Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

What We Don’t Talk about When We talk about Crisis

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Crisis
September 8th & 22nd, 2023 (Online)

In response to the recent wave of articles, essays, and books discussing the crisis in Literary Studies and the Humanities more broadly, The Tautegory Project has organized two roundtables to reflect on, challenge, and complicate our current crisis discourse. By facilitating an open-ended conversation between scholars at different stages of their careers working across a range of institutions, we hope to generate insights, questions, and avenues for intervention that might lead to practical agendas for modest innovation and reform in the future. A brief open discussion with audience members will follow each roundtable.

To participate or attend you will need to register for each event via the Zoom links below:

  • Roundtable One: September 8th 2:00-4:00 PM (EST): Featuring Kristen Case, Dana Ringuette, Sam Hushagen, Aaron Hanlon and Amal Eqeiq. Register for the Zoom meeting Here.
  • Roundtable Two: September 22nd 2:00-4:00 PM (EST): Featuring Jonathan Arac, Zachary Tavlin, Paul Jaussen, Anna Kornbluh, and Mark Long. Register for the Zoom meeting Here.

The Tautegory Project is a network of scholars, students, and teachers devoted to developing and sustaining spaces for intellectual collaboration and critical communication. The term ‘tautegory’ (coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge) combines the ideas of tautology and category to account for the continuities and similarities between distinct concepts, ideas, and phenomena without suppressing or ignoring their differences.

One of our guiding assumptions is that responsible and responsive intellectual work in any given field owes much to its tautegorical relations with a wider ecosystem of criticism and scholarship. We take conversations rather than conference presentations or scholarly articles as the most needed and effective means for fostering genuine and sustainable innovations in a period of dramatic institutional and cultural transformation. We are therefore particularly interested in critical discussions and arguments that address and explore commonplace oppositions between truth and value, science and the humanities and arts, and other reductive assumptions that make it difficult to sufficiently account for the real complexities of our current intellectual circumstances.

If you are in search of opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and mutual learning not shaped by the imperatives to professionalize, specialize, and publish we hope you will join us.

Long Live Pedagogy!

Since 2005 I have had the good fortune to help build and sustain a vibrant discourse around teaching in English studies as Associate Editor of Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. This year I am moving on from this position along with the founding editors, Marcy Taylor and Jennifer Holberg.

My first contribution to Pedagogy was as a reviewer (On Becoming a Teacher Winter 2002). Soon after I joined the editorial team I contributed Where Do You Teach (Fall 2005), an Associate Editor’s Introduction (Winter 2006), and an introductory note (Winter 2008) to a collaboratively written essay a group of graduate students preparing to teach a literature course at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, guided by their professor, Dale Bauer, and who were immersed in current debates about teaching by reading Patrick Allitt’s I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, Shari Stenberg’s Professing and Pedagogy, Paul Kameen’s Writing/Teaching, Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academe, and one textbook, Mariolina Salvatori and Pat Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.

In addition to working with dozens of authors as an editor of the reviews section of the journal, I served as guest editor of a special issue on the small college department (Spring 2010) that included my introductory essay Centers and Peripheries in which 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. My essay surveys a selection of published writing produced within the small college department and points to the practices of smaller institutions and departments in which faculty and students collaborate and envision scholarly and creative activities within the mission and values of a particular institution. I argue that if the current traditional conception of the discipline has rendered a great deal of the work of the profession invisible, then it would make sense to talk more about what our colleagues are actually doing outside the doctorate-granting institution. And I conclude that representing more fully what we do will require us to move beyond general claims for teaching as a form of scholarship and away from decontextualized arguments about the value of teaching. Finally, my Commentary Who We Are, Why We Care (Winter 2010) appeared in our Ten Year anniversary issue.

Between 2006 and 2023 I edited over seventy-five book reviews, and I am grateful to all of the authors who shared with our readers a few of the many books on teaching and learning published each year. The list of books and authors is below.

Inventing the Discipline: Student Work in Composition Studies. Eds. Edited by Stacey Waite and Peter Wayne Moe (Jessica Masterson, Washington State University Vancouver)

Beyond Fitting In: Rethinking First-Generation Writing and Literacy Education. Ed. Kelly Ritter. (Molly Parsons, Keene State College)

Reading and Writing Instruction in the Twenty-First Century: Recovering the Transforming the Pedagogy of Robert Scholes. Eds. Ellen C. Carillo. (Martin Bickman, University of Colorado Boulder)

Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice. Eds. Bridget Draxler and Danielle Spratt (William Stroup, Keene State College)

 Teaching Postcolonial Environmental Literature and Media. Ed. Cajetan Nwabueze Iheka. (Jennifer Horowitz, Rhode Island School of Design)

Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies, by Nicole B. Wallack. (Jenny Spinner, Saint Joseph’s University)

Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom, edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard B. Tinberg, and Sheridan D. Blau. (Nick Sanders, Michigan State University)

Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching, by Sarah Ruffing Robbins. (Siobhan Senier, University of New Hampshire)

From Boys to Men: Rhetorics of Emergent American Masculinity, by Leigh Ann Jones. (Christopher M. Parsons, Keene State College)

Digging into Literature: Strategies for Reading, Analysis, and Writing, by Joanna Wolfe and Laura Wilder, and Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies: Teaching and Writing in the Disciplines. (Paul T. Corrigan. “Teaching What We Do in Literary Studies”; Jamie K. Paton. “From the Parlor to the Classroom: An Undergraduate Perspective”; Nancy L. Chick. “Beginning Where the Students Are Beginning.”

