How to write place-based ecocomposition, ecocriticism, and environmental essays.
A Sequence of college composition writing projects
In his introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Collection of essays, “What is Literature? And Other Essays,” Steven Unger writes that Sartre once rebuked his contemporary, Gabriel Marcel, for calling him an existentialist: “Sartre replies that his is a philosophy of existence and that he doesn’t even know what Existentialism is! (7).
Unger further expands on the concept of Sartrean existentialism:
“This sense of writing for one’s time expresses what Edward Said describes as Sartre’s missionary aim of upholding literature’s singular capacity to disclose and reveal the present: “Literature was about the world, readers were in the world; the question was not whether to be but how to be, and this was best answered by carefully analyzing language’s symbolic enactments of the various existential possibilities available to human beings” (7).
As many pundits and journlists have recently noted, we are facing an existential crisis regarding the ongoing war in the Middle East; however, another existential crisis looms to challenge our students. This crisis involves the ubiquitous and perpetual struggle for human existence. It is the purpose of these exercises to inspire students to practice critical thinking, reading, and writing skills as they explore problems that involve the environment and composition studies. This approach to the ecological crisis should not be taught in order to aggravate anxiety or guilt over problems that students did not create. The purpose of these exercises is to find understanding and sow the seeds of personal investment in the ecological needs of the planet and the survival of the human race, and to seek multiple solutions to problems as we inculcate a love for life and learning in the future generation of leaders, workers, and families in the diverse ecosystems of the United States and the world.
The purpose of teaching students to write a place-based composition is to provide a means to imagine multiple ways of being in the world, so that this misunderstanding of existentialism can be reimagined as one that brings a heightened awareness to the rhetoric of ecology and the environment. For, how can we presume to make choices about how to be in the world if we do not first understand the natural and artificial demarcations of place, setting, location, and geography, particularly with respect to natural landscape?
So this sequence of exercises will provide approaches to writing a place-based composition including definition essays, comparison essays, reflective essays, persuasive essays, research models, and multimodal presentations.
Project I. First we will read several model essays that can be described as place-based or place oriented essays, even if that orientation is one of displacement. The first essay is excerpted from a larger work, a memoir about writing as we read from Eudora Welty’s book, One Writer’s Beginnings. The focus of the extract from her work is on her experience of connecting an observation of the moon with learning vocabulary that informed her first literacy experience. For this writer, the connection with the natural world is internalized in the home environment.
Then we will read an extract from the Prison studies chapter in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, wherein the author furthers his literacy education as an autodidact by reading and copying each word on every page of the dictionary. Next we will read two essays in Writers on Writing, by two prolific writers of fiction. In her essay, “To Invirgorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet” Joyce Carrol Oates discusses the literal walking exercises of the British writers such as Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and Charles Dickens, and the American Henry David Thoreau; it is the outdoor exercise and experience of walking in both rural and city environments that proved inspirational to the literate and literary activity of these writers. Next we will read an essay by James Baldwin titled “Stranger in the Village” about the experience of writing in a foreign environment. Finally, we will read how one Native-American writer attempts to reclaim the Ojibwe tribal language of her Native-American ancestry and discovers the inextricable philological and etymological connection this language makes to the natural world in “Two languages in Mind, but just one in the Heart,” by Louise Erdritch.
These readings are all selected because they involve setting or place as central to the writing experience and writing process and they treat the evolution of literacy at various stages of development. However, the purpose of these readings is not to privilege one experience over the other; for all of these authors discover the joy of freedom in their literacy and literary experiences.
For Eudora Welty, literacy is initially inspired by a nocturnal experience of gazing at the sky. For Malcolm X, etymology and philology inspire his journey toward literacy. The prison walls for Malcolm X become invisible in a sense; and his level of awareness of the external world calls forth an immense metacognitive landscape that transcends both time and space to travel the world of natural history through a process of self-discovery, anger, and alienation. For Joyce Carol Oates, the outdoor experience of exploration and physical involvement of walking through the town and country landscapes is one that has been documented by several classic writers with whom she identifies very closely regarding literacy and storytelling. For Baldwin, the place of writing in a secluded European village that is sought as a writer’s refuge becomes an encounter with a landscape that is just as strange as his presence in this foreign environment. For Erdritch, the act of moving between the linguistic foundations of her heritage and relearning a language she had nearly forgotten heightens her awareness of place and ecological relationships ancestry, literacy, and others with a cross-cultural understanding.
