Utah’s diverse landscape evokes a sense of wonder: solitary and fragile deserts, a saline lake that teems with migratory birds, and awe-inspiring granite faces. Just as these ecosystems evolve – shaped by water, ice, sun, wind, tectonic plates, and humans – teaching also undergoes its own evolution. Much like the diverse landscape, teaching is a rich terrain shaped by students, culture, media, and the pressing issues of a world aching with ecological wounds. To address the environmental concerns our students face, I approach teaching as a curricular ecosystem composed of engagement, connection, expansion, and dispersion.
Enthusiasm and passion in the classroom becomes a multi-colored profusion of budding trees in springtime, inviting us to look, to smell, and to touch.
The profusion of new growth in spring is a form of “positive contagion” that invites the engagement of a multitude of species. Likewise, an instructor’s enthusiasm for her material becomes a “positive contagion” that can spark a desire to participate with the course topic. Fred Rogers once said, “Love what you’re doing, and love it in front of others.” Passion engages. Rather than “lecture at” students, I instead use diverse media to engage students. My own presentation uses music, photographs, YouTube clips, and even engagement outside the classroom. This approach includes material that is filled with provocations and paradoxes that challenge our thinking and our world view. Such “disturbances” spark seminar-style dialogue and remind students that the entire world is a text to engage with, to question, and to express curiosity about.
Passion and engagement with course materials comes not only from myself, but is also demanded of my students. Students are expected to attend every class session (I always take attendance), and they are expected to critically engage with the assigned texts by writing a brief response to a question for each class session’s reading. This approach requires students to engage and read the texts which results in stronger class discussion. It also produces students who are better readers, writers, and thinkers – we only excel at the things we practice consistently. By reminding students of the diverse connections they will encounter between course topics and their every-day digital world, they learn how to critically and rigorously engage with the text of life. Such engagement can lead to unexpected connections.
I see my role in the classroom as that of harnessing the power of relationships. An aspen colony (like Pando in Southern Utah) endures because of its wild profusion of networked connections.
A web of connections envelopes us in unexpected ways when we permit ourselves to dig into the “soil” around a course text. Students might initially be surprised to watch a brief YouTube video of beaver in Belarus. Waddling along, this charming herbivore was filmed by a human who kept pace with the beaver, pausing when the beaver would pause and grace the camera with a full view of her serious face, moving once again when the beaver continued on her journey. Initially, the beaver was an endearing, furry object performing on the screen for human amusement. Suddenly something shifts; the beaver lunges unexpectedly towards the human at a truly terrifying speed. The dissonance between charming furry friend and teeth-baring predator is so jarring and abrupt that both the viewers, and the photographer, jump. What may surprise students more is the exploration this one video can spark. Unexpected connections arise: consumerism (i.e. beaver trapping); policy (i.e. endangered species protection); ethics (i.e. the standing of non-human animals); climate change (i.e. beavers may help combat it); globalization (i.e. the changing culture of Eastern Europe); and social media (i.e. how the natural environment is visually disseminated and consumed). One text can be a nexus for exploration into unexpected networks of connections.
I also firmly believe that it is important to let others serve as “professor” so that students can establish connections that extend beyond engagement in the classroom. Given the complexity of the ecological issues that students face, it is essential that they expand their nextwork through guest lectures by experts, through community engagement and field experience, and through student-initiated projects. One example of this involved a field experience where students were required to use public transit to attend a community event at Wasatch Community Gardens where they spoke with individuals involved with urban farming. Students then returned to campus, and in groups developed outlines for projects that could “green” the campus – establishing beehives, developing “green” cleaning workshops, planting fruit trees. Some of these students actually moved beyond the classroom to independently put these ideas into action. In doing so, they expanded and developed connections they did not have before.
Old structures are never sedimented. A humble dandelion growing in a crack of asphalt, or a Sycamore tree’s roots breaking up pavement, are reminders of hopeful, tenacious growth that expands and disrupts the world as we know it.
The role of the Humanities is to encourage students to question their answers, not just to answer their questions. I see my role in the Environmental Humanities as this and more. If, as environmental philosopher David Abram claims, we are human “only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human,” then our very humanity is woven out of its relationship with what is not human – the inhuman. Taking Abram seriously, it is essential that I move students from the Humanities to the Inhumanities. Where the Humanities interrogates foundations, the Inhumanities instigates a questioning of what it means to be “human” in a hemorrhaging biosphere. An embrace of the Inhumanities brings forth possible acts of humble ensoulment connecting humans to trees, to sandstone, to feather, to fur, and to roads and rivers traveled by countless animals, including humans.
W.B. Yeats claimed that “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” Applied to an ecological education, it is doing all that we can to make sure Aldo Leopold’s “green fire” does not die. My role is not to “transmit” information to the student “receiver” but to help serve as one of many sparks lighting the “green fire.” By keeping the flame lit, we expand the visibility of the world and provide a new vantage point that students would not have encountered. Sources of ignition include a critical engagement with cultural and scholarly texts that challenge social ideology and cultural practices. Such challenges expand the possibilities for both engagement with the world, and the connections that form there. Expansion is challenging and sometimes difficult, but ultimately it can lead to an intellectual space that is far greater than students thought possible and opens up opportunities for recognizing how we might be sources of healing in the world.
I recognize that attention can be a barrier to expansion. Our students are “digital natives” and that digital environment can sometimes be a detriment to an awareness of the non-digital terrain that surrounds them. As media scholar Marshall McLuhan puts it, any pervasive environment “has the power of invisibility and non-perceptibility.” Students are so enmeshed in their digital culture that they sometimes need to be shocked into a form of “awareness” that expands perception. To cultivate such expansions, students are assigned a “digital fast” where they are not permitted to use any digital devices for 48 hours (i.e. no Internet, cell phone, game systems, etc.). Students are required to write about their experience, and to also go to a quiet, outdoor setting for one hour where they write about what they see, hear, smell, touch, and perhaps even taste. Sometimes the best teachers are our encounters with the more-than-human world.
Our ideas, actions, encounters, and our very bodies are a multitude of wildflower seeds dispersed by the wind. We find ourselves carried on unexpected journeys where we take root and transform the world.
I care, but I recognize that just caring isn’t enough. Thus I do all I can to put care into action. For me it is essential that my teaching be a genuine calling that brings healing to a wounded world. Part of that healing entails helping students discover their own calling. Frederick Buechner beautifully frames the concept of calling: “The vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet – something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.” In relation to calling, my task is to serve as a guide to students, igniting a sense of curiosity, wonder, care, and engagement with the world.
Such sparks serve as moments of self-discovery so that students can encounter their individual calling that will take them on a journey of hopeful rewilding. As students dedicate their lives to improving the well-being of the cosmos, they too will disperse healing seeds. Seeds that will grow in solidarity with the rivers, the ravens, and the redwoods.