Why Environmental Literature Matters

While researching for the upper-division Environmental Literature course I teach every other fall, I came across this quote from Dr. John Tallmadge:

“Environmental literature…engages the humanities in pressing concerns of the day. We often blame environmental problems on industry, capitalism, bad science, or rampant consumption, and we think that technical fixes or clever new laws will solve them. But these address only the proximate causes. Environmental problems ultimately stem from our values, beliefs, and ideas about the proper relations between human beings and nature. We will never solve them without understanding those beliefs, subjecting them to critique, and transforming them with capable imagination. Such work has always belonged to the ‪humanities, and this means that humanists now have a vital role to play as public intellectuals in a culture that is groping halfheartedly toward a sustainable future.”

I’ve long been a champion of the humanities for this very reason: while science and politics have an indisputable place in remaking the world into a safe, thriving place for all sentient beings, it’s the humanities’ unique emphasis on methodological self-reflection that hold the power to bring awareness to hypocrisy or internal contradiction and transform a person’s values and beliefs, which drive behavior. The humanities are where the revolution of spirit happens. Without this revolution, our conversations and actions surrounding the most pressing issues of our time will remain stagnant.

It’s no secret that my favorite courses to teach are literature courses, and that’s because it places me on the front lines of this revolution. As students encounter new ideas, new kinds of intelligences, new ways of moving through and knowing this world, new voices that have been historically relegated to the margins, I can witness the transformation of values on a personal level. That’s exciting and immensely rewarding.

All literature has this power, but I believe that, of all the branches of literary criticism, exposure to ecocriticism is the one that wields the greatest power to transform. Thankfully, the study of simple (and, for my tastes, leaning toward the sentimental and passive) environmentalism has been overtaken by the principals of environmental justice, the idea that ecological issues intersect with human social and political issues surrounding race, class, gender and even sexuality.

This theoretical transition from environmentalism to environmental justice follows a logical progression of moral development we can see on the individual level: once a young person develops empathy for the plight of mammalian cousins like polar bears, for example, she will begin to worry about the ecosystem the polar bears exist within and start to work to conserve habitat or to slow climate change. Under the care of a good educator, as this student learns about climate change in her effort to save the polar bears she will begin to tease out the complex implications of climate change that impact not just those starving, exhausted bears, but all living beings on the planet. She opens her mind and heart to vulnerable groups of people who are most devastated by rising seas, unpredictable weather, famine, drought, soil erosion, and deforestation. This student – and I’ve watched this happen – will begin to feel the weight of her responsibility not just to the polar bears and their immediate habitat, but her empathy will range in ever wider circles. From there, it’s a short leap to extending empathy to living beings everywhere and to work for transformation in all political and social systems in an intersectional way.

Environmental justice is social justice, and vice versa.

One of the powerful things about teaching environmental literature is that, more than other literary discourse, the study of environment, even a study grounded in the written word, is best taught in a direct, hands-on way. I’ve come to learn that environmental literature courses that don’t take students out into our woods and plains, our lakes and streams, our grasslands and oceans, into the very heart and lungs of the earth, are missing a powerful and transformative teaching tool. All of our literature courses could draw on this lesson, certainly: as students read Kafka, for example, with an eye toward Marxism, what would it be like to take those students into agricultural fields to speak with migrant farm workers, or into a massive Amazon warehouse where workers’ bodies are searched before and after their shifts and walk dozens of miles a day to retrieve items to be shipped across the world? But there’s something immediately personal and visceral about our connection with nature, even in those students who begin an environmental literature course oblivious to that connection. There’s something about the study of nature that humbles us, that reminds us of our dependence on our common Mother. Nature nudges us in the direction of equality, because as a species we are equally vulnerable, our future equally tenuous. Nature teaches us that we are tied not just to each other but to all other systems.

If our university’s mission is to provide transformative education, a complex study of ecology that includes the voices and written or spoken experiences of many kinds of humans should be a part of that education. I’m pleased that my university opens this course not just to English majors or those interested in the abstract, critical and theoretical underpinnings of written codes and signs, but requires the course for all Environmental Science/Studies majors. Maybe the next step could be offering that course more often than every other fall.