Composition in the Age of Austerity, edited by Nancy Welch and Tony Scott. (Phillip Goodwin, University of Nevada, Reno)

Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle. (Rebecca C. Conklin, Central Michigan University)

Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age, by Thomas Leitch. (Patrick C. Fleming, Rollins College)

Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Vershawn Ashanti Young, Rusty Barrett, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, and Kim Brian Lovejoy.  (Alexis McGee, University of Texas–San Antonio)

The Value of the Humanities, by Helen Small. (Kurt Spellmeyer, Rutgers University)

The Humanities “Crisis” and the Future of Literary Studies, by Paul Jay. (Deborah H. Holdstein, Columbia College Chicago)

Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring, Harry C. Denny; Xiaoqiong You, Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering: Case Studies from MIT, Mya Poe, Neal Lerner, and Jennifer Craig; Meaghan Elliott, Whistlin’ and Crowin’ Women of Appalachia: Literacy Practices since College, Katherine Kelleher Sohn; Adam Parker Cogbill. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Peter Elbow; Matt Switliski “(Writing) Centers and Margins.” (“Introduction: Developing a Dialogue about Language and Politics, by Christina Ortmeier-Hooper and Meaghan Elliott)

The Readers’ Thoreau and “Walden”: A Fluid Text Edition. (Paul Schacht, State University of New York Geneseo, Kristen Case, University of Maine Farmington)

Literature and Social Justice: Protest Novels, Cognitive Politics, & Schema Criticism. Mark Bracher. (Eric Leake, University of Denver)

Multimodal Literacies and Emerging Genres. Eds. Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus. (Lauri Bohanan Goodling, Georgia Perimeter College)

The Centrality of Style. Eds. Michael Duncan and Star Medzerian Vanguri. (Gretchen Dietz, Miami University)

The Evolution of College English: Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns. Thomas P. Miller. (Yvonne Bruce, University of Akron and John Carroll University)

Teaching the Literature of Today’s Middle East. Ed. Allen Web. (Beth Stickney, Keene State College)

On Critical Pedagogy. Henry Giroux.(Michael Sutcliffe, Washington State University Vancouver)

The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Thomas P. Miller. (Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, “Shaping the Field:  A Review of The Norton Book of Composition Studies”; Thomas L. Burkdall, “Pencil Traces: The Conversations of Composition”; Lori Ostergaard and Greg A. Giberson, “What Do Writing Majors Need to Know? Contextualizing a Discipline’s Conversations for Undergraduates”)

Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook. Ed. Joshua Marie Wilkinson. (Kevin Craft, Everett Community College)

Dead Letters: Error in Composition, 1873-2004. Tracy Santa. (Andrea Olinger, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Does the Writing Workshop Still Work? Ed. Dianne Donnelly. (Adam Breckenridge, University of Florida)

A Feminist Legacy: The Rhetoric and Pedagogy of Gertrude Buck. Suzanne Bordelon. (Susan Pagnac, Iowa State University)

The Transition to College Writing, 2nd ed. Ed. Keith Hjortshoj. (Cary Moskovitz, Duke University)

Embracing Vernacular Literacies. The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and Basic Writing Instruction. By Shannon Carter. (Jamey Gallagher, Lehigh University)

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Robert D. Richardson. (Sean Meehan, Washington College)

Science in the Writing Classroom: Interdisciplinary Rhetorical Explorations. Michael Zerbe. (Paula Comeau, North Dakota State University)

Assigning, Responding, and Evaluating: A Teacher’s Guide. Ed White. (Lee Nickoson-Massey, Bowling Green State University)

The Locations of Composition. Eds. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser (Caroline Dadas, Miami University)

Standards-Based Constructivism: a Two-Step Guide for Motivating Middle and High School Students. Ed. Pat Flynn, et al.  (Be-Asia McKerracher, Truman State University)

Writing and Motivation. Pietro Boscolo and Suzanne Hidi. (Danielle Cordaro, Purdue University)

The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein as Writers in Community. Diana Glyer. (Cheryl O’Sullivan, Azusa Pacific University)

Approaches to Teaching Wiesel’s Night. Alan Rosen. (Nona Fienberg, Keene State College)

Making Teaching and Learning Visible. Eds. Daniel Berstein, Amy Nelson Burnett, Amy Goodburn, and Paul Savory. (John Webster, University of Washington)

Radical Pedagogy: Identity, Generativity, and Social Transformation. Mark Bracher. (David Brenner, Universität Konstanz)

What Is College-Level Writing. Eds. Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg. (Katheleen Hunzer, University of Wisconsin, River Falls)

They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.  (Laura Grow, Central Michigan University, Phyllis Benay, Keene State College)

Teaching Rhetorica: Theory, Pedagogy, Practice. Eds. Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie (Shima Carter, Nova Southeastern University)

Life on the Tenure Track:  Lessons from the First Year.  James M. Lang.  (William H. Wandless, Central Michigan University)

The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.  Walter Benn Michaels. (John Marsh, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition. Steven Mailloux. Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy. Elizabeth Ellsworth. (Dale Bauer and the UIUC Pedagogy Collective: Dale Bauer, Rebeccah Bechtold, Mike Behrens, Nick Capell, Adam Deutsch, Zia Glubhegovic, Marilyn Holguin, Merton Lee, Carl Lehnen, Kim O’Neill, Christy Scheuer, Melissa Tombro, Jason Vredenburg)

Local Knowledges, Local Practices: Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell. Ed. Jonathan Monroe. (John Bean, Seattle University)

Tactics of Hope: the Public Turn in English Composition. Paula Mathieu. (Roxanne Spray, University of South Carolina)

Personally Speaking:  Experience as Evidence in Academic Discourse. Candace Spigelman.  (Molly Flaspohler, Concordia College)

Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Debra Hawhee. (Chris Drew, Indiana University)

The English Teacher’s Companion. Jim Burke. (Howard Sklar, University of Helsinki)

Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project. Ed. Anna Leahy. (Miriam Marty Clark)

Teaching and Evaluating Writing in the Age of Computers and High-Stakes Testing. Carl Whithaus. (Paul L Yoder, Saint Louis University)

The Oxford Companion to the Brontes. Eds. Christine Alexander and Margaret Smith. (Diane Hoeveler, Marquette University, Terri Hasseler, Bryant University)

Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. Julie Jung. (Sandy Tarabochia,  University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

On Bullshit. Harry Frankfurt. (David Kellogg, Northeastern University)          

Why Does Literature Matter? Frank B. Farrell. (Cristy Vischer Bruns, University of California—Santa Barbara)

Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century. Gregory Colon Semenza. (Genevieve Bressard, University of Portland)

The Profession of English in the 2 Year College . Eds. Mark Reynolds and Sylvia Holladay-Hicks. (Wendy Swyt, Highline Community College,  Jason Kane, Elgin Community College, Lucia Elden and Barry Alford, Mid-Michigan Community College)

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Wayne C. Booth (Mike Edwards, University of Massachusetts and Collie Fulford, University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Crossing Borderlands: Composition and Postcolonial Studies. Eds. Andrea A. Lunsford and Lahoucine Ouzgane. (Frederick Luis Aldama, U Colorado Boulder)

Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America. Eds. Vivyan C. Adair and Sandra L. Dahlberg. (Christie Launius, Augusta State University)

Response to Reform: Composition and the Professionalization of Teaching. Margaret J. Marshall (Michele Fero, Michigan State University)

Professing and Pedagogy: Learning the Teaching of English. Shari J. Stenberg. (Kirsti Sandy, Keene State College, Colin Irvine, Augsburg College)

The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. Eds. Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue. (Mary Ann Crawford, Central Michigan University, John Webster, University of Washington)

The Art of Teaching. Jay Parini. (Bartholomew Brinkman, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Melissa Free, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

The End of Composition Studies. David W. Smit. (Lance Massey, Elon University)

Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post Civil-Rights Era.

