Graham Marema, University of Wyoming
(Published April 28, 2023)
Composition classes ask a lot of our students. Introduction to higher-level writing not only shapes how undergraduates enter the world of academia with thoughtfulness and power, but also begins the messy work of disrupting preconceptions and forming new, complex ideas about issues they’ll encounter in higher education and their broader communities. In 2023, perhaps no issue is more pressing than the looming threat of environmental disaster. In Climate Consciousness and Environmental Activism in Composition: Writing to Save the World, edited by Joseph R. Lease, a group of instructors weave sustainability through their composition curricula in a collection of eight essays. The book’s strength lies in its practicality for the writing instructor, demonstrating how the goals of composition and sustainability can build upon one another through experimental assignments and activities from diverse approaches. Though the challenges at hand are dire, these contributors tilt toward hope, with action-oriented classes ranging from the rhetorical to the creative. As Lease points out in his introduction, “In twenty-first-century composition, we are writing to save the world, and we must not fail, else we risk losing everything” (5). What could give our writing students more power than that?
Another way to frame “writing to save the world” – with more scholastic gravity and less Avengers imagery – is through the lens of “ecocomposition.” This post-process writing theory, which examines literacy from an ecological perspective, finds its roots in Marilyn Cooper’s essay “The Ecology of Writing” (1986) and Richard Coe’s “Eco-Logic for the Composition Classroom” (1975). But it was with Christian Weisser and Sidney Dobrin’s 2001 Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches that ecology began to truly seep into the writing classroom. Dobrin and Weisser posited that writing is inherently ecological, as it is part of a changing system of relationships. Through this lens, they emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary pedagogical approaches to composition, noting that “[e]cocomposition must be a bio-diverse discipline” (2). Lease’s collection embraces that approach, gathering a diverse array of classroom examples that integrate methods from across disciplines. But what sets this collection apart from earlier scholarship is its practicality for the composition instructor. The essayists are certainly in conversation with preceding theoretical texts, but their main focus is praxis. Each essay in Lease’s collection explores the success, failures, and nuances of real-world ecocomposition classrooms, to inspire practical ideas for the reader and spark creativity in her own writing classroom. As Lease notes, more than twenty years have passed since Weisser and Dobrin’s influential work hit the presses. During that time, the landscape of ecocomposition has grown and changed, pushing the boundaries of what we consider nature, ecology, and place-based writing, with works such as Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Kristi Stewart’s “Composing Nature,” Thomas Hothem’s “Suburban Studies and College Writing: Applying Ecocomposition,” or Heather E. Bruce’s “Green(ing) English: Voices Howling in the Wilderness?” Likewise, the landscape of our world has changed, making the pursuit of ecological solutions more imperative with each passing year. Lease’s collection builds upon foundational theoretical works to bring these challenges off the page and into the classroom.
Climate Consciousness and Environmental Activism in Composition begins at the roots – literally. In Chapter 1, Ron Balthazor examines the roots of words and how “composition” and “compost” are etymologically and metaphorically linked. “Healthy soil is a community in conversation, a true ecosystem,” Balthazor writes (9). In this theoretical approach, the composition classroom is more akin to a garden, fertile ground for complex interaction, community, and systems of shared ideas. He uses this framework to shape a classroom activity, asking students to walk through local parks and forests, observe the natural world, and write about what they see. The assignment is a simple one, but the reflection and connections students make in their writing are anything but, exploring boundaries between self and systems, and turning experiences into connections as rich as compost.
It’s this practical application that excites me most about Lease’s collection. Each chapter shares insights from composition classrooms across the country and how these theoretical ideas have been applied to creative student experiences. The writers range from established professors to fledgling teachers. Kim Waters, a doctoral student at the time of publication, shares in Chapter 3 thoughts from her very first semester of teaching. As a graduate student teaching composition myself, I find these real-world applications engaging and inspiring. I could see myself analyzing examples of ecotopic rhetoric in Laramie, Wyoming, the way Chapter 2 author Hill Taylor does for Portland, Oregon. Likewise, I could envision partnering with the University of Wyoming’s sustainability department to lead an eco-conscious tour of our campus the way chapter three authors Deborah Church Miller, Lindsay Tigue, and Kim Waters describe at Michigan State. Not only were these lesson plans demonstrative of theory transformed into practice, but they seem well in-line with the action-focused mindset of a movement like environmentalism.
