postcolonial studies. His phrase “slow violence” described environmental problems, especially those that had disproportionately harmed the poor, reinforced what I had learned from Guha and others. At the award ceremony for Rob, at our biennial conference at the University of Kansas, I remember him describing his indebtedness to one of his mentors, Edward Said, who demonstrated for him what the humanities are, and who helped him to see his work as a portal that might help to break with the past and imagine the world anew.

A Reunion with Indian scholar and ecocritic Dr. Nirmal Selvamony, Worcester, Massachusetts, summer 2016

Reading Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor reinforced my conviction that students deserved to understand the culturally specific ways environmental writing and environmentalism developed in the United States during the twentieth century. This understanding would be informed by my own reading of Juan Martínez Alier’s 2005 The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation as well. For Alier and Guha make available the strengths as well as the limitations of the distinction between the anthropocentric and biocentric that determine the thinking of deep ecologists and environmental activists, and that constituted the ways many of them thought about the human and more-than-human world. The argument is that the discourse of North American environmentalism that grew out of the conservation movement was not especially useful in forming an understanding of the social dynamics of ecological degradation—whether in the US or in other countries.

In Writing in an Endangered World, when we are talking our way through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I mention Rob Nixon’s book and point out that he discusses Carson and Guha. We also draw on the terms and concepts in this body of intellectual work: “the environmentalism of the poor,” “ecosystem people,” “omnivores,” and “socioenvironmentalism, all terms in the multi-disciplinary thinking of Guha and his collaborators in the fields of sociology, comparative environmental history, and ecology. At the same time, Nixon points to Carson as a writer, reminding his readers that her contributions to public discourse “helped hasten the shift from a conservationist ideology to the more socioenvironmental outlook that has proven so enabling for environmental justice movements” (xi). As I explain to my students, this comment resonates for me. For when I was invited by a well-known ornithologist to speak about Rachel Carson in a community event in Pune, India, it seemed everyone in the packed auditorium had read Silent Spring.

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For a Teaching Fellows project this spring once again I turned to the UN Sustainability Goals. For over a decade, I have been teaching Writing in an Endangered World, a cross-listed course I designed to bring together students in the sciences and the humanities. A survey of environmental writing focused on the relationship of literature to the social movement of environmentalism in the United States since 1960, the course is a useful learning experience for college students in the sciences—whose studies tend to focus less on history, representation, and culture—and for students in the humanities—who, while familiar with the study of the meaning and value of human experience, have fewer opportunities to engage with scientific writing and ecological thinking.

One of the primary learning goals in this class is for students to use the factual, policy, and value claims of environmentalism as a framework for considering how writers (and writer-activists) foster reflection and transformation of personal (and social) assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. The writers we study in the post-war period are grappling with the audacity of human ignorance and indifference—to the slow violence of environmental catastrophe. The questions these writers raise include the fact that the the world to which we belong doesn’t come with disciplinary boundaries—and, in fact, academic disciplines, as currently constituted, may be limited in their efficacy to resolve the social and environmental problems facing us as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. What “discipline,” after all, can address the interrelated problems and urgencies of environmental degradation, inequality, and equity?

The pedagogical challenge of teaching at the convergence of Intercultural Competence and Sustainability runs squarely into this problem. For many students have determined that their gifts and aptitudes, their understanding of themselves and the world, are to be explored in disciplinary contexts that, I am convinced, constrain creative and critical explorations in other domains of knowledge and ways of knowing. The convergence of Intercultural Competence and Sustainability, using the UN Sustainability Goals, then, unsettles students as they encounter and struggle with the literary and cultural inheritance of environmental thinking. They are unsettled, in the best way, by the recognition that environmental literacy, indigenous ways of knowing, as well as ecological and/or systems thinking, are not disciplinary in nature. Hence while specialized knowledge is necessary, it can also be the problem, as students learn, in reading Rachel Carson in the 1960s and 1970s, Wendell Berry in the 1970s, or Barry Lopez and Gary Snyder in the 1990s.

At the same time, the comparative cultural framework and perspective provided by Guha in Environmentalism: A Global History (2000) connects a concern with the well-being of humanity to the future of the planet. The concept of interconnectedness, students learn, is an invitation to ground our ways of thinking in the past and current asymmetries in the relationship between the Global North and the Global South, as well as the necessary and ongoing work of considering both the history and present state of the biosphere and ethnosphere.

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The UN Sustainable Development goals give me a pedagogical framework for engaging students at the convergence of intercultural competence and sustainability. What I can now see is that the learning objectives of the SDGs align with our college-wide sustainability outcome.

Keene State College students will explore their place in interconnected natural and human systems; evaluate the personal, social, and environmental impacts of their choices; and apply their knowledge and skills for building a just, resilient, and thriving world. (my emphasis)

Three professors—trained in English, education, and geography/environmental studies—along with the group of dedicated students and faculty who then then shaped the final version of the sustainability outcome—came up with this language that moves in a more holistic (college-wide) domain—importantly, both within and beyond disciplines, schools, and the academic program.

Using the CWLOs more explicitly, and thinking about the necessary and urgent work of college-wide teaching and learning, has helped me to enact the SDG learning objectives described in cognitive, socio-emotional and behavioral domains. In their words,

The cognitive domain comprises knowledge and thinking skills necessary to better understand the SDG and the challenges in achieving it. The socio-emotional domain includes social skills that enable learners to collaborate, negotiate and communicate to promote the SDGs as well as self-reflection skills, values, attitudes and motivations that enable learners to develop themselves. The behavioral domain describes action competencies.

The SDGs have helped to make the CWLOs more tangible, and more accessible for students as they read, think, and write with the literary contributions of minds less fettered by ever-more specialized knowledge that, while valuable and necessary, can limit how we might think about the inequalities both within and among countries around the world. The books, essays, and poems we read in my class, in fact, to quote from the SDGs, are all uncommonly dedicated to what the writer Wendell Berry calls “the practical intricacies of collaboration.” Such collaborations take place in the work to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss” and at the same time to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

But to do this work requires us to do more, as Berry suggests in his 1977 book of essays that we read in the course, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. “The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together,” Berry writes, “is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking it” (22). The SDGs provide one means for thinking holistically (and ecologically):

No Poverty. Zero Hunger. Good Health and Well-Being. Quality Education. Gender Equality. Clean Water and Sanitation. Affordable and Clean Energy. Decent Work and Economic Growth. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. Reduced Inequalities. Sustainable Cities and Communities. Responsible Consumption and Production. Climate Action. Life below Water. Life on Land. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

Might these SDGs provide a holistic framework for teaching and learning in the twenty-first century—a way to work together at the convergence of Intercultural Competence and Sustainability?

Centeredness

To be centered in an academic institution is a practice of self-awareness in relation to others. It is a practice of knowing what one is doing, and doing it well; a crucial dimension of that knowing is that my thoughts, emotions, body, and spirit are at once personal and social, and hence my actions and decisions happen in a world I share with others—whether one is a student or a member of the faculty or staff.

In a Faculty Teaching Fellows conversation last week, a comment by my friend and colleague Patricia brought me back to some of my past thinking about the practice of being centered. She mentioned one of my attempts years ago to speak to the work we call in academic institutions “service.” Reclaiming the value of service, I suggested, begins when we center our understanding of identity and purpose, ground that understanding in an institution, and use that awareness to contribute to the common good.

Patricia’s comment reminded me that I had written about the question of academic service in a 2017 blog post, Redefining Service, in which I suggested that our working definition of faculty service is less than useful. “Service is in part defined by the reward system for faculty that privileges scholarship over teaching and service,” I wrote. “And yet this reward system perpetuates an attitude toward service that renders this dimension of academic labor far less meaningful than it might be.” Too often, we internalize this professional system of rewards. More perniciously, we lose sight of faculty privilege in a hierarchy of faculty and staff labor. Our attitude toward service becomes less supple, and our opinion about service becomes, to borrow words from the poet William Blake, “like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” For, in the end, to choose not to serve devalues not only service but the labor someone else will do as a consequence of my choice.

It is also the case that as a life and a career develop in an institution faculty work will often take unexpected turns. We would do well to see these turns on a continuum of moving through personal and institutional phases of professional life. There is no one pathway or model. The difficulty is that different kinds of work will take priority as we make choices within the constraints the institution places on each of us—which are never the same, are often not equitable, and by definition situational. Our choices are always constrained by the relative freedom and privileges available to us.

The question of the opportunities is inseparable from personal, professional, and institutional complexities—the dimensions of academic life that we all experience differently. And each of our stories includes opportunities and successes, as well as the challenges, betrayals, resignations, and disillusionments of institutional life.

In 2017, in a series of essays written over a decade or more on the Staying Alive blog, I posted a list of definitions I wrote that was prompted by an invitation to speak about service to a cohort of new faculty at the College. One of my motivations for redefining service was to address the idea of service as a burden or as a less significant dimension of what members of faculty spend their time doing. I shared my observations of experienced faculty productively engaged in the activities we call service; and I spoke about my own experiences making meaningful choices about how I would contribute to my institution. I have included that blog post and the redefinition of service included there.

I’m grateful to Patricia. For in prompting me to connect what we call service to the value of being centered I may be approaching a broader recognition about the list of imperatives I used to redefine service. For the imperatives are focused on being more engaged, and more productive, essentially reversing the dismissive and self-defensive attitudes about this kind of work. For in the end, to be centered is the experience of responsive and creative activity in contrast to reactive and defensive behavior.

The broader recognition is perhaps the most obvious one: centeredness and well-being go hand in hand. For if I had any useful advice to offer to new faculty it was that we need not dismiss service as work that will not advance our professional careers, or to act as if it is less valuable and portable in the institutional marketplace of ideas on which many of us depend. For in dismissing this work, we become less engaged in the collective effort to enliven the fragile institutions that support our work. In chasing external rewards we are less situated. We are more divided. We are less centered.

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Below is the 2017 blog post Redefining Service

In his most recent post, Mike Branch reminds us, “there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling.” Mike also makes an observation about the enormous privilege many of us have in academic institutions to pursue “the work—which Henry Thoreau called ‘morning work,’ John Muir called ‘natural work,’ and Gary Snyder calls ‘real work.’ This is the work that matters most,” Mike writes, “that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values.”

But in a 2010 blog post “Counting What Counts” that Mike contributed to Staying Alive he cautions us to consider “the extreme circumscription of what counts” as faculty work and the “harmful effects” of this narrowing “that are substantial and often unrecognized.” Mike argues “definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self-interest.” He then calls on Emerson to help articulate a model of professional commitment that does not fall into the zero sum game of institutional life:

I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support.

I too rely on Emerson when it comes to institutions. At the same time, I have found profoundly useful a document published by the MLA over twenty years ago, a document that offered me a productive space to think more carefully about the professional life I was hoping to pursue. Reinterpreting Professional Service made a case for intellectual work less confined to professional hierarchies and more sensitive to the need for generative faculty participation in that area of our jobs we call “service.”

A couple of years ago I pulled together some thoughts about what institutions call “service” for a group of new faculty at Keene State College. In sharing the document at a new faculty orientation, I explained that service should be a rewarding and productive part of our jobs and that it could also become a dimension of academic work. Might redefining service offer another way to stay alive in the academy?

Redefining Service

Service is Personal and Professional Growth

  • Maximize personal strengths, draw on your expertise, enjoy the work you choose
  • Pursue a personal or professional goal that you find interesting
  • Do something completely new and potentially meaningful, if not transformative

Service is Building Relationships

  • Strengthen relationships with students by choosing committees that include students (e.g. advise student group or honor society)
  • Collaborate with students to sponsor campus events or organizing off-campus activities
  • Work on committees with staff to build your sense of institutional place and history from long-serving members of our community

Service is Building and Sustaining Community

  • Engage in campus-wide service
  • Collaborate with amazing colleagues and make new friends
  • Change the culture of College for the better
  • Partner with community and regional groups and initiatives
  • Pursue rewards of high-profile service that contribute to governance of the College, including administrative roles and leadership opportunities

Service is Teaching and Learning

  • Energize your teaching and learning (e.g. Faculty Development Committee, Student research Committee, IRB, Sabbatical Committee)
  • Imagine new opportunities for yourself and for others. What would you like to change to improve the conditions for your (and others’) teaching and learning?

Service is Scholarship

  • Relate, apply, extend your professional identity and expertise
  • Conduct service-learning and community-based research, or seek out and/or create opportunities for service as a public intellectual (local, regional, national, international)
  • Contribute to your intellectual / disciplinary / professional field(s) through editorial and peer review, leadership and collaboration, etc.

Service is Productive

  • Get things done
  • Improve group process (e.g. action items, goal setting, deadlines)
  • Make meaningful contributions to the work
  • Resign from the committee that is not productive (or the committee to which you are not making meaningful contributions)

Service is a Part of the (Your) Whole

  • Be actively involved rather than overextended (there is always too much work to do but don’t do too much or you will not do your work well)
  • Say no to committees (or, don’t say yes to all committees)

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This post on centeredness is the second in a series on core values in teaching and learning that began with Design Pedagogy Values.

photo credits: Mark C. Long

Design Pedagogy Values

“We too have our thaws. They come to our January moods, when our ice cracks, and our sluices break loose.”

­–Henry David Thoreau, Journals January 29, 1854

What might a course look like designed around values? My response to this question, when it first came to mind, was to dodge it. What are my core values? What really matters to me as a college teacher? And do my teaching philosophy and practice reflect my values?

Questions about core values are always a part of the conceptual and practical work of designing a course. For me, these questions have proven persistent, and quite troublesome, every time I begin preparing for a course, or making the time to reflect on my pedagogical intentions and choices. These kinds of questions have troubled my thinking with others in curriculum development as well. Perhaps I am finally understanding what I intuitively grasped as a graduate student designing curriculum in a large expository writing program: that pedagogy and curriculum are both constituted as a complex relationship among not only subjects of study, and a learning environment, but learners’ and teachers’ experiences and motivations, social histories, and professional aspirations and commitments.

More recently, I have been working through a series of more specific questions. How might honesty or forgiveness, for example, determine an assignment or an approach to assessment? What does an honest assignment look like? How might one design a course for trust? What are the values that inform a curriculum discussion or proposal, or that shape the contours of an academic program? Questions like this are often avoided precisely because they unsettle the way we do things. But things are what they are because they got that way—and they can be changed.

The current-traditional approach to organizing a course mostly begins with skills to be mastered, or information or concepts to be conveyed, and an orderly sequence to cover the material students need to learn. Another approach to design starts with the outcomes of a course and then organizes activities from the rear end to guide students to the desired outcomes. Last year, however, my thinking about course design, pedagogy, and values emerged in collaboration with my friend and colleague in Biology, Karen Cangialosi. We pulled together a webinar, Promoting Student Agency to Improve Teaching and Learning, for a series of workshops for professors in the University System of New Hampshire.

In our webinar we proposed that in thinking about our core values we naturally find ourselves thinking more about our relationships with students. I explained how I had challenged myself years ago by sharing these values with my students. Not only did I make visible my core values in the language on my syllabi––Honesty, Trust, Generosity, Compassion, Forgiveness, Collaboration, Centeredness, and Wholeness. For I began using the values as a framework for teaching and learning.

The list of core values contributed to my reflections on what I hoped to do in the classroom; the values also reminded me of the necessary and ongoing work of learning from my students. I was reminded, for instance, that it is useful to be more open with students about the choices I was making on their behalf. I had always invited students to consider why we were doing what we were doing—“teaching the why,” in the words of Cathy N. Davidson, founder of Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) and the author, most recently, of The New Education. But I found that more open and direct conversations with students about their reading and writing in my classes allowed us to more authentically speak to the work we were doing in relation with one another.

Most recently, teaching and learning in a global pandemic, the importance of clarity around values when working with students and colleagues has become more visible. One example is my colleague Robin Derosa’s work creating what she calls Values-Centered Instructional Planning. Robin argues that pedagogy “is not an ancillary or optional part of conversations about remote teaching. Pedagogy is the category that describes how we teach.” These pedagogical values organize the mission-aligned framework she has developed with her colleagues, the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University.

In the coming weeks my plan is to write about the values that center my professional and personal life. My core values guide me in the classroom, among colleagues at my home institution, and in my professional relationships beyond the College. In digging around in the place where I find myself, in this winter mood, I hope to take advantage of the cracking ice and sluices breaking loose—of how I made my way to where I am, and perhaps to turn up some useful lessons about where I might be going.

photo credits: Mark C. Long

Sustainable Wildlife Management

In the spring of 2020 I had the privilege of co-teaching with Scott Semmens, a master wildlife tracker and adjunct faculty member in Environmental Studies, a course in Sustainable Wildlife Management. The wildlife conservation course was designed to include outings tracking mammals in NH and a post-semester trip with the students to Nepal. Before the spring break, and the onset of the global pandemic, we met twice each week. Following the spring break we met with students on Zoom once each week. Due to COVID, the field experiences were cancelled.

The course covers principles of wildlife conservation and management, stressing the application of ecological principles to achieve wildlife management objectives, and intensive preparation for two-weeks of field work in the Terai Arc lowland region of Nepal in May. The essential questions of the course included: How do species’ morphology, physiology, and behavioral changes in response to the changing seasons and evolving ecosystems? How should local species be managed? In what ways do you think our views on the natural world should change? Topics included conservation, management, and restoration of wildlife habitats; wildlife population assessment and management; human dimensions and human-wildlife interactions; management of wildlife in agricultural, range, and forested ecosystems; and wildlife policy at the local, state, national, and international level.

Landing page of the course web site I built for the course

We covered hands-on techniques for developing naturalist skills, reflective activities designed to understand the destruction of habitats, the extinction of species and the advent of climate change that requires that a reassessment of our interaction to the ecosystems that sustains all living things, and cultivating ways of expressing thoughts about our changing relationship with the natural world. Students worked in groups to develop core skill sets needed during the stay in Nepal, including, camera traps, animal tracks, signs, and trails, photography, bird identification, and the use of GIS technology. 

My contributions to the course began with a summer planning session with Scott. We developed the proposal and responded to the campus global education committee’s questions and feedback. I later attended a GEO workshop for faculty teaching field-based trips, and worked with Scott to blend our experiences and skills as outdoor educators.

The students conducted research and reflection for the first project in this course, a longer essay, “Developing a Frame of Mind,” designed to promote thinking about what it might mean to cultivate a sense of place—to express thoughts and reflections about our changing relationship with the natural world—and to consider how cultural attitudes and beliefs inform a sense of the common good.

The second project I developed for the course was inspired by a class I was taking concurrently, #Envision2030, a Wiki Scholars course hosted jointly by Keene State and Wiki Education. I guided each of the students in Sustainable Wildlife Management to become a member of a Wikipedia community dedicated to contributing content to the encyclopedia Wikipedia and collaborating with others who have chosen to volunteer their time and hard work to improving the online information. I focused the student work on contributing to WikiProject Nepal and Wikipedia’s coverage of Nepal related topics.

The students 1) worked in groups to learn more about the natural and cultural history of Nepal and 2) shared some of what they learned as a member of a global community of people who volunteer their time and hard work to provide one of the world’s most valuable digital resources. The wiki work was inspired by the UNESCO Education for Sustainable Development Goals , also known as the Global Goals, a shared agenda to end poverty, fight inequality & injustice, and protect the planet. The seventeen SDGs provided a framework for acting on our individual commitments to sustainability by engaging with others around the world who are working to end poverty, fight inequality & injustice, and protect the planet.

Sustainable Development Goals

Our Sustainable Wildlife Management WikiEdu Course Page on WikiEdu allowed students to complete Wikiedu course modules and to learn to identify content gaps in existing articles, create new articles, and edit extant Wikipedia pages. The students set up sandboxes for writing, revising, editing.

The course was an experience that models the kinds of intellectual exchange we might do more of at the College. To this end, I met with the dean of the school of Sustainability, Sciences and Health to talk about how we might create more opportunities like this to work across disciplinary and school lines. I was able to bring in materials that enhanced the science-based curriculum and the ecological and anthropological expertise of my co-instructor in turn shaped the student’s experiences with reading and writing in the course. Reading the writings and viewing lectures and podcasts by the anthropologist Wade Davis, the ethologist Marc Bekoff, the literary and cultural historian Robert McFarlane, and the conservation biologist Jane Goodall, offered the students a remarkable experience—even though we were unable, due to the global pandemic, to travel together to work with the Nepal-based conservation organization, the Tiger Trust, and to help the people of Mughali develop naturalist curriculum in their schools. 

I set up a domain and a course site, Sustainable Wildlife Management in Nepal, although we did not develop it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott and I hope to be able to offer the course when the global pandemic subsides.

(Re)Reading Close Reading

This past spring I found myself rereading the introduction to The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau. The book describes a “pedagogical awakening” he experienced, early in his teaching career, when he realized that as long as he was “engaged in the task of teaching [students] what my efforts to construct meaning had yielded for me, all I could do was show them what I had learned” (2). The paradox in Blau’s anecdote is that “as long as teachers are teaching, students are not going to learn, because the kind of experience teachers have that enable them to learn what they have to teach is the experience that students need to have, if they are to be the ones who learn” (2–3). Decades of empirical research into patterns of instruction and experiences of students in the classroom affirm “that insofar as instructors teach interpretations to students, they are not enabling those students to learn either how to acquire a valid and accurate experience of a literary text or how to produce such interpretations for themselves” (“How” 270). The persistence of this pedagogical challenge suggests that disciplinary debates about reading are less engaged with the assumptions about inquiry that structure the shared classroom experiences of teachers and students.

The exception are debates about close reading, especially when centered around interpretation, that engage the challenges students face with complex literary works. But although close reading is concerned with interpretation, Barbara Hernstein Smith reminds us, “the New Critics—certainly the first generation of them—were concerned less with establishing the meaning of a text than with understanding its operative machinery” (60). Jonathan Culler underscores that for the New Critics, the work of close reading was not “primarily to resolve difficulties but above all to describe them, to elucidate their source and implications” (“Closeness” 22). Culler suggests that even today, “close reading need not involve detailed interpretation of literary passages (though there is plenty of that around in close reading, especially when the texts in question are difficult to understand), but especially attention to how meaning is produced or conveyed.” Indeed hermeneutics (in contrast to poetics) is most often privileged in academic settings—whether as a preferred method for teaching reading in secondary or post-secondary institutions. Students are encouraged to generate “readings” of texts to demonstrate evidence of competency, critical literacy, and literary sophistication. A general term, as Peter Middleton puts it, “for a heterogeneous and largely unorganized set of practices and assumptions” (5), close reading remains the name for an organized framework of assumptions and practices.

This framework of assumptions and practices is useful in exploring some of the ways close reading has been used in the disciplinary work of interpretation. This association of close reading with interpretation has determined how we think about not only reading but literary and cultural transmission. More recently, close reading has been debated in critical studies concerned with both the radical discontinuity between past and present ways of thinking about nature, “the end of nature,” and in studies preoccupied with scales of time, for instance, in Jonathan Sachs’ concern with “temporal dissonance” (317) in Romantic writing, the “paradoxical temporality” David Farrier explores in Anthropocene poetics (6)—or what I am calling in an essay I wrote this past spring, “close reading the end of time.”1 As it propagates new vocabularies for reading in the Anthropocene, this critical discourse is testing the strengths and the limits of close reading while grappling with the fragility of disciplinary formations in the humanities.

In the forthcoming essay, to be published in a book of essays by Routledge press, I suggest that the future of close reading depends on a deeper questioning of the protocols of scholarly reading if not the hermetic institutional structures that reward particular ways of reading. The promise of close reading in the Anthropocene, I argue, begins in accepting the limited social value of demonstrative reading and embracing the constitutive power of close reading as a collective pedagogical practice.

In the editorial process, we decided to drop a brief summary of close reading. I include the brief summary below as it may be useful for other readers and writers.

A Brief History of Close Reading

The history of close reading makes visible complex theoretical and practical questions that preoccupy a disciplinary field organized around the study and interpretation of texts. Close reading took shape during the formation of English studies and contributed to the rise of literary criticism during the first half of the twentieth century. A concern with aesthetic theory and practical criticism informed the applications of close reading for a range of pedagogical, disciplinary, and institutional initiatives—most notably changing the subject matter of English from language to literature and the method of study from scholarship to criticism. The New Critics consolidated the field, explains Catherine Gallagher, “they promised to integrate English studies, overcoming the disjunction between graduate and undergraduate curricula, between specialized knowledge and general educational service; and they promised simultaneously to differentiate English even more sharply from its neighboring disciplines” (135). Close reading proved an effective method for teaching an expanding population of postsecondary students as well. It “benefited from being eminently teachable,” Andrew DuBois argues, “and the entrenchment of its methods, first in universities and then in secondary schools, attests to the amenability of that practice to practitioners of varying sophistication” (2). It is therefore not surprising that general principles and protocols for close reading are ubiquitous both in literacy instruction in K-12 curricula and in college-level courses in reading, writing, and literacy.

The general principles and practical protocols of close reading proved indispensable to both the rise of criticism as well as the need for a specialized practice for scholarship in the rapidly expanding field of literary studies. When “literary studies broadened into cultural studies,” Jane Gallop explains, “it was precisely through the power of this move to close-read nonliterary texts” (183). The result, N. Katherine Hayles observes, was that the “expansion into diverse textual realms meant that literature was no longer the de facto center of the field” (“How” 63). Scholars in literary and cultural studies “found a replacement in close reading, the one thing virtually all literary scholars know how to do well and agree is important.” However, in the professional debates about reading that followed—what it is, and what it is for—it is striking that the debates did not depend on knowing exactly what close reading entailed. Literary scholars “generally think they know what is meant by close reading,” Hayles points out, “but, looked at more closely, it proves not so easy to define or exemplify” (ADE 64). Though Smith makes the case that close reading has actually been exemplified in a number of ways, “from a New Critic unraveling Shakespearian puns in the 1930s to a Marxist scholar exposing the political unconscious of Victorian novels in the 1980s or, today, a first-grader ‘analyzing’ a book by Dr. Seuss in accord with the directives of the American national Common Core Curriculum” (57). Smith adds that the “texts varied from presumed literary masterpieces to works of popular culture and documents of manifest oppression; the discourses that directed their examination varied from Christian humanism to structuralist linguistics to queer theory; and the spirit in which they were examined.” Thus considered in retrospect, across the twentieth century, “whatever the mood, motive, or materials, if one was teaching literature or doing literary criticism in the Anglo-American literary academy, one was likely to be reading at least some individual texts closely” (58). These exemplifications of close reading—as well as the various moods, motives, and materials of literary scholars—demonstrate the persistence and adaptability of close reading.2

At the same time, according to Miranda Hickman, skepticism about the values of particular critics, and their institutional and cultural work, led the New Criticism (and close reading), to be “regarded as superseded in literary studies” and to be dismissed “as emblematic of the apolitical, ahistorical practices of the discipline that had to be overcome through the revolutions in theory, historical scholarship, and politically engaged criticism of the last four decades” (vii). Catherine Devereux, elaborating this association, adds that within “an academic discipline that itself foundationally and pervasively reproduced a system of social and political inequity, then, the New Criticism and its practice of close reading came to be understood as instruments for maintaining that system” (219).3 This understanding was reinforced by a rejection of the literary, and the associated formalist practice of close reading that, while expedient, made it difficult to assess the contributions of New Criticism to the educational project of literacy and as well as critical reflection on the purposes and values of literary and cultural studies.4

It is fair to wonder, then, whether a (re)turn to close reading as a shared practice may be useful, as it was for the New Critics in the early twentieth-century, in furthering the disciplinary preoccupations of scholars in the twenty-first century. For if a return to close reading is associated with what Devereux calls the “exclusionary, and deeply biased notion of the literary and of the discipline” of the New Critics—and close reading is associated with formalist readings of decontextualized aesthetic objects—then it may be time to move along. But for Devereaux, “if literature is not to be differentiated from any other kind of cultural production, the point of a discipline whose purpose is the study of literature becomes unclear (224). Indeed, as it turns out, the perennial debates over the inheritance of close reading are most often about the legacy and coherence of literary studies, the literary practices of reading and writing, and the critical and philosophical problems these practices quite naturally raise across the humanities and social sciences.

Notes

1. The encounter is between human time (at its end) and deep time. I am also thinking here of Bruno Latour’s description of the present condition in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, in which he elaborates “an entirely new situation: behind us, attachments; ahead of us, ever more attachments. . . . End of modernization. End of story. Time to start over.” Latour goes on to say that “‘Gaia,’ the ‘Anthropocene’ era, the precise name hardly matters.” The point is cancelling “forever of the fundamental distinction between Nature and Society by means of which they were establishing their system of coordinates, one step at a time. Starting from this event, everything has become more complicated for them” (10).