Henri and Susan Searls Giroux. (Jonathan Vincent, University of Illinois)

Approaches to Teaching the Works of William Carlos Williams

It has been a joy and a professional privilege to work with colleagues editing books for teachers. With Fred Waage and Laird Christensen, I co-edited Teaching North American Environmental Literature (2008) and, with Sean Meehan, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2018). Both volumes appeared in the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series. I am now beginning work on a volume for the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature: “Approaches to Teaching the Works of William Carlos William­s.”

The collection will offer secondary and post-secondary teachers, graduate students, and independent scholars, a resource for teaching a poet whose work is widely regarded as among the most innovative and influential of the twentieth century. This is the perfect time for such a volume: Williams’s commitment to the poor and the working class as well as his own multicultural and multilingual background, alongside his democratic insistence on ordinary language and experience as poetic, speak to our current time, just as his poetic innovations have spoken and remained relevant to poets of various schools who have claimed Williams as their main influence.

Although Williams is among the most recognizable twentieth-century American poets, he is often the most difficult to teach. The challenge of teaching Williams is not that his poems are difficult or inaccessible. Rather most readers in secondary school English, undergraduate surveys of twentieth-century American literature, literary Modernism, or American poetry and poetics come to know Williams as the author of a few short lyrics––among them “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the “plums poem,” “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital,” and “This is Just to Say.”­­ The volume will feature materials and courses for introducing these well-known works alongside the less-known but widely-influential lyric poems, the early experimental work, including Kora in Hell and Spring and All, the book-length poem Paterson, the translations of Spanish and Latin American verse, and Williams’s wide-ranging and provocative fiction and nonfiction.

The “Materials” section will introduce Williams’s writing and related resources. Our introduction will introduce the standard editions published by New Directions Press: The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909–1939 (1986); The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume II, 1939–1962 (1988); Paterson (1992); and By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 (2011). We will survey the fiction, short stories, and experimental writing, including the works collected in The Selected Essays (1954) and Imaginations (1970), as well as the book-length study of American history and culture In the American Grain (1925). A biographical sketch will situate Williams’s creative work in relation to his multiethnic background as well as his life-long medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey. We will provide a pedagogically-oriented overview of the secondary commentary as well, including the extant biographical resources, bibliographies of secondary materials, and major studies of Williams’s modern poetry and poetics.

We will also offer teachers materials that document the resurgence of Williams’s presence in the modern poetic tradition around the world––from Julio Marzan’s The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams (1994) to Jonathan Cohen’s collection of Williams’s translations in By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 1916–1959 (2011), as well as scholarship in both the “Materials” and “Approaches” sections, more broadly, to elaborate Williams’s Latinx heritage, his indebtedness to the traditions of Peninsular and Colonial Spanish literature, and current literary criticism and theory on the relations of culture, power, and aesthetics in the Caribbean that engage with Williams’s legacy. The “Approaches” section, moreover, will (re)situate Williams’s distinctive modernism around issues of linguistic, geographic, and cultural translation as well as creative writers. We will also compile the available and reliable web-based materials—including the recently completed open-access digital concordance to the poems in the Williams corpus.

The “Approaches” section will also introduce readers to the life and work of the small-town doctor who published more than forty books of poetry and prose and who irreversibly shaped the arc of poetry and poetics during the twentieth century. We plan to include essays on teaching Williams as an avant-garde writer in the early modernist period during and after World War 1 using Al Que Quire! (1917), Spring and All (1923), and The Wedge (1944). And we envision essays on the complex literary and cultural politics of Williams’s reception as a poet through the late 1950s and 1960s, and approaches to the work in the later period that encompasses the publication of Paterson (1946–1951), Collected Later Poems (1950), Collected Early Poems (1951), Make Light of It: Collected Stories (1950), the Autobiography (1951), Selected Essays (1954), The Desert Music (1954),  Journey to Love (1955), and Pictures from Brueghel (1962).

Williams was a tireless supporter and mentor of younger poets, and teachers will find new ways to include in their courses on modernism his reviews and early essays on the writing of Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, H.D., and Marianne Moore, and his promotion of the work of numerous individual poets, including Allen Ginsberg (writing the introduction to the City Lights edition of Howl); Muriel Rukeyser, a feminist poet affiliated with the Popular Left Front; and Amiri Baraka, who described Williams as the “common denominator” of the New American Poetry and the poet who had taught him “how to write in my own language—how to write the way I speak rather than the way I think a poem ought to be written.”

We will include an essay on Williams’s editorial and creative contributions to both prominent and peripheral little magazines (Others, Contact, Origin, Black Mountain Review, Yugen) and a teacher-oriented approach to his poetics in relation to the aesthetics of high-Modernism and the New Criticism. For with his college friend Ezra Pound, Williams provided a foundation for the “schools” of poetry Donald Allen identified in The New American Poetry (1960): Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat, and New York; and he collaborated with Louis Zukofsky to promote “Objectivist” poetics and the poems of Basil Bunting, George Oppen, Carl Rakowski, Charles Reznikoff, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Lowell, and Denise Levertov. One reason Williams remains a singular presence among modernist poets is his dedication to vernacular forms of expression in local environments and, more specifically, his poetic engagement with the working-class lives he encountered through his medical practice. The publication of Imaginations (New Directions 1970), moreover, provided creative inspiration for “Language Poetry,” (what Ron Silliman has called “third-phase objectivism”) that began in the 1930s and was reanimated by Silliman and other poets, such as Bob Perelman, Bob Grenier, and Charles Bernstein, as well as taken up by feminist experimental writers, including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Alice Notley, Lyn Hejinian, and Rae Armantrout (a student of Levertov).