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On a Diverse Literary Education

I was talking to a colleague this week about his recent experience with the GRE Literature in English test. This standardized exam, in case you don’t know, is used to evaluate potential students applying for graduate studies in English. About 3,000 people a year pay $150 to take this test, with their educational and professional future sometimes resting on these scores.

Even though I hold a terminal degree in Creative Writing, I periodically consider pursuing a PhD in a different humanities-related discipline, so I try to learn what I can from others who are going through the application process. The scope of the GRE Literature exam is daunting. The applicant is tested on conventions, genres, allusions, grammar and rhetoric, literary techniques, recognition of authors and literary works from the 1600s to the present day, literary and cultural history, and, of course, critical and theoretical approaches.

One of the problems with the Literature exam – and this is not a new problem for anyone in an English department as a scholar or an educator – is that the exam is so significantly weighted toward white European and American men. As I listened to my colleague list the kinds of writers and thinkers the exam did and did not include, I started to worry about my own success with the test.

Here’s the thing. I consider myself fairly well-read. But my definition of “well-read” is vastly different from the GRE’s definition of “well-read.” While my education included many of the canonic stand-bys – Shakespeare, Montaigne, Dickens, Joyce, Hemingway, Steinbeck – I feel especially lucky to have been exposed as an undergraduate to writers who don’t fit the Sacred White Patriarchal Canon: Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Denise Chávez, Maxine Hong Kingston, Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe, Richard Wright, Audre Lorde, and more. I’m so grateful for Dr. Hellegers, who introduced me to Linda Hogan; Dr. Hunt who taught from Leslie Marmon Silko; Dr. Johnson who gave me Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Dr. Narayanan who bequeathed Pico Iyer and Orhan Pamuk; and Dr. Lewis who taught me to appreciate graffiti and rap music as literature.

In the literature classes I teach, I take course titles like “World Literature,” for example, seriously. We read literature from all over the world, from all kinds of humans. In the first week of class, we talk about what “literature” means and what “The Canon” is and I spend all semester resisting that canon. Don’t get me wrong: we still read Shakespeare and Montaigne and Kafka and Chekhov. But we read so much more than what the GRE test considers “literature.”

Am I doing my students a disservice by resisting the canon? Perhaps my students who go on to study English in grad school may have to read a little more on their own to prepare for exams. But readers do that anyway, don’t we? And we’ve all heard of those Dead White Guys. Without the kind of diverse education I was privileged to get, I may never have heard of half my favorite writers, writers who struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously. I may not have become the kind of educator who prioritizes reading that offers both windows and mirrors to my students, no matter who they are. I may not be the person I am today, and that possibility makes me sad.

My students set on graduate school can pick up any anthology and read The Canon that supports white male privilege. I hope I can offer them a glimpse into other ways of making noise in the world. I hope that glimpse encourages them to make a little noise in their own way. I hope I can prepare them to go out and resist assumptions about literature.

And who knows? Maybe one of them will challenge the GRE to come up with a better measure of literary academic success.

The Indefinable Magic of the Classroom

One of the things I love most about my university job is connecting with students. I see a lot of vulnerability in my office behind a closed door (what professor doesn’t?), and I invariably feel honored to be allowed a glimpse of the real human behind the “student” mask. But it smacks me full in the heart when my students open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable and authentic in the classroom, in front of their peers.

Today in a literature class, we discussed women’s rights and gender roles, facilitated by a reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Because the class is overwhelmingly female (21/23), these abstract issues are very real for us, very heavy, and in some cases very painful. It was remarkable to see women strong enough to speak up about their private struggles and insecurities, and then watch other students eager to jump to each other’s support with encouragement and validation.

I don’t have much data on this, but I’m convinced that transformative learning can’t take place without a tender heart. I’m impressed when my students are so willing to do the difficult “heart” work of learning, and even better, to do it as a community.

There’s something miraculous about what happens in a classroom, some unidentifiable magic good teachers are constantly trying to harness. It’s a slippery thing, but when it’s present, you know it. Your students know it. It’s a sacred thing.