Project 1. Short essay focusing on one word. “Moon on a Silver Spoon.” (aim for 1000 words). This is a definition essay.
The first project is a kind of ecocomposition designed to match concepts of ecology with the writing process as you map a literacy experience in a particular place. After reading the excerpt by Eudora Welty students will proceed with the following writing assignments. The purpose is not to imitate the reading prompts by the experienced writers, but to capture the spirit of the piece as it relates literacy to environment.
- Read the Eudora Welty experience of her observation about the importance of learning words, the building blocks of writing, and reflect on the way that her particular outdoor experience with the night sky connects to her early learning literacy experience. Then think about a particular place and time that likewise resonated with your own experience learning vocabulary or developing a semiotic experience of literacy that you still associate with a particular place, especially one that is outdoors or one that involves a relationship of learning to speak and write as derived from a connection with some aspect of the natural world. Welty’s focus on the word moon is quite elementary, yet it involves a recollection of the experience in a home environment. Her description involves an aspect of the ecosystem because it relates her intake of the word as one of consumption as if it were “fed to her on a silver spoon.”
Your focus could be more suited to higher level learning; however, it need not exclude an early learning experience. Perhaps you first learned the name of a specific species of plant, specific weather condition or cloud formation, star or planet, lake or river, valley or mountain during a camping trip or journey. For example, one student wrote about an early experience learning the meaning of chrysalis in a classroom as it related to the idea of transformation in nature. Another wrote about learning the meaning of Tsunami under tragic conditions. You do not have to have written about that experience at the time that you learned the particular word, as Welty is writing her recollection many years after the event. You simply need to recall it and relate the experience of learning vocabulary that is specific to a particular environment and the relationships in that environment. Perhaps the experience can be described in positive terms as a writer, just as Welty does in her writing, or perhaps the word provoked inquiry or aggravation. Perhaps you saw the word “persimmon” in a grocery store and determined to research that particular fruit. The important thing is to “recollect in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth wrote, a particular experience of literacy as it relates to a particular setting. Where were you when you learned about this word? The word should be one that defines an organic life form, physical, or natural phenomenon, such as alkaline, deciduous, velocity, or Pleistocene.
Project number 2: “Prison studies.” This is a reflection essay.
We will read a few paragraphs from the Malcolm X autobiography that focus on how the writer became an autodidact reading and copying words out of the dictionary, and how this experience of learning by rote, word-by-word, expanded into reading books in the prison library. The experience of confinement for Malcolm X is ironically freeing as he begins to experience the world through his self-taught literacy experience. Students will choose one of the following approaches or a synthesis of the two approaches to write about an experience with literacy in a confined location or one with natural or artificial boundaries.
Option 1. In this assignment, you will describe an experience of literacy that involved reading and copying text from a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a textbook, a religious book, or any other print material. This does not include printing an article found online or forwarding a text message. This assignment involves either copying by hand or on a keyboard, reciting, memorizing text in a manner that involved the metacognitive processes of learning vocabulary as it relates to etymology, sentence structure, grammar, and linguistic language acquisition. How did this lead to discovery about learning? How did this particular form of literacy help you cope with a difficult environment, or encourage you to explore a new environment or to acquire more knowledge? You do not necessarily need to write about the place where you remember copying the sentences and paragraphs or memorizing the pledge, the psalm, the prayer, or song, you might also write about a place where the memorized text later resonated with you in a particular place. What is your recollection of this experience? How did it help you or hinder your learning about other concepts and ideas. How did it prompt or hinder your desire to read further and learn more from texts and the natural world. If your modality is primarily audio, then perhaps you could relate an experience of learning the lyrics to a particular song by heart, or a speech, a prayer, or other memorization task. Where were you when you learned in this manner and how did your relationships to others contribute to your literacy experience at the time that you developed your writing skills in this manner? How did this lead you to explore a new dimension of learning and expand your literacy skills?
