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