2. John Guillory makes a distinction, however, between close reading and reading closely, in “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue.” Close reading “as a modern academic practice” does not mean the same thing as “reading closely, which arguably describes many different practices of reading from antiquity to the modern era” (8). The literature on close reading as an academic practice is extensive. Lentricchia and DuBois argue that “paying attention to the literary text in and of itself may or may not seem a given; at any rate, it is a notion which, whether or not necessary in the collective mind of our critical era, seems nonetheless natural to scholarship” (4). Examples include Jane Gallop, “The Historicization of Literary Study and the Fate of Close Reading Profession” and “Close Reading in 2009”; John Guillory, “Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue”; and Jonathan Culler, “The Closeness of Close Reading.” Also see Paul de Man’s account of Ruben Brower’s influence at Harvard in the 1950s ‘‘Students,’’ writes de Man, “were not to say anything that was not derived from the text they were considering. They were not to make any statements that they could not sup- port by a specific use of language that actually occurred in the text. They were asked, in other words, to begin by reading texts closely as texts and not to move at once into the general context of human experience or history. Much more humbly or modestly, they were to start out from the bafflement that such singular turns of tone, phrase, and figure were bound to produce in readers attentive enough to notice them and honest enough not to hide their non-understanding behind the screen of received ideas that often passes, in literary instruction, for humanistic knowledge” (23).

3. Devereux’s description of the fate of New Criticism appears in “‘A Kind of Dual Attentiveness’: Close Reading after the New Criticism,” in which she explains that in some of the “late-twentieth-century debates about the destructive implications for English studies of race theory, feminist critique, postcolonialism, queer, class, cultural, and popular culture studies, close reading came to be represented by scholars outside the theory camp as the whipping boy of various leftist agendas” (331). The New Criticism’s “role in an unequal workplace had to be assessed, and its effects on the discipline had to be addressed. Also see Jane Gallop, who writes, “The time was ripe for . . . a course correction: ahistoricism had been persuasively linked to sexism, racism, and elitism; attacks on the canon had called into question the notion of timeless works; literary studies had been ahistorical for too long” (181).

4 Brenkman, “Extreme Criticism,” provides a polemical account. For a more generous reassessment of New Criticism, see Miranda B. Hickman and John D. McIntyre, Rereading the New Criticism. They write in their “Preface” that the strategy of the New Critics “in order to establish the distinctness of the literary–critical endeavor also contributed to this widespread understanding of their criticism as dismissing what was beyond the text: they turned decisively away from approaches in the field of English that focused on literary history, read literature for philosophical insights, or appraised literature through overtly moral criteria.” As Hickman and McIntyre explain, their polemical move “to define and legitimize criticism during an era when criticism was widely regarded as a slight endeavor that ‘anyone could do—often suggested that the work of these other approaches was less worthwhile than that of literary criticism. But according to New Critics such as Ransom and Brooks, New Critical distinctions between the ‘work itself’ and what lay beyond it, and between criticism and other kinds of work with respect to literature, never implied that commentary that engaged extratextual matters was without value, nor that they themselves ignored such matters altogether” (26).

What If?

Experiments often begin with “what if” questions. As I compose this post in the fall of 2020 one of the questions emerging at Keene State College is whether we will be able to support a portfolio platform to promote college-wide learning. What we mean by “college-wide learning” is less clear; and the connections we hope to make possible in our community of teaching and learning keep running up against the persistent inertia of institutional life.

We want our students to make connections across their experiences both in and outside the classroom. We want faculty and staff and students to work together to build learning pathways, or a network, that will integrate their learning as well as connect their college experiences to the first stages of their life and career beyond school. So far so good.

For some of us these aspirations are familiar. Some time ago, back in 2007 to be a bit more precise, a similar “what if?” question emerged : “What if the faculty and staff of Keene State College were given a place to blog?” The Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive offers a glimpse of that dusty virtual page in the vast archive of the web where that fabulous question lives on:

Screen shots of :KeeneWeb are from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

The experiment was a publishing platform. Our in-house instructional designer Mike Caulfield explained in a blog post Starlings in the Slipstream, would help us develop more meaningful communications and connections at the College. Mike connected the project to Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington, who is another protagonist in the history of this question: for he had helped to design a platform to facilitate communications among faculty, staff, and students at UMW that would evolve into something more, what Jim called “networked learning.”

Back at Keene State College, Mike (and Jenny Darrow, his colleague in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) made possible some creative work using a Word Press multi-user blogging system with the option of building in RSS feeds for content. A few of us had already set up professional web pages on our own. (My forays in building a digital presence on the web began a couple of years after coming to the College, in 2000, with the assistance of a digital consultant, Maria Erb.) But a wider network began to become visible and by 2011 the Keeneweb Blog Directory listed over 200 active sites––faculty pages, teaching and research projects, and digital hubs for institutional initiatives. But the Internet Archive also shows that the network was active from 2008 to 2011.

In an early presentation to the campus community, a former colleague who I worked with in the first-year writing program, Tracy Mendham, pulled together a slide set and talk, “Pathway to Pedagogy,” in which she advocated for networked learning. Tracy was a trailblazer who taught a section of essay writing with the title “A Blog of One’s Own” in which her students found themselves writing on a blog. At the end of her presentation, she offered some advice that included two points that have guided many of us since:

  • Stop worrying and learn to love the Web
  • Make teaching and learning an experience for yourself as well as your students

The first piece of advice is an artifact in a discourse of which we were a part, a reminder of where we were––that is, worrying about the web. The second piece of advice is what I might want to describe as a threshold concept. For while the Wayback timeline represents the demise of a brilliant idea to support connected teaching and learning at Keene State College, it is also the case that a number of people have been thinking and making connections in new ways ever since. In fact, with the dedication and hard work of Jenny Darrow––one through line in this story––and my colleague in Biology, the open education superhero Karen Cangialosi––we are no longer worried about the web. We are instead working alongside faculty and students exploring the experience of teaching a learning at KSCopen.

My own professional work was irrevocably transformed. At the time a department chair, I began building things: a site to facilitate faculty exchange and make visible the extraordinary work of my colleagues; a web site for the English department; an English department course and syllabus archive; and a site for our Thinking and Writing faculty. Too, I found myself blogging and discovering the generative process of representing my professional work. My goal was to make visible the work of a college English professor. My working assumption was that a more visible story of a professor and students at work might offer reasons for people to value the intellectual work of teachers and students in public higher education.

Making Connections

But the most lasting and transformative impact of this moment at Keene State College was in the learning experience of my students. Tracy’s pedagogical insights into what she called at the time “social computing as means of facilitating academic discourse and developing writing skills” opened my mind. I could then fully appreciate what a colleague of mine was doing with his students at Washington College. Sean’s Comp| Post site was another node in a developing idea.

The idea, I can now see, was the network. My project exploration a kind of portolano chart with coordinates and sailing directions for thinking about teaching and learning.

From the British Library Pelagios Project: Portolano. Egerton MS 2855. Public domain.

That is, I had no mappa mundi with which to navigate the parts and the whole. And so I filled in my chart in medias res, learning by going where I had to go: I was learning to navigate open source software, for me Word Press, in an effort to integrate the pieces of my professional and personal life; and, most importantly, my chart began to trace new vectors as my students set up blogs and begin writing and making new connections with me, what they were learning, and their readers.

The idea of a portfolio of artifacts is familiar to those of us trained in the teaching of writing. And I had been using them since I began teaching in graduate school. Student course blogs, though, presented new opportunities to make the idea of an audience for writing, to take one example, less an abstract idea and more a real, lived experience of connecting with readers by writing on the open web. The public portfolio, moreover, led to students making connections across their courses and learning experiences beyond the classroom. Some students built sites that were repurposed for a job search or for projects beyond graduation.

But first and foremost, I was experiencing students learning more about writing, and themselves as writers, by using these tools. The other pedagogical possibilities of digital portfolios were showing up in metacognitive and experiential activities that decades of research has shown to be positively associated with genuine learning. However, what I also came to realize is that if we are going to ask students to engage in metacognitive work then it would make a lot of sense for teachers to model the very learning process that we know can make a difference.

So I started writing with my students. I began building my own portfolio across a semester (and across courses and teaching experiences) to make visible my growth and learning as a teacher. In one instance, I found myself writing a post in a class with students, Houses and Chairs, in which I say that writing on the web

“is different than writing for the web. When you graduate from college you will be writing more for the web. Why might this matter? The musicologist and digital media specialist Kris Schaffer proposes the following answer to the question:

Think about it this way. If I’m the first person to take a primary source, transcribe (or translate) it, and annotate it with hyperlinks, and my public, digital writing gains traction, it will fast become the go-to source at the top of the search results. My hyperlinks and commentary will become the portal to the resources that people engage to gain context, background, and nuance. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity, to connect my skills as an academic and a humanist to the issues of the day, in an attempt to bring nuance and truth to the public consciousness.

The essay I am quoting from here is written for students with a particular end in mind: I am (re)introducing them to the hyperlink. At the same time, my intent is to build out an argument about reclaiming the web as a network––enacting the very thing I am writing about. The post is an example of what more and more people have learned recently to call asynchronous pedagogy, or what I have learned to call on my teaching blogs “Teacher Talk.” Perhaps I will write a bit more about this dimension of my pedagogical approach to teaching reading and writing in the coming weeks. For now, though, if anyone is interested, the terminal moraine of these reflections and connections is right here, where you are right now, at The Far Field.

On Rediscovering the Network

What if we really did want our students to make connections across their experiences both in and outside the classroom? What if we really wanted faculty and staff and students to work together to build learning pathways, or a network, to integrate learning as well as to guide students as they connect their college experiences to stages of life or careers outside of school?

One place to start would be with the metaphorical structure of our thinking. Of course networked learning, and the web as a network, has deeper roots. The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled Net, which appears in the Atharva Veda and is used by the Buddhist Tu- Shun (557-640 B.C.E.) to envision a vast net that includes jewels at each meeting point that represent individual life forms (atoms, cells, units of consciousness) that are interconnected so that a change in one is reflected in all the others. The metaphor has been used, more recently, to describe the complex interconnected networks formed by relationships between objects in a system, in computation, ecological thinking, and in accounts of social networks.

What I am wondering about here is whether this ancient surmise is one antidote to the modern pathology of thinking predicated on individual parts that fuels the individualistic and atomistic patterns of behavior that make it so very difficult to imagine ways to change the conditions of teaching and learning for the better. It is the manner of thinking and being in a system composed of parts––”departments,” “divisions,” “schools,” an so on––that just can’t seem to get around themselves when it is time to move. Most useful, then, at the moment, might be to pursue the provocative question, “what if?”

The question is, once again, the opportunities: how do we hold ourselves accountable to the space of minds thinking together before we develop plans within and beyond the constraints of the established systems of which we are a part?

Featured photo credit: John Dittli

In Memory

(Published on the web site of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment,) In Memoriam: Mary Oliver, 1935–2019

By Mark C. Long, Keene State College

The poet Mary Oliver passed away on January 17, 2019. An honorary member of our association, Oliver published over thirty books of poetry and prose that brought the concerns of ASLE to more readers than any other poet of her generation.

Oliver published her first book, No Voyage and Other Poems, in 1963. Over the next fifty years, Oliver offered us new ways to think about the gift of human life and the fragile beauty of the more-than-human world. As the poems kept coming, Oliver rekindled the uses of poetry in our culture—in lyrics, sequences, a book-length poem, prose poems, and essays. And her audience kept expanding, too, her book sales, running into the millions, reminding us of the singular power of her distinctive voice.

Oliver’s life and work are at once inspiration and provocation—most acutely to those of us preoccupied with environmental concern, equity, and justice. How does our thinking and writing, our art and our activism, reach the audiences who most need us? How do we live convincing lives for those who need to be inspired? “Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do,” Oliver reminded us. “Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.”

Although Oliver once stood in that water, and found her way upstream, her generous provocations are for us—whether we find ourselves in a stream or on a city sidewalk. Her belief that we can learn to love the world came from Walt Whitman, she told us, for his “message was clear from the first and never changed: that a better, richer life is available to us, and with all his force he advocated it both for the good of each individual soul and for the good of the universe.”

This potential for goodness in a world that appears otherwise is the heartbeat of Oliver’s advocacy. It is no wonder, then, that Oliver’s poems come into our lives across experiences, generations, and occasions—as children, adolescents, young adults, middle-age and older adults, in schools and libraries, family and community gatherings, and places of worship.

She prodded us to be in the world—with awareness, imagination, compassion, and agency. She excited our consciences and awakened our emotions. And she offered those of us more familiar with thinking about poems something less familiar: an invitation to think with poems that wrestle with our commonplaces about the world, honestly and openly, to guide us into the material and spiritual condition of our lives.

“Here is a story / to break your heart. / Are you willing? With these lines Oliver begins the poem “Lead,” a story of loons dying in the harbor “of nothing we could see,” a poem that ends with the story she has been sharing with us for over fifty years:


I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

 __________________________________________________________________

An informal gathering to honor the literary and cultural contributions of the poet Mary Oliver will be held from 12:15-1:15 pm on June 28, 2019 during the 2019 ASLE Conference. The reading will take place in the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove located in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Participants are invited to read one of Oliver’s poems, or a selection from her prose. Brief comments on Oliver’s work are also welcome. If you plan to attend this event, please RSVP Mark C. Long at mlong@keene.edu.

In choice of place

Poem by Gary Snyder, “Rip Rap.” Images by Mark Long, Jiangsu, China, fall 2018

Lay down these words

Before your mind like rocks.

             placed solid, by hands   

In choice of place, set

Before the body of the mind

             in space and time:

            

Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall

           riprap of things:

Cobble of milky way,

             straying planets,

These poems, people,

             lost ponies with

Dragging saddles —

            and rocky sure-foot trails.   

The worlds like an endless   

             four-dimensional

Game of Go.

ants and pebbles

In the thin loam, each rock a word   

             a creek-washed stone

Granite: ingrained

             with torment of fire and weight   

Crystal and sediment linked hot

             all change, in thoughts,   

As well as things.


Coming into the Country

“If you have to ask that question, you wouldn’t understand the answer.”

––John McPhee, Coming into the Country

Field edges, sloped margins of fish ponds, straight irrigation trenches and tawny checkerboard fields of wheat, little groves of cultivated trees—all stitched with rows of leafy greens, backs of houses and industrial buildings as if set down in the orderly rows of greens that surround them, and out in the fields an electric scooter leaning against a fence and a crouched figure pulling weeds. Today we are driving north of the Yangtze River to the city of Yancheng. 

Yesterday afternoon we arrived in Shanghai. It is a long haul from Toronto, Canada, and the first glimpse of China’s largest metropolis, a city of over twenty-four million people on the Yangtze River Delta, is difficult to describe. From the window seat a view of tight clusters of high-rise buildings built into networks of roads and open spaces that lead to other tight clusters of high-rise buildings stretching as far as the eyes can see. As the plane banks to position for landing, through surprisingly clear air, the afternoon light glitters on the surface of the Hangpu River.

Cultivation in the suburbs north of Shanghai

We are coming into the country; and I sense that the world will no longer be the same. We will pay attention. We will see. We will change. Still, our slow descent onto the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River does not yet betray what we are experiencing:the most densely populated place on the planet. The Jiangnan—or the area south of the river—is now inhabited by the twenty-four million people of Shanghai as well as the other urban areas across the Yangtze River Delta region. The number of Chinese people in this small piece of the People’s Republic is 140 million.

Shanghai, China

Not only is the scale of the metropolis in China baffling but the clean and bustling and orderly Chinese city is incongruous. For we have come to thePeople’s Republic to gather with pastoral poets. While the pastoral has many versions, the tradition of values and poetics associated with this mode of thinking and poetic practice is the bridge we are walking between continents. WhatI find most exciting in this opportunity is to slip into the world of poets and poetry in a country with the longest continuous literary tradition in human history. At the same time, as I walk the streets of Shanghai, I remind myself of my plan to share with our hosts and audiences in Yancheng a pastoral impulse in our poetry and poetics that has yet to come to terms with the experience of living in the Anthropocene. Perhaps it is this place, after all, that signals most that we are living in a different world than we might have imagined.

We are here in China as the featured guests at the Poetry Bridging Continents: From Walden to the Yellow Sea Symposium at Yancheng Teachers University. We are the poet Roger Martin, the visionary organizer of our trip, poets Susan O’Brien, Claire Golding, and Maura MacNeil, and my colleagues from Keene, archivist Rodney Obien and the dean of the Mason library, Celia Rabinowitz.

Mural welcoming guests in the lobby of the campus hotel at Yancheng University

On the one hand, our trip to China is breaking new ground. We are here as protagonists in a sequel to the October 2017 colloquium “TheMagic of Monadnock: Poetry Bridging Continents” that brought Chen Yihai, from YanchengTeachers University, and Zi Chuan, poet and calligrapher, to the MonadnockRegion in New Hampshire.  On the other hand, our travels are a continuation. We are here because of a cultural exchange that began thirty years ago with a collaboration between Michael True and a scholar and translator we are traveling with this week, Zhang Ziqing. We are here because of a 2006 anthology published in China, On American Pastoral Poetry that introduced the Monadnock Pastoral Poets, including Rodger Martin, Jim Beschta, Pat Fargnoli, Susan Roney-O’Brian, John Hodgen. And we are here because the cultural exchange continued with a 2011 visit by Beijing poet Bei Ta to New England that led to Roger’s 2012 sojourn to Hangzhou as part of the International Prominent Figure Celebration at West Lake. In 2015 Roger then returned to teach at Nanjing University and Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. 

And so here we are. After settling in our Shanghai hotel on our evening of arrival, and enjoying our first taste of Chinese food, we walk the waterfront promenade, theBund, that is lined with colonial buildings. We join hundreds of others in the dark evening, drawn by the spectacle of the futuristic skyline of the Pudong district directly across the river from Shiliupu. Between making photographs of the lights and lining up to gather images of our first night in China, I can hear lines from a city poem in my head, from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End:

Beautiful buildings we float in, we feed in,
Foam, steel, gray
Alive in the Sea of Information.

The Shanghai Tower soars six hundred and thirty meters above a river filled with illuminated boats cruising the dark waters and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower pokes out among dozens of square buildings plunging upwards into the dark sky. Each of the buildings are light screens flashing brilliant colors and patterns. At the top of the Tower, a cap of light streams race upwards into the darkness—as if to release into the sky. 

Beautiful buildings for sure. When we return to the hotel everyone gathers their jet lag and heads to their rooms.Rodney and I decide to walk into the city night where we find a small bar and a cold beer to celebrate our first night in the People’s Republic of China–coming into the country.

A Nice Place to Visit

“Virtual space is a place to explore identity.”

—Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2018)

The other day my friend Marie visited this blog, The Far Field, and then sent me an email. “You always make the reader feel welcome,” she wrote, “and on your site it’s as if the world had slowed down. It’s a nice place to visit.”

I’m interested in this description of the practice of writing on a web log as a way of slowing down–of thinking aloud, learning through exploration, making connections, and organizing the activity of the mind at work. This creative discipline of forming sentences and paragraphs, with perhaps the incorporation of other media, brings me back to one of my digital inspirations, the Hoarded Ordinaries project. “Writers, like children, are not dissuaded by the uselessness of hoarded ordinaries,” Lorrianne observes”; instead, we cultivate a collector’s sense, trying to capture mundane moments on a string of words.” After all, reading and thinking, observing and writing, are deliberate activities. They slow us down.

At the same time, Marie’s comment has me thinking about the writing I do with my students—short-form essays on my course blogs  written to create time and space to slow the fast-paced obligations and responsibilities of my professional life. In thinking and writing it is as if time indeed slows, as if eddies form in the flow, capturing  an ordinary, or maybe extraordinary, happening in teaching and learning. Might a course blog, too, be a nice place to visit?

Increasingly our minds are less focused—or so we tell ourselves. We are distracted, we say, by technology and the hyper-pace of modern life. Our attention to the things happening outside of our heads leaves us less attentive to the ways that attention shapes us. More importantly, our attention is increasingly appropriated in public and, more and more, in digital space. As Mathew B. Crawford writes in a fabulously interesting book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, “our predicament is that we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention” (23). Crawford is interested in skilled practices that establish what he calls “ecologies of attention.” His larger claim is that our environment constitutes the self and that attention to the world beyond our heads is at the center of this formative process.

What I find most useful in this line of thinking is a potentially more capacious and generous approach to our increasingly mediated lives. Blaming technology for appropriating our attention simplifies what is a far more interesting and enduring idea that the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Crawford calls this “autonomy talk,” with roots in Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory

which did important polemical work in their day against various forms of coercion. Times have changed. The philosophical project of this book is to reclaim the real, as against representations. That is why the central term of approbation in these pages is not ‘freedom’ but ‘agency.’ For it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self. . . . (27)

One of Crawford’s interests is how when someone is engaged in a skilled practice the world shows up, as it were. Skilled practices are deliberate, and even when fast-moving, or dynamic, depend upon a kind of slowness. The ways we frame our relationship to the world in terms of freedom and constraint are as persistent as they are debilitating.

When we write, too, we are attending to the world. But if we think with the fiction of writing as a solitary practice or private act, we are thinking again with the idea of the self is autonomous and striving to free itself by controlling the external world. Sitting and writing in solitude we obscure writing as an embodied practice at once socially and historically situated.

Before Marie wrote to me I had a vague idea that the writing I was doing on my course blogs was what some people call a “flipped” classroom. But the flipped strategy flops as a description of what is actually going on when I write with my students about the literary and cultural materials we are studying together. For the challenge is to understand the social and rhetorical activity of writing through asking students, as well as myself, to to think with these materials on the open web.

If writing is a way of learning, and we are asking our students to write in the open, then we should be writing to learn about the practice of teaching, and we should be doing so in the open as well. If in fact virtual space is a place to explore identity, then we should join our students in this exploration.

Writing on the open web begins with the very real possibility that the words you are putting together might actually be read. When we write we are always writing for particular purposes (even though we may not always be clear what those purposes are) and in shaping words we are putting together for imagined or unanticipated audiences; and we are always writing with the words and ideas of others, using existing strategies and genres and tools. In addition to understanding writing as a collaborative activity there is important work in understanding what writing does—or can do. The idea that writing is a way of one’s sharing understanding of one thing or another underscores writing as a constitutive activity. Writing is poetic in the fundamental sense that when we write we are building and constructing ideas through the act of thinking. And because writing is a cultural activity that mediates the process of thinking, writing might be understood as a way of claiming the contents of one’s mind.

Thinking aloud about ideas and materials with students—for me most often the words of a poem, a sentence or paragraph of student writing, a surprising turn in class, or a reflection following a class meeting—has become a practice of thinking about what I am doing, and why, in medias res. Might a teaching philosophy emerge in the network of relations of each unique group of students rather than a statement written antequam aliquid incipit? Might methods of teaching be predicated less on mastery and expertise and more on discovery? Might we resist habit and routine by implicating ourselves more fully in the activity of teaching as learning through writing with our students about the subject we profess?

In so doing, teachers build networks of connections beyond the timelines generated by algorithms that filter and present virtual reality in a ready-made stream. Teachers model for students learning beyond the closed design of learning management systems. And teachers guide their students in understanding their complicity in the accelerated streams of social media platforms designed to surveil and to sell. If we are going to argue for a poetics of digital identity, fluency, and citizenship as necessary elements of twenty-first century learning then teachers should be building their own identities, fluencies, and citizenship.

Open Education and ASLE

The things which are dear to men at this hour are so on account of the ideas which have emerged on their mental horizon, and which cause the present order of things as a tree bears its apples. A new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize the entire system of human pursuits.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”

In 2013 and 2014 the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) dedicated energy and resources to building a new web site as part of a renewed focus on the digital strategy of the association. We worked from the visionary digital work of Dan Phillipon and built a new web site as part of a more comprehensive digital strategy for the association.

The web site of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1999

Earlier that year, in my role as president of ASLE, I collaborated with the managing director of our association, Amy McIntryre, on a comprehensive review of our strategic plan. The 2014 Strategic Plan mapped out our continued work as an open and engaged community of scholars in a new mission statement for our association: “The mission of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) is to inspire and promote the work of scholars, educators, students, and writers in the environmental humanities and arts.” Among the revised goals we included outreach through member collaboration and public dialogue; the promotion of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility; and facilitating the public dissemination of member projects and expertise.

After two years of work I announced in my President’s column the launching of our site and outlined some of the opportunities the new web site would present the members of our association:

President’s Update

In addition to launching the new web site we established a digital strategies committee to guide ASLE’s efforts to facilitate the public dissemination of member projects and expertise. More recently, as a continuing member of the ASLE digital strategies committee, I proposed a working group to explore the possibilities of open education and pedagogy in our ASLE community.

The home page of the ASLE web site in 2018

The transformative possibilities of open pedagogy, learning, and resources offer a productive provocation to the members of ASLE as the landscape of higher education continues to change. As public support for higher education continues to ebb we should be reexamining all that we do in our various roles on college and university campuses, in our secondary school classrooms, and our communities of practice. We need to take our advocacy talk for a walk.

One way to do this is to explore open education and pedagogy in our ASLE community. For those less familiar with the emergence of open there are useful definitions in circulation. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are materials shared in the public domain under an intellectual property license that allows their free use and re-purposing by others. These educational resources might include individual and collaborative research, course materials and/or modules, textbooks, videos and media projects, to name a few.

Open pedagogy may align especially well with the mission and values of ASLE. At the same time the values and practices of of open pedagogy-with roots in feminist and critical pedagogies-offer a productive provocation for members of our association whose intellectual work is channeled through narrower disciplinary conversations and artifacts such as monographs that create a buzz but most often in more isolated intellectual hives.

So what might be the connections between academic institutions, open pedagogy and learning, and environmental advocacy? Here are the guiding questions I drafted for the workgroup:

How might members of the Association use open education to move our teaching and research activities into communities outside the academy?

How might ASLE offer undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to create and access OERs as well as promote student agency in intellectual communities within and beyond their home institutions?

How might OERs create new partnerships with nonacademic stakeholders as we continue to work on common challenges and projects in the environmental arts and humanities?

In their recent Message from the Co-Presidents, ASLE members Stacy Alaimo and Jeffrey J. Cohen frame environmental humanism as environmental activism. “We study, write, compose and create because we care about issues like biodiversity, environmental justice, survival in a time of endemic precarity and global catastrophe, and the effects of climate change on humans and nonhumans alike,” they write. Wicked problems such as these do not have easy solutions, of course, though they “have faith that widened community is our best way forward.” This is useful language, I believe, to guide us in where the extraordinary labor of the environmental humanities. But how do we widen the community? How do we work to unsettle the personal and disciplinary and institutional disincentives to intellectual work that widen the community?

For the past two days I have been at the University of New Hampshire at the annual Academic Technology Institute. During the gathering my friend, biology colleague, and collaborator Karen Cangialosi presented a keynote talk on open education and advocacy.

One of Karen’s central claims was that access and agency should be at the core of our work with our students and that the open education movement should refocus academic work on the commons. In the illustration above, Karen emphasizes student agency through course design, knowledge creation, and connected learning, as well as connected learning, community participation, and inclusivity.

The use of Open Educational Resources (OER)—and the practices of Open Pedagogy—connects academic labor to the wider public and in turn improves access to education. Teaching and learning in the open is about connecting students to a larger world and to making the process of education more transparent and accessible. With roots in critical pedagogy, open pedagogy values students constructing their own learning process; and, as another colleague writes, practitioners of open pedagogy seek to empower students “while actively critiquing and confronting the industrial and corporate approach of co-opting and packaging ‘teaching technology’ to turn students into consumers.” Instead, teachers and students build ways to leverage the Open web for discovery, creativity and analysis, as well as dialogue with the wider public.

Karen’s advocacy work is part of an ecology of open pedagogy that is to my mind one of the ways ASLE can expand its circle. What are the opportunities for members of ASLE to further its commitments to sharing and contributing knowledge, the public humanities, service learning projects, creating and displaying public art, and engaging our students with local environmental problems? The first answer to that question is gathering the ongoing work that exemplifies the activities already unfolding in what I might call here the ASLE ecology of open.

Open education takes many forms. Below are a few examples of work already happening in ASLE that I hope will expand the scope of our charts: creating OERs; building project sites for education, research, and public engagement; creating course sites on the open web to promote digital identity, fluency, and citizenship.

Creating OERs This can be on OER Commons  or OpenStax, by using an open-source publishing platform like Press Books, or engaging with the Rebus Community whose members believe that educational materials for every subject should be a free and open public resource. One example of this kind of work is a resource that my colleague at Plymouth State University created (with her students) The Open Anthology of Early American Literature

 Building Project Sites

Ecoarttech is a faculty project site by ASLE members Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint

Play the LA River is a project and collaboration that includes ASLE Member Alison Caruth

The Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies is a project at UCLA

Dawnland Voices features indigenous writing from New England and the Northeast and is edited and curated by ASLE Member Siobhan Senier

Digital Thoreau English professor Paul Schatz’s project at SUNY Geneseo

The Disability History Museum My colleague in the department of history at Keene State College is responsible for developing education curricula and has developed materials with undergraduate students

NICHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment / Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement is a Canadian-based confederation of researchers and educators who work at the intersection of nature and history. We explore the historical context of environmental matters and communicate our findings to researchers, policymakers, and the public.

Sustainable Play Brad Rassler’s project for long-form storytelling at the confluence of people, planet, and play.

Petrofictionary is a mode of archiving words and concepts that assist in the study of petrofiction: literary figurations of petroleum, the most important energy source of the twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries. The Petrofictionary was created as a collaborative project by the students in English 7087: Petrofictions, at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and edited by Amy Donovan under the guidance of Dr. Fiona Polack. It is intended as an archive, a tool, and a source of both information and inspiration as we consider the wide-reaching implications of petroleum culture and speculate about new modes of human existence after oil.