Option 2. Consider the confinement experience of a particular setting as it contributed to your literacy trajectory. Then write an essay that examines how that confinement helped or hindered your growth as a writer. The confinement need not be involuntary. You might chose to write about writing in a favorite room, library alcove, coffee shop or café. Or perhaps you will write about writing at a job site such as an office, a service-learning project, or an outdoor area with specific boundaries. Consider how the particular environment and the relationships you had to other people in that environment affected your writing process and literacy development. A classroom experience is fine as long as the classroom activity was a meaningful writing activity that expanded your growth as a writer.
Project #2: Kinesthetic involvement with environment. Joyce Carol Oates and James Baldwin. This is a comparison/contrast essay. (1000 words minimum)
Students will read the excerpts as described in the introduction to this assignment. Then they will respond to the following prompt.
Research one of the outdoor walking experiences of one of the English Romantic writers in the pastoral setting or Charles Dickens walking experience in the 19th Century or Thoreau’s walking exercise through a brief research activity that involves online open source research into the essays sited in the article. Then take time to read the Baldwin essay with a critical thinking lens, allowing yourself to take notes based on your research of the outdoor walking activities of Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Dickens, or Thoreau. Pay attention to the European location as one that is familiar for the English writers. If you chose to write about Thoreau in his American description of Walden or one of his other works and his involvement with abolition and the New England transcendentalist movement, then this will research will substitute for research on one of the English writers. Then, reread Baldwin’s essay and record notes, observations, examples of his interaction and relationship to the environment and the people in his location of choice in the Swiss village. Now you are ready to write your comparison contrast essay. Remember that you are comparing the author’s relationships to their environment as it informed their literacy and/or literary experience.
Honors option. (This option is open to all students)
An alternate to this assignment involves reading “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” and comparing this to the prison studies narrative of literacy by Malcolm X. If you choose this assignment, you will need to consider, after research, Thoreau’s involvement in the literary and political landscape as an advocate of civil rights, transcendentalism, self-reliance, and the abolition of slavery. You will also need to consider the historical context in which the two writer’s developed their literacy and literary skills.
Project #3 Rhetorical analysis
We will read two essays by Native-American Writers. Louise Erdritch and Scott Mommaday.
Then we will read a chapter titled “Dwelling” in Ecocriticism.
Students will then begin a recursive process of writing that reviews the rhetoric of a definition essay and a comparison contrast essay. Then students will follow the following steps to progress toward writing a rhetorical analysis of a particular ecological problem.
Step 1. Defining the problem.
“’Dwelling’” is not a transient state; rather, it implies the long-term imbrication of humans in a landscape of memory, ancestry and death, of ritual, life and work.’” (Greg Garrard in Ecocriticism)
Students will read the section of this essay titled, “The Ecological Indian” and “Writing ‘relations’: Silko and Erditch” (120-135). Then students will answer with a partner or in groups the following questions with five to ten sentence answers to be shared with class. This is an in-class writing assignment. Questions will distributed in a jigsaw exercise: the first grouping session will focus on specific questions from the list below. Then students will be regrouped to share their responses with the second group. After this session students will write an essay on the reading regarding the concept of dwelling as it is discussed by the British ecocritic Greg Garrard.
- Who was “Iron-eyes Cody”? How was his image used or exploited as a rhetorical strategy to engage audience with the ecological awareness campaign of the 1970s? What aspect of the rhetorical triangle predominates: ethos, logos, or pathos, in the use of this image to argue the case against “pollution”?
- What is the difference between anthropocentric and ecocentric world view as presented in this essay? How is this significant to the concept of ‘dwelling’ for the American Indian? How does the ethos of the British world view compare and contrast with the perceived ethos of the Native-American view?