The “Approaches” section will include essays that address the ways that Williams was entangled in American history and identity, engaged with the inheritance of European literary and cultural traditions, and concerned with the transnational and multilingual dimensions of language and literature. To this end, we are committed to providing teachers access to approaches and materials for engaging with Williams’s preoccupation with cultural identity and the challenging questions associated with literary inheritance, including the patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions in his work, the cross-cultural complexities of his hemispheric interest in the literary and cultural history of the Americas, and his Puerto Rican heritage. (His mother, Helena Hoheb, was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico). An essay on Williams as a translator of Spanish and Latin American poets will provide teachers with resources for teaching Williams in relation to such poets as Cuba’s Eugenio Florit, Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Nicanor Parra, Ecuador’s Jorge Carrera Andrade, Costa Rica’s Eunice Odio, Nicaragua’s Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, Argentina’s Silvina Ocampo, Uruguay’s Álvaro Figueredo, Mexico’s Octavio Paz and Ali Chumacero, and the Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos.

In addition to the poems, we will provide teachers with pedagogical approaches to teaching Williams as a prose writer: the short stories, novels, plays, autobiographical writing, and essays on poetry and the arts—including his contributions to the genre of the literary essay; the literary-historical method of booklength studyIn the American Grain (1925); the novels and short stories, such as A Voyage to Pagany (1928), White Mule (1937), and Life along the Passaic River (1938); and The Doctor Stories (1984).We will offer approaches to teaching the book-length poem Paterson, including in relation to urban planning and local environments; an essay on Williams and the visual arts, exploring his relationships with Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Alfred Stieglitz, and Charles Sheeler; an essay that provides insight into working with the biographical materials; and an essay on studying Williams’s literary and cultural relations and legacies, for instance, his reflections on education in his essays and philosophical fragments written in the late 1920s, and published posthumously in 1974, The Embodiment of Knowledge. Finally, the volume will feature approaches to teaching Williams using tools from the Digital Humanities that use mapping technologies and hypertextual online annotations to collaborate with students in shared projects that use data processes and new media to re-investigate Williams’s work.

I am fortunate to be working with an amazing editorial team for the volume, talented collaborators and inspiring colleagues, who share my passion for teaching as well as writing about Williams. What is more, each of us teach and study Williams at institutions with different missions and students served, and our institutional and scholarly locations will strengthen the development of the volume. One of my co-editors is Daniel Burke, immediate past president of the William Carlos Williams Society, recently organized the biennial conference of the Society in Chicago with support from his home institution, Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, the Poetry Foundation, and the University of Chicago. The other co-editor, Elin Käck, who teaches at Sweden’s Linköping University, is currently Vice-President of the Society, who recently chaired an MLA session celebrating the centennial of Williams’s Spring and All, and who brings her perspective and scholarship on Williams and ideas of tradition and Europe in modernism and American poetry.

The MLA is currently inviting interested teachers and scholars to take a survey and to submit proposals for the new volume on teaching the works of William Carlos WilliamsSurvey responses and proposals are due 1 June.

On Staying Alive

As I look back at a productive sabbatical year, and ahead to my new role as professor emeritus, I have been thinking about staying alive: of coming to terms with the “Mark Long project”–whatever that might turn out to be. Recently, too, a friend asked for a link to my essays in The Staying Alive Project, and I thought it would be useful to pull together links to the twenty short essays I wrote on the promises and perils of academic life.

The Staying Alive Project began as a conversation with John Tallmadge in 2006. Our conversations led to a workshop for academic professionals at the Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 2007, and then in ASLE sessions and panels at the biennial conferences through the 2019 ASLE gathering in Davis, California.

Over the years, we also led conversations about the challenges of academic life with colleagues at colleges and universities across the country, and invited guest posts on our Staying Alive Blog, including John Knott, Michael P. Branch, Sarah Jaquette Ray, and Stephen Siperstein. I have also published a series of essays on academic departments and institutions in academic journals and essay collections.

The grounding premise of the Project is spelled out on our web site: “Like other learned professions, academia offers a model career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This organizing fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, and thence to tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. While many careers do indeed unfold along this path, many others diverge to a greater or lesser degree. But at every point along the way, one’s experience reflects the interplay of three fundamental factors: the person, the profession, and the institution. And much quiet desperation arises from ignorance of their nature and influence. We are interested in a conversation about these factors and how they operate across the phases of an academic career.

“Drawing inspiration from Eric Erickson’s life stages, we define three major phases of academic life across three dimensions of experience.  Each of these phases—graduate school, junior faculty, and senior faculty—offers payoffs that are also challenges or costs. At each stage, people experience seduction followed by betrayal-or, in more benign circumstances, disillusionment. Our vision is to cultivate a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.”

Now that I am in transition to a new phase of life and work, I may be turning again to reflect on these questions.

On Staying Alive: Occasional Essays on the Promises and Perils of Academic Life (2009––2019)

A Writing Prompt

When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

The Value of Professional Mentoring

Preparation and Strain

Endings and Beginnings

Striking a Balance

The Bureaucratization of the Imaginative

Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

The Warrior Phase

Rethinking (Academic) Success 3

It Don’t Come Easy: Thoughts on the Citizen Phase of Academic Life

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

Neither For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Continuing the Conversation

The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

Only Connect

Redefining Service

Teaching the Prose of William Carlos Williams

For many teachers, particularly those less familiar with modernist writing, Williams’ prose is, to quote a 1966 assessment by A. Kingsely Weatherhead, “to a great extent, hit or miss. There are on the one hand the brilliant perceptions” and there are on the other hand, he writes, “the kind of floundering around, the compulsive repetition with variations of a word that has a kind of numinous appeal to him, found for example in ” The Poem as a Field of Action'” (SE pp. 280-291), where he doesn’t rightly know what he’s about at all.” In 1969, however, Linda Welshimer Wagner articulated a more sympathetic approach, calling attention to Williams’ improvisational prose style. “The personal and “idiomatic quality” of Williams’ prose—including his essays, The Great American Novel, the Autobiography, and the letters—present the reader with a difficulty. “Instead of logic,” Wagner concludes, Williams gives us truly personal improvisation.” The example she gives is from Marianne Moore:

Surely there is no poetry so active as that of today, so unbound, so dangerous to the mass of mediocrity, if one should understand it, so fleet, hard to capture, so delightful to pursue. It is clarifying in its movements as a wild animal whose walk corrects that of men.