Domain of One’s Own projects have taken hold at many colleges and universities. The KSCopen.org project, to take one example, emphasizes digital identity, digital fluency and digital citizenship. Some examples of course and project sites at KSCopen.org, including advocacy sites such as NH Science for Citizens, student project sites such as my Far Field Learning Lab

Course Sites

The Open Space of Democracy is an open learning site (as opposed to a course built in a learning management system like Canvas).

Writing in an Endangered World  is a course in which student blogs are syndicated to the main site. All of the student writing appears on the course site as well as the individual student sites. The student blogs and the course Project blogs/web sites are listed in the post It’s a Wrap.  For example, one student created the Nature In A Quarter Hour Podcast offers a series of reflections (and an interview) based in the field of environmentalism and it’s literary contributions

COPLAC Digital team-taught Distance Learning Seminars with students from more than one institution. For example, I team-taught a course Public Access and the Liberal Arts with a faculty member at Truman State University with students from multiple campuses

Selected Definitions and Resources Karen Cangialosi, has compiled an excellent Open Pedagogy Learning Community Resource List. And most colleges and universities (most often library-based resources) have FAQs about Open Educational Resources (OER). At Keene State College, for example, we have an Open Educational Resources page. The Open Educational Resources page on the Keene State College web site has a useful list of links More About OER.

Open Education Consortium A worldwide community of hundreds of higher education institutions and associated organizations committed to advancing open education.

SPARC: Open Education SPARC believes that Open Educational Resources (OER) maximize the power of the Internet to improve teaching and learning, and increase access to education.

Creative Commons: Education The Education program at Creative Commons works to maximize the benefits of open educational resources (OER) and the return on investment in publicly funded education and research programs.

The Academic Commons Provides serves as a platform/tool that institutions and organizations can use to share their own and learn from each other’s work in an open, collaborative way.”

OER Mythbusting Myths about OER can stop people from using them and causing real educational change. The goal of this publication is to dispel those myths.

Once again, the question of the opportunities: where do we go from here? I will report back with any news as the work of the digital strategies committee takes shape in what I hope will be student and faculty collaborations within, across, and outside our courses, colleges and universities, and communities.

The Magic of Monadnock

马克·龙(Mark Long) is going to China.

With an invitation in hand to be part of an American delegation to the “Poetry Bridges Continents: China and American Pastoral Poetry Symposium” to be held on November 11-16, 2018 at Yancheng Teachers University, Yancheng, Jiangsu, China, some of my summer work will include my contribution to the symposium.

The symposium will present academic panels, keynote speeches, and bilingual poetry readings. The delegation, while visiting, will give readings and lectures, and meet with faculty and students. Additionally, to strengthen our East-West connections, at a special ceremony during the symposium, the YCTU library and Mason library of Keene State College will exchange special collections. We will set up a Mondanock-region poetry collection at the host Chinese university that would a sister collection to ours at Keene State College, and we will solicit from poets represented in our collections to donate volumes towards the sister collection.

The Yancheng symposium is part of a cultural exchange that began this past fall at Keene State College with the colloquium, “The Magic of Monadnock:  Poetry Bridging Continents.” We hosted poets from China and poets from the Monadock region to explore the geographies of the Monadnock region in New Hampshire and the Maoshan in the southwestern Jiangsu province. The four-day international gathering brought Chinese and American poets to Keene State College for a cultural exchange open to and involving students, faculty, and the larger community.The Mason Library’s Monadnock Poetry Special Collections, The Redfern Arts Center, The Thorne Art Gallery, and the Division Arts and Humanities were co-sponsors of the event. The week celebrated the pastoral in all its possibilities, with performances, readings, collaborations, discussions, including a field hike to Thoreau’s Seat on the slopes of Mt. Monadnock.

Roger Martin reading a poem by Henry David Thoreau at Thoreau’s Seat on the slopes of Mt Monadnock

I am grateful to the poet and professor Rodger Martin and professor and College archivist Rodney Obien for including me in this project.

Lunch-at-Halfway-House Hotel foundation: Henry Walters, Zichuan, Mark-long, Brittany-ONeal, Linda Warren, Rodney Obien, Rodger, Martin (photo by Chen Yihai)

Henry Walters, Rodger Martin, Mark Long, Brittany O’Neal, and Zichuan at Thoreau’s Seat, Mt. Monadnock

One of the events at “The Magic of Monadnock: Poetry Bridging Continents” was honoring Professor Emeritus William Doreski with the re-naming of the Doreski Archive in Modern Poetry at Mason Library. To commemorate the occasion, Chinese poet and scholar Zi Chuan, presented him with Chuan’s original calligraphy of a poem dedicated to Dr. Doreski.

Within the Circuit of this Plodding Life

Within the circuit of this plodding life,
There enter moments of an azure hue,
Untarnished fair as is the violet
Or anemone, when the spring strews them
By some meandering rivulet, which make
The best philosophy untrue that aims
But to console man for his grievances.
I have remembered when the winter came,
High in my chamber in the frosty nights,
When in the still light of the cheerful moon,
On every twig and rail and jutting spout,
The icy spears were adding to their length
Against the arrows of the coming sun,
How in the shimmering noon of summer past
Some unrecorded beam slanted across
The upland pastures where the Johnswort grew;
Or heard, amid the verdure of my mind,
The bee’s long smothered hum, on the blue flag
Loitering amidst the mead; or busy rill,
Which now through all its course stands still and dumb
Its own memorial,—purling at its play
Along the slopes, and through the meadows next,
Until its youthful sound was hushed at last
In the staid current of the lowland stream;
Or seen the furrows shine but late upturned,
And where the fieldfare followed in the rear,
When all the fields around lay bound and hoar
Beneath a thick integument of snow.
So by God’s cheap economy made rich
To go upon my winter’s task again.

-Henry David Thoreau, from The Natural History of Massachusetts (1842)

Featured Image, Broad-Distance Pavillion, From Illustrations To The Poems Of Huang Yan-Lü (1701–02), By Shih T’ao, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Natural and Cultural History of Soil

Soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it, we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)

My collaboration with Amanda Littleton and the Cheshire County Conservation District began with a question: how does the mission of a conservation district—to improve management practices that improve soil health while increasing the viability of a farm and to educate the general public that healthy soil is the foundation for a healthy food system—connect to ideas about the natural world, public interest in working landscapes, and the cultural narratives and ideas that shape our understanding of the land?

The series of events we organized successfully answered the question through community engagement with the complex relationship between natural and cultural history. A distinctive strength of this project, from a public humanities perspective, was the diversity of people who participated in the events. “The Natural and Cultural History of Soil: Cultivating Fertile Soil, Generating Resilient Communities” put books into the hands of farmers working the land, local residents working in environmental education, interested members of the community, educators, and students. In addition, our decision to make available more than one book—Dr. David Montgomery’s nonfiction “trilogy,” Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007), The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, with Anne Bilké (2016), and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life (2017)—broadened our audience and enriched our discussions.

The film screening and panel discussion, and the dialogues I facilitated at each of these events, were productive dialogues about the complex relationship between agricultural practices, ecological literacy, and human values. It was especially rewarding to help shape a community inquiry into the basic humanistic and ecological questions I explore with my undergraduate students every semester: Who am I? Where am I? What is going on? Our two evening conversations were characterized by frustration about the scope of the problems we face; the daunting complexity of the choices, responsibilities, and values available to us; the empowering ideas of writers and thinkers whose ideas we can think with as we wrestle with complex questions; and the existing and emerging local solutions that promote not only more sustainable agriculture and economies but also a more rewarding and meaningful life.

Our panel discussion provided insights of a conservation professional, two working farmers, and an educator: Steve Pytlik, a District Conservationist working for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Walpole, NH; professor Tatiana Schreiber, who has advanced degrees in Rural Sociology and Nutrition, Mass Communications, and Environmental Studies; and Frank Hunter, who majored in Environmental Studies at Prescott College in AZ, and Kim Peavey, who studied literature and theology as a graduate student and has published over thirty articles on sustainable farming, parenting, and spirituality, who have together been raising vegetables with the help of their draft horses for over seventeen years. Following comments about the books, I facilitated a discussion using passages from the books selected by the panelists.

Introducing David Montgomery in Alumni Hall at Keene State College

In early November, following the film screening and the book discussion in October, the author Dr. Montgomery presented to a packed room at the NH Conservation District Annual Meeting. The following day I had the honor of introducing Dr. Montgomery to the students, faculty, and staff of Keene State College for a talk that concluded the series. In my introduction, I shared my thoughts on Dr. Montgomery’s place among scientists who have dedicated themselves to connecting different areas of scientific inquiry, developing a vocabulary to express what science tells us, and telling a story that can help us change the way we see ourselves and our world—including Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, Sandra Steinbgraber, and Mark Bekoff. Each of these writers, I explained, is aware that the real, material ecological crisis we face is also a cultural crisis, a crisis of representation. That is to say, I concluded, the inability of political cultures to address the environmental predicaments of our time is in part a failure of narrative.

The environmental humanities begins in this idea: that we need better stories that connect us to one another and to the more-than-human world we share. Dr. Montgomery’s award-winning popular-science books, offered readers an accessible story about natural and cultural history—a chronicle that invited participants to change how they think about themselves and the world.

The overarching questions we were asking included the following:

  • How do historical examples of specific agricultural practices and their effects on the soil inform our current use and value of the soil?
  • What do our current agricultural practices of agriculture say about us both individually and collectively?
  • How do we think about soil in historical, political, historical, sociological, economic, technological, even moral terms?
  • How do we understand the social needs and demands of our local agricultural economy, the natural constraints of ecology and the political imperatives of democracy?
  • And how do we reconcile agricultural practices, community health and resiliency, food health and security, with our insatiable consumer economy?

It was delightful to have David with us here at Keene State College and to work with Amanda Littleton to share his writing and presence with members of the Monadnock region. The adventure in the public humanities brought together farmers, members of the community, and students to think together about the world in which we live. We also developed a reading list, The Literature of Dirt, that includes other resources for a season of reading and thinking about the source and destination of all.

As a professor who has worked with the New Hampshire Humanities Council since 1998, and who has facilitated dozens of book discussions at libraries around the state, I am grateful for the support of this project. My hope is that the Humanities Council will use this successful dialogue to expand the reach of the humanities through comparable collaborations with other organizations and institutions. These kinds of partnerships begin in questions about how to create dialogues across the communities that define us. We need these questions, as well as the answers they might lead us to consider.

featured image by Gabriel Jimenez

The Literature of Dirt: A Reading List

Franklin Hiram King, Farmers of Forty Centuries; or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan (1911)

In the early 1900s Franklin Hiram King of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shares how farmers in China, Korea, and Japan cultivated land and maintained soil fertility for more than four thousand years

Rachel Carson, “Realms of the Soil,” chapter 5 of Silent Spring (1962)

Carson’s chapter on the ecology of soil documents the environmental effects of broad-spectrum pesticides

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution (1975)

A practical and philosophical manifesto about no-till agriculture, farming, eating, and the limits of human knowledge

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)

Essays on the practices and assumptions of modern agriculture and an extended argument about modern life and its loss of community, devaluation of work, and destruction of nature

William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (1995)

A literary and cultural reflection on dirt—the “ecstatic skin of the earth”—and that inspired the 2009 American documentary film directed by filmmakers Gene Rosow and Bill Benenson

David Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007)

A history of the problems of soil degradation and erosion from the beginnings of human agriculture to the present

Eric C. Brevic and Lynn C. Burgess, eds, Soils and Human Health (2012)

Essays that introduce readers to human health covering the influence of soil conservation and contact with soil on human health

Judith D. Schwartz, Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth (2013)

Environmental journalism that links soil restoration to environmental, economic, and social problems, from climate change, desertification, biodiversity loss to rural poverty, and malnutrition

Courtney White, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country  (2014)

A chronicle of practices that capture carbon in the soil that links our treatment of the soil with the future of the planet

Kristin Ohlson, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet  (2014)

An exploration of soil through stories of scientists and farmers and others of the dynamics of the natural world to adress environmental crisis

Barbara Richardson, editor.  Dirt:  A Love Story (2015)

Thirty-six short nonfiction essays (2015) on the beauty and mystery of dirt

David Montgomery, Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life (2017)

A geomorphologist tells the story of an emerging transformation of agricultural practices that begins with the soil and soil fertility—a revolution in philosophy and practice

Paul Bogard, The Ground Beneath Us: From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are (2017)

An exploration of the ground beneath us—from some of the oldest cities to the undisturbed areas we call wilderness. “We walk on ground that teems with life—an incredible one-third of all living organisms—a trove of biodiversity still only just starting to be explored”

Soil Resources

 Dig It! The Secrets of Soil 

Exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on display at the Museum from July 18, 2008 through Jan 10, 2010. Includes useful links to extension activities, educational materials, and further reading

Global Assessment of Soil Degradation GLASOD

The UNEP-funded GLASOD project has produced a world map of human-induced soil degradation, using a expert-based approach. Includes a global map, at a scale of 1:10 million, and documented in a downloadable database

International Year of Soils Web Site (2015)

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been nominated to implement the IYS 2015, within the framework of the Global Soil Partnership and in collaboration with Governments and the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Includes audio, video, and print resources

Natural Resources Conservation Service 

A collection of soil education resources and links to print and web-based information

The Land Institute

The Land Institute is a science-based research organization based on Salina, Kansas, working to develop an alternative to current destructive agricultural practices

Soil Knowledge Network

The NSW Soil Knowledge Network Inc. is a group of retired and semi-retired soil specialists who are passionate about soil and the land.  They are an independent, not-for-profit group, which captures critical soil knowledge and experience

The Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS)

The Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies (ACSESS) is an association of prominent international scientific societies headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. ACSESS was created by and is composed of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA, founded in 1907), the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA, founded in 1955), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA, founded in 1936). Includes an extensive digital library of books, journals, magazines, and presentations

George Monbiot, Journalist

Essay “Ploughing on Regardless” (published in The Guardian 25 March 2015) centered around a question: Almost all other issues are superficial by comparison to soil loss. So why don’t we talk about it?

The Nature and Properties of Soils (15th Edition) Ray R. Weil; Nyle C. Brady Emeritus Professor

 Developed for Introduction to Soils or Soil Science courses, The Nature and Properties of Soils, Fifteenth Edition, can be used in courses such as Soil Fertility, Land Resources, Earth Science and Soil Geography.

Selected Quotations

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.

Vedas (Hindu scripture, 1500 B.C.)

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” – Leonardo Da Vinci, circa 1500’s

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1850)

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles

-Walt Whitman, section 52, “Song of Myself” (1855)

“The washing of soil from the mountains leaves bare ridges of sterile rock, and the rich organic mould which covered them, now swept down into the dank low grounds, promotes a luxuriance of aquatic vegetation that breeds fever and more insidious forms of mortal disease, by its decay and thus the earth is rendered no longer fit for the habitation of man.”

-George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature (1864)

“The love of dirt is among the earliest of passions, as it is the latest.  Mud-pies gratify one of our first and best instincts.  So long as we are dirty, we are pure.  Fondness for the ground comes back to a man after he has run the round of pleasure and business, eaten dirt, and sown wild oats, drifted about the world, and taken the wind of all its moods.  The love of digging in the ground (or of looking on while he pays another to dig) is as sure to come back to him, as he is sure, at last, to go under the ground, and stay there.”

-Charles Dudley Warner, My Summer in a Garden (1870)

“The United States is a democracy; it does not accomplish its ends by handing down decrees from above, but by the initiative and consent of the citizens, who must first know what they want and how to achieve it.”

Soils and Men, the 1938 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

“Nature has endowed the Earth with glorious wonders and vast resources that man may use for his own ends. Regardless of our tastes or our way of living, there are none that present more variations to tax our imagination than the soil, and certainly none so important to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to our children”

– Charles Kellogg, The Soils That Support Us (1956)

“There are few studies more fascinating, and at the same time more neglected, than those of the teeming populations that exist in the dark realms of the soil. We know too little of the threads that bind the soil organisms to each other and to their world, and to the world above.”

-Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

“Soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it, we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977)

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening

-Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things” Dream Work (1986)

In Medias Res

“Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Montaigne, or the Skeptic,” Representative Men: Seven Lectures (1850)

A couple of years ago my friend Tony, a retired colleague, mentioned a singer and songwriter, Greg Brown, who he thought I would be interested to know. Tony told me that in “Two Little Feet” Brown sings of a writer I began reading in my late teens, John Muir. When I followed up on his suggestion, I heard Brown singing these words:

John Muir walked away into the mountains
In his old overcoat a crust of bread in his pocket
We have no knowledge and so we have stuff and
Stuff with no knowledge is never enough to get you there
It just won’t get you there

Then this fall a student coming to terms with the work of Gary Snyder titled one of her essays, Tumble us Like Scree. Well, I first thought, scree is the name for an unpredictable and shifting surface where I have spent a good deal of time and where I am quite comfortable. Because Anna included in her blog post an embedded link to You Tube I was able to locate the phrase in the lyrics of Greg Brown’s Two Little Feet: 

Tumble us like scree let us holler out our freedom like a wolf across a valley like a kid lost in a game
No time no name gonna miss that plane again

We were reading Gary Snyder’s 1974 book Turtle Island. Anna started by saying that “the distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds is complex.” She then added, “It is often completely accepted that humans exist above the rest of the world. People do not question the hierarchy of being. Gary Snyder’s book, Turtle Island, addresses that distinction as one that is a complete social construct.”

So far so good, I most likely thought to myself. For one of organizing ideas in Turtle Island is that we are a part of the natural world. “We are it— / it sings through us” is Snyder’s way of explanation in lines from the poem “By Frazier Creek Falls.” Nature is not a place we visit. It is home. What Anna noticed was that he exemplifies this message in The Bath, a poem that she describes asa description of an inherent, instinctive act that spans species–bathing.” She adds, “Most animals bathe their young, and that is exactly what this family is doing. He and his wife are cleaning their son, taking care of him in the most primal of ways.”

Already anticipating Snyder’s essays in The Practice of the Wild that we would read together later in the semester, Anna pointed out that “Snyder always comes back to the body.” This is because, she writes, “the body is the best way to see that humans are natural. Our discomfort with sex, nakedness, and our general relationships with our bodies come from this idea that we are somehow removed from the natural world. A body is a constant, physical reminder that we are a part of the rest of the earth.” Even better, I most likely thought as I read these words.

But then the essay gets really interesting. The full post lives on Anna’s blog. But I will quote from it here as I am not sure that her course blog will remain active once she moves on from college:

In the poem “The Bath,” the fifth stanza reads,

Or me within her,
Or him emerging,
this is our body

These lines are so simple, and yet they encompass a human being’s physical relationship with the world and with her own body. These three lines–the act of sex, the birth of a child, the acceptance of a physical place in the universe–are incredibly written. The simplicity of Snyder’s writing is an insightful nod to the obviousness of our relationship with our earth and all the rest who live here. He can make a hugely profound statement just with three lines. It is the circle of life shown through the female body. It is two bodies becoming one and creating another. This is one of the most natural actions that exists–reproduction as a connection between us and the rest of the world.

These are sensitive and insightful comments—the kind of comments that remind us why we read poems. She continues:

Snyder describes bathing his son, “through and around the globes and curves of his body.” I have to admit that when I first read this poem, all the vivid description of the body of the child and his mother definitely took me off guard and left me feeling uncomfortable. However, after talking over the poem in class and thinking a lot more about it, it has come to be one of my favorite poems in the book. I think that moving past that discomfort is the point of this writing. The only reason that this blatant description of naked bodies makes us uncomfortable is because of society’s collective decision that we are not animals. This delusion that we are not only so far removed from, but that we are better than the non-human world does not allow us to see ourselves for what we really are–animals with bodies. We stigmatize anything that connects us to nature, especially our own bodies.

In this series of disclosures is a lesson in self-awareness and recognition that leads to a deeper awareness: that the sexual language of the poem is in no way gratuitous but an essential part of a whole. The commentary continues:

The last stanza in this poem reads,

This is our body. Drawn up crosslegged by the flames
drinking icy water
hugging babies, kissing bellies,

Laughing on the Great Earth

Come out from the bath.

These last few words of Snyder’s writing tie up the poem with a blatant connection to the earth. In the first two lines of this stanza he combines a natural element with a human action. He writes of sitting next to a fire and consuming water. By making these active statements about fire and water, Snyder smoothly connects people with the earth itself. Then he moves on to more active statements, this time about human bodies. This transition makes it clear that there is no existential difference between us and the elements–we all exist in this world. He invites us to ‘come out’ and see what he sees.

The repetition of the question, “is this our body?” and of the answer “this is our body” echo Snyder’s commentary on our connections with our physicality. By repeating these lines throughout the physical description of the naked act of bathing, he addresses the fact that this poem is probably making the reader uncomfortable. He knows that it will, but by asking the question of whether or not this is our body, he draws the reader into the issue. Everyone who will ever read this poem will be able to connect with it on a physical level because we all have bodies. We are all made up of matter and atoms. We all exist in the same world no matter how much we may have convinced ourselves that we do not.

The most rewarding part of this pedagogical story is that the story does not stop here. For in the upper-level class I am teaching this semester I have the privilege to once again be working with Anna. And in a recent essay she returned to that moment when she was coming to terms with the poem “The Bath.”

She is retelling of the story of picking up Turtle Island as she is commenting on Snyder’s presence in The Practice of the Wild:

At first, it confused me. Before reading any of his essays, I delved into the poetry in his book of collected works, Turtle Island. His poem, The Bath, was my introduction to the voice of Gary Snyder.

Honestly, it was a little shocking. Because of how strong and strange of a reaction I had to reading it, I decided to write an essay on that very poem. I was so utterly confused about how I felt about the poem that I remember reading it aloud to one of my friends. She was not a fan. I reached the end of the second stanza, a line which reads, “the space between the thighs I reach through, cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind, soapy tickle,” and she told me to stop. I believe her exact response was something like, “that is some freaky shit.”

Well, it is some “freaky shit.” But the route from confusion and discomfort–from sharing to the description of the lines of the poem as “some freaky shit”–leads to another place:

The more I thought about his words and the distinct choice to include a vivid description of bodies, the more I realized that it was my own, personal bias that was creating this block between me and the poem. As I read it again and again, each time trying to distance myself from my gut reaction, the more I began to like the poem. I could hear Snyder talking and I came closer to understanding what he was saying. The key part of this poem is the line, “this is our body.” Throughout most of his writing, poems or prose, he is concerned with the divide between human beings and ‘nature’–our own nature, the idea of the ‘wild’ that we are so removed from.

The story might have ended here. But last week we discussed this piece of writing in a workshop on the essay in my upper-level seminar this semester. We were talking about writing on the open web, and I said that “open access to your writing can bring to the surface insights we might not otherwise see: for reading a writer thinking with (in this case, a poem) can help us move through the process of learning together.” One example of collaboration, I went on to say, is

Anna’s thinking in her post Connections. What I value are connections she is making, the chronicle of her developing understanding (of the writing of Gary Snyder), and her sharing this story in a draft version of her essay. Her essay makes visible for us dimensions of collaboration. In fact, when I read her piece, I found myself collaborating with her on what turned into the most recent Teacher Talk page post called The Generosity of Art. 

And so here we are, in media res. I am writing about myself writing about a student who is writing about her own writing on the writing of Gary Snyder—and you are reading the words she has written, the words I have written about her words, and the writing about the words about words.

Where do we go from here?

Photo credits: Mark C. Long

Seeing and Being Seen

For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

In part because I am not satisfied with the conclusion of my thinking about social media, and because the conversation about social media platforms has been peaking in the news cycle, I am writing a third post in what is most likely my ill-fated mini-series, Why I don’t use Twitter.

My decision not to use Twitter, as I have explained from the beginning, is that I don’t have the time. I am in love with language, and what language lovers call discourse; and I devote a good deal of time to reading and writing—reviews and commentaries, articles and essays, and books. And, for over ten years, I have been writing on web logs. My practice writing on blogs has modulated between sharing what I have experienced or might know, delivering something to a reader, and seeking or acquiring understanding of one thing or another. Writing helps me figure things out (or not), including what I think, at best on the way to discovering what my thinking might actually mean. The other reason I have chosen not to use Twitter is rooted in a deeper concern about the particular ways the platform shapes forms of expression and social engagement.

Over many years, I have used blogs and wikis, feeds that aggregate content, and social media. Indeed I can say without hesitation that my personal and professional life has become richer as a result of the social and cultural changes digital technologies make possible. It has been breathtaking, to put it another way, to be engaged in literacy and education as digital technologies have proliferated. My doctoral work centered around theories of inquiry, and how the literary activities of reading, thinking, and writing have constituted democratic literacy and culture. And working in a writing center and co-directing a large university writing program put teaching and pedagogy at the center of my intellectual development during graduate school. Sure, my mind was entangled in the beautiful intricacies of intellectual history, theory and criticism, and poetry and poetics; at the same time, I was deeply engaged with teachers and students in heady conversations about teaching and learning–and technology.

The tidal flow of technology felt inevitable: typing up a research project using a word processor for the first time; the first experiences with the graphical user interfaces that began replacing the MS-DOS text commands typed on a keyboard, such as “dir” to list the files in a directory and “del” to delete a file, all taking place with students in the “computer-integrated classroom” in which I volunteered to teach; the department bulletin boards, the local area networks, electronic mail; file transfer protocol, html, web browsers, and the web log; then the proliferation of web 2.0 applications, Friendster and LinkedIn and MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, Google+ and then later applications such as Snapchat and Instagram; video sharing platforms like YouTube and music services such as Spotify; and the integration of live stream technologies in Facebook and Twitter.

When I began working full-time as an assistant professor of English digital technologies had taken shape in teaching and learning management systems. Moodle, Blackboard, and Canvas were presented to educational institutions as products to manage learning through a modern conception of system management. The history of learning management is a history that includes Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Midvale Steel Works in Pennsylvania, specifically his 1911 treatise Principles Of Scientific Management in which the systematic laws, rules, and principles to improve manufacturing processes sound all too familiar in an age of standardized testing and learning assessment regimes designed to manage and improve educational outcomes. “In the past Man has been first, in the future the system must be first,” Taylor asserts in his brief introduction.

The design and uses of digital platforms are haunted by Taylor’s vision. The learning management system, or LMS,  put the system at the center of learning: it encouraged the use of so-called best practices, created efficiencies for teachers, standardized learning, and facilitated pathways for knowledge transfer. These proprietary systems are designed to monitor student learning in and across courses as well, creating increasingly flexible and “responsive” learning environments. Teachers and administrators have readily incorporated the LMS into their classrooms and institutions. And, if you read Taylor, it is not difficult to understand how the LMS has taken hold. But in this acceptance of the system–that is, once the domain of management becomes the conceptual framework for the domain of teaching and learning–then it becomes all the more difficult to work with a different metaphor. The concept becomes inseparable from the technological and administrative routines of the institution. Teaching and learning is management.

My point is that conceptual metaphors determine the way we think–in this case, how we think about and experience the Internet through the various networks of web pages and sites and services we call the web. To describe the Internet in terms of a stream rather than a network, to take another example, normalizes the increasingly sophisticated algorithms that stream information and news, to provide users more of what they like, and that conveniently construct a personalized information stream.

Nicholas Carr offers a parallel commentary on the metaphors we use when we are thinking about data. As he explains, the terms “mining” and “extraction” are indicators of a conceptual metaphor that determines the limits of our thinking. The problem, he explains, is that data “does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted”:

Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. When I drive or walk from one place to another, I produce locational data. When I buy something, I produce purchase data. When I text with someone, I produce affiliation data. When I read or watch something online, I produce preference data. When I upload a photo, I produce not only behavioral data but data that is itself a product. I am, in other words, much more like a data factory than a data mine. I produce data through my labor — the labor of my mind, the labor of my body.

Carr then turns to Taylor, which surprised me at first, for I had made the connection to Taylor in my attempt to make sense of the LMS. But then my surprise turned to a wider recognition:

The platform companies, in turn, act more like factory owners and managers than like the owners of oil wells or copper mines. Beyond control of my data, the companies seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of my factory — i.e., my life — as Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to script and regulate the labor of factory workers at the turn of the last century. The control wielded by these companies, in other words, is not just that of ownership but also that of command. And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.

Once conceptual frameworks become visible we are able to imagine other ways of describing the problem. “The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures,” Carr explains. “We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical.”

Personal. Ethical. Philosophical. . . . On the one hand, the digital tools are useful for building and sustaining a democratic culture–for sharing information, accessing new dimensions of experience, building community, and bringing people together for forms of social engagement and action. At the same time, these platforms require user consent—to the collection, transfer, storage, manipulation, and disclosure of user information. In Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms Chris Gilliard explains how

a web based on surveillance, personalization, and monetization works perfectly well for particular constituencies, but it doesn’t work quite as well for persons of color, lower-income students, and people who have been walled off from information or opportunities because of the ways they are categorized according to opaque algorithms

Questions about how the web works are always already questions about who the web works for. And the implications for educators should be clear. For when “persistent surveillance, data mining, tracking, and browser fingerprinting”  become normative practices we easily overlook the same strategies at work in the learning management systems at work in the digital infrastructures of our colleges and universities.