- Discuss the James Welch elegiac novel Fools Crow and the retelling of the Native-American legend of the Black Foot nation (Pikunis) Who are Feather Woman, red paint, Raven, and SkunkHow does this legend compare with the Dances with Wolves image of the “ecological Indian.”
- Bear? How does the logos and ecological naming influence the rhetoric of argument?
- What does the James Wilson book The Earth Shall Weep tell us, according to Garrard, about the struggle for existence in the Plains Indian environment? How does this resonate in terms of ecological problems today? What specific examples and facts are provided to support his argument?
- Define the following terms: Portmanteu biota; ecological imperialism; the vanishing “red-man” frontier primitivism; homogenization. Discuss the terms “communal narrative memory.” Compare and contrast “tribe” and “nation” as they are perceived by the ecocritic.
- Pay attention to the last paragraph of the “Ecological Indian” excerpt. What is the significance of the word ‘relations’ as it applies to the Native-American relationship to the human and non-human ecosystems? Why is this important to our understanding of any rhetorical discussion regarding ecology and the existential struggle?Part II. For homework students will read the essay on Silko and Erditch in the Garrard essay on “Dwelling” and post questions such as the ones posed for the section on the “ecological Indian.” Questions should focus on key terms and the ecological questions and relationships of the writers to their land. The questions will then be handed out to others in class to answer in groups with responses shared with the whole class.Homework: Write a 500-1000 word rhetorical analysis of the problem of dwelling as it was viewed from the 19th Century until the environmental movement of the 70’s and into the 1990s as perceived by the novels, advertising campaigns, and films discussed in the essays. Contrast and compare the British portrait of the “ecological Indian” as Garrard describes this trope with the ways in which Silko and Erdritch view their identity and their relationships to the natural world and their Native-American community. How accurate is Garrard’s understanding of Native-American identity based on your reading of two authentic Native-American texts.Project 3 Continued. Individual rhetorical analysis. Students will read the essay, “Two Languages in Mind, but just one in the heart,” by Louise Erdritch” in The New York Times Writers on Writing anthology and “Ceremony” by Leslie Marmon Silko as well as “A First American Views” his land by Scott Mommaday in Environmental Writing since Thoreau: American Earth. Students will also read the essay, “Why College English?” by Dr. Shirley Logan. The purpose of the article by Logan is to bring awareness to Logan’s argument to bring global skills to the English composition classroom and a particular call to action to bring awareness to the historical linguistic foundations of Native-Americans as a pedagogical heuristic for teaching college English. The Erdritch article speaks in direct conversation to this argument proposed by Dr. Logan. Then students will write a 1000 word rhetorical analysis of an environmental or ecological problem or a problem of preserving native literacy and discourse as presented by these Native-American writers. The essay should pay attention to the vocabulary learned in the previous readings as well as any new vocabulary introduced by the Native-American writers regarding their relationship to the land and the ecological disruptions to community such as war, poverty, and industrialization. Pay attention to the Native perspective as it is allied with or discordant with the European perspective toward dwelling that is provided by Greg Garrard in his chapter on “dwelling” in Ecocritism.Project 4. Persuasive Essay-ARGUMENT OF INQUIRY-POSITION PAPER.Students will read a Washington Post article titled, “From Broken Homes to Broken System” (November 29, 2014., page 1) about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in contemporary life. Then students will write a 500 word position statement (brief persuasive essay or argument of inquiry) based on the problem of dwelling for juveniles on the reservation. Then
- Project number 5. Deep Ecology–Research paper, Multimodal presentation, essay, and creative work involving a problem with dwelling and the environment.
- The mundane documents could include a permission to use a campus facility for awareness or a letter to a charitable foundation, campus outreach program, or church to raise money for school supplies, books, or technology to be sent to the reservation. Another proposal might include a letter to an academic or social outreach administrator in the education department at a University to allow graduate students in the masters or Ph.D. program to spend student teaching learning hours on the Pine Ridge Reservation and a letter to request permission from a Pine Ridge Elder or Chief to visit for the purposes of offering service. The argument should include background information that you have gleaned from reading the articles as described in the class and at least three other research articles (non-fiction) about ecological problems or problems with dwelling on other Indian reservations.
