Literature of sustainability as literature of life

Environmental class evokes optimism in wasteful world

6/6/2008 - By: John Trent
Literature of Sustainability Although they had known each other prior to teaching “The Literature of Sustainability” during the spring 2008 semester, Scott Slovic and John Sagebiel found the experience invigorating, as did their students. Said Nathan Slinker, a 22-year-old senior: “John and Scott often said they enjoyed the class because they could learn from the students as much as they could teach us.” Photo by Jean Dixon.

As the spring semester came to a close, the morning sun darted in and out of the Frandsen Humanities classroom like an interloper.

One moment it wanted to leave, and the next it wanted to linger, to perhaps take in what is being said.

As the class progressed and the two instructors for English 492, "The Literature of Sustainability," continued to talk in quiet, yet impassioned tones, the sun lingered more than it retreated.

This shouldn't be surprising.

"I had no idea what I had gotten into when I first signed up for the class, but it proved not only to be incredibly thought-provoking, but also one that I enjoyed immensely," says one of the course's students, David Ruckman, a 28-year-old biology major from Sparks. "I think more about this class 'after hours' than most of the classes I've taken. I've walked away from the class with a new way of thinking about things ... a new thoughtfulness about my impact on the world and the world's impact on me."

"I didn't really know what to expect," adds Joel Kiraly, a 24-year-old English literature major from Dayton, speaking of the cross-disciplinary course's approach to deftly meld literature, science and sustainability. "I mean, I knew somewhat about sustainability, but I didn't know the full scope of the issue. It's huge and everything is so finely interwoven.

"The class really helped me develop a better understanding of this connectivity, and the give-and-take of every action we make."

A course two years in the making

For the course's instructors, Scott Slovic and John Sagebiel, such a reaction is what they hoped for when they first began talking about the syllabus more than two years ago.

"We were hoping that they would be deeply provoked and moved by the material," says Slovic,  professor of English and one of the country's leading voices in environmental literature. "This was a class about their lives, about the state of the planet and what that means to them ."

Adds Sagebiel, the University's environmental affairs manager and former researcher at the Desert Research Institute: "We had two very different people in Scott and myself coming to the same point, but from two very different perspectives. It was really fun to be in class every day ... really beginning each morning in Scott's office (downstairs in Frandsen Humanities), deciding, 'What do we see, how do we want to approach it' and then to get in front of the class to see what was going to happen, and where it was going to go."

The reading list for the course was illuminating, not just only of the two instructor's areas of interest - "John in many ways is a numbers guy, very interested in quantifying information, and I'm very interested in language and aesthetics," Slovic says - but in the "common ground" that the two shared.

The list included, among other titles, "An Inconvenient Truth" by Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore; the out-of-print but nonetheless relevant "My Petition for More Space" by the esteemed literary journalist John Hersey; and Jack Kerouac's 1950s classic tale of freedom (and, perhaps more tellingly, a tale of how the automobile and the romanticism associated with it allowed an entire generation to wander, with many attendant and unintended consequences) "On the Road."

Complementary teaching

"That area of common ground is actually quite wide," Slovic says of the intersection of interests between the two instructors, which in hindsight helped the course succeed. "John is a very literate scientist and I'm a literary person with a strong interest in science."

"Class discussions were really what the class focused on," says Nathan Slinker, a 22-year-old senior with a double major in English and journalism. "John and Scott often said they enjoyed the class because they could learn from the students as much as they could teach us. I really think they valued our insights and perspectives on all the readings and on the topic of environmental protection and sustainability.

"Some days, my classmates and I would have more to talk about than could possibly fit into an hour and 15 minutes, but John and Scott did a fantastic job accommodating us and welcoming our ideas."

Adds Greg Frossard, a 22-year-old senior majoring in English and French: "Scott and John were perhaps the most understanding and interesting teachers that I have ever encountered throughout my entire career as a student. They were not only welcoming of the student's opinions, but they wrote the invitation."

Possibilities for improvement

One of the course's unspoken goals was to welcome opinion, to "ask tough questions with a smile," Slovic says.

"This course could have been a real downer," he says. "It could have been self-berating. People could have been saying, 'Society has been making all of these mistakes. Our own lifestyles are totally out of sync with the principles of sustainability. We don't know how to do better. We can't afford to be sustainable - it's too expensive to do for a college student.'

"It could have been complaining and critiquing ourselves and society and what is going on in the world. We had to find ways to find this very appropriate line of critique and not just let these tough questions go, and yet at the same time be more upbeat ... to talk about the possibilities for improvement."

Nowhere are the "possibilities for improvement" more evident than in the classroom. With the light dancing about the room, lingering with what Frossard calls "the enlightening experience" of Slovic and Sagebiel's careful teaching, the students listening intently.

Teaching through experience

Slovic tells the story of an executive in the oil industry, with Arco, who summoned the prodigious talents of the wondrous writer Barry Lopez, whose "Arctic Dreams" and other works captured Slovic's imagination as a young writer and budding doctoral candidate in environmental literature.

"He was trying desperately to re-think his meaning in the world," Slovic says, with a sense of hopefulness that an oil executive would gather Lopez and other great environmental thinkers for ideas to lessen the impact of his industry on the world. "With the literature of the environment," Slovic adds, "there is always the potential to move people in real and meaningful and important ways."

Sagebiel uses his own experience as well. An avid cyclist who regularly rides his bike to work, Sagebiel notes that there are all sorts of tradeoffs associated with the concept of sustainability, and that each individual must weigh these tradeoffs, both good and bad.

"Sure, riding my bike to campus is not efficient in the time sense ... an hour to ride home, 40 minutes to ride here or there when you could drive in a lot less," he says. "But it definitely decreases the use of my car. It gives me a chance to think, to unwind from the day. It can be my gym - it definitely fires up my physiology.

"Those are things that you can't measure on a spreadsheet."

What the students in English 492 walked away from on that sunny morning, perhaps more than anything else, are things that can't be truly quantified or measured. It is a feeling - a feeling that their professors have been passionate and caring about their subject matter, that both on an emotional and intellectual level, these students will not look at the concept of sustainability the same ever again.

Says Dave Ruckman: "I think the class has taught us to weigh different things. I think part of it has helped us go beyond our mental status quos that we set up, the walls we build that can become like your own prison. The pieces that we've read this semester, and the discussions we've had this semester, have helped us get beyond those walls. Instead of looking at sustainability as a way to prescribe greater rigidity - we only have so much of everything - we should be looking at it as a way to give us greater fluidity."


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