An article by John Hermann, a technology reporter for the New York Times, offers a useful description of the business model that has determined the design and use of these platforms in the digital ecosystem—that is, the tools we use to express ourselves and to connect with others:

Since 2012, online platforms have moved to the center of hundreds of millions more lives, popularizing their particular brands of social surveillance. Services like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are inextricably tied to the experience of being monitored by others, which, if it doesn’t always produce “prosocial” behavior in the broad psychological sense, seems to have encouraged behaviors useful to the platforms themselves—activity and growth.

The model is successful precisely because it is predicated on expanding, on finding “new ways to monetize the powerful twin sensations of seeing and being seen by others.” These sensations have become a distinct feature of digital experience—so much so, in fact, that they have become ubiquitous beyond social networks as well. If one reads digital editions of New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, for example, retargeted ads appear in margins or the middle of articles. As these modes of surveillance become more visible we might consider that we are being watched and that we have agreed to being watched.

The broader consequences of accepting the terms of this agreement, of seeing and being seen, are, Hermann claims, “a social-media ecosystem that has annexed the news and the public sphere.” Indeed it is unsettling when one becomes aware of the “nascent but increasingly assertive systems of identity and social currency that seek to transcend borders while answering only to investors.” But what really concerns me are the constitutive features of the experiences we identify in terms of identity and social exchange; for as Hermann explains“having constructed entire modes of interaction, consumption and identity verification that are now intimately interwoven with our lives,” these modes become so all-encompassing that they’ve practically become invisible. In fact, to “stop using these products,” Hermann concludes, “is to leave the Internet, and these companies made it their mission to make sure there isn’t anywhere else to go. Of course, this is the deal we have entered into with such services: our data for their products.”

The question social media platforms such as Twitter raise have everything to do with what we mean by community: for social media platforms shape the freedom to define community through surveillance technologies. The invisible but intricate tools for online data collection are monetized for sure. But as April Glaser points out in an article on digital privacy in Slate, “corporate data collection feeds into government surveillance—and it hits people in real ways, too.” And, in a provocative piece that should be required reading for anyone “building communities” online, Carina Chocano’s What Good is ‘Community’ when someone Else Makes all the Rules?

The digital platforms where we fall into all our different groups make us a similar offer, presenting the communities they host as rich, human-built spaces where we can gather, matter, have a voice and feel supported. But their promise of community masks a whole other layer of control — an organizing, siphoning, coercive force with its own private purposes. This is what seems to have been sinking in, for more of us, over the past months, as attention turns toward these platforms and sentiment turns against them.

This is precisely what I have been arguing about the bargain we negotiate when we participate or, through our teaching, invite students to build community online. By framing the use of social media platforms in these terms, especially when using these platforms for teaching and learning, we acknowledge the dilemma.

As anyone who has actually read Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks will tell you, hegemonies exist. More importantly, consent (or resistance) to a coercive cultural regime or institution does not preclude acknowledging that cultural regimes and/or institutions can also do good. More importantly, these structures are by definition fluid, and so can change.

The questions, then, may be more large, terrifying, and unpredictable: is social media good or bad for democracy? This question is posed in a January 2018 commentary posted in the Facebook Newsroom, of all places, by a professor of law, Cass R. Sunstein:

On balance, the question of whether social media platforms are good for democracy is easy. On balance, they are not merely good; they are terrific. For people to govern themselves, they need to have information. They also need to be able to convey it to others. Social media platforms make that tons easier.

There is a subtler point as well. When democracies are functioning properly, people’s sufferings and challenges are not entirely private matters. Social media platforms help us alert one another to a million and one different problems. In the process, the existence of social media can prod citizens to seek solutions.

Sunstein’s commentary Is Social Media Good or Bad for Democracy? is part of a series called Hard Questions: Social Media and Democracy comprised of an introduction by Samidh Chakrabarti of Facebook’s civic-engagement team, Sunstein’s essay, as well as essays by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, and Ariadne Vromen, a professor of political participation at the University of Sydney.

As Sunstein concludes, “Social media platforms are terrific for democracy in many ways, but pretty bad in others. And they remain a work-in-progress, not only because of new entrants, but also because the not-so-new ones (including Facebook) continue to evolve.” As such, may be room for imagining new uses, hacking, or performative interventions: for “they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better,” to borrow apposite terms from Emerson’s commentary on social and political institutions. For the most part I find these kinds of ameliorative outlooks quite congenial.

Though such an outlook in no way resolves the ethical dilemma facing any person who makes use of social media platforms in their current forms. Indeed, to ask a student to create any online presence, or to use any online tool, is a personal, ethical, and philosophical choice: it is a form of consent to both the good and the bad–the ideal and the reality of democratic life.

“What would the web look like if surveillance capitalism, information asymmetry, and digital redlining were not at the root of most of what students do online?” asks Gilliard. In part because we do not really know the answer,  “when we use the web now, when we use it with students, and when we ask students to engage online, we must always ask: What are we signing them up for?”  The asymmetrical relationship each of us has with digital platforms is a consequence of the powerful economic forces that structure the web.

In the end, Gilliard’s ethical questions are the questions I am left asking:

Technology platforms (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and education technologies (e.g., the learning management system) exist to capture and monetize data. Using higher education to “save the web” means leveraging the classroom to make visible the effects of surveillance capitalism. It means more clearly defining and empowering the notion of consent. Most of all, it means envisioning, with students, new ways to exist online.

The use of social media platforms in the classroom, and the use of learning management systems, are choices we make. They are ethical choices. And they are choices that have everything to do with the ways we have chosen to define digital identity, fluency, and citizenship.

~~~~

Further Reading on Social Media, Digital Ethics, Education, and Democracy 

This post is one of three in my mini series that begins with Why I Don’t Use Twitter. The second Post is More on Twitter and the third post is Seeing and Being Seen. Should you be interested in further reading, below is an incomplete and unscholarly reading list—some of the material I was reading as I was writing these posts.

Carina Chocano What Good is ‘Community’ when Someone Else Makes all the Rules?

Carr, Nicholas. I am a data factory (and so are you)

Collier, Amy Digital Sanctuary: Protection and Refuge on the Web?

Cottom, Tressie McMillan Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook

Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Tony Romm Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica

Eubanks, Virginia Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

Glaser, April The Dogs that Didn’t Bite

Hermon, John Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust

Johnson, Jeffrey Alan Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies

Kim, Dorothy The Rules of Twitter

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

Locke, Matt How Like Went Bad

Luckerson, Victor The Rise of the Like Economy

McKenzie, Lindsay The Ethical Social Network

Noble, Safiya Umoja Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts Engine Failure

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education

~~~~

Nota bene: If you have been reading my blog of late you might wonder whether I had just discovered the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson. What is actually the case is that I have spent the past two years with his writing, as well as with the history of commentary on his works, and a good deal of my unscheduled hours in March and April copyediting the proofs—and now compiling the index—for our forthcoming book of essays on teaching Emerson.

More on Twitter

In my previous post about why I don’t use Twitter I found my way to two sentences that have stood out for a couple of my readers and that I think may offer me a provisional answer to the questions I have been asking myself:

The personal learning networks and media platforms on which we are defining our identity at once constitute the promise of democratic citizenship as well as commodify our democratic impulse to participate.

. . . we need to keep in mind Antonio Gramsci’s insight that cultural hegemony works precisely when a social consensus emerges that makes a set of cultural practices appear to be natural, if not essential—to who we are, what we do, and who we might want to become.

Corporate media platforms like Twitter and Facebook promise and deliver. But the delivery comes at a cost. Here I can’t help but think of a beautiful and haunting line of verse by Walt Whitman. “Something startles me where I thought I was safest.”

The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. http://www.whitmanarchive.org

Years ago, on a warm August afternoon of 2010, I read a brief article in the Keene Sentinel that includes a commentary by Mike Caulfield. In Complaints about Facebook are a growing trend, Mike  succinctly describes a problem that is in the news this week: “Facebook has been notoriously tight-lipped about how it shares users’ information with potential advertisers, who want to target people,” Mike observes. “One’s an issue of openness and the other is more of a standard privacy issue: to what extent do you control the rights of the information you produce,” he goes on to say. The article then concludes with Mike’s larger worry. “He’s worried if social networking doesn’t address the bigger concern, the connective nature of the Web could suffer.” As it happened, at the time, I was experiencing connections on the web in surprising and exciting ways. But the connections, and my continuing investments in what I am now able to describe as open pedagogy, have have become inseparable from question I am asking as a college professor engaging on the open web with students in the study of literacy, literature, and culture. And so, for better or for worse, here I am writing on a subject I know little about to help me think through the consequences of the professional work I am doing

The use of Twitter is a fascinating case. Do the advantages outweigh the risks? Well, there has been a lot of discussion. In The Rules of Twitter Dorothy Kim describes the space as a “corporate-owned digital medium that has become a hacked public digital media space.” Her piece appears relatively sanguine about the ways that “the medium has been bent to the purposes of its users.” What is missing from this formulation is what I have already written, that as educators it is “difficult to imagine the kind of agency we value as educators when the for-profit social networking platforms we are using define users not as customers but as products.” Users are more than users and the social and communal purposes of media platforms like Twitter have been deeply compromised by their design as well as the ineluctable complexities of social interaction in the medium

We need to learn more about the convergence of social graphing and news feeds. The first idea, the social graph, is a solution to the problem of mapping connections between groups of people. As Matt Locke explains it, “For these sites, the social graph was implemented mainly for users’ benefit —to help you find a connection with another user or to see what your friends were doing on the site. The second idea, the news feed, “was a fundamental shift in how social media sites were structured. Early social media sites, like Blogger, assumed that its users were creators, and so they focused on making it easy for users to publish their own content. Reading other people’s content meant visiting their individual blogs or using a service like an RSS reader to aggregate posts from the people you wanted to follow.

When Twitter launched in 2006 as a micro-blogging platform it was focused as much on reading your friends’ updates as posting your own. Locke explains, the very first version of the homepage “introduced the timeline — a list of updates sent by people you followed. At that time, posting to Twitter was via SMS, so the website was mainly focused on reading your friends’ updates, rather than posting content. The social graph and the news feed changed everything. The shift positioned the user as a consumer rather than a creator. Control over what you publish, on a site that you control, was replaced by a digital medium aggregates content into a never-ending and personalized stream for the reader, not the creator. Locke explains,

This shift from viewing users as producers to consumers was critical to Facebook and Twitter’s growth. Both sites gradually realized that they could be the hub of a new kind of media service, mixing updates from friends, celebrities, and brands into real-time streams of text, images, and video. Then, in 2007, the launch of the iPhone gave users the perfect tool for browsing those streams.

This is how the democratic promise of social media shifted. The convergence of the social graph and the news feed offered users free social media platforms to connect to one other and at the same time the data users produced was used to frame the way users would see the world.

Pioneers in the use of Twitter for academic purposes have, for many years, understood that the promise comes with a cost. If you are interested the persistent opportunities and risks of using Twitter you may want to set aside forty-five minutes for an episode in the “Closing Pods” Podcast. In Teaching without Social Media, Jeese Stommel and Kris Schaffer describe years of pedagogical work on Twitter, often requiring students to create accounts, tweet about their coursework, even crafting assignments where a single tweet was the assignment. What is interesting is that these heavy users of Twitter have determined that it comes at two high a risk for students. Why have they made this choice? What do they do instead? How do they help our students navigate the world of public, digital scholarship in a world increasingly dominated by harassment, abuse disinformation, and polarization?

You might follow up the podcast with Kris Schaffer’s fascinating collection of posts Propagandalytics and specifically his piece Twitter is Lying to You. Schaffer concludes this blog post with one plan for anyone who is feeling a wee bit uncomfortable or uncertain of the ways that the digital ecosystem in which social-media propaganda thrives. His advice? Learn more. Make an exit plan. Use email newsletters. Write on blogs. Use other tools to create social networks. Use simple bookmarks. He then concludes with the following:

I’m over social media. It’s not that Twitter the company is bad, but Twitter the service is good. I’m over the whole idea. I still value relationships, serendipitous learning, and allowing others a channel to suggest new ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise consider. But the always-on, easily manipulable platform is part of the problem. Even open-source software and non-profit organizations won’t solve that aspect of it.

Perhaps we all need to be working more diligently to think again: to wean ourselves as best we can from the conceptual metaphor of the web as a stream and work to find creative ways to rebuild the web as a network. If the conceptual distinction between the stream and the web is not clear, I elaborated a bit on its constitutive presence in our online activities in a blog post on hyperlinking that I wrote for my class this semester called Houses and Chairs

But there is one more thing. There is no question that the costs or tradeoffs of monetized corporate social-media platforms are inextricable from the pleasure-seeking system in our heads we call our brains. Years ago, as I watched with mild discomfort as my kids became digital omnivores, I read an interesting piece on dopamine research. The research was a marvelous way to pursue one of my favorite pursuits, confirmation bias, for it suggested another reason why social media has become so ubiquitous—and more importantly, why we are so adept at accepting the risks. (Remembering I was reading in this research may be one of the answers to my question why I chose not to use Twitter.) The short review article Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google offers a useful take from the intersection of research on the brain and behavioral psychology:

With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google. Want to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to Linked In. It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more.

In fact the author, Susan Weinschenk, I just discovered, wrote a follow up last month The Dopamine Seeking-Reward LoopIt is, to say the least, a fascinating time to be alive in the sea of information.

If these kinds of questions are of interest to you there are places to go. Have a look at the series of articles on Twitter in the online journal Digital Pedagogy. In particular, Liela Walker’s 2016 piece Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication has a nice way to reframe the conversation. “Ten years after Twitter’s launch, we need to stop asking what academics should do on Twitter and start asking what Twitter has done to academics.” Her broad argument is that digital platforms, “from Twitter and personal blogs to e-journals and iterative monographs, are creating new ways to publish and new publishing opportunities.” As she concludes, “In this new model of academic publishing, Twitter interactions exist on the same spectrum of activity as peer-review and scholarly editing. But more importantly, new models for scholarly publication are creating new ways to engage in public scholarship beyond traditional publication, fundamentally blurring the boundaries between publication, conversation, and community.” This statement is good as far as it goes. But I am not confident it goes far enough.

Further Reading on Social Media, Digital Ethics, Education, and Democracy 

This post is one of three in my mini series that begins with Why I Don’t Use Twitter. The second Post is More on Twitter and the third post is Seeing and Being Seen. Should you be interested in further reading, below is an incomplete and unscholarly reading list—some of the material I was reading as I was writing these posts.

Carina Chocano What Good is ‘Community’ when Someone Else Makes all the Rules?

Carr, Nicholas. I am a data factory (and so are you)

Collier, Amy Digital Sanctuary: Protection and Refuge on the Web?

Cottom, Tressie McMillan Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook

Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Tony Romm Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica

Eubanks, Virginia Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

Glaser, April The Dogs that Didn’t Bite

Hermon, John Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust

Johnson, Jeffrey Alan Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies

Kim, Dorothy The Rules of Twitter

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

Locke, Matt How Like Went Bad

Luckerson, Victor The Rise of the Like Economy

McKenzie, Lindsay The Ethical Social Network

Noble, Safiya Umoja Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts Engine Failure

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education

Why I Don’t Use Twitter

Questioning digital technologies is a core value of the KSC Open project. And we have much to learn.

For many years I have been asking myself—and people keep asking me—why don’t I use Twitter? Sure, like a lot of people, years ago, I signed up for Twitter (and Facebook), mostly out of curiosity about what are now ubiquitous social media platforms. I have never really used my accounts, though. One reason these digital tools have proven less enticing is that technology is now woven into my day-to-day life as a college professor. E-mail and other open-source web applications now keep me peering into the pixels of a screen for a good part of my days—reading, thinking, writing, and collaborating, with students and colleagues, near and far. This is my ready-made answer to this persistent question. The last thing I need in my life, to be honest, is more time in front of a screen.

But working on the open web puts in play more fundamental questions. How do we question digital technologies? How do I hold in mind both the promise of teaching and learning mediated by digital technologies and the critical questions we should always be asking about our digital lives?

Screen Shot 2018-04-06 at 1.25.38 PM

In our Domain of Ones Own project we value digital identity, fluency, and citizenship. Each of these areas is deeply and inextricably woven into the values of public higher education as well as the ideals of democratic culture. We talk about digital identity in terms of agency—of making deliberate decisions about presence, expression, and integrating personal learning and interests. We value fluency as essentially knowing what you are doing, and then doing it well, using platforms and tools that are poetic—for they allows us to build, to make, and to construct sustainable spaces for participation in the public domain. And we imagine citizenship as participatory, whether we are engaging with others or shaping communities. Working on the open web is ethical work because questions of identity and citizenship are by definition ethical domains. There is an etiquette to freedom.

One critical approach to digital culture, then, would be to pose ethical questions. For example we might think more about the relationship between public culture and consumer culture. This close and complex relationship is difficult to think about because the putative open, public space of the internet is now largely constituted as commercial space. In fact the for-profit social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are case studies in what the twentieth-century critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer pointed out decades before we had computers networks: that public culture has become essentially consumer culture. And today the culture industry replicates itself using what tech people habitually call the “affordances” of digital technologies.

The personal learning networks and media platforms on which we are defining our identity at once constitute the promise of democratic citizenship as well as commodify our democratic impulse to participate. One question, then, might be whether there can be an ethical social network. For it is quite difficult to imagine the kind of agency we value as educators when the for-profit social networking platforms we are using define users not as customers but as products. I take this formulation from David Garcia, a computational social scientist at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, who studies privacy issues in social networks. As he explains, “the customers are advertisers that place targeted ads or third parties that buy user data.” The design and the purpose of these digital platforms define the horizon of agency and citizenship. “My empirical research suggests that the problems we have been observing with Facebook are not a bug, they are a feature.” His elaboration of this problem in an article by Lindsay McKenzie, pulls a number of ethical questions back into view:

Problems at sites like Facebook don’t stem from bad algorithms, said Garcia, as has been recently suggested in the media. “The real problem comes from the design and purpose of these sites, not the technicalities of how they process the data,” he said.

Recently Garcia has been considering how much control individuals have over their private information at sites like Facebook. His early research suggests that sharing private data “is a collective decision and not an individual one.” Even if you don’t give permission to a company to collect information about you, information about you can still be collected through your friends on social media.

There are a number of compelling reasons to use social media platforms. At least I find them compelling. These reasons include sharing experiences, sustaining relationships with friends and loved ones, building connections with other people, even shaping the contours of public life through self-expression and sharing information, or engaging others in common cause. My academic colleagues, moreover, are using these platforms in creative and interesting ways that engage students and that I admire for this reason alone.

The personal learning networks and media platforms on which we are defining our identity at once constitute the promise of democratic citizenship as well as commodify our democratic impulse to participate.

But to build your own presence on the web using digital technologies and tools that are designed to define you as a product in the marketplace, again, raises difficult ethical questions. Using these tools in the ethical spaces of teaching and learning has consequences, too, as we are shaping the habits and behaviors of what we so charmingly call lifelong learners.” In our now daily routines of posting and sharing untold amounts of information on these platforms–whether in our roles as teachers or learners–we have at the very least made consequential ethical choices.

I’m not sure we need to trundle out Marx’s concept of the means of production, or fork in the discourse about the commodification of culture from the Frankfurt School, to make visible the cultural dynamics in play when we create and post a photograph or video to Facebook, type out or follow a hashtag on Twitter, or require a group of students to log in to a Learning Management System (LMS). However, I do believe that we need to keep in mind Antonio Gramsci’s insight that cultural hegemony works precisely when a social consensus emerges that makes a set of cultural practices appear to be natural, if not essential—to who we are, what we do, and who we might want to become.

For these reasons we need to question the digital platforms we use. We need to wrestle with the complexity and irreducible ethical questions that arise when we make personal and collective decisions about our digital lives. And we need to think as we act, whether we are signing up for a new platform, deleting an account, or considering the always already ethical choices in shaping a digital identity and practicing the delicate arts of citizenship

Further Reading on Social Media, Digital Ethics, Education, and Democracy 

This post is one of three in my mini series that begins with Why I Don’t Use Twitter. The second Post is More on Twitter and the third post is Seeing and Being Seen. Should you be interested in further reading, below is an incomplete and unscholarly reading list—some of the material I was reading as I was writing these posts.

Carina Chocano What Good is ‘Community’ when Someone Else Makes all the Rules?

Carr, Nicholas. I am a data factory (and so are you)

Collier, Amy Digital Sanctuary: Protection and Refuge on the Web?

Cottom, Tressie McMillan Digital Redlining After Trump: Real Names + Fake News on Facebook

Dwoskin, Elizabeth and Tony Romm Facebook’s rules for accessing user data lured more than just Cambridge Analytica

Eubanks, Virginia Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities

Gilliard, Chris Pedagogy and the Logic of Platforms and Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy

Glaser, April The Dogs that Didn’t Bite

Hermon, John Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust

Johnson, Jeffrey Alan Structural Justice in Student Analytics, or, the Silence of the Bunnies

Kim, Dorothy The Rules of Twitter

Leetalu, Kalev Geofeedia Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg: The Era Of Social Surveillence

Locke, Matt How Like Went Bad

Luckerson, Victor The Rise of the Like Economy

McKenzie, Lindsay The Ethical Social Network

Noble, Safiya Umoja Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism

Noble, Safiya Umoja and Sarah T. Roberts Engine Failure

Shaffer, Kris Closing Tabs, Episode 3: Teaching With(out) Social Media and Twitter is Lying to You

Stoller, Matt Facebook, Google, and Amazon Aren’t Consumer Choices. They are Monopolies That Endanger American Democracy

Stommel, Jesse The Twitter Essay

Walker, Leila Beyond Academic Twitter: Social Media and the Evolution of Scholarly Publication

Watters, Audrey Selections from Hackeducation

Zeide, Elana The Structural Consequences of Big Data-Driven Education

Adventures in the Environmental Humanities

In June we gathered for the Second Annual Environmental Literature Institute (ELI) at Phillips Exeter Academy. In the fall one of my collaborators, Stephen Siperstein, Choate Rosemary Hall Academy, summarized the week in a piece for ASLE News.

ELI 2.0 brought together secondary school teachers from around the country to Exeter Academy, New Hampshire for a week of professional development in the Environmental Humanities. Continuing to build on the goal of the 2014 ASLE strategic plan to improve public discourse about the environment through community-based, K-12, and undergraduate programs, provided a space for educators of all experience levels to develop courses and curricula for a variety of secondary school settings, to explore how environmental approaches could inform and enliven their teaching, and to build community in the Environmental Humanities.

Our days were filled with discussion, small group work, and time for individual reflection. We read and analyzed works of environmental literature, such as passages from Thoreau’s journal and Mary Oliver’s poetry. We shared resources and helped each other imagine and design ways to incorporate field-based learning and community projects into our environmental humanities classrooms, all while contextualizing such work within wider currents in the field and our own institutions. Among other topics, we also discussed teaching climate change, addressing questions of racial justice in the environmental literature classroom, and learning how to build environmentally-focused communities in our classrooms and institutions. In the words of one participant: “As we explored how to create a classroom of kids with compassion for each other and compassion for the environment, we were sitting around campfires together, we were swimming in a creek, we were taking walks in the woods, we were swinging from ropes in trees. We were becoming the kind of community we talked about.”

Renowned author and plant biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer joined us for a keynote address on the grammar of animacy and the honorable harvest, and led an exuberant field session that highlighted how to put her ideas into practice in the classroom (and how the forest is itself a vibrant environmental humanities classroom). With both her words and her presence, Kimmerer helped us envision the entire enterprise of environmental humanities education as one of reciprocity—between teachers and students, between institutions and communities, and perhaps most importantly between the human and the nonhuman (all of us being, according to Kimmerer, kin). It is gratitude, Kimmerer emphasized in her talk, that pulls us into relations, and it was gratitude that defined the week.

Later in the week we were joined by master teachers Rochelle Johnson and Clare Walker Leslie. Rochelle led sessions on place-based pedagogy and teaching Thoreau in our current political and social moment, while Clare guided a field session in the art of seeing through drawing. Education journalist Michael Brosnan, UNH Professor Diane Freedman, and prominent climate activist and storyteller Devi Lockwood also contributed to the community, adding their perspectives and expertise.

The week concluded with a forward-looking session and time for synthesis: How will we build on the ideas, connection, and energy of this emerging community? How can ASLE welcome even more secondary school educators into its fold? What kinds of Environmental Humanities communities can exist in our classrooms, and beyond them? Between the known and the unknown, the participants at ELI staked out common ground together, and left energized and grateful, ready to return to their own classrooms and institutions this fall and do the difficult (and rewarding) work of building this field from the ground up, student by student.

Teaching + Living + Learning

As one of the leaders of a new project KSC Open, I have been sorting through a decade of intellectual work in digital environments.

This work began with my thinking about technology in the writing classroom during graduate school. It gathered momentum in the late 1990s when, as a new assistant professor of English and American Studies at Keene State College, I set up a web site to make public my intellectual work.

Српски (ћирилица)‎: Portolano Jandranskog mora, škola Dieppe, c. 1538

During a sabbatical in 2008-09, I set up a blog From the Far Field to share with our families and friends our experiences living, working, and traveling in India–sixty or so posts and images in all. The following year this work led in a number of directions:

The Far Field  A chronicle of teaching and learning in English, American, and environmental studies at New Hampshire’s public liberal arts institution of higher learning, Keene State College

Far Field Family A blog for family and friends that keeps tabs on our lives on a New England farm

On Staying Alive A professional mentoring project that offers reflections on the difficult work of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia—no matter what happens.

Course Sites The use of the open-source platform Word Press to move all of my teaching, and my student’s thinking and writing, into the public domain

The course sites were set up on wordpress.com. This summer I moved all these site to ksc.open and created a teaching and learning hub that includes course sites and student project sites: Teaching and Learning at the Far Field.

What I come to realize is that I have found a medium to bring into alignment parts of my life and to integrate those parts: teaching, living and learning. And I am practicing what I am coming to see is an opportunity for students in a Domain of One’s Own project like KSC Open:

Digital Identity (Taking ownership of your presence on the web. Expressing your ideas. Integrating your learning and interests)

Digital Fluency (Using open-source platforms. Building projects using digital tools. Creating portfolios, exhibits, galleries, blogs, or wikis)

Digital Citizenship (Engaging with the community. Constructing the web. Navigating, and critically questioning digital technologies.)

Grazioso Benincasa (1473) from the British Library Pelagios Project: Portolano. Egerton MS 2855

 

Here is a working map, a portolano of sorts, of what Teaching, Living and Learning at the Far Field looks like from a guy who surely needs to learn a thing or two about design, mapping, and visual displays of information.

Extravagance and Possibility

Mark C. Long. Upstream: Selected Essays. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. Cloth. $26.00 and Felicity. By Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016. 81 pp. Cloth. $24.95. Published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017)

A child went forth in Mary Oliver’s new book of essays, Upstream. The child was alone in the woods. She was wandering upstream, away from difficulties, the “sorrow and mischance and rage” (14) around her that she felt deeply but was powerless to change. One day the little girl walked the wrong way, and was lost, but was “slopping along happily in the stream’s coolness. So maybe it was the right way after all,” Oliver surmises. “If this was lost, let us all be lost always. The beech leaves were just slipping their copper coats; pale green and quivering they arrived into the year. My heart opened, and opened again” (5). And, as this child went forth, her heart opened, and opened again, in the world of books. She read by day and into the night. She built bookshelves. She thought “about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes” (15). And she took solace in friendship among writers. “I never met any of my friends, of course, in a usual way—they were strangers, and lived only in their writings,” she admits. “But if they were only shadow-companions, still they were constant, and powerful, and amazing” (9), Oliver writes, in the essay, “My Friend Walt Whitman.” These writers, she admits, “changed the world” (9).

From these childhood experiences is fashioned a lesson to share, “that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart” (14-15). Drawing on the earlier collections Blue Pastures, Winter Hours, and Long Life, Oliver gathers essays on some of the writers who made a difference. She recalls the moral purpose of Emerson, who refused to turn away from the world; Wordsworth’s praise of both the beauty and the strangeness of the world; Poe’s rushing forward with the “wild courage of despair”; and Whitman’s unshakeable, egalitarian belief in an “existence in which man’s inner light is neither rare nor elite, but godly and common, and acknowledged” (100). For Oliver, the books of these authors are alive with extravagance and possibility, “the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self–quarrels, his own predicament” (68-69).

The poems collected in Felicity are songs of extravagance and possibility— and their opinions and persuasions have designs on the reader. The title of the first section, “The Journey,” and the epigraph from Rumi, “You broke the cage and flew,” suggest what will follow. In “The World I Live In,” Oliver writes, “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs. / The world I live in and believe in / is wider than that” (11). In “Leaves and Blossoms along the Way,” Oliver challenges her readers to live and believe in this wider world. “To understand many things you must reach out / of your own condition,” she insists (18). And in the final line of “Whistling Swans” Oliver explains to her readers her hope that in reaching out a person can become open to a world of possibilities beyond the self: “So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly. / Take from it what you can” (29). These poems, like so many Oliver has shared with her readers over the years, offer invitations, or opportunities, to reach beyond the self, wherever one might happen to be.

