Environmental Activism in English Literature

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

A panel at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting in Chicago on environmental sustainability and its role in English literature featured Foothill College’s Scott Lankford, Geoffrey Martin of the Harry S. Truman College, Moravian College professor Theresa Dougal and University of New Hampshire graduate student Molly Hall.

Lankford called the Chicago River “a nexus for a thousand years” for environmentalists. He brought up a slideshow presentation where he outlined a timeline of the river’s discovery and settlement by Europeans. Just like the Chicago River, Lankford believed that two-year colleges “have been an environmental nexus as well.” He felt that he was “the Rip Van Winkle of the sustainability group” at the MLA and mentioned that twenty years ago, this was an issue at the MLA’s annual convention. He also saw professors as “a lighthouse of social change.” The MLA has to rally around the environmental sustainability issue to push it forward, he argued. Foothill College in California, he pointed out, has its own “Center for a Sustainable Future,” which aims to:

  • “Foster ecoliteracy across the curriculum;”
  • “Revitalize and re-envision general education through sustainability education;”
  • “Cultivate sustainable values and practices on campus;” and
  • “Collaborate with the greater community toward a sustainable future.”

He said, “We’ve worked hard to partner with other institutions” and explained that Foothill worked “on reducing the energy usage in our district” as a part of their million kilowatt challenge. Lankford concluded, “We use this leverage that we have… as the lighthouse of American education…to move the game forward.” He wanted the audience “to wake up with more leadership from MLA to address this crisis.”

Martin claimed that the “metacognitive” work at community colleges remains important as the community college is now in a position to change education. He admitted that employability needs to be a bigger part of a college education and the possibility of enabling “students to move across disciplinary boundaries” should be considered more than ever. He felt there was too much “segregation between the sciences and the humanities” within the learning community and wanted to emphasize “relationship between mind, body and spirit.”

He promoted his definition of a learning community, complete with environmental sustainability as a core part, because it “speaks directly to…current issues…that benefit our student body.” One of his courses, “Food Matters,” traced the food history of Chicago, was a way to teach students about those boundaries and distinctions.” He asked, “What is the value of looking at food from a cultural versus a scientific perspective?” Martin said that his method of teaching was influenced by something call “disciplinary literacy,” where “necessary political access needs to accompany” change and reform. His “hardly radical revisionary education” fosters “a cooperative learning environment,” but to teach this learning curriculum is “a dance of virtue [and] value.” Martin actually complained that his courses are prerequisite classes at his college, where students would find out about it after-the-fact.  He wanted to  be selected by popular demand

He said, “We can’t run with the narrow ideology of what sustainability is,” saying that it is up to the professors to “connect those emerging fields to scholarship and learning” to eventually give students “political power in debates.” He sought out to “debunk the myth that sustainability is bourgeoisie and whiteness,” although Martin confessed that there is an “overrepresentation of whiteness and portrayals of environment.” He called this the “reality of environmental non-white engagement with the world” and said that “students need to see themselves and their communities as stakeholders in these debates” and “need to be pushed” to that knowledge.

Theresa Dougal declared that she has tried to “integrate my longstanding environmentalism into my teaching,” even when it proves difficult. She proudly “emphasizes the admirable canon of environmental literature” in her classroom, but was disappointed about the “deficiency” of “ecologically literate” students. Dougal provided anecdotes about her environmentally-conscious students becoming movers and shakers in the environmental industry, without citing statistics. She wondered aloud that “if what Al Gore said was true”, then why are the “sustainable humanities” failing to gain traction?

She pushed her students to “articulate difficult dilemmas for themselves,” such as “where to live, how to transport oneself, what energy to consume, whether to become vegetarian or vegan” in her courses and said she provides this education because “they need to think differently about life.” Dougal said she “recognizes the problematic nuances of the term environmental sustainability” because it is technocratic in nature, but proclaimed victory when many of her students felt “the environment is our most pressing moral concern.”

Molly Hall, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, told the audience that “eco-criticism” is an important field that should not be forgotten or ignored in today’s sustainability education debate. She implored attendees and the panel to “teach at the intersection” of subjects like gender studies and environmental sustainability to help teach future generations. She criticized a Wall Street Journal opinion editorial that mocked humanities majors hypothetically working as Starbucks baristas, citing a New York Times article as a source for her rebuttal. She championed the “economic viability of such degrees in today’s economic environment” and said that a humanities education contains “everything we value.” The two major crises facing Americans, Hall said, are the “environmental crises and the economic crises”. She pushed for “teaching sustainability in our literature classes” in order to focus on “collaboration between the sciences and the humanities” in the near future. “Eco-criticism offers us a way to bring ecological pedadology” until the world becomes environmentally sustainable.

Professors and scientists must find “more environmental ways for manufacturing” because, she said, “Scientists can develop and research all they want, but without engaging” others, it will fail. Hall ended her remarks and concluded that there is “a way to remain relevant in an academic culture that insists on our worthlessness.”

If Molly is looking for a job, and most graduate students who come to the annual MLA meetings are, she made a great pitch, given the make-up of academia. Some skeptics might wonder what place environmental activism has in the study of literature.

By the way, “In a joint press conference NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and NASA have just released data for the global surface temperature for 2013,” David Whitehouse of the The Global Warming Policy Foundation stated on January  21, 2014. “In summary they both show that the ‘pause’ in global surface temperature that began in 1997, according to some estimates, continues. Statistically speaking there has been no trend in global temperatures over this period. Given that the IPCC estimates that the average decadal increase in global surface temperature is 0.2 deg C, the world is now 0.3 deg C cooler than it should have been.”