For Wagner, the numerous qualifying phrases and the esoteric simile illustrate some of Williams’ weakest stylistic practices. The control he achieves in much of his fiction is less evident when the poet himself speaks. Williams’ painful honesty, his groping, sometimes obscures rational progression, but never the effect of genuine speech—terse, emotional, stubborn, perceptive (140). I want to suggest, more specifically, that the moments where we miss rational progression are the moments when the literary qualities of Williams’ prose are most acute. “There is no confusion—only difficulties” Williams admonishes in Spring and All. To follow improvisational moments in any form of experimental art is to follow the mind recognizing itself as it intervenes in the familiar.

My claim in this essay is that there may be no more productive space for the practice of literary and cultural studies than the prose writings of William Carlos Williams. In the undergraduate classroom, in particular, Williams’ prose invites students to wrestle with practical questions about reading, thinking, and writing. His prose is alive with the theoretical questions that arise in practice as well: questions about linguistic forms, language and thought, the relations between ourselves and the world.

The pedagogical value of Williams’ prose follows from my recognition that my most productive experiences as a teacher have roots in what I have learned from Williams and what Williams has made possible for my students. In first-year writing courses, general education humanities electives, historical or thematic surveys in the major, or project-based work in upper-level courses, Williams has proven a generous, challenging, and provocative companion. For the students I teach at a public liberal arts institution—with over forty percent who are the first in their families to attend college—Williams’ generous and vital commentaries on reading, thinking, and writing have been extraordinarily useful in both English and general studies courses.

There are places to go when considering Williams’ pedagogical values and strategies. But “(A Sketch for) the Beginnings of an American Education” is perhaps the most instructive place to begin. The sketch, near the end of The Embodiment of Knowledge, is a provocation. “A good beginning,” Williams insists, “would be to abolish in American schools (at least) all English departments and to establish in [their] place the department of Language” (EK 146). The fault with education, Williams will say in the section “The Beginnings of an American Education,” is not the students at all “but with those to whom it has been asked to look: to its elders, the leaders, the professors. . .” (3). Anyone who has become weary of general comments by teachers about the poor preparation or skills of their students, or who, like me, has found a response that goes something like “the problem with student writing is not the students,” will understand what Williams is getting at here.

The department of Language that Williams might envision follow from the examples he provides of what we might today call “student-centered” learning, or pedagogical methods organized around promoting student agency. In the department of Language professors would be less concerned with disciplinary knowledge or skills and inclined toward the approach to language in Gregory Ulmer, Nancy Comley, and Robert Scholes’ Textbook: An Introduction to Literary Language—a reader that, as it happens, includes in the section on narrative Williams’ “The Use of Force.” First published in 1988, and revised and expanded in 1995 and 2001, Textbook opens with a letter to the student

As you enter this book you will find all kinds of texts: some are usually called ‘literary’ and some are not. This mixture is essential to our method. We do not want to offer you a collection of ‘master’ works that ask for your passive submission, but a set of texts that you can work and play with, increasing your own understanding of fundamental textual processes and your own ability to use the written word. We hope to help you feel more at home in the house of language, and we are confident that a better command of written language will contribute to a better life.

This emphasis on texts—poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, fragments and more completed work—and the invitation for students to play with language and become more aware of textual processes aligns well with Williams’ department of Language.

The department of Language Williams might envision can be further imagined through a comment on the practice of modern writing in “The Modern Primer,” in which Williams asks “What is meaning of Gertrude Stein’s work?” His answer—“Language is made up of words, the spaces between words and their configuration” (17)—offers a useful reminder when a classroom of students engaged in a close reading of a text laments that if only they could read “between the lines” or “more deeply.” It is useful because these metaphors imprison students in a misconception. For when one actually reads between lines one finds white space. Similarly, when one reads “deeply” one lands on the next page. Williams’ prose writings offer touchstone sentences that demystify the ways people trained in the humanities engage with texts. Furthermore, in “The Embodiment of Knowledge etc.,” Williams observes that “The basis of all bad reasoning is in the beginning” (41) and of the necessity “to conceive clearly the materials of our thought” (42). The focus on language must also address the challenge of students who appear to have learned in their English classes that meaning is something that can be found in words—students who have essentially ceded the active process of making meaning to the authority or the commonplace understandings that replace the experience of reading with the conclusions of other readers.

The essays in The Embodiment of Knowledge are rooted in a tradition of thinking about education and institutions that runs from Emerson through Dewey to the robust scholarship of teaching and learning that circulates mostly in the pedagogical domains of rhetoric and composition. Ron Loewinsohn’s introductory essay to The Embodiment of Knowledge provides a summary of these roots. “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads,” Loewinsohn writes, “is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are on-going activities in which we create ourselves from day to day” (xii). Across the early and late prose writings—and of course in the poetry and poetics—one finds this broadly humanistic understanding of attention to engaged inquiry, an active imagination, and self determination. Williams’ prose is useful as we learn to empower students—encouraging them to become more aware of their place in the developmental arc of late adolescence and supporting them as they struggle with authority, perspective, and autonomy.

At the same time, Williams’ concern with language, history, and culture, as Brian Bremen has demonstrated, comprise a “cultural diagnostics” that, in Bremen’s description, is surprisingly congruent with the literary and cultural work we routinely ask of our students. Williams prose writings, in particular, offers students clear insight into the purpose of humanistic study. Bremen notes that Williams’ poetics embrace ideas about literature, history, medicine, gender relations, and politics. And Bryce Conrad, especially in his 1990 book Refiguring America: A Study of In the American Grain, offers teachers an incisive description of William’s historiographical method—what Conrad calls Williams’ “open” history focused on the active process of making historical knowledge.

What does this active process of making historical knowledge look like in an undergraduate classroom? Reading and reflecting on literary and cultural history with Williams, in a course I taught in American Studies and Women’s Studies, a student decided to write about the book, In the American Grain, and two essays, Williams’ 1934 “The American Background: America and Alfred Stieglitz” and Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision” that was published in a 1972 issue of College English dedicated to Women, Writing and Teaching.