The sequence of lyric poems in the second section of Felicity traces the “invisible / and powerful and uncontrollable /and beautiful and possibly even /unsuitable” experiences we call love. This section, entitled “Love,” opens with an epigraph from Rumi. “Someone who does not run / toward the allure of love / walks a road where nothing lives” (41). In the poem “The First Day,” Oliver recalls the “warm sting of possibility,” the opening of the heart, “the spreading warmth of joy” (45). In “No, I’d Never Been to This Country,” she acknowledges the risk and embraces the commitment we undertake in loving another person: “I didn’t know where the roads / would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to turn back” (49). A group of short poems celebrates a life moving along its journey and the discovery, in its unfolding, of abiding happiness. “Everything that was broken has / forgotten its brokenness,” she explains (61). And “Pond,” a sunny-summer-August-day poem, concludes with the lines, “All my life I have been able to feel this happiness, / except whatever was not happiness, / which I also remember. / Each of us wears a shadow” (67). The poems at once acknowledge the weight of our inescapable shadows, our “self-quarrels and predicaments,” and the beautiful and mysterious ways love enters into, and shapes, our lives.

Like much of Oliver’s work, Upstream and Felicity explore the challenges and opportunities we face amidst transformation and change. In the essay of gratitude that concludes Upstream, “Provincetown,” Oliver celebrates the “perfect sufficiency,” the sweetness and simplicity of the place she would call home for fifty years. At the same time, she describes “the terrible change,” the “slow but harsh” transformation of her beloved home. “The tourist business was in,” she adds, and the town “became a place to live for a while, and to spend money. Not so much in which to live a life” (174). What Oliver makes of these changes is neither bitter nor sentimental. “This town had to find another way to live,” she decides. “It was just, well, different” (175).

And so it goes—I guess. The world changes. You change. You make your way the best you can. You use the resources you have. What I can say, with more confidence, is that one of those resources, as these books once again remind us, is the writing of Mary Oliver.

Advance Access publication March 31, 2017doi:10.1093/isle/isx017
VC The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. All rights reserved.
For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com.

“Now comes good sailing”

Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. It is good to see Thoreau celebrations and stories of Thoreau in the news, including an exhibit at the Morgan This Ever New Self: Thoreau and his Journals. Happy birthday Henry!

Last week I picked up a copy of Laura Dassow Walls’ just released biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life. I am now reading the chapter “Transcendental Apprentice,” that covers the years 1937-1841. Working for the past two years on a Emerson project has prepared me well for this delicious summer reading.

As it happens, about two weeks ago, I spent some time with Laura and friends in Detroit at the twenty-fifth anniversary conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. One evening we dropped in on the storefront of Shinola, where Laura and I shared a moment of pleasure when we ferreted out from an employee the origins of the phrase “shit from Shinola.” We then enjoyed pizza and beer on a deck at the Motor City Brewery, and took in music by the Mongrel Dogs, before huddling under two small bumbershoots with Jim and Julianne as we were thoroughly soaked on the way back to our hotels by a heaving Michigan downpour.

In the “Preface” to her biography, Laura writes that “Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention.” She then points to the strange but explainable story of Thoreau’s life that has set up shop in our cultural imaginary:

That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who fill the room, laughed and danced, sand and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated a hermit and a nag.

Reading Laura’s story about Thoreau’s life I am recognizing the Thoreau I have come to know as a devoted reader of his work–whether in reading and teaching the more widely circulated publications, or in my own saunters through the journals and manuscripts over the years. “Today, two hundred years after his birth,” Laura writes,

we have invented two Thoreau’s, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other; one speaks for nature; the other for social justice. Yet the historical Thoreau was no hermit, and as Thoreau’s own record shows, his social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots: he found society in nature, and nature he found everywhere, including the town center and the human heart.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Thoreau,” “The country knows not yet, or at least in part, how great a son it has lost.”

“All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most. Thus each wind is self registering.” Henry D. Thoreau’s final journal entry, dated November 3, 1861. The Morgan Library & Museum; purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

What is remarkable, to me at least, is how the in inventions of Thoreau persist, both in the scholarly and the cultural spaces in which these versions of Thoreau appear. Perhaps Laura’s story–sharply detailed, sensitive, alive–will do its little part in reanimating a more holistic vision of our place in the world. Thoreau saw, Laura notes,

the end of one geological epoch and the beginning of the next, and the unease he felt is rampant today, infecting the headlines and blocking our own imagination of the future he believed he was helping to realize. Thoreau could see the ground was shifting, and, in the sheer audacity of his genius, he decided it was up to him to witness the change and alert the world.

As Thoreau is reported by his sister Sophia to have said on his deathbed, at forty-four years of age, “Now comes good sailing.”

Knowing and Doing

Among the enduring privileges of professing college English is designing opportunities for students to discover through their studies possibilities in their lives that might not otherwise have presented themselves were they not in school.

Recently three of my former students, and a KSC graduate and collaborator, have been appeared in College publications. While I am not able to to credit for the trajectories of these amazing people it feels good to know where they are, what they are doing, and knowing that what they are doing they are doing well.

Lilly Goldberg is Gala and Membership Associate, at the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. An alumni note Following the Path with Passion appeared on the Keene State College Academics web page.

Clai Lasher Sommers is the owner of New Dawn Farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. The story Poetry and Farming appeared this past spring.

Peter Beauchamp is featured in a special issue of Keene State Today focused on Justice, The Promise of the Constitution (page 12) with a photograph of Peter at a Law Day celebration in Manhattan with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Laird Christensen, friend, collaborator, and Keene State College graduate, is featured in Going to College, Coming Home to Himself.

The Fruit of Education

One of my current preoccupations as the Director of the Integrative Studies program is thinking about the common elements of a baccalaureate degree. And it is a good thing, too, for when I began my three-year term as Director this past fall my charge included overseeing the largest academic program at the College, working with colleagues to improve the Program, and envisioning what the Program might be.

Many institutions of higher education, including Keene State, require students to take courses that are, by design, not a part of their professional aspirations or vocational goals. The idea behind these course general requirements goes back to the historical Socrates in Athens, as well as Seneca and the Stoics in ancient Rome. In the words of Martha Nussbaum, the idea of a liberal education involves literacy, including cultural literacy, to “make the mind more subtle, more rigorous, more active,” and the idea of access, so that “in this messy, puzzling, and complicated world,” all citizens are empowered “to question everyone, recognizing everyone’s humanity.”

The classical ideas that underpin a liberal education in the United States include access. For in a modern democracy, a college education, in principle, should be available to all and not limited to instrumental goals: a college education, in the words of Nussbaum, should offer students “something that can impart meaning and discipline to their intellectual lives in a general way, making them both richer as individuals and better informed as citizens” (43). This is the idea behind general education.

Of course general education as we know it today is a twentieth century phenomenon. It is in part a response to the rise of the research university between 1820 and 1920 and the focus of specialized research. As Louis Menand explains in his reliable little history, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the America University (2010), one notable agent of change was Charles William Eliot who proposed that the bachelor’s degree be a prerequisite for admission to professional school. In an 1869 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Eliot write that the ideal collegiate experience would be “the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects.”

In the twentieth century, critics responded to what they considered pre-professional training and overspecialization, on the one hand, and the neglect of the socializing function of higher education, on the other. One response, at Columbia University, as well as at Dartmouth, Stanford, Williams, and other elite colleges, was to design courses on citizenship, a development that arose out of anxiety about the larger number of immigrants, or the children of immigrants, seeking the opportunity promised by higher education. The focus of the general education curriculum would be some version of what professors considered a common culture, again a response to the declining moral authority of traditional institutions, in the post-war period.

What has become clearer over the years is that the problem of general education is that a college’s general education curriculum, in the words of Menand, “what the faculty chooses to require of everyone, is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy.” The other part of the problem is that the curriculum is always changing in response to changes in the culture and to values that a faculty determine constitute a liberally educated person. It is no wonder that revising a general education program–as I learned as a member of the committee that designed the Integrative Studies Program in 2006–“is a labor-intensive enterprise, because general education goes to the heart of what a faculty thinks college is all about.”

It follows that the conversations I am having as Director of Integrative Studies are about education–what faculty and staff and students believe education should be. What knowledge and skills are relevant to students? What ways of thinking and knowing matter, and will matter, in the lives of our students beyond school? Many of the arguments are surprisingly simple, breaking along the lines of liberalism and professionalism, of cultivating our humanity or acquiring so-called practical professional skills.

A sensible path to thinking about general education is reading about the history of this idea about what education is–and what it ought to be. For me this reading has included Nussbaum’s 1997 classical defense of reform in liberal education, Cultivating Humanity, as well as Menand. This thinking has guided me to a number of interesting documents, including the 1945 Harvard Report on General EducationThe Report describes the general abilities a student will cultivate in college–“effective thinking, communication, the making of relevant judgments, and the discrimination of values.” The committee that drafted the report then adds that these abilities will be of little use unless the student can relate this learning “to the realities of experience and practice.” This holistic view (in a charmingly antiquated title for the section) is elaborated in “The Good Man and the Citizen.”

What is remarkable is the full description of what is called in the Report “Personal Integration,” or what is called the “proper fruition” of a liberal education. Education should focus on more than “bookishness and skill in the manipulation of concepts,” the goal of what is called in the Report “specialism.” It should focus, rather, on the whole person and the cultivation of reason through what the Report calls integration. The authors note that reason is “not an activity apart, but rational guidance of all human activity. Thus the fruit of education is intelligence in action. The aim is mastery of life; since living is an art, wisdom is the indispensable means to this end.”

This is remarkable to me because about ten years ago the faculty at Keene State College voted to approve a general education curriculum that we called “Integrative Studies.” Just what we meant by integration was not especially clear–or, more precisely, it was clear but clarity was in the eye of the beholder. I recall objecting to the term at the time, in fact, arguing that the term was too abstract.

Over the past decade teaching in the Program, and helping to administer the first-year writing course that is one of the foundational courses, I have come to think that the term integration may be worth keeping around. In the revision of the ISP learning outcomes last year, we define the term as “the capacity to integrate learning within the curriculum, between the curriculum and the co-curriculum, and with communities beyond the classroom.” We go on to say that “integrative learning is both a framework for teaching and learning in all ISP courses and also a summative learning outcome for the program.”

Representation of the ISP Program, Randall Hoyt, fall of the 2016-17 academic year

Others clearly agree. As a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Report by the Board on Higher Education and Workforce suggests, it is integrating higher education in the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, and medicine that “will enable all citizens to have enriching and meaningful life. As such, we believe that more effective integration of educational experiences in all disciplines—particularly in the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering, and medicine—will benefit all of our nation’s citizens.”

No doubt integration of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields of study is something faculty and program administrators can promote. But integration, in the end, is something our students do. Students should be able to experience the ways one course informs and deepens their learning in one or more other courses, and the ways that their learning in one or more courses is connected to their out-of-class experiences. But how exactly do we help them integrate what they are learning?

One strategy we pursued this past year was to have the students tell us. During the semester I joined with my friend and colleague Randall Hoyt, professor of Graphic Design, and his student Dylan, to interview four students about their experiences in the ISP. Our goal is to better explain the program—to faculty and staff, prospective students and families, and current students—and to empower students to make thoughtful decisions about their ISP course selections.

I had the good fortune to have a committee of faculty from across the College who are committed to the Program. The Members of the Integrative Studies Program Committee (ISPC) this past year were Mike Cullinane, QL Coordinator; Katherine Tirabassi, ITW Coordinator; Steven Harfenist, II Coordinator; Carol Leger (fall) and Bob Schauman (spring), KSCAA; Kathleen Forrister, Professional and Graduate Studies; William McCulloch, Sciences and Social Sciences; Randall Hoyt, Arts and Humanities; Elizabeth Dolinger, Library; George Smeaton, Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.

If one is interested, I include a summary that I included in my year-end report on the Integrative Studies Program. This is the work we will build on next year as we begin an institutional reorganization. One part of this reorganization is a Center for Integrative Learning in which the ISP will be housed. I am cautiously optimistic that this change will result in more faculty engagement in the ISP and more understanding among our students of the value of the ISP in their experiences as students at Keene State College.

  1. Summary of Work

The ISPC enjoyed a productive year. Our work focused on 1) curriculum and program development; 2) aligning policies and practices; 3) communication, outreach, and promotion; 4) visibility and representation of the ISP, 5) enrollment and staffing; 6) faculty development; and 7) program assessment. The fall 2016 ISP curriculum proposal included a simplified list of ISP learning outcomes approved last year and revised (and simplified) description of the purpose and philosophy of the Program. The ISPC completed a review of ISP policies and the ISPC and the KSC Senate Executive Committee unanimously approved a revised policy document. And, in collaboration with the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, we designed a cycle for ISP assessment that offers faculty time and space to consider what we discover in our assessments, and to consider possible changes to the ISP based on our findings. As we look ahead to 2017-18, we are hopeful that the proposed two-school administrative structure for the College will strengthen the Integrative Studies Program, and the place of integrative learning, in the undergraduate curriculum at Keene State College.

  1. Work Accomplished
  • ISPC Charge Approved by the College Senate Developed in consultation with the Office of the Provost and in conversation with members of the College community. The ISPC presented the agenda items to the SEC so that the working agenda would be shared with the campus via the Senate
  • Submitted Program Redesign Proposal to curriculum committees and Senate Executive Committee/Academic Standards. Unanimously passed by Senate. Policy changes approved as retroactive to earlier catalog years
  • Drafted Statements of Roles and Responsibilities for ISP Coordinators We outline the QL, ITW and II coordinator responsibilities, subcommittee charge and responsibilities, as well as course review policies/processes. These reports will be useful for the coordinators, the associate provost and provost, as well as faculty considering serving in these roles. The reports will be reviewed and, when necessary, updated, annually. (See documents in Appendices to this Report)
  • Completed Comprehensive Policy Review and Update that was approved by the College Senate and made available on the Senate ISP and the ISP web sites
  • Revised ISP Amendment Policy The Integrative Studies Program Committee (ISPC), any faculty member(s), or academic department(s) may propose a change to the structure, principles, or policies of the Integrative Studies Program by submitting the proposed change in writing to the ISPC. The ISPC will consult with the proposal originator(s) and with the chairs of the Senate Curriculum Committee (SCC), the Standards Committee (ASC), and the Academic Policy Committee (APC) to determine an appropriate timeline for considering the proposal. The ISPC will then send the proposal to all Department Chairs for advisory opinions. After the time for departmental advisory opinions has past, the ISPC will submit the proposal with their vote and advisory opinion plus any departmental advisory opinions to the School Curriculum Committees. The School Curriculum Committees will review the proposal and forward their votes to the SCC, the ASC, the APC, and the Senate, as appropriate, for a vote
  • Articulated and Clarified Transfer Credits Policy The Keene State College Credit Transfer Policy allows credits to be allocated to Integrative Studies Program requirements or electives. Advanced Placement (AP) and College-Level Examination Policy (CLEP) equivalencies are available at Academic and Career Advising (ACA) web site on the “Credit by Examination” page. Other transfer credits for ISP courses are listed on the “Articulation Agreements” page. Transfer credits from institutions in the United States and at international institutions are listed on the “Transfer Credits” page. Study-Away credits may be used to fulfill one upper-level ISP course with the approval of the Director or Associate Director of the Global Education Office (GEO)
  • Completed a Successful Search for a Coordinator of Integrated Thinking and Writing The committee (Mark C. Long, English (chair), Michael Cullinane, Mathematics, and Susan Whittemore, Biology, read the application materials, interviewed, and recommended hiring Irene McGarrity for a three-year term as Coordinator of ITW
  • Updated and Revised the ISP Document Archive on the Senate Web Site (See Appendices to this Report)
  • Hosted Team from Castleton University to discuss AACU Foundations, Connections, and Directions Grant with Ingrid Johnston-Robedlo, Dean of Special Academic Programs; Chris Boettcher, Associate Professor of English; Sue Generazzo, Associate Professor and chair of Math Department; Dennis Proulx, Dean of Students
  • Developed an ISP Advising Guide and distributed to faculty and staff. Will be distributed in subsequent semesters prior to registration period in the fall and the spring
  • Published Course Profiles in the Academic Affairs Newsletter: Steve Harfenist’s Physics and Music and Marcia Murdock’s Dance as a Way of Knowing
  • Convened Monthly Meetings with the Chair of the Senate and Attended Senate Meetings (when necessary) to clarify and strengthen alignment of ISP with existing curriculum process at the College
  • Conducted Video Interviews with Students and produced an ISP Promotional Video Featuring Student Sarah Dugas. During the semester Randall Hoyt, his student Dylan, and Mark Long interviewed four students about their experiences in the ISP to better explain the program—to faculty and staff, prospective students and families, and current students—and to empower students to make thoughtful decisions about their ISP course selections.
  • Meetings with Working Groups on Campus to develop collaborative models with academic and co-curricular groups, college-wide learning outcomes, the Center for Creative Inquiry (CCI), Living Learning Communities (LLCs), Open Pedagogy Learning Community
  • Engaged in an Open and Integrative Project to explore ISP involvement in Open Educational Resources, Open Pedagogy, and Technology Fellow Program. Mark met monthly with Jenny Darrow, Director of Academic Technology, and the Academic Technology Steering Committee (ATSC) chair Karen Cangliosi to design a Domain of One’s Own pilot project for 2017-18. In June Mark attended the Domains 2017 Conference with Jenny and Karen in Oklahoma City.
  • Collaborated with Student Affairs on a Title III Grant Project that, if successful, will expand the College’s capacity to serve first-year, low-income, Pell recipients and transform the campus’s engagement with first-year students. The structured First Year Experience for entering students is designed 1) to improve academic success, 2) increase retention & graduation, and 3) enhance campus-wide community and culture
  • Developed a staffing plan for ITW and worked with the Director of the Honors Program, and the Academic Affairs Council to discuss feasibility and implementation in a more deliberate and effective staffing model for academic year 2017-18
  • Promoted Writing in the ISP and Across the Curriculum through a learning community using John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning. Kate Tirabassi and Mark Long facilitated two meetings each semester
  • Conducted two Workshops on Supporting Student Writers at KSC as part of the May Faculty Enrichment Day to share the work of teaching writing across the four year and sustain a collective of faculty teaching writing across the disciplines and in the disciplines. At these workshops, Kate Tirabassi and Mark Long distributed copies of Engaging Ideas, now in its second edition, a book that was developed for faculty teaching in a new core curriculum at Seattle University. We have distributed a copy of Engaging Ideas to all who attended ISP-sponsored workshops in the spring of 2016, fall of 2016, and spring of 2017
  • Conducted an ISP Workshop on Tuesday May 16 to review changes to the ISP and to offer faculty and staff a forum for sharing ideas about how to strengthen the Program. Part I, “Make it New: ISP Outcomes, Curriculum, Policies, Advising,” reviewed changes to the ISP in 2016-17 and offered an opportunity for faculty and staff to ask questions about the Program and to share thoughts with the ISPC as we look ahead to the 2017-18 academic year. Part II, “Looking for the ‘We’ in the ISP,” an integrative learning collaboratory, invited the fifteen faculty and staff who attended to share ideas about integrating lower- and upper-level courses, building parallel courses or course sequences that bring faculty and students together, or addressing ISP and/or college-wide learning outcomes through concurrent or sequenced courses, academic and co-curricular collaboration, team-teaching
  • College-Wide Learning Outcomes and the ISP Mark met monthly with Patrick Dolenc and Kim Schmidl-Gagne, and at the end of the semester with the CWLO steering committee. Mark worked with Pat and Kim to plan and present an ISP/CWLO presentation as part of the end-of-the-year Academic Affairs meeting
  • Developed a Three-Year Assessment Cycle for ISP Program Outcomes (See Appendices to this Report.)
  • Worked with George Smeaton on an Assessment of Writing Kate Tirabassi and Elizabeth Dolinger who developed a new rubric for assessing writing. Elizabeth Dolinger, Mark Long, Kate Tirabassi, and Michael Wakefield conducted a direct assessment of writing using essays from Thinking and writing.
  • Met with Paul Baures, Chemistry, and Renate Gebauer, Environmental Studies, and George Smeaton to discuss the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report “Integrating Higher Education in the Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine”
  • Developed an ISP Question for the Alumni Survey for the Keene State College class of 2015 that asks: “What experience did you have at KSC—inside or outside the classroom—that has proved most valuable for whatever you are doing now in your life?” One respondent wrote the following: “My integrated studies courses proved helpful as they gave me the generalist educational background that I need out here to teach every class”
  • Meeting with Faculty Participants in the Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors (URCE) Mark met with faculty in the summer 2017 Institute to explore possible connections between URCE and the ISP
  1. What challenges had an impact on your work this year?

The Integrative Studies Program has become central to our identity at Keene State. And yet there remains considerable concern that it isn’t “integrative” in any meaningful sense. Integrative learning is a framework for teaching and learning in all ISP courses and a summative learning outcome for the Program. The challenge for us can be stated in the form of a question: how do we create opportunities for our students to integrate learning—within the curriculum, between the curriculum and the co-curriculum, and with communities beyond the classroom?

  1. What goals would you suggest for the next year of work in this area?
  • Continue ISP Visibility Project to more clearly articulate the ISP in the academic profile of the College and in the experience of our students. Continue revising and updating the ISP web pages to more directly and simply communicate values of the ISP and goals of a liberal integrative education. And develop additional short video features to capture and document how our students make the most of their ISP
  • Work with Dean of the Mason Library to develop a transitional plan for the ISP in the new College structure in general and the Center for Integrative Learning in particular Discussions may include writing across the ISP, the relationship between ITW and 200-, 300-, and 400-level courses, upper-level ISP courses, and “pathways minors” in the ISP
  • Complete a Foundational Requirements Review to address curricular and program structure of ITW and QL by engaging the ISPC in a deliberate review of the two foundational courses; write a report for the associate provost; meet with associate provost to discuss findings and possible recommendations for campus discussion, if necessary
  • Meet with Faculty and Staff, Program Chairs and Coordinators to gather information and perspectives on the ISP and to cultivate relationships for program-related initiatives as we transition to the new College structure
  • Meet with Registrar and Staff to clarify program requirements (most notably the NEASC requirement for a 40-credit program minimum) and to discuss consistency and fairness in waivers/exceptions/substitutions we approve
  • Meet with the Deans and the Academic Affairs Council to discuss ISP-related issues and invite deans to an ISPC meeting to discuss the program as we transition to the new College structure
  • Provide Guidance for Faculty in Revising Course Outcomes and facilitate the process in which each course will include the integrative learning outcome, the academic perspectives outcome, and two of the five skills outcomes
  • Plan Faculty Development Initiatives and set goals related to ISP faculty development across the next three years. Collaborate with Faculty Enrichment, Center for Writing, and other relevant offices/programs/groups, as needed
  1. What challenges do you anticipate in your efforts next year?

We anticipate challenges in moving ahead with strengthening the ISP when the focus of departments and academic programs will be articulating their work within the new administrative structure. However, we remain hopeful that the proposed two-school administrative structure will strengthen the place of the Integrative Studies Program in the Center for Integrative Learning.

  1. Do you have any other comments that might be relevant here?

We appreciate the support we have received from the Office of the Provost and the deans this year. In addition, Mark would like to express his gratitude to the members of the ISPC. Each member of the committee provided valuable input and participated in various projects and initiatives.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark

Mark C. Long
Professor of English
Director, Integrative Studies Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Democratic Spaces

From the excitement of the NAPLA project in the fall of 2016 to the challenges of the Open Space of Democracy in the spring of 2017—a year of teaching and learning on which to continue building.

In the spring of 2017 my classroom work centered on a new course for American Studies students, The Open Space of Democracy. The idea for the course emerged from a line in the amazing prose essay by the nineteenth-century writer Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas,” in which he writes, “democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.”

Everything unfolded from there—and it was a good thing, too, as the very idea of democracy was once again (and remains) at stake. So my students and I got to work in January tracing Whitman’s supposition from the formative ideas about democratic culture that emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century to the debates in the twentieth century about art and public engagement that arose in response to John Dewey’s ideas about what he called “creative democracy,” in writing by Horace Kallen, Muriel Rukeyser, James Baldwin, Adrienne Rich, Terry Tempest Williams, and in recent theories and practices of socially engaged art.

The reading, class activities, and writing were guided by Terry Tempest Williams, who makes a case in The Open Space of Democracy that democracy “depends on engagement, a firsthand accounting of what one sees, what one feels, and what one thinks, followed by the artful practice of expressing the truth of our times through our own talents, gifts and vocations.” Practicing the scholarly methods humanists use to work with cultural materials, students contributed to the Aspect Magazine Project in the Keene State College archives. The students designed an individual research project using primary materials, and library-based and digital archives. This process is documented on the course site, particularly in a post from the course site, Roads to Take.

Students further developed their research experience and methods by defining, organizing, and elaborating the significance of their literary and cultural materials in the public domain by contributing to the project site Democracy + Culture.

We designed this project to make visible students thinking through the problem of defining, building, and sustaining a democratic culture, and one of the students produced a video trailer” for the course that will offer one point of inquiry into the intellectual work that I believe should be central to the public liberal arts.

Caution: students at work in the Mason Library archive at Keene State College

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every detachment prepares a new detachment. Of course, prophecy becomes habitual and reaches all things. Having seen one thing that was firmament enter into the kingdom of growth, the conclusion is irresistible, there is no fixture in the Universe. Everything was moved, did spin, and will spin again. This changes once and for all his view of things. Hint of dialectic: Things appears as seeds of an immense future. Whilst the dull man seems to himself always to live in a finished world, the thinker always finds himself in the early stages; the world lies up to him in heaps and gathered materials;—materials of a structure that is yet to be built.

from “The Relation of Intellect to Natural Science” (1848)

Few men know how to take a walk. The qualifications of a professor are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence, and nothing too much. If a man tells me he has an intense love of nature, I know, of course, that he has none. Good observers have the manner of trees and animals, their patient good sense, and if they add words, ‘tis only when words are better than silence. But a loud singer, or story teller, or vain talker profanes the river and the forest, and is nothing like so good company as a dog.

from “Country Life” (1858)

Last week I received in the mail  “The Best Read Naturalist”: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Michael Branch and Clinton Mohs. When I was asked to review the manuscript of this book for the University of Virginia Press, I was teaching the biologist E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence (2014). Reading Emerson and Wilson I was intrigued by the congruence between the questions both authors are asking. “Does humanity have a special place in the Universe? What is the meaning of our personal lives? Where are we going? Why?” These are Wilson’s questions, presented in the spirit of reasoning about what he calls “the relation between science and humanities.”

It strikes me that this is precisely the line of reasoning that Emerson enacted with his audiences in the lyceum. Branch and Mohs build on this connection between Emerson’s fascination with natural science and his humanistic exploration of our place in the world, arguing that Emerson “illuminates the importance of nineteenth-century natural science to the evolution of American ideas about the environment” (ix). For example, in one of the talks included in this anthology, “Humanity of Science” (1836), Emerson writes, “In a just history, what is the face of science? What lesson does it teach? What wisdom will a philosopher draw from its recent progress?” (140). This series of questions offers teachers and students access to Emerson’s engagement with the social and cultural history of natural science.

As it happens, about the same time I read the manuscript of “The Best Read Naturalist” a student showed up in one of my classes prepared to talk about an essay by Emerson. The student raised his hand. He then asked a question. “How do I begin to talk about the essay when I have highlighted every word in the opening paragraph?”

This is the same student who, in an essay I had asked him to write on his experiences with reading and writing in school, described his belief that the purpose of the academic essay “is to break the illusion of false knowledge.” He then pointed out, “of course essays are assigned so teachers can assess a student’s understanding, but they also allow students to assess their own understanding. For me,” he concluded, “the written word has become a way to audit my thoughts from a neutral point of view so that I may realize the flaws of my thought process.”

Then, a few weeks later, we read Emerson’s essay “Illusions” from The conduct of Life:

There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.

In the introduction to the book I recently co-edited with a colleague who teaches at Maryland’s Washington College, Sean Meehan, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we remind our readers that ever since F. O. Matthiessen made him a founding figure of the “American Renaissance,” Emerson has remained a staple of undergraduate surveys in American literature and seminars on the “Age of Emerson.” We go on to describe the wide-ranging global, not just national, presence of Emerson’s writing, across the Atlantic and around the world. Our collection of essays demonstrate the multiple ways contemporary students encounter Emerson’s works—in courses on Transcendentalism, Romanticism, environmental literature, literary theory and philosophy, rhetoric and composition, media studies, and genre courses in poetry and the essay, and in upper-level seminars.

Not only was Emerson a leading figure of American Transcendentalism and transatlantic Romanticism, prominent nineteenth-century poet and literary mentor. For he is one of America’s greatest essayist, and students frequently encounter his writing alongside Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, James Baldwin, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Ralph Ellison, Mary Oliver, and Annie Dillard, to name a few. Emerson was also America’s first public intellectual. His addresses, essays, and poems were deeply engaged with the social and political issues of nineteenth-century America.

Teaching a seminar on Emerson, and working on our forthcoming book, I found myself spending more time with Emerson’s writing. Work had just been completed on the ten-volume scholarly edition of all of Emerson’s works published in his lifetime and under his supervision, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The culmination of a half-century of vigorous textual editing, I now had access to the full range of Emerson’s writing and thinking. The publication of this textual scholarship—beginning with The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sixteen volumes of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, extending to The Complete Sermons, The Poetry Notebooks, The Topical Notebooks, the four-volume supplement to The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Selected Letters, Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, The Later Lectures and Selected Lectures—reintroduced me to Emerson and to the ways that Emerson worked and thought through his ideas in the medium of writing.

Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson recognizes Emerson’s continuing presence in the curriculum and offers instructors a pedagogical resource to guide and inspire the teaching of Emerson. The Table of Contents for the book that will be published later this year offers a preview of the contexts and the range of scholars engaged with Emerson’s work.


PART 1: MATERIALS

Editions and Texts
General Reference
Biographical Resources
Critical Reception
Critical Studies
Intellectual and Critical Contexts
Digital Resources

PART 2: APPROACHES

Introduction: Learning from Emerson
 Mark C. Long and Sean Ross Meehan


Approaching Emerson as a Public Intellectual


Emerson the Orator: Teaching the Narratives of “The Divinity School Address” David M. Robinson


Emerson the Essayist in the American Essay Canon 
Ned Stuckey-French


Politically Ethical Aesthetics: Teaching Emerson’s Poetry in the Context of U.S. Diversity
 Saundra Morris


Teaching Emerson’s Philosophical Inheritance Susan L. Dunston

Emerson and the Reform Culture of the Second Great Awakening Todd H. Richardson

The Turbulent Embrace of Thinking: Teaching Emerson the Educator Martin Bickman


Emerson the Author: Introducing the Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson into the Classroom
 Ronald A. Bosco


Teaching Emerson’s Essays


Once More into the Breach: Teaching Emerson’s Nature
 Michael P. Branch


“The American Scholar” as Commencement Address
 Andrew Kopec


The Divine Sublime: Educating Spiritual Teachers in “The Divinity School Address” Corinne E. Blackmer


Experimenting with “Circles”
 Nels Anchor Christensen


Beyond “mendicant and sycophantic” Reading: Teaching the Seminar “Studies in American Self-Reliance”
 Wesley T. Mott


The Ideals of “Friendship”
 Jennifer Gurley


In Praise of Affirmation: On Emerson’s “Experience” Branka Arsić

Teaching Emerson’s Other Works


Emerson in the Nineteenth-Century Poetry Course
 Christoph Irmscher


Teaching Emerson’s Antislavery Writings 
Len Gougeon


Approaching the Practical Emerson through the Sermons and the Early Lectures Carolyn Maibor


Emerson, Gender, and the Journals 
Jean Ferguson Carr


A Natural History of Intellect? Emerson’s Scientific Methods in the Later Lectures Meredith Farmer


Emerson Across the Curriculum


“These Flames and Generosities of the Heart”: Emerson in the Poetry Workshop Dan Beachy-Quick


Between the Disciplines and Beyond the Institution: Emerson’s Environmental Relevance
 T.S. McMillin


Emerson in Media Studies and Journalism
 David O. Dowling

Emerson and the Digital Humanities
 Amy Earhart


Emerson Around the World

Emerson’s Transatlantic Networks Leslie Elizabeth Eckel

Translating the Latin American Emerson Anne Fountain

Emerson and Nietzsche Herwig Friedl

Emerson in the East: Perennial Philosophy as Humanistic Inquiry John Michael Corrigan

Days in the Open

I am becoming increasingly aware of a conversation that I did not know I was a part of. Or perhaps it is that I am finding my way through what I am doing to a conversation. And I am thinking of the “unending conversation” Kenneth Burke describes in his 1941 book The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

The conversation is about teaching and learning. Although the quaint parlor I am asked to imagine is now a stream of thought made possible by digital networks.

51fpky2zjsl-_sx336_bo1204203200_After a conversation about openness and education the other day with my friends and colleagues Jenny and Karen, for some reason a book on my shelf caught my eye—a collection of essays by Doug Robinson, A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open. As it happens, Doug’s writings from the 1970s include “Running the Talus,” an essay that was profoundly inspiring for a young man exploring the valleys and high peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada.

(Cover art: Lake Basin the High Sierra, Color Woodblock Print, Chiura Obata, 1930)

 

But Doug’s words bring back more than just adrenaline-fueled days in the mountains before this twenty-something mountaineer headed off to try school—those hundreds of peaks climbed, twenty-pitch days on a granite wall, day-long trans-Sierra runs, high mountain traverses, deep powder days, and backcountry ski descents.

2

In the mid 1990s I became interested in more visible (open?) teaching and learning. Reading a Report published by the Modern Language Association published the year I completed graduate school, making-faculty-work-visible , led to a series of attempts to come to terms with the surprising ways that academic disciplines diminish the value of teaching and pedagogy. I presented three talks on making teaching and learning more visible: in 2001 in New Orleans, “Pedagogy in the Public Domain,” in Chicago, “Open Pedagogy and the Public,” and in New York, “Narratives from the First Year: a Plea for Visibility.”

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Looking back, I see myself groping toward an understanding of (and a mild impatience with) teaching as a mostly privatized practice. When I returned from a sabbatical in India, these interests emerged in my scholarship, specifically in an essay I wrote as a guest editor to a special issue of the  journal PedagogyCenters and Peripheries, and in my teaching, as I began experimenting with opening up my classroom. Inspired by my friend and collaborator Sean Meehan, notably his dynamic teaching blog Comp|Post, I put my course syllabi and materials on the open-source platform Word Press.

As a result, all of the writing in my courses was visible. Everyone—the writer, the teacher, the classmates, and anyone else who might be interested—had access to the intellectual work of a college professor and students in the classroom. Sean also helped me to see a course not only as open, but also as an ongoing project. Each course would frame the core questions and problems that arise in the study of what I was teaching. The course process—the materials, my teaching, student learning, and the writing they produce—would be visible for anyone who might be interested. Students could see what their peers were doing. And the materials the students were producing would persist.

I began teaching differently in the open as well. I found myself writing on the course blog before class sessions, preparing myself for my time with students, thinking aloud and modeling for students forms of thinking and writing I want them to do. Following class sessions, I was writing as well—reflecting on the intellectual work of the students, making new connections, and openly processing my way to the next class session.

This pedagogical emphasis on process—and on sustaining thought so that students have the time to struggle through the process of formulating and developing their thinking—led me to us more sustained intellectual projects that allow students to experiment with writing conventions while developing (and claiming) their emerging voice. Students were reading books in my classes, as always—the real books that need to be read and that I was trained to teach. But students were also reading on web-based portals, repositories, and archives. My students were making use of web-based resources, from writing guides and handbooks to digital archives, such as Calisphere, the Walt Whitman Archive, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)NICHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment / Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement.

 

3

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

—Gary Snyder, from Left Out in the Rain

In 2010 I wrote Professors, Students, Blogs that described my use of blogs for teaching. In addition to Sean, I was inspired by a former colleague who keeps one of the most consistently interesting blogs on planet earth, Hoarded Ordinaries. Lorianne inspired me to use a blog in the way I am right now: making visible my intellectual work professing at a public liberal arts college.

img_1007And I was learning from my students. One day a graduate student stopped by my office to ask whether she might not write an essay in my American poetry class. She wanted to create a hypertext reading of a poem called “Piute Creek.” This was fifteen years ago and I did not really know what she was proposing. But without hesitation I said yes. What she made was powerful. Her work has stayed with me, though the site was built on a server that is no longer there. Another of my students, working on an individualized major in Writing in Biology, made a blog called Creative Biology. And a student doing an independent study called “The Ecology of the New England Garden” captured some of what she was doing on the blog Regional Roots.

In the spring of 2013 I wrote a blog post called Digital Compost to make visible some of the emergent technologies and their uses in literary and cultural studies. More and more, I was directing students to digital archives and repositories to access primary documents. I was sharing what was rapidly becoming available with my students who are studying at a public college that had not been able to provide access to these kinds of materials.

img_0834More and more I am spending my days in the open. My writing course Searching for Wildness was the first course that I designed to persist as an ongoing intellectual project. The course is organized around texts, questions, ideas, and histories, as all good humanities courses are. But the course is open and active. Each group of students who signs up for the class is contributing to an ongoing cultural project of understanding and making meaning.

Out in the open. Everywhere to go.

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This past spring I designed and taught an interdisciplinary American Studies course on the natural and cultural history of California. California Dreaming focused on the natural and cultural history of California. I asked students to explore a simple question that becomes more and more interesting as you think with it: What explains California?

I borrowed the question from the journalist Phillip L. Fradkin’s book The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History. Each student was asked to design and implement a project on the natural and cultural history of California. They were asked, first, to connect their own interests to materials in archives and on the web. Second, they organized their primary materials into that would help to explain California. They wrote essays, created Word Press, Tumblr, Wix, or other web-based sites to describe the primary materials they had gathered as a body of work–describing the objects and artifacts, making connections, and telling a story that expands and deepens our understanding of the natural and /or cultural history of California.

mcl-mammothThe students explored California through places and bioregions, individual histories and collective narratives of identity and culture, ideals, and representations. Students explored the historical myth and material reality of the Golden State through indigenous cultures and narratives of exploration; waves of immigration and demographic change; the presence of racism and multicultural history and identity; water, orange groves, and agribusiness; cities and suburbia; political corruption and capital crimes; money and Hollywood moguls; technological booms and busts; film, fiction, and fashion; popular music and poetry; sex, drugs, rock and roll; narratives of self-actualization and alienation; the emergence of surfing and skateboarding; skiing, mountaineering, and rock climbing; television, sports, and celebrity culture.

Their research projects—their answers to the question, “What is California?”—offers evidence of the generative intellectual work that is possible in the open, even in a first-year college course.

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This summer I spent a week in Asheville, North Carolina at a course development workshop in preparation for co-teaching a multi-campus, team-taught, distance seminar in digital scholarship with professor of English Cole Woodcox from Truman State University.

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Public Access and the Liberal Arts: A Narrative History, or NAPLA, is funded by the Council of Public Liberal Arts (COPLAC), with support from the Executive Director of COPLAC, William Spellman. The course idea emerged a year earlier in a COPLAC Digital Humanities Workshop at the University of Mary Washington that brought together faculty from Keene State College, Sonoma State, University of Montevallo, USC Aiken, Midwestern State, and Truman State to design distance-learning, digital humanities courses.

img_0836Our digital humanities project is documenting the emergence of the public liberal arts. Similar to the Story Corps project started in 2003, the course is about digital storytelling and the narratives of selected COPLAC institutions. Students are capturing the stories and life experiences of students, alumni, staff and faculty, and constructing a digital resource that captures the history and the prospects of the public liberal arts. As designers and editors of the digital archives, students are deepening their own sense of place in higher education and making visible the history of the liberal arts at the institution in which they are studying.

img_0837Our primary course objective is for teams enrolled at COPLAC campuses to research and represent the histories of their local campus. The context for this research will be the 1944 G.I. Bill and public access to higher education and, later, increased public access to liberal arts education. The objectives of the course are to 1) build an online archive of oral histories by alumni, faculty, staff and current students; 2) use digital tools to produce a layered, web-based narrative that includes audio and video stories, images, maps and documentary evidence of their home campus and 3) collaborate with faculty mentors to integrate their web site projects with a main COPLAC site to make visible the story of the public liberal arts. Our vision for this public storytelling project is to offer a digital resource for current students, alumni, educators, administrators, development and admission offices, historians, archivists, and the public in general.

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Interested in knowing more? Visit the NAPLA Course Site to check in on the action. I’ll also be sharing more here as we get further along in the course. 

Environmental Humanities at Exeter

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A primary need of students and teachers alike

It began with a conversation. Jason wanted to talk over a new environmental literature course at Phillips Exeter Academy, and Mark, at the time the president of ASLE, was hoping to create new opportunities for secondary educators in our association. Two years later, twenty-five elementary and secondary school faculty gathered for the inaugural Environmental Literature Institute (ELI) at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Participants from Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Georgia, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Toronto, Canada, spent a week in New Hampshire developing new courses and revising curriculum for a range of secondary school settings.

We welcomed as keynote speaker and workshop leader Scott Russell Sanders, who spent a year at Phillips Exeter in 1974-75 as a Bennett Fellow. And throughout the week we were guided by the generous spirit of the late Exeter Instructor Peter Greer—whose course Literature and the Land was among the earliest environmental literature courses to be taught at the secondary school level.

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Scott Russell Sanders meets with ELI participants

Each day began with morning physical and reflective activities, including walking and running, yoga, and mountain biking. Participants then circled at the Harkness table to discuss writing by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gary Paul Nabhan, Richard Wright, Robert Frost, and Marc Bekoff; participated in daily field sessions with the workshop leaders; and took advantage of time set aside for course and curriculum building.

The week included a series of special events as well. Scott Russell Sanders’ presented “Taking Care of Home: Sustainability on a Small Planet.” We discussed Climate change pedagogy via Skype with Stephen Siperstein, who will be joining the faculty of Choate Rosemary Hall next year. We enjoyed an evening with John Elder reading, playing music, and discussing his newest book, Picking up the Flute, at the Water Street Bookstore. And Jennifer Pharr Davis, author and 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, shared some of her experiences walking over 12,000 miles on six different continents.

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ELI gathered at the big Harkness table on the top floor of Phillips Hall

Participants considered a range of interdisciplinary and field-based pedagogies. Master teachers Scott and John shared their experiences and provided mentoring—both in the classroom and in a writing and poetry discussion at a local biodynamic farm. Clare Walker Leslie guided participants in the art of seeing nature through drawing—in the classroom, out of doors on the campus, and in the open fields of the Colby Farm. And Patrick Thomas from Milkweed Editions offered an insider’s view of the interplay between writing and publishing. ELI concluded with the participants sharing their work in progress: revised units for existing courses, new course ideas, and aspirations for interdisciplinary collaborations.

Sketching in the field at Colby Farm with the inimitable Claire Walker Leslie
Sketching in the field at Colby Farm with the inimitable Claire Walker Leslie

ELI is committed to developing a teacher collaborative committed to developing environmental humanities at the secondary level. Our vision is to share the resources of ASLE with secondary school colleagues as well as to share the wisdom, resources, and pedagogical methods of our secondary school teachers with the members of ASLE who teach in post-secondary schools.

Jason Bremiller (Phillips Exeter), John Elder (Middlebury College), and Soctt Russell Sanders (Indiana University)
Jason Bremiller (Phillips Exeter), John Elder (Middlebury College), and Soctt Russell Sanders (Indiana University)

Among the goals of the 2014 ASLE strategic plan is to improve public discourse about the environment through community-based, K-12, and undergraduate programs. To this end, members of ELI received two-year memberships to ASLE, a collection of resources from Milkweed Editions, and a subscription to Orion magazine. We have also set up in the ASLE Member Community a Chatter forum designed to share resources and materials among secondary educators working in the environmental humanities. We are considering a workshop at ASLE 2017 featuring ELI alumni. And we are talking about a mentoring network for secondary school teachers as we plan for ELI 2017.

NAPLA Project

The year I began graduate school at the University of Washington the department of English began the Computer-Integrated Courses (CIC) Program. The idea was that students in 100-level writing courses would benefit from new learning technologies. From the inception of the Computer-Integrated Courses (CIC) program in 1990, the program’s philosophy was built around “the idea that the computer has become a ‘natural’ part of the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking processes.”

Meeting with co-faculty member Cole Wilcox and Project directors Jeff McClurken and Ellen Homes Pearson at a summer 2016 COPLAC Digital Research Faculty Development Seminar at the University North Carolina Asheville, North Carolina

Sixteen years later this idea continues to shape my teaching and pedagogy. In the fall of 2016 I offered a digital humanities course called “Public Access and the Liberal Arts A Narrative History.” Designed and co-taught with Dr. Cole Wilcox, professor of English at Truman State University, the course enrolled students from the University of North Carolina Asheville, The State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, and Keene State College.

The idea for this course was born in a COPLAC Digital Humanities Workshop at the University of Mary Washington that included faculty from Sonoma State, University of Montevallo, USC Aiken, Midwestern State, and Truman State. Our course documented the 1944 G.I. Bill and public access to higher education and, later, increasing public access to the liberal arts. The students documented the experiences of students, alumni, staff and faculty at the campuses at which they were studying and used digital technologies to capture the history and the prospects of the public liberal arts.

Keene State College story of Abby Shepherd’s project on the Women of Keene State

Our class met synchronously on Tuesday and Thursday (EST) from 2-3:20. The students worked in teams to build an online archive of oral histories by alumni, faculty, staff, and current students— layered, web-based narratives that include audio and video stories, images, maps and timelines, and documentary evidence of their home campus.

If you are interested in one version of the idea that digital technologies have become part of the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking processes, have a look at our course site, Public Access and the Liberal Arts: A Narrative History, and the Student Sites:

Foundations of Knowledge at SUNY Geneseo
UNC Asheville: An Educational Narrative
The Women of Keene State

You might also have a look at the full College Profile of Abby Shepherd.

 

 

How Not to Say Interdisciplinary

Because the literary fiction and nonfiction that I study and teach is concerned with environmental systems, the primary questions about literary production and reception that have kept professors of English busy for nearly one hundred years have become, for me at least, inextricable from complicated economic, social, and cultural activities. Though as Gregory Bateson once pointed out, our failure to relate to natural systems and processes is a product of the way we think and talk. We need alternative patterns of thinking and talking about natural and human systems, and we need new ways to teach these alternative patterns.

At the recent conference on ecocultural ethics in Goa, India, I found myself on a featured panel dedicated to the question of ecological learning. One way to define ecological learning would be to draw on Timothy Morton’s elaboration of what he calls the “ecological thought”: “The ecological crisis we face is so obvious that it become easy. . .to join the dots and see that everything is interconnected. This is the ecological thought. And the more we consider it, the more the world opens up.” As he goes on to argue, though, the ecological thought

  • “brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them”
  • “is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being”
  • “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest”

This language reminds me of John Muir, in 1911, saying in My First Summer in the Sierra, that“when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Ecological learning, then, to stumble toward a more abstract formulation, is learning about what Muir call “things” and then finding that things are only really things when connected to other things.

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Fisheries biologist Aaron Salvio Lobo speaking at the session on “Ecological Learning” at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Goa, India

It is difficult to study and teach Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, for instance, without addressing basic science as well as questions about science and society; there is little doubt that reading in the literature of food or animal studies without addressing the application of rapidly evolving technology would be next to impossible; and there is no question that narratives of environmental justice raise pressing moral and ethical questions by tracing the life-world consequences of rapid developments in science and technology.

These were some of the thoughts I was having as I prepared for the panel discussion in Goa. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Samhida Shikha, from Dronacharya Government College Gurgaon, and included a fisheries biologist, Aaron Salvio Lobo, an expert on waste management, Dr. Srikanth Mutnuri, a professor of ethics who teaches at a school of mining, Dr. Ajit K. Behura and an architect, environmental educator, activist, and blogger from the capital city of Panjim, Tallulah D’Silva, whose work has been recognized in the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community. The audience for our session on ecological learning included members of the humanities and social sciences, from literary and cultural studies, anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, linguistics and political science.

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Another lovely cove and stretch of sand on the Arabian Sea

My contribution to the panel began with an anecdote about arriving in Mumbai at the beginning of this month to meet Rebecca, who had been teaching law in Pune. Gandhi Jayanti, the national holiday, was in full swing, and Prime Minister Modi happened to be using the occasion to kick off his Swachh Bharat Campaign. What followed were days of editorial and public commentary in the Times and in Goa periodicals and online about the clean India campaign. In Goa, one headline read “Desi tourists leave behind uncivil footprints,” and the it-is-the-other-guy’s-problem excuse was once again registered. “Calangute and Baga beaches witness trail of broken bottles and garbage: visibility upset, Calangute MLA Michael Lobo has accused the tourism department of not being serious enough to tackle the problem.” Remarkably, I noted, one person from out of state when interviewed complained of the lack of warning or display boards regarding the disposal of trash and bottles on the beach. “I don’t see a single warning signboard so it is no use blaming us tourists.” Enough said.

I then offered a case study of Keep America Beautiful (founded 1953), the largest community improvement organization in the United States, that was formed in response to the problem of highway litter that followed the construction of the Interstate Highway System and an increasingly mobile and convenience-oriented American consumer in the middle decades of the twentieth century. I traced the Keep America Beautiful organization joining with the Ad Council in 1961; the subsequent 1971Earth Day theme, “People Start Pollution. People can stop it,” featuring the well-known (and problematic) “Crying Indian” campaign launched on Earth Day, narrated by actor William Conrad, and featuring “Iron Eyes Cody,” the Native American man (who was actually an Italian) devastated to see the destruction of the earth’s natural beauty caused by the thoughtless pollution and litter of a modern society). In 1975 the “Clean Community System”  led to the “Keep My Town Beautiful” organization and the more recent “Great American Cleanup” campaigns that have organized 3.9 million volunteers who have removed seventy-six million pounds of litter and recycled hundreds of millions of pounds of metals, newsprint, tires and electronics.

While noting the fundamental historical and cultural differences with the Modi campaign, I admitted that the anecdote offered some hope for those who are rightly cynical of centralized campaigns for “cleanliness” linked to patriotism and political parties. Still, the narrative from the 1950s to the present in the US offers a complex of motivations and investments that contributed to changing the behavior of people as part of a social movement. The question I posed is how academic disciplines and institutions of higher education prepare students to participate throughout their lives in the practice of what the panel was calling ecological learning.

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Our lovely friends, thoughtful colleagues and generous hosts in Goa, Rayson Alex and Susan Deborah

Listening to my colleagues, and participating in the lively audience give and take that followed in the hour we had reserved for discussion, I realized how challenging it is to free ourselves from the terminological moraines. These jumbled piles of words and phrases make it difficult to enact the necessary changes in teaching and learning that would be commensurate with the environmental predicament. What was refreshing for me was that the discussion with my Indian colleagues unfolded without the use of any of the terms so common in the discourse of American academics, terms such as “interdisciplinary,” “multidisciplinary,” “transdisciplinary.” Rather, my Indian friends and colleagues were focused on practice. They were talking about thereal work.

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Rhetorical and social engineering in the park, Panjim, Goa

Since arriving back in the United States this panel discussion has stayed with me. And I have been thinking more about the terms we use to define what we do and that we deploy to stake out our place in the enterprise of higher education. It is my good fortune to be a member of a faculty that offers courses, minors and degree programs in what we call “interdisciplinary fields of study.” These include American Studies, Criminal Justice Studies, Environmental Studies, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies. Over the years, I have taught courses in three of these “fields” (American Studies, Environmental Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies) and have given much thought to the approaches taken to the various subjects, materials, and topics within these fields.

The self-evident fact that knowledge about our selves and the world, to use the commonplace jargon often used academic circles, is “constructed”  often devolves into abstract and decontextualized conversations about the knowledge and methods of academic disciplines or “interdisciplinary” fields of study or “multidisciplinary” modes of teaching and learning. The consequence is that the questions that structure the intellectual work in our colleges and universities (for professors and for students) become less salient or, arguably, less relevant—particularly in public discourse where facts are bound to be uncertain, values are disputed, and the stakes are high.

I am most grateful to my colleagues in India for helping me to think though my own evolving approach to the study, teaching, and learning as a literary and cultural historian. The term that appears most aligned with my practice as a thinker and teacher is “transdisciplinarity.” A sabbatical leave offers the necessary time and space to reflect on one’s ongoing work as a reader, writer and teacher. And among the most fruitful set of ideas for my reflections this year has been the thinking of Basarab Nicolescu—in particular, his Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, trans K. Claire Voss (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002). A useful précis of the manifesto is available in the “Charter of Transdisciplinarity” that has its origins in the First World Congress of Transdisciplinarity convened in 1994 in Convento da Arrábida, Portugal. The document, produced by the editorial committee comprised of Lima de Freitas, Edgar Morin, and Basarab Nicolescu, has 15 articles, as well as a Preamble, that reads as follows:

·      Whereas, the present proliferation of academic and nonacademic disciplines is leading to an exponential increase of knowledge which makes a global view of the human being impossible;

·      Whereas, only a form of intelligence capable of grasping the cosmic dimension of the present conflicts is able to confront the complexity of our world and the present challenge of the spiritual and material self-destruction of the human species;

·      Whereas, life on earth is seriously threatened by the triumph of a techno-science that obeys only the terrible logic of efficacy of efficacy’s sake;

·      Whereas, the present rupture between increasingly quantitative knowledge and increasingly impoverished inner identity is leading to the rise of a new brand of obscurantism with incalculable social and personal consequences;

·      Whereas, an historically unprecedented growth of knowledge is increasing the inequality between those who have and those who do not, thus engendering increasing inequality within and between the different nations of our planet;

·      Whereas, at the same time, hope is the counterpart of all the afore-mentioned challenges, a hope that this extraordinary development of knowledge could eventually lead to an evolution not unlike the development of primates into human beings;

One cannot help but admire the ambitious and hopeful language of this manifesto. My admiration, however, is precisely how the language links the abstractions of knowledge production to the material (and ideological) planetary concerns of the present. What is really remarkable, though, is that this heady rhetoric allows for both a generative acceptance and skepticism about knowledge and power, a finely aware register of social and environmental equity and justice, and an inclusive acceptance of the human in the words “cosmic” and “spiritual.” Just how these ideas might shape one’s day-to-day work is a challenge to be sure. But the challenge might help to put the words we use to describe teaching and learning in our colleges and universities to more consequential work—words such as “integrative,” “interdisciplinary,” and “multidisciplinarity—by envisioning a transformation of both our knowledge-seeking methods and the institutions that sponsor our ongoing search.

This was my ambition in India, after all: to imagine with my colleagues practical projects for individual and collaborative inquiry that would in turn expand the scope of conventional pedagogical theory and practice. Perhaps a moratorium on any word that builds off the term “discipline” would offer a glimpse of something more.

Right and Wrong

This morning I read Michelle Navarre’s “Cleary The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” in The Atlantic magazine. The essay takes up the question whether grammar lessons must come before writing or the learning of grammar through writing (and reading). Navarre, an associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, notes the decades of study that demonstrate how teaching rules outside of context or use does not work well for most writers.

These kinds of conversations inevitably bring up approaches to teaching writing, and the ways that teaching writing in schools does and does not result in better writing. What we have discovered in more than a decade of work at Keene State College is that developing writers requires a sustained focus on writing—across all four years, and in as many classrooms and fields of study as possible. If we value writing, we need to give students authentic and challenging writing at every turn. This philosophy of teaching writing, it should follow, needs to shape elementary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Have a look at another essay in The Atlantic series, Peg Tyre’s 2012 essay “The Writing Revolution” for a case study at New Dorp High School focused on teaching analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class.

Finally, and not incidentally, The Atlantic series includes an essay by a secondary teacher, Andrew Simmons, whose “Facebook Has Transformed My Students’ Writing—for the Better,” offers a first-person anecdotal case for the value of social media in developing skills associated with storytelling and emotional authenticity in personal writing.

The Ecological Arts

Let’s just say your professional title is Professor of English and American Studies, and you happen to have been elected President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE-US), and you are invited to deliver the Keynote Address at the International Conference on Ecocultural Ethics: Recent Trends and Future Directions, sponsored by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Goa, India. Perhaps, in addition to your address, “The Ecological Arts: Humanities, Technology, Science,” you would be invited to be part of a featured conference session on ecological learning with a fisheries biologist, a philosopher of science, a community activist, and an expert on wastewater treatment. And let’s say you also chair a session called “Representations of Land and Animals,” and spend your days on campus meeting with research scholars from universities across India to discuss their work in the environmental humanities. How would you approach your visit?

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On the dais with professor K. E. Raman, Director of BITS Pilani Goa at the inaugural ceremony, with professor Meenakshi Raman, Dr. Reena Cheruvaleth, and Dr. Rayson K. Alex
If your goal in India was to share with your Indian colleagues recent trends and future directions in ecocriticism and the environmental humanities, you might feature your own project, or talk about methodological or theoretical trends. However if your focus was not on intellectual or theoretical discourse then you might zero in on institutions—and the pressing need for us to work together to change them. In fact you might float the title, “The Ecological Arts,” and use the term ecology to bring together the humanities, sciences, and technology. Then you would lay out your key terms and then connect those key terms to a way of thinking about education before sharing your own efforts, and those of ASLE-US colleagues, who are transforming their intellectual work, disciplines and institutions. Hey, you might even conclude that our current intellectual work, our academic disciplines and institutions, struggle to honor this basic point and that we need to work together to transform our work, and the work of our students, as we meet the new challenges of a rapidly changing world.

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Professor Mark with young research scholars from Central University in Pondicherry

So that is what I did. I explained to my audience that one of my projects as the current president of ASLE-US has been designing and building a web site to strengthen how our members share resources, collaborate, as well as engage audiences beyond the academy—from community groups and national organizations to journalists. As part of this work, we have reached out to dozens of our members, and have compiled an archive of video, audio and text commentaries that chronicle the histories and activities of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. The web site includes an archive of member perspectives on ecocriticism and the environmental humanities delivered for academic audiences. Currently the archive includes University of California Los Angeles professor Ursula Heise’s assessment of the environmental humanities in her 2014 “American Comparative Literature Association’s State of the Field Report”; University of Wisconsin professor Rob Nixon’s keynote address at the Utrecht Edward Said Memorial Conference in 2013 that explores convergences between colonial oppression and ecological degradation, the unequal distribution of environmental resources and risks and conditions of environmental injustice; the University of Texas’s Stacy Alaimo’s primer on science studies and the environmental humanities. The archive has an essay by Julianne Lutz Warren, Senior Scholar at the Center for Humans and Nature, on “Generativity,” and a conversation with Iain MacCalman, professor at the Sydney Environment Institute, in Australia, about the necessary transformation of our intellectual work in the humanities and social sciences in the “anthropocene.” These member perspectives, I concluded, are all pointing to the historical and ethical imperative to transform our intellectual work to address the complicated and complex environmental questions we are facing today.

