Teachers at Work


The Humanities and Environmentalism

“Nature” is what we see –

The Hill – the Afternoon –

Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee –
Nay – Nature is Heaven –

“Nature” is what We hear –
The Bobolink – the Sea –
Thunder – the Cricket –
Nay – Nature is Harmony –

“Nature” is what We know –
But have no Art to say –
So impotent our Wisdom is
To Her Sincerity –

Emily Dickinson, 1863

Deforestation, overpopulation, pesticide use, toxic oceans, endangered species, global warming. How are we to make sense of the many environmental problems facing the Earth today? Although the sciences provide a factual account of environmental threats and ways of countering them, scientific facts alone seem not to be enough. For it is the case that artists, writers, filmmakers, and even scientists find themselves turning again and again to their imaginations to respond to the environmental predicaments of society. For example, Rachel Carson opens Silent Spring (1962) – the book that launched the modern environmental movement – with “A Fable for Tomorrow,” a fairytale in effect that shocks us with the future we face if the insidious harm of chemical pollution goes unchecked. James Lovelock, the British climate scientist who developed “Gaia” – the hypothesis that the Earth reacts like a living organism in regulating the conditions suitable for life – has recourse to a pre-Olympian ancient Greek deity, a personification of the Earth. They may be doing what English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley powerfully described 200 years ago as an essentially human and creative impulse: “to imagine that which we know.” In what other ways, then, have creative minds imagined – in essays, books, and movies – the very idea of nature, the place of humans in it, and their power to change the environment?

These are some of the questions considered by the freshmen taking the course, “Humans, Nature, and the Environment,”. Expository writing, or “Expos” for short, has a long history at Harvard, going back to the nineteenth century. Generations of alumni have all had to take Expos, since it is a required, foundational course, preparing them as academic writers and critical thinkers for their other courses in the College and, indeed, for life beyond Harvard. All Expos courses are designed to instruct students in the skills of academic argument, which is to say, how to develop a contestable claim in response to some primary source – whether it be an essay, a book, a movie, or an artwork – and how to argue that claim persuasively in the form of a well-crafted essay that carefully analyzes textual evidence. The course themes in Expos differ markedly, to be sure, depending on an instructor’s academic interests. The “green” theme of this course comes out of preceptor Martin Greenup's background in Romanticism and American literature. What’s more, it comes out of his own fascination with the protean idea of nature, which, as French philosopher Pierre Hadot shows, has a long and rich history. Just as our sense of the world around us is in part shaped by these underlying ideas of nature, so too are the controversies about the plight of the environment in the twenty-first century.

“Humans, Nature, and the Environment” is divided into three units of increasing length and complexity. In the first unit, the students interpret Henry David Thoreau’s seminal nature essay, “Walking” (1862), and then argue their interpretations in short essays that closely engage with Thoreau’s language. In his essay, Thoreau ponders the value of wildness, imaginatively transforming American westward expansion into a personal spiritual quest and re-characterizing the age-old figure of “Mother Nature” as “vast, savage, [and] howling.” In the second unit, the students critically compare the literary approaches of two books by scientists which belong to the genre of popular environmentalism: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006). To focus their arguments, the students use a “lens” which they develop from secondary sources – either an essay by literary scholar M. H. Abrams on the Romantics’ vision of nature or extracts from various texts on environmental ethics. On the face of it, the two books seem very different. But the use of a lens affords the students the opportunity to uncover some unlikely connections. In the third unit, the students write longer essays after developing research projects about one of two documentary movies that examine relationships between humans and animals – Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) in which the filmmaker takes issue with the self-proclaimed environmentalist Timothy Treadwell who strove to protect bears in the Alaskan wilderness, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013) in which she delivers a brilliant polemic against the SeaWorld corporation and its treatment of captive killer whales. Both films implicitly explore the creative problem of anthropomorphism – that is, the attribution of human qualities to animals and other non-human entities.

Two outstanding essays from this course have now been published on Harvard's Sustainability page, they were written by freshmen for the second unit of “Humans, Nature, and the Environment” in the spring semester of 2016. As academic essays, they do a number of things well: each has a strong yet contestable thesis that is urgently argued throughout; each adroitly sets up and enters into an existing scholarly debate; and each sheds new light both on the two books and on the bigger debate through carefully working with evidence. The first essay, “Metaphor and Visions of Home in Environmental Writing: From the Romantic Poets to Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia,” is by Alison W. Steinbach, Class of 2019, and examines the use of Romantic metaphor in the two books. The second essay, “Daring to Care: Deep Ecology and Effective Popular Environmentalism,” is by Zeke Benshirim, Class of 2019, and considers the relationship of Lovelock to Carson with regards to environmental ethics, focusing on Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess’s concept of “deep ecology.”



Expository Writing and Activity-Based Learning

This fall, a new course incorporates activity-based learning pedagogies that help first-year students connect the “theory and practice” of academic research and writing. Activity-based learning courses at Harvard ask students to “do public service, fieldwork, community-based research and internships in conjunction with in-class work.”[1] “Class, Race, and Space in Boston and Cambridge,” taught by Dr. Ariane Liazos, combines more traditional assignments in expository writing courses with a variety of innovations that help students make connections between their coursework and the world around them.

The course explores the interplay between the physical spaces of American cities and the class and racial identities of urban residents, focusing on local history from the 1960s to the present. Course readings and assignments emphasize the contested nature of decision-making processes in cities, focusing on debates among politicians, courts, university officials, and neighborhood groups in determining residential and educational policies.

For the first assignment, students begin by reading Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Jacobs critiqued programs for urban renewal and instead celebrated the vitality of social spaces found in older urban neighborhoods such as Boston’s North End. The students’ task is to write an assessment of her work, but before they do so, they undertake a kind of “fieldwork” by visiting the North End and discussing Jacobs’s characterization of the neighborhood with longtime residents.

Later, for a research project on Harvard’s “town gown” relations, students conduct original research regarding a key episode in Harvard’s interactions with neighboring residents in Boston or Cambridge. Students work with librarians and archivists at university and public libraries in Cambridge. Some may conduct interviews with local residents. They analyze the sources they have gathered as they write research papers, developing essential skills that they will employ in later term papers and even senior theses. But their work does not end here. At the end of the semester, students, working in small groups, present their research at a public panel, discussing the ways that lessons from Harvard’s past might inform current plans to develop the University in Allston. These presentations provide students with an opportunity to present academic research to wider audiences and to engage in conversations with community members about Harvard’s past, present, and future.