The student quoted Rich’s description of awakening that opens the essay—”It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful”— and found in Williams’ description and critique of history a method not unlike Rich’s material and feminist critique. The student argued that both Williams and Rich insist that we examine, in Rich’s words, “how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live-afresh.” The modernist William and the feminist Rich share an imperative for what Rich describes as “re-vision”: “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.

This example, and there are innumerable others, have shown me some of the ways Williams’ prose writing enter the minds of and inspire our students. Most recently, I have taught Williams in the tradition of the essay from Montaigne—discovering that Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, in fact, include Williams’ “An Essay on Virginia” in their sourcebook Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. (It is one of four selections from the 1920s, Williams appears between Virginia Woolf and Hilaire Belloc.) In an essay on the text, Stuckey- French reminds his reader that “the genteel essay was under siege by 1925, but it was not clear what would replace it” (105), For Williams, Stuckey- French argues, “the debate over the future of America and the future of the essay were linked by the question of form, for he believed that the transformation of American culture rested on the transformation of the forms of that culture” (98). Stuckey-French points out that Williams “was unique among American modernists in his decision to write an essay on the essay” (100), arguing that “Williams develops and demonstrates his theory of the essay, arguing that the formless form of the essay mirrors the form of American democracy, which rests on an unresolvable tension between individualism and conformity” (97).

Williams is exquisitely aware of the need to imagine ways of writing beyond cultural and discursive commonplaces. And his prose writings unsettle distinctions between the personal and the academic, between lived experience and the thinking of others. As Loewinsohn writes in his introduction to The Embodiment of Knowledge, “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are ongoing activities in which we create ourselves from day-to-day” (xii). Williams notion is that when students learn the pleasures of experiencing higher standards than what they are used to, they become aware of these standards and enlarge their own sense of what can be done.

Works Cited

Conrad, Bryce. Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Cardozo, Karen M. “Essaying Democracy: The Post/Modern Intertexts of Kingston, Rodriguez, and Williams.” William Carlos Williams Review 27.1 (Spring 2007): 1–23

Kinnahan, Linda. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Moore, Daniel. “Trauma and “The Use of Force”.” William Carlos Williams Review. 29.2 (2009): 161–175. Project Muse

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision.” College English 34.1. Women, Writing and Teaching (October 1972): 18–30

Stuckey-French, Ned. “‘An Essay on Virginia’: William Carlos Williams and the Modern(ist) Essay.” American Literature 70.1 (1998): 97–130.

 Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “The Unity of His Art.” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 2.1. Poetic Theory/Poetic Practice (1969): 136–144.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. “William Carlos Williams: Prose, Form, and Measure.” ELH 33.1 (1966): 118–131

Intercultural Competence and Sustainability


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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)


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

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.

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.

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 This summer I moved all these site to 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.

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 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

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.


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.”


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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.

Panel Discussion[DoPy] (9)

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.


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.


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.


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.

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?

International_Conference[DoPy] (6)

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.


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).


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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 and a gallery for faculty and staff at If you are a student, faculty or staff member, please consider submitting something to one of the archives.

Know Thyself


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.


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.


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.

summer09 028

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.

summer09 034

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.

A Couple of Days at the MLA

Every December English professors and aspiring academics make a pilgrimage to the Modern Language Association convention (affectionately known as the MLA). Once again, I found myself among those professors. This year we all gathered in San Francisco to meet with one another and reflect on our work as professionals, present our scholarship and talk about teaching, plan future projects, or to look for a job or interview prospective candidates for a job. Last year, on sabbatical in India, I actually missed the MLA convention-a first since I was a graduate student, and the first convention I have not been at the MLA convention on a hiring committee since 1999.

San Francisco was MLA’s 124th annual convention, and thousands of us English and Modern Language people filled the Hilton, Marriott and Fairmont hotels. Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association currently has 30,000 members from over 100 countries. There are 134 divisions and discussion groups for specialized scholarly and teaching interests; 45 membership committees overseeing association activities and publications, close to 300 members elected to govern the association through its Executive Council, Delegate Assembly, and other governance committees; over 600 members serve on the executive committees of the 86 divisions and 48 discussion groups that represent the scholarly and teaching interests of various constituencies within the profession; and over 2,000 members give papers and readings each year at the convention. It’s a crazy scene. If you are interested in a glimpse of what happens in these sessions you can check out the program for the 2008 convention at

So what takes someone like me away from family and snowy New England fields between Christmas and the new year? Well, a few years ago I took on responsibility for organizing and chairing the annual session on the small college English department sponsored by the Association for Departments of English (ADE). This year I focused the session around teaching in the small college department. When I was thinking about the topic for the session last winter in Pune, India, Gerry Graff assured me that my session would fit well with his 2008 MLA presidential forum, “The Way We Teach Now.” (Happily, the small college session was listed alongside the featured presidential forum on teaching in a brochure produced for the convention.)  My idea emerged from an abiding interest in complicating the commonplace story of the profession organized around the research institution at the center with all other academic institutions on the periphery. I’ve published essays on the shortcomings of this perspective and have more recently been reading and thinking about the historical contributions of faculty who work in small college departments. These departments have essentially functioned as microclimates in the profession-fostering some of the most significant changes in English studies. My question was how does the small college department continue to generate its own conditions for innovative pedagogy, curriculum development, and the possibility of integrating the professional activities of reading, writing and teaching? More than forty people showed up for the 8:30 AM session, a good turnout indeed. Here is how I introduced the speakers:

During its fifteen years of life this session has focused on the differences between the graduate school and the small college department. Those of us involved in these ADE sponsored sessions have sought to make visible the working conditions in institutions beyond the research university. We have also used this occasion to complain about the organizing fiction of the graduate school at the center of the profession. At the 2005 convention in Washington D.C., however, I organized a roundtable that brought together graduate studies directors and small-college department faculty. For me, this conversation presented a significant turn toward talking together about our profession, as well as our shared commitments to teaching, reading and writing.

So when Gerry Graff invited members to consider showcasing “the best thinking by our members about teaching and its relationships with scholarship and writing” (“Letter”) I happily projected into his words my conviction that most of the best thinking about these relationships comes from members who teach, read and write outside the research institution. However our professional discourse continues to be shaped by persons speaking from the perspective of the doctorate-granting institution to those of us who have learned to organize our intellectual lives around teaching. As Dana Ringuette articulates the problem in his recent response to the “MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion,” research professors have clearly not thought much about “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk” Profession 2008 190). Faculty at research institutions are quite naturally on the margins of this conversation; and, as Ringuette suggests, we have much to learn from one another as we consider how our intellectual work might be organized around teaching.