Ecocultural Ethics

“The true artist, like the true scientist, is a researcher using materials and techniques to dig into the truth and meaning of the world in which he himself lives. . . .”

-Paul Strand, Letter to the editor of the Photographic Journal 103.7 (1963): 216.

Sixty years ago, in June of 1955, an international symposium on the relationship between the human and the earth was organized by the Wenner Gren Foundation for Historical Research in Anthropology. Convened in Princeton, New Jersey, “Man’s Role in the Changing Face of the Earth” honored George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book Man and Nature. The symposium brought together seventy participants to further, in the words of the Wenner-Green Foundation President Paul Frejos, an understanding of the human and the earth “by synthesis, transcending the limits of present disciplines or branches of science” (vii). The conference participants, in fact, were chosen not to represent academic disciplines; and, as the symposium unfolded, in the words of one of the organizers, Marston Bates, “less and less was said in defense or in support of a particular disciplinary association” (1132).

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Post-monsoon rains in the afternoon near the central coast of Goa, India

One of the conveners of the symposium, Carl O. Sauer, professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, raised the present and future condition of the earth as a principal ethical concern. In the words of Marston Bates, a professor of Zoology at the University of Michigan, and also a co-convener of the symposium, “What sort of world is it that we want, and can we get it?” (1134). In his summary remarks on the proceedings, Bates insisted, “the sciences and the humanities form a false dichotomy, because science is one of the humanities” (1139). The third principal organizers of the symposium, Lewis Mumford, reminded the participants that “within the limits of earth’s resources and man’s biological nature, there are as many different possible futures as there are ideals, systems of values, goals and plans, and social, political, educational, and religious organizations for bringing about their realization” (1150).

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Forests and rice fields between the coast and the interior, central Goa, India

In linking ideals and systems of values to collective organizations and institutions, Mumford suggests a direction for one of my primary fields of work, ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. In preparing a keynote address that I delivered in Goa, India, this month I found myself reading in the two-volume proceedings of the International Symposium edited by William L. Thomas, Jr. in collaboration with the principal organizers of the symposium, Carl O. Sauer, Marston Bates, and Lewis Mumford, a historian, philosopher and literary critic. The Princeton Symposium reminded me of the challenges we face when ideals and systems of values run up against less agile organizations and institutions.

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With colleagues and friends on an afternoon outing in Goa

Since at least the publication of David Orr’s important 1990 book Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, those of us who work in the environmental humanities have been aware of how individual research agendas and narrow professional incentives do not directly address ecological literacy or sustainability. Orr makes a case that our individual work as research scholars will and should continue. But he is convinced that this work holds less promise in addressing the global predicament of environmental crisis. In essays with titles such as “The Problem of Education,” “What is Education For?” and “Place and Pedagogy,” Orr argues that our current ecological crisis is associated with a failure of education. We face a moral and the ethical obligation, he concludes, to rethink our professional activities as well as to transform the institutions where we work.

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View from the guest house, BITS Pilani Goa

Why is this rethinking so difficult to do? In my recent keynote address at the Birla Institute of Technology Pilani Goa, I suggested to the international gathering that we need more activism within our places of work, as new kinds of interdependence are increasingly a feature of our educational institutions. In the United States, for example, professors and students are designing and implementing curricular models that emphasize collaboration across disciplines and fields of study—from applied and problem-based learning to service learning initiatives and projects involving students, teachers, and local citizens or community groups. In Goa, I encouraged my audience to imagine new ways to integrate ecological, ethical and social contexts in the work of the humanities. I called on the words of a colleague, and former president of ASLE, Ursula Heise, who argues that the environmental humanities by definition “seeks to respond to the call for new institutional formations to correspond to innovative kinds of knowledge. . . [and] also to translate humanistic research more effectively into the public sphere” (“Comparative”). And yet I cautioned that transformations of academic programs and institutions requires valuing this work—among our peers, in our disciplinary associations, as well as in faculty promotion and retention standards. For it is easy to say that our activities are constituted in socially constructed systems, and that our activities can reconstitute those very systems. It is much more difficult to do.

In preparing my remarks for BITS Pilani Goa, I learned that the Birla Institute was founded by the industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla who voiced a broad and progressive approach to education. “What do we propose to do here?” he asked. “We want to teach real science, whether it is engineering, chemistry, humanities, physics or any other branch.” The next generation of the Birlas speak in similar language. Here is Basant Kumar Birla echoing the same educational ethos. “For a rich and full life, interest and involvement in Fine Arts, Music, Literature, Social, Cultural and Spiritual activities are essential.” And Dr. Sarala Birla, the wife of Basant Kumar—and daughter of activist and writer Brijlal Biyani—Education is a meaningless ritual, unless it moulds the character of students and imparts in them a strong sense of values.”

In my keynote that opened the conference I asked the hundreds of participants to consider recent trends and future directions in “ecocultural ethics” as intellectual work in our shared study of environmental issues and problems. I shared a few examples of innovative collaborations with students, academic colleagues and community-based groups: faculty and students conducting research together, often by taking the campus or local community as a site for the inquiry (a pedagogical model, by the way, that responds well to the call for surveys of employers and business leaders—in the US and in The Times of India that I read in Mumbai—for the human skills of thinking well, communicating effectively, collaborating, and persuasion; programs, centers, and institutes in which faculty are working on projects not limited by disciplinary, methodological or epistemological differences; and technology initiatives designed to build resources for academics, journalists, and the members of the public.

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Dinner following the conference on the edge of the Arabian Sea

We then talked, in the discussion period and throughout the conference, about comparable projects and initiatives in India. One of the research scholars was inspired by my talk and invited tribal people to the BITS campus for his presentation. And later, during an evening out with colleagues, I learned more about the generative work of one of the conference organizers (who is collaborating with my English colleague Rayson Alex on the natural and cultural history of a bird sanctuary near Panjim) Solano Jose Savio Da Silva, who works in Development Studies and Political Science.

Digitalis

220px-Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawing
From Kohler’s Medicinal Plants,  a rare medicinal guide published by Franz Eugen Köhler in 1887 in three volumes.

Strigidae: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing in the Arts and Humanities

About a year ago I began working with my colleague Kirsti Sandy on a peer-reviewed online journal dedicated to publishing the written work of undergraduate students in the arts and humanities. And this winter we launched the journal Strigidae. The journal welcomes submissions of writing in the disciplines, creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction. We will also publish clips of musical, dance, or theatrical performances and original artwork with accompanying artists’ statements.

Strigidae, of course, refers to the largest of the two families of owls (the other is Tytonidae) that live in terrestrial habitats across the world. I came up with the name of the journal when I was thinking about the association of the owl with the Greek goddess Athena and wisdom, but also the understanding of the owl as a nocturnal messenger, a symbol of illness, or a harbinger of death. A suggestive symbol for a journal committed to the exchange of artifacts and ideas, we agreed. The owl happens to be the mascot of Keene State College as well.

The special inaugural issue, “Written Bodies/Writing Selves,” is now available in the Mason Library’s Digital Commons. The second issue of Strigidae will appear in 2015. A call for papers will be circulated this spring.

The Aspect Magazine Project

Another project on which I continue working with students is the Digital Archive of Aspect Magazine. This fall I added a series of Project Links, including a Description and History, a Project Overview, Information about the editorial process, and a supplemental document “Remembering Ed Hogan.” I am looking forward to building the archive over the next few years as part of my upper-level courses in English and American Studies.

ASLE.org

As the President of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE)  I was one of the project directors that created a new web site for our international association. My work involved working with a team of web developers we hired to design the site, the Managing Director of our Association, Amy McIntyre, and a small group of ASLE colleagues. I spent many hours of my sabbatical leave writing content, soliciting and editing member and project profiles, course profiles, and helping to represent a broad vision for interdisciplinary work in the “ environmental humanities.” I drafted a New Mission Statement for the association that was subsequently approved adopted by the Executive Council, a Vision and History, and a Message to Members. I continue to work with our members to create new course and member profiles. The most recent is a Profile of Robert M. Thorson, University of Connecticut Professor of Geology and Affiliated Faculty at the Center for Integrated Geosciences.

Digital Compost

“Something startles me where I thought I was safest”

Walt Whitman, “This Compost”

It is exciting to be a professor of English right now: for the archive of materials we use in our professional lives has undergone (and is undergoing) fundamental and lasting change. The conditions for literary production and reception are being radically transformed and the work of teaching and research are, as a result, changing. While scholars will necessarily travel to libraries for research, scholars and their students now have access to (and, in a number of cases, are building) an expanding archive of materials that were only a decade ago only available to those with the resources and time to travel to research libraries or to more modest holdings in public or private collections.

For a decade my students and I have been using the Walt Whitman Archive, an electronic library of written materials, including the six editions of Whitman’s major work, Leaves of Grass. The archive makes accessible Whitman’s notebooks, manuscript fragments, prose essays, letters, and journalism, as well as the ongoing historical and critical commentary on his work. So, for example, my students can access all the volumes of Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden and we can easily call up page images of Leaves of Grass Imprints in class. Students reading in the historical commentary on Whitman’s writings and current criticism, moreover, now have access to electronic versions of essays and more than twenty full-length books. The co-editors of the site, Kenneth M. Price (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Ed Folsom (University of Iowa), have created a beautiful thing.

Also, in my American Studies courses, the Library of Congress web portal that supports the Library’s mission “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people” has helped my students do much more interesting work with a greater range of materials and artifacts. Finally, my colleague at the University of New Hampshire, Siobhan Senier, is building a digital archive/anthology of materials, Writing of Indigenous New England, with the help of students, tribal historians, and local historical societies. you can learn more about this work at Siobhan’s Indigenous New England Literature site.

Then, this year, I became aware of two new projects that have, to be honest, startled me. The first, more useful to me in thinking more clearly about the fundamental changes that are taking place in my professional field is the monograph Literary Studies in the Digital Age: an Evolving Anthology ,a part of the MLA Commons project. Here is the description of the anthology by the editors:

We began the process of creating this anthology with the intention of providing a primer to core tools and techniques for computational approaches to literary studies. Yet, since literary studies represents a confluence of fields and subfields, tools and techniques, and since computational approaches come from a great variety of sources, it became clear that any primer would have to be dynamic and capable of incorporating a rich and growing array of methodologies.

What is interesting is that the anthology is evolving using the tools of social computing made possible by web 2.0 technologies. In their Introduction, Introduction, Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens make the following claim:

The field of literary studies is being reshaped in the digital age. Texts have acquired a new kind of malleability, and they are often encountered in large aggregations, allowing for a scale of research far different from that in the past. At the same time, new possibilities as well as limitations for publishing are changing how, what, and to whom texts are disseminated. These changes require us to reexamine assumptions and to adopt altered research methodologies.

The introduction is worth reading. It can help to moderate the rhetoric that surrounds what some have called the digital turn. They return to 1963 and the founding of the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Cambridge University by Roy Wisbey. They also mention the period between 1966–78 when professional organizations were established and publications developed to explore possibilities of using computers in the humanities. They call attention to Computers and the Humanities (1966), the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC, 1973), and the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH, 1978).

The other project is more ambitious, and delightfully so: The Digital Public Library of America is working to make available (the beta version launches April 18 2013) an enormous amount of archival materials. The material and conceptual implications of this project are staggering. The blog entry called “What is the DPLA?” is a helpful place to start. There is also a very good overview of the conception of the project in the April 25 2103 edition (vol. LX no.7) of The New York Review of Books by Robert Darnton.

To take just one example of a DPLA “service hub”: The Mountain West Digital Library (MWDL) is a search portal for digital collections about the Mountain West region with free access to over 700,000 resources from universities, colleges, public libraries, museums, historical societies, and government agencies, counties, and municipalities in Utah, Nevada, and other parts of the U.S. West. The MWDL will help to accelerate the preservation of materials in these local sites while reaching out to provide access to those interested in the mountain west. For someone who teaches at a small, centrally isolated liberal arts college, the materials available in the Mountain West Digital Library collections will give me the capacity (and help me imagine) new ways to do my own research as well as help me teach courses using primary documents that would otherwise be unavailable to my students.

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.

The Small College Department

For ten years the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture has distinguished itself as the only profession-wide journal devoted exclusively to teaching in English studies. The journal, founded by Marcy Taylor and Jennifer Holberg, has sustained a professional conversation around teaching and the scholarship produced around it. A winner of the 2001 Best New Journal Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, Pedagogy is celebrating its tenth anniversary.

My work on the journal includes writing book reviews, an essay and since 2005 serving an associate editor of the journal. As associate editor, I am responsible for the book review section in our three issues published each year. I serve as a liaison with book publishers, recruit reviewers, edit individual and roundtable reviews, and work with the authors of longer “Forum” essays by senior teachers.

The Spring 2010 special issue of Pedagogy

My most recent contribution to Pedagogy, and to the profession-wide conversation about teaching, is a special issue dedicated to the small college department. As guest editor for the spring 2010 issue I asked ten contributors to foreground the ways the small college departments generate conditions for innovative pedagogy, curriculum development, and the integration of the professional activities of reading, writing and teaching. In my Guest Editor’s Introduction, “Centers and Peripheries,” I introduce the two goals of the special issue: to investigate what might be possible in the small college department as well as to suggest how these possibilities might inspire comparable intellectual work in other professional and institutional contexts. Because the current traditional conception of the discipline has rendered a great deal of the intellectual work of the profession invisible, I contend, we need to talk more about what our colleagues are actually doing outside the doctorate-granting institution. My claim is that representing more fully what we do will help us to move beyond general claims for teaching as a form of scholarship and away from de-contextualized arguments about the value of teaching.

Since graduate school I have been surprised by the parochial discourse of the profession that situates the so-called research institution at the center of intellectual production, value and prestige. Over the years, I have tried to bring people together to talk about the ways we devalue significant intellectual work and to make visible the a more complex system of postsecondary education made up of four-year liberal arts colleges, comprehensive universities, two-year colleges, community colleges, and public and private colleges and universities.  As an assistant professor I was fortunate  to find at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) convention colleagues interested in making visible forms of intellectual work in small college departments. After presenting on issues in small college departments for a couple of years, I began organizing and chairing the annual session sponsored by the Association of Departments of English (ADE). At the 2005 convention in Washington, D.C., the session “Graduate Education and the Small College Department” I invited graduate directors from research institutions (U of Wisconsin, Rutgers U, U of Pittsburgh) and small-college faculty (Marywood U, U of the Pacific, and Cornell College). And in 2006, in Philadelphia, I focused the session on the procedures and criteria for tenure and promotion in the small college department. And in 2009 we considered criteria and requirements for earning tenure—specifically how these criteria may have changed or be changing, whether changes (and what changes) would seem more productive and more counter-productive, and how institutional conditions and complexities determine the work of promotion and tenure committees. Have the requirements for publication for tenure and promotion changed in institutions over the past ten years? How do small-college departments define productivity and growth in scholarship and related professional activity? How do small-college departments value scholarship beyond the standard peer-reviewed journals or monograph? How does the apparently necessary specialization in graduate school prepare graduate students for positions where the publication of a monograph is not the requirement for tenure?

My inquiry into the conditions for teaching and learning in small college departments led to an invitation  to write a featured “Commentary,” “Where Do You Teach?”, for the fall 2005 issue of Pedagogy and an essay, “Reading, Writing and Teaching in Context” in the book Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life (MLA 2008). In both of these essays I consider the debilitating representation of faculty work in terms of research and teaching as separate activities. My argument is that this pervasive subplot in the narrative of the profession is rooted in a representation of faculty work that transcends the local institution and the ways that departments and institutions define intellectual work.

The special issue of Pedagogy dedicated to the small college department is a culmination of many years of work. My hope is that the professional conversation about our intellectual work will continue and that our special issue will inspire others to explore what  it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of writing and scholarly exchange.

A Grant from the NEH

The course I described in my last posting, “Writing in an Endangered World,” engaged students with the social movement of environmentalism and new forms of environmental writing. This course was the culmination of many years of scholarly work—both outside and within the classroom—a process I outlined in the inaugural issue of Keene State College’s Arts & Humanities News (Spring 2010). “Writing in an Endangered World,” however, is more than a culmination: it is a starting point for a new project supported by a generous two-year grant I received from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Charles Darwin, from Notebook B (1837)

The grant proposal, approved last month, will support development of an upper-level humanities course in the Integrative Studies Program (ISP). My course will survey changing concepts of nature from the ancient world to the age of Darwin. Students will read a sequence of major texts from the Western tradition alongside religious and scientific documents to understand the broad contours of thinking about the natural world in the Western cultures of Europe, as well as in the Eastern cultures of China and India, and the Arab-World and Africa. Thinking across intellectual traditions will empower students to think comparatively and to understand the dynamics of intertextual and intercultural exchange.

As it is currently envisioned,“What is Nature” will be organized around a sequence of primary texts with supplemental excerpts from treatises, letters, and books of poetry. Students will consider multiple genres of writing, including myth, scientific treatises, and narrative, poetry, in which the question of nature arises, as well as discuss illustrations and diagrams that represent human understandings of the natural world. Readings will include creation stories, including the Maidu Myths, a cycle of tribal creation stories in Western North America; the Hebrew Bible, with emphasis on Genesis and the Psalms; selected  hymns from the Indian Brahmanical or Vedic scripture, the Rig Veda, and selections from the Sanskrit verses of Kālidāsa and Dharmakīrti; relevant selections from the Chinese Huai-nan Tzu; Hesiod’s Theogony, and the dialogues of Plato. Students will be introduced to Aristotle’s thinking about the world of nature and read his writing in conjunction with selected dialogues of Plato,specifically the Timaeus and Laws; students will then trace the reception and development of ideas about nature in two narrative poems that influenced thinking about nature through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The first, Lucretius’ De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), an epic poem written in the middle of the first century BC, contrasts the Epicurian view of nature (and man) with the three major Aritstotelian classifications of the physical world; the second, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, describes the creation and history of the world, and its elaborate mythologies express ideas about nature that inspired imaginative writing by such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Carl Von Linne, Titelseite von Linnés Manuskript Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum (1729)

The Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy’s argument in the Almagest—that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun, planets, and stars revolved around it—will offer students an intellectual context in which to situate the key treatises—and illustrations—that make visible the Copernican system that would replace the Ptolemaic world view. Students will consider sixteenth and seventeenth century views of nature in the writings of Newton, Bacon’s Novum Organum (The New Organon; or, True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature) and Descartes, whose Discourse on Method will help students understand the mechanistic view of nature and method of scientific inquiry. The Enlightenment’s vision of science and the mid-eighteenth century will be represented by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, whose Systema Naturae introduced a classification system that divided living things into two kingdoms (plants and animals), classes, orders, genera, and species, and that led to subsequent ambitions to create a comprehensive taxonomy that would include everything known about the natural world; and the debate about natural degeneracy in the New World in the writings of the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon and Thomas Jefferson.

Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima description, by Diego Gvtiero Philippi (1554-1569), from the Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress

The final unit in the course will be organized around Darwin’s seminal nineteenth century writings. Students will read passages from the narratives in The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), study the argument of his most well-known book On the Origin of Species (1859), and examine his illustrations and journal notes. This segment of the course will introduce students to scientific ideas about nature (and the human) in a broad humanistic framework that will include selections from the German and Romantic poets Frederich Schiller, Frederich Hölderlin, William Blake, William Wordsworth; the natural history writers Gilbert White, William Bartram, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; and the naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and George Perkins Marsh.

William Blake, “Newton” (1795)

The opportunity to develop and teach a pre-disciplinary course with a broad historical scope will extend my ongoing inquiry into experiences and concepts of nature from the perspective of the humanities. It will allow me to return to my doctoral dissertation on theories of inquiry, focused on American intellectual history, that was informed by readings in European literary traditions, philosophy, and the history of science, especially the nineteenth-century writings of the logician and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce, who offers insights into how normal science is practiced, how scientific discoveries come about, and the process that produces paradigm shifts in communities of inquiry that will inform my ways of teaching students how concepts of nature have evolved and changed.

I’m deeply grateful to the National Endowment for supporting this work—work that will begin this summer and continue through the 2011-12 academic year when I will be teaching the course.

The Real Work

“Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from”

-Gary Snyder, “Four Changes,” Turtle Island (1974)

Refuse bin, Mahabalipuram, India, February 2008

How do we address the social needs and demands of an economy, the natural constraints of ecology and the political imperatives of democracy? How do we think about the environment in historical, political, historical, sociological, economic, technological, and moral terms? And how do we reconcile the democratic freedoms at home with the imperialism abroad that feeds the greed for resources to feed our insatiable consumer economy? These complicated questions—at the center of the social movement (and discourse) we have come to call environmentalism—have motivated a range of writers whose cultural work begins with the paradox that the scientific, industrial and technological advances of the modern world have inexorably created an ecological catastrophe of massive proportions.

This semester I’m teaching a course in American and Environmental Studies that takes up these questions. Our focus is

US Forest Service campaign to prevent fire

environmental writing and its relationship to the discourse of environmentalism. I’m interested in the ethical claims of environmentalism as a framework for considering how writers (and writer-activists) seek to foster reflection and transformation of personal assumptions and attitudes, beliefs and behavior. My course, “Writing in an Endangered World,” is an interdisciplinary course and therefore designed to address program outcomes in Environmental Studies (critical thinking and problem solving skills, communication skills, skills associated with moral and character development, an understanding of the ethical implications of environmental issues) as well as in American Studies (understanding historical and contemporary American cultures, responding resourcefully to texts, integrating forms of scholarship from more than one discipline, and the ability to write an effective documented essay that includes a thesis that integrates interdisciplinary approaches). To these ends, the course makes visible the assumptions, frameworks, and methods of the disciplines that study natural and human history, the relationship between ecological and human systems, and the history and values of environmental engagement in North America during the 20th century. In addition to reading Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History, students are reading Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Gary Snyder, Turtle Island, Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Linda Hogan, Solar Storms, Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild: Essays, Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge and T. C. Boyle The Tortilla Curtain. The course has also have considered the cultural presence of environmental concern in visual images, advertising campaigns, popular music, as well as other forms of cultural discourse.

The politics of environmental concern

I’m primarily interested in students thinking about how environmental writers use language as a primary vehicle for exploring the human prospect in an age of environmental crisis. Wendell Berry’s essays in The Unsettling of America, for example, ask students to consider the commonplaces that make possible our thinking about environmental questions. Berry enumerates the faults and contradictions of a system—call it what you will, capitalist, exploitative, free-market or global economy. Indeed Carson, Snyder, and Abbey all work from these commonplace ways of thinking. What makes this writing worth reading is that it moves beyond the limits of the language we make available to ourselves to address the problems we are being asked to think about. Imaginative writing takes many forms—including the writing we include in the genres of nonfiction, fiction, poetry. The language of this writing—its arguments, demonstrations, anecdotes and stories—serve as a counterpoint to what Wendell Berry calls our failure to reason about moral questions. “Public discourse of all kinds,” he insists in The Unsettling of America, “now tends to pattern itself either upon the arts of advertisement and propaganda (that is, the arts of persuasion without argument, which leads to reasonless and even unconscious acquiescence) or upon the allegedly objective or value-free demonstrations of science” (230). Berry’s claim about moral ignorance in The Unsettling of America is a provocation: a reminder that we are at once inheritors of a culture as well as stewards of that culture, and that the current state of the world is ultimately our responsibility. What do the current practices of agriculture, he asks, say about us? My case in the course is that Berry is not interested in the thinking that reinforces the opposition between saints and sinners (we are all both, he points out) or righteously pointing to the shortcomings or faults of someone else or some system or another. He is interested in the ways that we might move beyond thinking that begins “with a set of predetermining ideas” toward thinking that begins with “particular places, people, needs and desires” (233). He elaborates on this idea in chapter two, where he points to the problems of more ambitious institutional solutions that narrow and simplify as they propose particular actions or objectives.

Our focus on writing about particular places, people, needs and desires was enriched by a class visit by the writer Mark

Mark Kurlansky

Kurlansky. Mark was on campus for one of the spring Keene is Reading program events. (We had selected his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and he was in town to give a talk at the Colonial Theater on the long and complex history of the cod fishing and the depleted fishing stocks and the people’s lives who are linked to the great fisheries of the North Atlantic.) He talked with the students about the work of a writer; and, given the focus of the course,  he addressed what it might mean to be a writer in an age of environmental concern. At one point he asked the students whether any of them had read Darwin. When he saw that none of the students had, he suggested that anyone interested in understanding contemporary environmental  problems could do no better than to read and consider what Darwin makes visible in his work. The teacher of the course (me!) could not have asked for a more timely and apposite recommendation.

Professors, Students, Blogs

Last semester I was invited to present my thoughts at a brown bag lunch on the subject of blogging. My talk,”Why do Professors Blog?” began with a confession that I had no idea how to answer the question posed in my title. However I did go on to explain my modest experiments with the uses of blogs.

I began keeping a blog during my sabbatical last year in India. The occasional work of writing about what we were doing and seeing as temporary residents–where we were traveling, what we were seeing, and what I was reading and thinking, in conjunction with images I was gathering–proved to be productive for me in a number of ways. The inspiration for the blog I set up in India, The Far Field, was inspired by my friend and colleague L., whose ongoing practice as a writer has made extraordinary use of the place blog.


As it turned out, a blog designed to give friends and family members a better feel for what we were doing helped me experience the reflective practice of place blogging I had long admired by L., whose Hoarded Ordinaries led me Tim Lindgren’s dissertation and related research material on place blogging completed at Boston College in April 2009. Lindgren’s study examines the emergence of place blogging as a genre of writing that can be used to deepen a sense of place and to share local knowledge.

I’m interested in how we use language and symbols to mediate our relationship with the world around us. I am also interested in how these necessary mediations offer forms of attention that are potentially instructive, even transformative. My practice writing a place blog (now unfolding in a subscription-only blog for my extended family) led me to new questions about how blogs are facilitating new forms of writing and the uses to which this writing might be put.

First I transformed my professional web site into a blog. The intent of what I am doing right now (or more precisely what you are doing right now in reading what I did) is to make visible the intellectual work I do as a college professor. The occasional writing I do here offers me a space to consider more fully my professional activities. What is more, it provides a potentially useful space for colleagues and friends, as well as current and prospective students, to glimpse some of the work I am doing.

Another experiment with blogging is unfolding as part of a collaborative project I began with the independent scholar John Tallmadge. The Staying Alive project began in the spring of 2006 with a series of extended conversations about the promises and perils of academic life. Our conversations led to a workshop for academic professionals at the Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 2007, and in Victoria, British Columbia, in the summer of 2009. Our subsequent conversations about the challenges of academic life with colleagues at colleges and universities across the country have suggested the need for a blog devoted to the difficult work of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia—no matter what happens.

Last but not least I am thinking pedagogically. How might the blog be used to help develop student writers? While I have yet to use the blog as a medium for student writing in a class, I am working independently with two students who are using blogs. The first student is working on an independently designed major, Biology and Writing. This student is seeking to grow as a biologist and as a writer with the post-graduate goal of conducting research and writing for a scientific journal and writing creative non-fiction biology. Her blog “Creative Biology”  is a remarkable example of the ways a blog mighthelp a student writer with academic study. The second student and I designed an internship in American Studies, “The Ecology of the New England Garden,” that would offer her the opportunity to reflect on a summer and fall experience working for a local professional horticulture and landscape design firm.  Her blog Regional Roots has been integral to the internship experience and will culminate, if all goes as planned, in a published piece of writing in a local environmental journal.

These two examples have me looking farther ahead to the possible applications of blogs in the teaching of college writing. Colleagues at other institutions are actively involved in this work and I will surely have more to say about the use of blogs in forthcoming posts.

Philadelphia and the MLA

Most every year I join thousands of professors and graduate students, independent scholars and writers, booksellers and editors for the annual pilgrimage to the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Annual Convention. This year I arrived by train from New Haven, Connecticut, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the site of the 2009 convention. My trip to the MLA this year was brief.  We have new horses at home, and my daughter E is competing in the Polar Bear ice hockey tournament in Shelton, Connecticut, and so I could only get away for a couple of days.

Soon after the train pulled into the 30th Street Station I hopped a cab to the hotel, printed out introductory remarks that I had revised on the train, and walked to the Marriot Hotel where I chaired a special session sponsored by the Association of the Departments of English on the small college department. I focused this year’s session on the criteria and requirements currently active in departments and institutions for earning tenure—specifically how these criteria may have changed or be changing, whether changes (and what changes) would seem more productive and more counter-productive, and how institutional conditions and complexities determine the work of promotion and tenure committees. A number of questions were addressed by the three panelists. Have the requirements for publication for tenure and promotion changed in institutions over the past ten years? How do small-college departments define productivity and growth in scholarship and related professional activity? How do small-college departments value scholarship beyond the standard peer-reviewed journals or monograph? How does the apparently necessary specialization in graduate school prepare graduate students for positions where the publication of a monograph is not the requirement for tenure?