- Then students will propose a specific point of action necessary to bring attention or action to the dilapidated greenhouse, the poverty-stricken school without books, teachers, or writing supplies, and the treatment of teenage offenders on the reservation, and the lack of funding.
- Students will develop this 500 word essay into a 2000 word position paper or website to bring awareness to the problem of dwelling on the reservation. The argument should include a proposal for action that could involve plans to procure mundane sustainable documents such as those discussed in “Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric” by Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber (CCC 63:2/Dec 2011) In this article, the scholars discuss the “ecological metaphor” of government administration as a challenge to procure documents necessary for lawful political action.
- Students will have read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” treatise and discuss his 1949 rejection of “man’s dominion” on earth, and the hegemony of anthropocentric over biocentric needs both in terms of the historical context in which he wrote and in light of the current ecological crisis. Further they will have researched in groups problems with the four domains as defined by Leopold: land, water, flora, fauna. These are the categories by which he organizes his ethic to propose that human needs are no more valid than the needs of nonhuman beings in the ecosystem. We will engage in a classroom debate regarding this claim. The only weapons you may use are words, rhetorical strategies in language as expressed in visual or audio rhetoric, and perhaps, marshmallows. Students will divide into teams and debate Leopold’s land ethic as an introduction to this topic.
- Further they will have researched at least one other domain not discussed in Leopold’s Land Ethic: air pollution, sound pollution, carbon-footprint, waste management and recycling, consumption and disposal of non-renewable, non-biodegradable products; energy innovations and management such as nuclear, solar and satellite uses. Other areas of investigation include sustaining power and pioneering innovations in artificial intelligence; cryogenics; biogenetics and biotechnology; containment and management of chemical and biological weapons; traditional versus non-tradition medical treatments, prosthetics, stem cell research, thermodynamic, hydroelectric, electric, battery, coal, petroleum fossil fuels, biofuels; genetic engineering and bioethics; nanotechnology, cyberspace and astronomical space exploration; climate change, ecological disaster and waste management. Still the focus of this investigation will support the central issue at the heart of this project: the struggle for human existence, and the conflict between human freedom and the need for conservation, sustainability, as well as innovation. Then students will write a heuristic, or argument of inquiry for one of the topics as it relates to composition students and ecorhetoric. Some possible questions include but are not limited to the following.
- Water—What can be done about the problem of plastic waste in the Chesapeake Bay or the Ocean? Should we focus more on clean-up or restraints on plastic production and consumer waste to alleviate the problem? What studies are extant that explore reconstituting plastic in recycled products or alchemy to reconvert plastic to oil products?
- Land/water—How can we best write a cost/benefit analysis of nitrogen-enhanced fertilizers on agricultural land. What are the ecological effects on water systems? Are there organic means such as planting nitrogen-fixing legumes alongside other crops as Native-Americans practice with a three-sisters garden?
- Flora-What is the future of paper production and book publishing. Compare the carbon footprint of using technology to publish versus the carbon footprint for both recycled paper books and virgin-pulp books. What recommendations for future publishers can you propose?
- Fauna-What is the future for bioengineering as a disruptive or restorative measure in local and global ecosystems?Students will write a 2000-5000 page research report including the following:
- Definition of the ecological problem.
- Rhetorical analysis of at least 10 articles that explore the topic.
- Position paper or Persuasive argument for at least two solutions or courses of action.
- One scientific model presentation that uses a traditional format: hypothesis, materials, methods, interpretation, and conclusion.
- Multimodal or creative model project using James Purdy’s notion of multiple solutions to design theory.
- Annotated bibliography for 10 books or articles invested in the topic.
- Reflection memo that describes the environment as it relates to the composition environment regarding the topic of choice.