Winter 2003     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 7, Issue 4     Editorial
Teaching Environmental Literature 
The world at the beginning of the 21st century is in the throes of working out 
a new relationship with nature. For over a century, some of the finest literature 
has been on the place of humans in the natural world. The environmental 
predicament in which we find ourselves has made the examination of humanity’s 
relationship with nature an important area of study, crossing disciplines. 
This issue is devoted to discussions of pedagogical strategies for teaching 
environmental literature and discussions of the environment as a tool for teaching 
any period or genre of literature.

The study of environmental literature has burgeoned over the last few years, 
producing one of the fastest growing areas in academe.  During the 1990’s, major 
publishing houses have produced anthologies of environmental literature, 
including Norton’s Book of Nature Writing and the University of Georgia’s The 
Ecocriticism Reader.  National journals, such as The Indiana Review, The North 
Dakota Quarterly and The Georgia Review, have all printed special issues on 
literature and the environment, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has 
explored the field in several articles.  Scholars in the field have created an 
association (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment), journals, 
newsletters, and even an active e-mail discussion list.

While a new interest in the field is obvious, agreement on the place of 
environmental literature in the academy, the nature and parameters of its study, 
and the terms used to describe the field is lacking.  Yet the intellectual 
activity around the issues is reinvigorating humanities departments, which have 
suffered from insularity, bringing an exciting interchange between humanists 
and scientists on campuses across the United States and in other countries.  
Environmental literature’s essential cross-disciplinary nature provides a fertile 
site for cooperation between disciplines and practical application of humanistic 
ideas.  Furthermore, environmental literature, which at one time was completely 
focused on American nature writers, has expanded to include a wide variety of 
writers crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries.  Because the study of 
environmental literature examines the natural world and human being’s interaction 
with it, the views across time, cultures, and geographical locations become 
increasingly important.  Historical inquiry forms a basis of understanding of our 
natural environment and the ecological concerns of our time.  Thus, studying 
literary works from various genres and time periods through an ecological lens 
reshapes our perception of the relationship between culture and nature, the 
foundation of our current environmental sensibilities, and the role of human 
beings in the care and sustenance of the earth.

Outside academe, the study of environmental literature has found a mixed reception.  
While some critics have seen the field as a subversive way to force politics onto 
unsuspecting students, many non-academics are joining the associations involved 
in the study of the literature and attending the conferences.  Students are 
signing up in classes focused on the environment in record numbers, and numerous 
universities have begun establishing centers for the study of environmental issues, 
hiring environmental literature specialists, and providing cross-disciplinary 
environmental courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing the study of environmental literature is the 
incredibly ambitious aims of the many scholars involved.  Scholars come to this 
literature with widely varying agendas: intellectual, ethical, political and 
spiritual.  Environmental literature, as can be seen by the variety of essays in 
this issue, allows teachers to involve students in public awareness of environmental 
issues, to develop environmental activism, and to encourage an appreciation for the
 world around us.  Many of the teachers of this literature combine reading of texts 
with hands-on, outdoor excursions, moments when the students connect to the natural 
world, the literature, and eventually to themselves.  The teaching of environmental 
literature not only encourages but also demands that the boundaries of the 
traditional classroom be broadened or abandoned.  Students work in outdoor 
environments, study non-traditional genres, and connect their learning to life.  
Students who explore their natural world and then sit down to write a naturalist’s 
view of that experience are drawn into an intense relationship with the environment 
that unites the intellectual, physical, and emotional aspects of our being.  
Bringing together the disjointed fragments of our selves, this process is the 
first step to counter the Western tradition of a dichotomous existence marked by 
alienation from the world around us. Thus, the study of this literature becomes a 
powerful experience for both the students and the teacher.

Teachers of environmental literature attempt to balance the literary and physical 
presentations of nature, to employ an historical framework from which students can 
appreciate changes not only in the natural world but in humanity’s views of that 
world, and to integrate scientific and humanistic writings and viewpoints.  Most 
of the essays that follow discuss not only the exciting new insights into the 
literature obtained by an ecological view but also the dramatic change the 
literature has on teachers and students.  Many of the authors describe the 
importance of writing about the environment, interacting with the environment, 
as well as, reading other authors’ reactions to the natural world.  Through 
environmental literature and writing assignments around nature, students learn 
the impossibility of writing down observations without interpretation and thus 
come to understand that nature writing is both a record of the natural environment 
and a discovery of the self behind the observations.  Courses employing 
environmental literature and environmental writing provide students an avenue to 
grapple with the issues of audience, voice, viewpoint, etc. in a manner that makes 
writing essential to their lives.

This issue of Academic Exchange Quarterly offers articles that explore the teaching 
of environmental literature across historical time periods, from the Renaissance to 
the present; across genres from nature writing to novels to poetry and even science 
fiction; and across pedagogical strategies.  These articles are a reminder of how 
each of us as human beings must come to terms with our place in our ecosystem and 
how environmental literature can help us encourage students to understand the 
complex interactions between humans and the natural world, between the humanities 
and science, and between reason and emotion. 

Kandi Tayebi, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Sam Houston State University