My brief introductory remarks suggested that small departments have something important to add to the profession-wide conversation about scholarly activities and modes of publication (including digital). For many of our institutions have aligned standards for faculty evaluation with the mission, values and practices of our institution; abandoned the reductive conflation of scholarship with publication; revised our standards for promotion and tenure to reflect the intellectual work our faculty do; published standards for promotion and tenure are published and visible to junior faculty;  conduct faculty evaluation without depending upon the judgment of presses or outside evaluators; value teaching and service in both promotion and tenure reviews; and value collaborative intellectual work as a contribution to the profession as well as the to the public that supports our work. I argued that representing more fully what we do will require us to move beyond general claims for teaching as a form of scholarship and decontextualized arguments about the value of teaching. Instead, I suggested, we need to shift our focus to the local histories of institutions where we can learn what the profession is doing beyond our inevitably parochial point of view. My goal for the special session was to investigate what might be possible in the small college department as well as to suggest how these possibilities might inspire comparable intellectual work in other professional and institutional contexts. The speakers were Jeffry C. Davis, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, James M. Lang, associate professor in the English Department at Assumption College, and Ann Green, associate professor at Saint Joseph’s University. We were fortunate to have close to fifty people in the audience and a good question and answer period.

An evening watching ice hockey on the TV, a green curry Thai dinner, a good night’s sleep and a morning run though the cold and windy canyons of the city and along the icy shore of the Schuylkill river—then back to the convention hotel to help out as a job counselor for the MLA. In the afternoon, I joined David Lawrence, Steve Olson, Sheridan Blau, and John Ottenberg in a special session arranged by the MLA Office of Research called “Reading as a Teacher: a Workshop for Teachers of Literature.” We designed this session to explore a pragmatic question: Does reading to teach a work of literature call for forms of attention that are distinctive—ways of thinking and observing that differ from those we use as scholars or as readers generally? Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose” was to be the focus of the discussion. Before the workshop, participants were asked to read the poem as if they are preparing to teach it in either a lower-division undergraduate literature course taken chiefly by nonmajors or an upper-division course in twentieth-century American poetry taken mainly by English majors. (The poem is available online at the Web site of The Poetry Foundation.) We each offered brief introductory remarks and then we divided the room into small discussion groups of eight people. The organizing questions for the group included the following: What problems and possibilities for teaching and learning does Bishop’s “The Moose” offer? What challenges or difficulties follow from this poem’s way of doing what it does, whether for a student attempting to read it or for a teacher attempting to guide or enable students’ reading? Ostensibly, we were to conclude the workshop with thirty minutes of full-group discussion. But we really only had a few minutes to report on its discussion. My group, in fact, talked more generally about the idea of reading as a teacher and the assumptions of the workshop itself. We all agreed that the session was a good start; but we needed more time to address the interesting questions we had raised.

My friends and graduate student colleagues J and M were at the session and we went out for a nice Italian dinner. The three of us work together on the journal and it is always good to catch up in person. I was also fortunate to have a nice breakfast the following morning with my friend and graduate school advisor before catching the train back to New Haven where R picked me up and whisked me back to Shelton to watch the girls win another hockey game and qualify for the final day of games.

Teaching the Local

On November 4-6 Keene State College hosted the biennial World Affairs Symposium, “From Local to Global: A Centennial Symposium.” The 2009 Symposium examined issues raised by artists, educators, scholars, planners, and community leaders whose work deepens our understanding of the complex phenomena recognized as “globalization.” Programming and events explored the impact of “the global” on cultures, environments, economies, and identities defined as “local.” The Symposium was organized around a set of questions that included: How do perceptions of the global shape discourses of the local? When do localized discourses and cultural practices determine limits and definitions of global? Where do these concerns direct communication between people, especially within the praxis of teaching and learning? When does local knowledge become globalized? How can global information be localized?

My contribution to our sixth biennial symposium was “Teaching the Local in an Age of Globalization.” My goal was to bring together a panel of speakers whose teaching and writing has deepened our awareness of the natural and cultural systems of which we are a part.  I wanted to feature professors whose students have experiences outside the classroom (in the towns and cities and farmlands and forests near their colleges); whose courses emphasize interdisciplinary learning (integrating the study of literature and story with the study of history, nature, and science); and collaboration (with local residents, towns, and organizations).

The speakers I invited were Pavel Cenkl, of Sterling College, John Elder, of Middlebury College, John Harris, of Franklin Pierce University, and Kent Ryden, from the University of Southern Maine—all of whom have made notable contributions to the study of the nature and culture of New England. Pavel Cenkl is Dean of Academics at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont where he also teaches courses in humanities and regional studies. He has recently organized two summer institutes focusing on the rural heritage of the Northeast. Pavel has published This Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, 1784-1911 and, more recently, edited the collection of essays, Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest: Region, Heritage, and Environment in the Rural Northeast. He lives on a steadily expanding homestead in Craftsbury with his wife and son. John Elder has taught English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College since 1973, where he has taught courses in American nature writing, Romantic English poetry and contemporary American poetry of nature, Japan’s haiku tradition, and community-based courses that focus on the future of Vermont’s towns and farms.  John’s three most recent books have all combined discussion of literature, descriptions of the Vermont landscape, and personal memoir.  He and his wife Rita live in the Green Mountain village of Bristol and operate a sugarbush in the adjacent town of Starksboro with their grown children. Kent Ryden teaches in the American and New England Studies program at the University of Southern Maine, of which he was director for the past four years. Kent is the author of Mapping the Invisible Landscape:  Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place and Landscape with Figures: Nature and Culture in New England, as well as many articles and chapters on topics in ecocriticism, cultural geography, and regional literature. He has a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University, and is a recipient of the American Studies Association’s Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize. And John R. Harris is Director of the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, and a faculty member in the Environmental Science and American Studies Departments.  His work on the study of place in the Monadnock Region has appeared in Where the Mountain Stands Alone (University Press of New England, 2007) and Teaching North American Environmental Literature (Modern Language Association, 2008). John and his wife Susie have lived with their three daughters in Westmoreland since 1985.

 

Pavel’s presentation focused on the Work-Learning-Service program at Sterling College and its emphasis on place and identity, The program’s emphasis on cultivating a sense of place provides opportunities to explore the global frameworks of local places. John elaborated on his interest in the global context of the local-food movement in New England. John described teaching a community-based course called “Farm Stories,” in which students read the literature of farming, interview, and work on stories about families who operate eleven farms near the Middlebury campus. He used both Virgil’s Georgics and recent farmers’ protests in Brussels relate the challenges of Vermont farmers to a global context. John also reported on organizing two conferences that speak to this topic: one in Middlebury on local food and culture in Vermont, Quebec, and France and one in Siena on local food and culture in New England and Tuscany.  Kent’s presentation focused on the cultural politics of place in Falmouth, Maine, asking which place-defining narratives get privileged, and why, and what the implications of that are. He also touched on how northern New England places have historically existed in a kind of economic and cultural “colonial” relation to southern New England. Finally, John Harris reflected on distinctive features of the New England identity over time and the strong sense of community he finds in our region through his discussions with local town residents around issues of town government, community size and the importance of celebrating communal history.

A National Day on Writing

Faculty and staff publications table

October 29, 2009 marked the first annual National Day on Writing. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) established National Writing Day to explore and celebrate the place of writing in our lives. The US Senate even took a few minutes to pass a resolution declaring the National Day on Writing. The idea is a good one, as people are writing more than ever before –in multiple media and for different purposes and audiences.  Clear and effective writing, moreover, is indispensible for full and meaningful participation in civic and professional life.

The Writing Task Force at Keene State College participated in this national celebration by offering the College community an opportunity to showcase our personal and professional writing. We designed “Keene Writes” to showcase the diverse forms of writing produced by faculty and staff. A table at the center of the room was filled with books, journal articles and other writing; we featured excerpts from the blogs of faculty and staff; Jeff Friedman, one of the accomplished writers on our faculty, led workshops on poetry writing; and we staged a headline writing competition, a cartoon caption and a six-word memoir contest.

The event was a success. Over three hundred people visited the Mountain View Room in the Student Center. The premise that people are writing more than ever before—that writing is a daily activity that contributes to personal, professional and civic life—was exemplified by our participation in the National Day on Writing. The members of the Writing Task Force are already looking ahead to next year with plans to feature staff, faculty, and student writing with our ongoing commitment to strengthening the culture of teaching and learning at Keene State College through writing.

The Keene is Blogging board

To extend the exploration and celebration of writing through June 2010, my colleague Katherine Tirabassi set up two archives at the NCTE Gallery of Writing to feature work at Keene State College: a gallery for student writing at http://galleryofwriting.org/galleries/633720/ and a gallery for faculty and staff at http://galleryofwriting.org/galleries/627684/. If you are a student, faculty or staff member, please consider submitting something to one of the archives.

Know Thyself

ripinski.trail

What is English? This question is at the center of a conversation that has been unfolding since I arrived at Keene State College in 1998. Provisional answers to the question, as well as the multiple ways the question can be answered, have motivated changes in how we conceive and deliver our undergraduate program. How do we cultivate careful reading and the use of literary vocabulary? How do they experience the process of writing about literature and culture and learn to use writing for a range of expressive and persuasive purposes? How do wehelp students understand the ways historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works?  In what ways are students introduced to those works in literary and expressive traditions produced by cultures whose collective humanity and aesthetic identity have been historically devalued, denied, or dismissed? How do students come to understand literary genre? How literary works relate intertextually? How the history of language has affected the development of literature? In what ways arestudents exposed to the history of criticism and critical theory, its application in literary analysis as well as current scholarly debates in the field of English studies?

For the past ten years our thinking about (and as) a program has been motivated by a desire to improve conditions for ripinski.5student learning and, at the same time, ameliorate the difficult working conditions faculty face. New members of our department have invigorated this discussion in collaboration with those who have been at the College for some time. And College-wide curricular changes (that English, in part, initiated) have transformed the work that we do.  As a result, we now share the responsibility for a program that grows out of the ongoing and ever-present questions about English as a field of study.

I’ve been thinking about all of this over the summer as the primary author of the English department’s Self Study. For those reading who are not aware, college and universities undertake a self study every ten years or so. The University System of New Hampshire policy requires the Academic Overview Committee (AOC), which reports to the Keene State College Senate, to oversee and facilitate program review on our campus. The purpose of the academic overview process is to evaluate the strengths and challenges of the academic programs and its current and projected resource needs. Program review includes self-analysis by members of the program, external peer review, evaluation by the Academic Overview Committee, and response from the administration.

ripinski.8

So, what is English? Well,  The StoryI tell in this attached excerpt from the forty page document gives an overview of who we say we are and the history of the program, and might be of interest to anyone curious about English at Keene State College. The conversations around our central question are intense, ongoing, and deeply engaging. While we may not have a definitive answer to the question (in fact, we might want to question the value of such a thing), we are always working to articulate the reasons why we have the program we have–among ourselves, with our students and to the others who support the work that we do.

 

Skater Boy

Last month the Times reported that Andy Kessler died at the age of forty-eight. Kessler, as the obituaries page explained, brought skateboarding to New York City in the 1970s, and was a member of a community of skateboarders and graffiti artists named the Soul Artists of Zoo York.

mcl.mammoth
Mark Long at 8000 feet in the Easter Sierra, circa 1979

It is fascinating to watch skateboarding organizing itself into the landscape of twentieth-century cultural history. The mythology in the Times, according to the writer of the obituary, is that New York skateboarding was neither the sport nor the cultural phenomenon as it was in California, “where scrappy, expert skateboarders like Jay Adams and Tony Alva created a style, ultimately a legend, that came to be called Dogtown.” Of course this is the Times, and it is New York, and the day after Kessler’s obituary appeared something else offered itself up: the acclaimed young fiction writer Bret Anthony Johnston—author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer and a veteran urban skateboarder—published a brief essay titled “The End of Falling.”

By now you are probably wondering why a professor of English at Keene State College is writing about skateboarding. Well, it may have something to do with my years as a teenage rider in the 1970s, my sense of a larger cultural story about our generation, or simply species recognition: for here is an English professor (an award winning author, and current Briggs-Copeland Professor of Fiction position at Harvard, at that!) writing about skateboarding.

In “The End of Falling” Johnston admits that while he never knew Kessler, his life story was legendary among skaters in the city, a figure who pioneered a style of riding that Johnson calls a “gritty, dirty, and beautiful, the shadow-version of the breezy West Coast surf-style.” For this English professor, a one-time professional skateboarder, the image of a hip young professor of fiction at Harvard carving “gritty, dirty, and beautiful” turns on a sidewalk once walked by the likes of William James and W.E.B Du Bois sits well.

Kessler had a rough time, it seems. His story reminds me of a contemporary of mine in California, Jay Adams, whose unfortunate life path is featured in Stacy Peralta’s recent film Dog Town. Yes, drugs were a part of the skateboarding culture East and West, and it seems Kessler himself ended up hooked on heroin. He then turned a corner and led an effort to build a park for skateboarders and roller-bladers in Riverside Park—recruiting a group of disadvantaged youths to build it. The story resonates, at least for Johnston and perhaps his editor, as it falls into the broader contours of a story some of my generation appear to want to tell themselves. “Kessler’s great and lasting contribution to skateboarding,” Johnston intones, “was recognizing its transformative and transcendent qualities, the myriad ways in which a highly individualized endeavor invited, not precluded, community.”

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Mark Long, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978

Well, sure. I guess. Skateboarding is more than not a crime. More to the point, though, is that it is really hard to grow up, especially when the flimsy façade of privilege or youthful freedom breaks down and you find yourself struggling with the brutal facts of a flesh-and-blood life. My hunch is that the narrative Johnston is working with resonates for the over-forty crowd whose life revolves around scenarios predicated in the conceit that things are not what they used to be. And they are not, of course. Johnston deftly holds up the Kessler story as a counterpoint to the commodifaction of skateboarding and the skating culture, “the ubiquitous television presence, the department store displays of designer skater apparel, and the proliferation of free municipal skateparks around the country.” All this is rather dispiriting for a so-called breezy guy from California. But I can’t help but wonder about the cultural nostalgia that animates these kinds of stories. “For most of Kessler’s life,” Johnston goes on to say, “years of which were mired in violence and addiction and the existential angst that torments many a non-conformist, skateboarding wasn’t merely a sport or pastime or even the artistic expression of his soul. It was the path to his soul’s salvation.”

Johnston is a good enough writer to know that this kind of language is a stretch. So he excuses himself on his way to an almost passionate defense of skateboarding against those who still think of it as, well, criminal. “For all of their perceived destructiveness,” he writes, “for all of their purported unthinking and lawless mischief, skateboarders are a creative and compassionate breed. Often, especially when Kessler was nurturing what would become the East Coast scene, the kids who gravitated toward skateboarding were misfits and malcontents, the shy outcasts who’d been intimidated and sullied by the complex pressures of social interaction. Skateboarding gave them an identity and voice, and Kessler, by example, gave them the confidence to declare themselves to society.” Johnston here, appealing to his audience, rhetorician at large.

Mark Long, Logan Earth Ski Catalog, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978
Mark Long, Logan Earth Ski Catalog, Carlsbad, California, circa 1978

For me all of this is mildly reassuring. In northern San Diego, the California skate scene, as I experienced it in the 60s and 70s, was a natural extension of surfing—a way of biding time when the surf was not up. It was also a business, and a few found themselves with a lot of money. Still, the convening of young boys (and a few girls) seeking refuge from the complications and confusions of a post-60s culture was fueled by a deep sense of purpose—though I’m pretty sure none of us really knew what that purpose was. There was a powerful sense of freedom as we navigated our young lives in a slippery, drug- infested counterculture that in retrospect seems far less glamorous or important than people seem to want it to be. It was important as a relatively non-violent and mostly affirming path through adolescence and we tried to find a way to becoming adults.

When urethane wheels and grease-packed bearings appeared new things became possible. We gathered in the streets and school playgrounds to practice turns on imaginary waves and we discovered wheelies and spins and tricks that led us into garages to cut new shapes of boards that would help us twist and turn in the California sun. When we were a bit older, we gathered on the wide, black asphalt hills of what would become the resort La Costa, barefoot and with no pads or helmets, testing our equipment and ourselves at forty and even fifty miles an hour. When the extended drought set in during the mid-70s, reservoirs, empty pools and huge concrete drainage pipes offered terrain to match our skills and imaginations. Empty pools at abandoned hotels and forty foot concrete drainage pipes in the desert became the scenes of our young lives. We were a portable culture of athletic kids that would set itself up in any backyard pool we could find. The D-Town boys were, in fact, one of many groups who were defining the contours of modern skateboarding. Much to our surprise—to mine, at least—a genuine sport developed, and a few of us found ourselves sponsored—with equipment, clothing and even small salaries provided by our sponsors. We found ourselves riding fresh concrete in new skate parks, competing against one another, and doing demonstrations for catalogs and magazines.

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Mitchell Long, San Clemente, California, circa 1978

For whatever reason, I walked away at the peak of it, abandoning the sport just as I had the chance to go on an East Coast exhibition tour. Life moved, and I moved with it, and hence I never found myself in a empty pool or skate park with Kessler. By the time he managed to get the skating park open at Riverside Park at 108th Street in 1995, I was nearing the end of graduate school, completing a doctoral dissertation and teaching writing, poetry and fiction. And while I had spent part of a year living in Manhattan, I missed the opportunity to ride the brick banks under the Brooklyn Bridge, carve a Wall Street handrail or drop into the drained pool in Van Cortlandt Park.

Island Time

From Lynchburg, Virginia, en route from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, on my way to the eighth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. There are over six hundred and fifty attendees this year, from twenty-eight countries. We’ve gathered by plane and ferry to the University of Victoria (“U-Vic”) to share our work in the field of environmental writing and literature.

victoria 008Teresita Fernandez, “Seattle Cloud Cover”

I arrive on the Victoria Clipper, a boat passage we never did during our years in Seattle. A number of ASLE folk are on the afternoon boat that departs from Pier 69. It is good to be out on the water again, with the Cascades and the Olympics lingering in the distance. I am reminded of kayak trips in these waters as we cruise along Whidbey Island and then out into open water. When we arrive in Victoria in the evening we flag down a blue Prius cab that takes us to the University where we settle into the residence halls and townhouses on one side of the campus.

victoria 027One of many rabbits on the U-Vic lawns

I spend my first full day on the island at the ASLE Executive Council meeting and then, in the afternoon, help to facilitate a pre-conference workshop on the academic job search. The following day I am part of a roundtable for graduate students—“Finding Your Niche: Thoughts on Negotiating the Job Market”—where I share some of my experiences as a graduate student, job candidate, faculty member, search committee member and department chair. As the Coordinator of the ASLE Mentoring Program, I organize mentoring meetings, and on Wednesday I conduct one of these meetings with a post-doctoral instructor at Stanford University.

victoria 020John Felstiner and Lynn Keller near the summit of Mt. Finlayson

On Friday afternoon I join a group of about fifteen or twenty on an afternoon walk up Mt. Finlayson—one of the highest points in Southern Vancouver Island.  John Felstiner and I enjoy an hour-long afternoon conversation about poets and poetry as we pick our way down from the rocky summit and under the canopy of evergreens. Then, on Saturday, I co-faciltate a wonderful half-day workshop with my colleague John Tallmadge. “Staying Alive: A Workshop for Academic Professionals” brought together a group of fifteen or so faculty to discuss academic life. John’s summary of our meeting is available on our Staying Alive blog.

victoria 007Sculpture on the Seattle Waterfront, near Pier 69

In and around these meetings were numerous conversations, meals with colleagues and friends, an author’s reception (where we had copies of Teaching North American Environmental Literature available) and a wonderful donwtown dinner with K and I and M and J. ASLE  is a remarkable thing, and I am deeply grateful to the commitments I share with this wily group of teachers and scholars devoted to the environmental humanities. Since the inception of our organization, we’ve diversified our membership and the program reflects a vibrant field of intellectual work. Every time I get together with these people, I come away renewed by the ideals that motivate our lives as teacher, readers and writers.

summer09 040A pre-conference afternoon kicking steps in the Tatoosh range, south of Mt. Rainier

The Canadian venue for this 2009 ASLE gathering has been especially rewarding for me, as I was among a group who advocated for a Canadian site on the ASLE Executive Council many years ago. Our conference organizer, Dan Philippon, and our co-organizer and host, Richard Pickard, have done a beautiful job  keeping us all headed in the  right directions and encouraging us to best use our limited time here. Kudos!

Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

Brooklyn Bridge

From New Hampshire, where I am teaching a seminar on the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman, to Brooklyn for a weekend arts festival on Governor’s Island with L and D. The Figment festivities are a ferry ride away and so, I am indeed crossing (though across to a different island) by ferry and thinking about the good fortune of finding myself here with Whitman muttering in my head. “The crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes,” how curious they would be to Whitman today, with painted faces and fairy wings. (A write up appears in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.) But of course Whitman was a step ahead, for as he put it, “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are / more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”

Figment: What will you bring?

This coming week we will be reading the “Calamus” and “Children of Adam” poems and thinking together about what Whitman called “fervid comradeship,” the “adhesive love” Whitman contrasts with the “amative love” that he describes (in his 1871 essay “Democratic Vistas” as “the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization therof.” But I am here, on a ferry, and I keep hearing Whitman.

Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,

Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and
the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,

Others will see the islands large and small;

Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half
an hour high,

A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence,
others will see them,

Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood- tide, the falling-
back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

Sure enough, we are watching and seeing.

The joys of barbaric yawps

If only Whitman could wander among the crowds on these rainy June days in 2009. “Not those — but, as I pass, O Manhattan! Your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, / Offering me the response of my own — these repay me.” Indeed.

Governors Island from the Manhattan Ferry

A Keynote Address

It is the end of May and I am up early running in the Virginia woods near the campus of Lynchburg College. It is humid, not too warm, and I’ve found my way to a trail that winds its way beneath a canopy of oak trees. A white tail deer bounds across the trail, two black feral dogs skitter away as I come into view and catch the scent of a rotting carcass, and I stop to admire the intricate orange streaks on two good sized painted turtles in the trail.

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I am in Virginia as one of three invited speakers for the conference “3-4  Hour: Conversations on Moving to Four Credit Hour Courses.  The conversations among the faculty and staff teams from a range of institutions are familiar to me. The same questions, problems and concerns, the same sense of excitement and sense that we might indeed be doing things differently, perhaps even better, for our undergraduate students—the kinds of conversations we have been having at Keene State College. The conference appears extremely productive for participants as they weigh the promises and the potential pitfalls of transforming their curricula. One of the strengths of the conference is that the colleges represented are at all stages of the process—from exploring the idea of four-credit hour courses to having already decided to move to four-credit hour courses. In my keynote is to tell the story of Keene State College and to speak from my role as one of the faculty members who worked to create the four-credit English proposal and then helped the campus move toward a predominantly four-credit hour curriculum.

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Lynchburg College is a very congenial place—the green grass of the Dell, stately Georgian-style buildings of red brick and white columns, the home of the fighting hornets (“the stingers”). The banners on the Dell say “Above and Beyond,” the marketing tag that captures the Lynchburg brand. Lynchburg, the college brochure says, is a “place to call home,” nestled below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lynchburg is also the home of Falwell’s Liberty University and the Thomas Rhodes Baptist Church (which we drive by on the way to an Indian dinner on Saturday night)—ground zero of the religious right during the so-called culture wars that flared in the 1980s. Earlier in the twentieth century, Lynchburg was the home of the poet Anne Spencer, who was a friend and contemporary of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and James Weldon Johnson.

American Literature and the Environmental Humanities

Late in May I headed to Boston to present my thoughts at a session on the environmental humanities at the annual American Literature Association conference. My presentation, titled “American Literature, Disciplinarity and the Environmental Humanities, began with a helpful remark by Jonathan Monroe, that “the first discipline of a discipline is, or should be, not to forget that it has not always been a discipline.” I also used Henry Nash Smith’s classic 1957 essay “Can American Studies Develop a Method?” to frame my thoughts on how the study of American culture, as Smith so aptly put it, as a whole “does not coincide with the customary field of operations of any academic discipline” (1). Much the same thing can be said about the environmental humanities, I explained, as the capacious term environment and the contested term humanities are elusive at best. Moroever, in making a case that our work as environmental humanists may move us from the study of literary categories such as American, and the professional identities we cultivate as Americanist scholars, I suggested that among the most productive things we might be doing right now would be conceiving of the environmental humanities as a collaboration across academic disciplines, in Smith’s words, “attempting to widen the boundaries imposed by conventional methods of inquiry” (11). My paper made the case that our definitions of the environmental humanities might therefore need to be somewhat more modest than we might like; at the same time I suggested that definitions of the environmental humanities that arise out of practice in particular intellectual and institutional communities may be more radical and consequential than we might think.

On Writing about Questions

This semester I am once again immersed in Emerson. My students are reading and thinking about his language in my introduction to the major course, English 200. Too, Emerson’s thinking, and his use of language, offered a space to think about being named the 2009 Distinguished Scholar at Keene State College and the keynote address I would be giving to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference.

While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence–as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be–I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event:  to give undergraduate te students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350  students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering. As I was trying to figure out what to say to such a diverse audience, and how I might approach the occasion, I found in Emerson’s essay “The Poet” a formulation that proved to be useful in organizing the second part of what turned out to be a three-part essay. Emerson says, “We know that the secret of the world is profound, but who or what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble, a new style of face, a new person, may put the key into our hands.” It was the mountain ramble part that helped.

And so I was thinking: where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new. My talk began by asserting that whatever the academic field, most research and scholarship can be traced back to a question. However my interest was really how intellectual work is motivated by questions that transcend academic fields, professional identities, the very idea of academic excellence. As a humanist, I explained to my audience, I am preoccupied with these deeper questions. But, as I went on to say, any certainty that I might have had about where questions come from had been unraveling since late February when I was skiing across a frozen lake with my five-year-old friend Ben and he asked, “What is more importanter, living or being loved?”

Another significant moment in mywriting process was discovering something unexpected in a familiar poem by Mary Oliver.  Her poem offered a beautiful way of describing the scholarly process. It also helped me find my way to the three parts to the essay I was trying to write. The gist of it all, she says, is that we keep looking, one question leads to another question, we think again. (That “we,” it turned out, also resonated with me.) If you are interested, here is what I ended up saying to the hundreds of people gathered for lunch in a talk I titled “The Trouble with Scholarship.

What are English Majors Saying about Thinking and Writing?

In the first part of our two-course introductory sequence to the English major I ask students to write an essay about their experiences with academic writing. Their five-page essays allow me to see how students think about writing; and their thinking provides the occasion for an extended discussion about motivations for doing intellectual work in English. Their essays also make visible some impressions of our new first-year course, Thinking and Writing (ITW).

Not surprisingly, thirty-four of the forty essays on academic writing I’ve read this year mention the ITW course. The students who mention ITW confess that the opportunity to write about something that mattered to them is both exciting and terrifying. They express uncertainty about completing a 15-20 page essay. They describe hours of work in the library and their surprise that in fact others have thought about their areas of interest. And they point out how skeptical they are that the area they are writing about is interesting enough for a semester-long project.

If anything, we can count on students coming out of ITW with a vocabulary to talk about thinking and writing as a process. (More so than the students who completed our essay writing course.) Writing in a substantive intellectual context, they tell me, has taught them that good thinking takes time. Moreover, they understand that persuasion requires curiosity and careful reading of, in the memorable words of one student, “interesting people with different views on a topic.” Another student is able to say it this way:  “The most effective essays are written by those who truly believe what they are saying, have a well rounded knowledge of the subject, and have put a lot of thought into how to address opposing claims.”

In addition to understanding writing as a process these students have experienced the challenge of being asked to think about something. Again and again, they point to the unexpected freedom of being asked to write about something they care about. Describing her experience with the semester-long essay, one student excitedly describes developing a “tone of authority combined with credibility, a strong format and use of language.” Another student confesses that he now goes into an argumentative essay believing that he will come out of the process “with a whole new perspective.” And yet another student, writing about encountering adulthood, comments that she was able to “share her experiences with love, death, happiness, and sorrow, and connect it all back to show how these experiences helped me grow and mature.” And in doing so, she concludes, “I learned a lot about myself as a person, and was able to explore “my beliefs, my opinions, and my biases.”

In listening to these testimonials we begin to hear the kinds of changes that take place as students navigate the difficult transition to college-level writing. These changes-as longitudinal studies of student writers confirm time after time-do not necessarily appear on the page. Rather the changes take place in the writer. The most lasting of these changes, it follows, are those that involve the experience of being challenged to think on one’s own as well as receiving support to meet those challenges. One student writes, “I put an extreme amount of effort into this essay, and the final product was a huge success.” Another student, however, says something that has stayed with me. “At the end I did not get a really good grade. But I was interested in learning. And I found out a lot about the modern world.”

Such comments may speak to the dedication of those who of us teach the thinking and writing course. But these  student, more importantly, make visible the kinds of changes students experience in their first college-level writing course. One question is whether a curriculum that takes thinking and writing to be one of the primary pathways across the four years is a curriculum will measure up to the more ambitious goals our students may now be setting for themselves. The question is whether we are ready to meet them where they are.

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