As an associate editor for the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, I have the privilege of working closely with faculty whose writing documents the centrality of teaching to the work of scholars and professionals across the field of English studies. In fact the three speakers this morning are contributors to a forthcoming special issue of Pedagogy focused the small college department. The introduction I am drafting for the dedicated issue, tentatively titled “Centers and Peripheries,” is organized around a question I would like to use to help frame our conversation this morning: How might what happens in the small college department affect what happens in the research university?


Our three speakers make visible the working conditions and institutional dynamics that affect teaching in the small college department: in this case, a private and selective institution, Macalester College, a Comprehensive Catholic institution, Marywood University, and a Public Liberal arts college, the University of North Carolina Asheville. We will first hear from Stuart Y. McDougal, is DeWitt Wallace Professor of English Emeritus at Macalester College. Professor McDougal was the chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, when he was recruited by Macalester College to create a new English department. While at Michigan, he held appointments in English, Comparative literature and film studies, published widely in the fields of modern literature and film, and served as President of the American Comparative Literature Association.  The title of his presentation is Promoting and Managing Change in a Small College English Department.” Our second speaker, William Conlogue, is associate professor of English at Marywood University, Professor Conlogue teaches introductory and advanced writing, an introduction to world literature, and a variety of American literature courses. In addition to several articles on American literature and the profession, he has published a book, Working the Garden: American Writers and the Industrialization of Agriculture, and has served two terms as chairperson of the Marywood English department. The title of his presentation is “Institutional Structures and the Small English Department.” Our third speaker this morning is Margaret Downes, from the department of English at University of North Carolina Asheville, a founding member of COPLAC (the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges). Professor Downes currently serves as Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, and has served as interim Associate Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, chair of the Department of Literature & Language, and director of UNCA’s Humanities Program. She recently served as President of AGLS-the Association for General & Liberal Studies-and currently directs that organization’s international activities. The title of her presentation is “Enough! or Too much”: The Blakean Paradox of the COPLAC English Department.”

But I didn’t just fly to my native state of California to introduce this session, or even to take two lovely, long early morning runs over Nob Hill and down to the waterfront out toward the Golden Gate Park.  For I had been asked to speak as part of a special session arranged by the MLA Publications Committee, “The Profession and the Liberal Arts: A Discussion of the MLA’s Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life.” This recently published book included my essay “Reading, Writing and Teaching in Context” and the session offered participants to discuss the range of working conditions for faculty beyond the research institution.

The convention also had me attending a workshop for department chairs as a representative of Keene State College. I also met with three aspiring members of the profession as part of my yearly contributions to the annual MLA job counseling service. These meetings are always gratifying as I feel that my experiences are useful for graduate students considering the job market or new PhDs asking for feedback on their job letter or cv. What else? Well, surely a memorable bowl of Thai soup, sushi, and brief visits with friends and colleagues. And I sat in on a few other sessions-from the great to the not so great. I ran into my friend and graduate school advisor Leroy Searle, as well as one of my former Bread Loaf students, Brian, who recognized me in the chaos of the Hilton lobby.

All in all, a productive few days, though unfortunately neither the time nor the money to visit my brother in LA or friends in the Eastern Sierra. Next year the convention convenes in Philadelphia. And then, early in 2011 in New Orleans, the convention will take place in early January as the MLA moves from its current dates between Christmas and new years.

The Ecological Thought

Someone asked me the other day about my scholarship and I promised to post something about my recent writing. Here is a summary of my contributions to ongoing conversations about American poetry, environmental writing and the profession of English.

American Poetry
williamsI began writing about American poetry with two peer-reviewed journal articles: one on the poet Denise Levertov and one on William Carlos Williams. In 2004, my work on Williams continued with “Ideas as Forms of Beauty: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and A. R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of Year,” an essay that appeared in  the book Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. More recently, my work in American poetry and poetics has contributed to the emerging field of ecopoetry. My essay “William Carlos Williams, Ecocriticism, and Contemporary American Poetry” appeared in the book Ecological Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Two additional essays were published this fall: a 10,000 word overview of the life and writing of A. R. Ammons, commissioned by the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and a 10,000 word critical history of the relationship between poetry and ecology that appeared in a multi-volume anthology entitled Reading in Contemporary America. In addition, since 2003, I’ve published shorter reference entries on the American poets William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, and Denise Levertov. I also regularly review new books of American poetry for ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. My most recent review is Mary Oliver’s book of poetry Thirst.

Environmental Writing and Ecocriticism

tnaelcover1Four years of work with co-editors Laird Christensen and Fred Waage has resulted in the publication of Teaching North American Environmental Literature (MLA 2008). Our book provides a center of access to the range of pedagogical possibilities for teaching environmental literature. The collection includes over thirty contributors and features essays on the environmental literatures of Canada as well as Mexican and Mexican-American environmental literature. The book includes a section for further reading, “Resources for Teaching Environmental Literature: A Selective Guide.” Before my last promotion I published the essay “Education and Environmental Literacy: Teaching Ecocomposition in Keene State College’s Environmental House” that appeared in Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. This publication has led to a series of publications on environmental writers and ecocriticism. In 2004 I published a 12,000 word entry on John McPhee in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Nature Writers: Prose. My essay “Ecocriticism and the Practice of Reading” appeared in the fall of 2006 special issue of the journal Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy that I guest edited. Reader is a semiannual publication that generates discussion on reader-response theory, criticism, and pedagogy. My essay, and the special issue, is focused around the relationship between reading and ecological thinking.

My sabbatical offered me the time to write and present a plenary talk at an international conference in Hyderabad, India, “Shifting Ground: The Emergence of the Bioregion and the Watershed in the Teaching of North American Environmental Literature.” A revised version of this talk appeared this fall in the inaugural 2008 issue of the Indian Journal of Ecocriticism. I’ve also written a review of the first collection of essays on environmental literature and theory published in India, Essays in Ecocriticism, that will appear in ta forthcoming issue of  ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

The Profession of English Studies

aculturescoverFor over ten years I have been writing about the profession of English. As a graduate student, while co-directing the Expository Writing Program at the University of Washington, I co-wrote and published the essay “Graduate Students, Professional Development Programs, and the Future(s) of English Studies” in the journal WPA: Writing Program Administration. Since arriving at Keene State College, my work in this area has focused on the intellectual work of English in particular institutional sites. In 2004, a Keene State College Faculty Development Pool Grant enabled me to travel to the Association of the Departments of English (ADE) Summer Seminar to broaden my perspective as a scholar interested in the profession of English. Moreover, serving for three years as a member (and for one year as Chair) of the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR) furthered my understanding of the general conditions of the field of English studies and the professional lives of teachers and scholars. My subsequent inquiry into graduate training, the professional identity of faculty, and the small college department has been disseminated in a series of publications, book reviews and conference presentations. In 2005 I was invited to write a featured “Commentary” on the small college department, that I titled “Where Do You Teach?”, for the fall 2005 issue of the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. And my essay “Reading, Writing and Teaching in Context,” appeared in the book Academic Cultures: Professional Preparation and the Teaching Life (MLA 2008). This essay takes as its subject the 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.

From the Editor’s Desk

It is difficult to  sustain a writing project during an academic term. Hence the interval between semesters is the time when ideas and outlines and notes find their way into written form. I also find myself, during my idle time between semesters, preoccupied with ongoing editorial tasks.

Working scholars are often asked to review and offer comments on manuscripts under consideration for publication. Most recently, I have served a a reviewer for PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association; Paideuma: Studies in American and British Modernist Poetry; Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and CultureJAC: A Journal of Composition Theory; 5) IJE: Indian Journal of Ecocriticism; 6) ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and Indiana University Press.

In 2004 I was appointed associate editor of the journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. This profession-wide journal—the winner of the 2001 Best New Journal Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals—was founded to reverse the longstanding marginalization of teaching and the scholarship produced around it and instead to assert the centrality of teaching to the work of scholars and professionals across the field of English studies. As associate editor, I am responsible for the book review section in our three issues published each year. I read a range of new books relevant to the readers of our journal and then recruit reviewers, solicit reviews, edit individual and roundtable reviews, and serve as a liaison with book publishers. Currently, I am completing an introductory essay for a special issue of Pedagogy I have been invited to guest edit dedicated to the small college English department. The issue will foreground the ways the small college department continues to generate its own conditions for innovative pedagogy, curriculum development, and the integration of the professional activities of reading, writing and teaching.


My professional work is centered on teaching students how to read deeply, think deliberately and write effectively. Beyond the classroom, I enjoy collaborations with my faculty colleagues to improve the conditions for student learning at Keene State College.

I envision my work in terms of practice: learning and growing with my students; designing courses and learning projects that release creativity, including my own; cultivating a beginner’s mind; involving myself in generative thinking about ideas and practices within, and beyond, the College; sharing ideas, stories, wisdom and experience; modeling health, growth, vitality, both body and mind; and giving back to the community in productive relationships with others, in collaboration with students, faculty, and staff, and through mentoring—these activities continue to define my professional practice, and contribute to my evolving professional identity.

My professional activities also involve 1) academic and administrative appointments and projects, 2) professional leadership; 3) curriculum and program consulting, and 5) editorial experience:

Academic Appointments Professor, Department of English, Core Faculty, American Studies Program, Affiliate Faculty, Environmental Studies Program, Keene State College; Faculty member, Middlebury College Bread Loaf School of English, University of Southeast Alaska-Southeast

Administrative Appointments Chair of the Department of English (Three terms).  Coordinator of Thinking and Writing program. Chair of the American Studies program

Professional Leadership President, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE); Vice President, ASLE; Chair and Member, MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities; Member, Executive Council, ASLE; Program Director, Mentoring Program, ASLE

Curriculum & Program Consulting External Reviewer for Self Study, Department of English, SUNY Geneseo, New York; External Reviewer for Self Study, Department of English, College of Idaho, Caldwell, Idaho; Invited Consultant, with Gerry Francis, Executive Vice President, Elon College, Moving to Four-Credit Courses, Mount Union College, Alliance, Ohio; External Reviewer for Self Study, Environmental Studies Department, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine

Editorial Experience (selected) Founding co-editor, Strigidae: A Journal of Undergraduate Writing in the Arts and Humanities; Associate Editor, Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture; Member of Editorial Advisory Board, IJE: Indian Journal of Ecocriticism; Editorial Advisory Board, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; Developmental Editor, The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, Washington

A comprehensive list of my professional activities is included in my curriculum vitae

From the Classroom

I’m back at the College after our six month sabbatical in India, teaching three courses this semester, and already thinking about book orders for the spring. I’m teaching a section of Thinking and Writing entitled What is Nature? that explores the concept of nature. I’ve asked students to consider how definitions of nature reflect human values and beliefs, and to reflect on how these definitions organize our understanding of ourselves and our responsibilities in the world. Students have read the essays in Nadia Tazi, Keywords: Nature and Noel Castree, Nature (Key Ideas in Geography). We are also discussing parts of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, the Keene is reading Program text for the 2008-09 academic year.

I’m also teaching a section of the first course in the English department’s introductory sequence, Literary Analysis. This course invites students to read and discuss imaginative literature; become familiar with key terms, concepts, critical problems, and theoretical debates in English studies; and develop the habits of mind and skills to effectively analyze texts through the process of writing. Students also practice protocols for writing with sources, in-text citation and compiling a list of works cited. This semester I’m using Scholes Comley and Ulmer’s Text Book and we are reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts. I’ve also added readings from Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

Finally, twice each week at eight in the morning, I am teaching an interdisciplinary course, Environmental Literature, that traces the emergence of environmentalism as a social movement in relation to the rise of environmental literature as a genre. Students are considering the claims of the environmental movement in the United States from the second half of the twentieth century to the present; examining the development of the fictional and nonfiction conventions of environmental writing; thinking through the relationship between literature and social change; and considering commentaries on the environmental movement in the United States by cultural critics and environmental historians in developing countries. We are reading Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962); Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968); Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (1969); Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (1977); Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (1990); Michael Pollan, Second Nature (1991); and Linda Hogan, Solar Storms (1995). My students are writing a lot and I, in turn, am reading a lot of student writing. A hard job of work. Satisfying, too.