The following chapters dive into more classroom examples through a myriad of approaches. In Chapter 4, Justin Rademaekers and Cheryl Wanko walk through an experimental “no impact week,” inviting students to think critically about how their transportation, consumption, and social choices impact the environment. In this project, reflective student writing functions as a tool to both foster and track changes in sustainable decision-making. Specifically, the authors challenge their students to examine the barriers to their own choices through ecological, economic, and sociocultural social/cultural lenses. Following in the interdisciplinary footsteps at the core of ecocomposition, Chapter 5 authors Lease, Matthew R. Martin, and Joanne Chu borrow from adjacent fields by exploring the iterative problem-solving process known as “design thinking” in a Wesleyan College freshman writing seminar. While design thinking is used across disciplines, the process is typically associated with business innovation, as an approach to overcoming obstacles by focusing on a single user. Lease, Martin, and Chu apply this concept to their composition classroom, encouraging students to approach problems in creative ways. As a result, students became interdisciplinary innovators and designers, using writing, research, and design thinking in response to sustainability-themed challenges. As other writers in this collection note, the composition classroom turned out to provide the ideal place for students to contend with these large-scale problems. Writing helped students be more creative, reflective, and aware of their connection to complex systems; likewise, the topic of sustainability helped focus the tools of composition on personal, on-campus solutions.
With this focus on interdisciplinary exploration, the collection will likely appeal to enculturation’s readers from every corner of the field. The essays venture beyond traditional composition classrooms, sharing experiences that push the boundaries of what writing can do for sustainability, and vice versa. It is clear from this collection that no writing program is identical to another. Each essayist demonstrates how ecocomposition saturated their unique classrooms, and these examples can prove practical starting points for instructors across the discipline. Lesley Hawkes takes us into the creative writing classroom in Chapter 6, asking how setting can gain life and agency in fiction, and how that shift can break down theoretical binaries like the separation between human and nonhuman: “Students begin to notice that the environment does not have to be a back-drop, plot-driver, or a mood builder in stories, but rather it is an interactive, changing, and connected process in action” (132). Chapter 7 makes another unexpected pivot, as Pamela Herron uses the Dao De Jing as a shared sustainability text in her course. In many ways, Herron’s approach returns to Balthazor’s work in Chapter 1, breaking down how the rich complexity of word roots – in this case, roots of Chinese characters – can build on our understanding of sustainable living and writing. It is through these ancient language tools that her students explore the pressing ecological issues of present day. As Herron puts it, “The texts illuminate the fact that words – good communication – can effect change” (171).
The collection ends with Abby L. Goode’s essay, “Against Sustainability” – an outwardly antagonistic way to conclude a book on ecocomposition. But Goode isn’t bashing sustainable problem-solving as a whole; rather, she acknowledges criticism of the term “sustainability,” its connections to greenwashing and consumerism, and its limited, anthropocentric focus. She contends with how difficult it can be to introduce students to these criticisms while keeping them from the mire of pessimism. In one of the most powerful success stories of the collection, she shares an example from her class “Sustainability in America.” After a semester honing their critical reading and thinking skills, students presented their own on-campus environmental solutions, from food waste programs to cardboard furniture installations. These presentations were meant to be theoretical, but by collaborating with the school’s Energy and Sustainability department, Goode was able to help inspired students take their proposals into the real world. This success builds on a pedagogy rooted in the goals of real sustainability – cultivating a classroom that prioritizes democratic education, learning that acknowledges and engages with the complex web of an entire university campus, and writing that can effect real change. Despite its title, Goode’s chapter ends with the most hopeful note of all.
The hope in these essays stems from their action-oriented mindset, demonstrating how instructors have transformed major environmental challenges into student-led solutions that can be taken beyond the classroom. As a reader, I had also hoped to hear how instructors could turn their students’ attention to environmental justice issues in the same way. This isn’t to say justice stays invisible throughout the entire book; ideas around privilege and perspective certainly appear in different ways across the eight essays. But just as Dobrin and Weisser posited that writing is part of a system, and therefore highlighted the need for interdisciplinary practices, so has the modern environmental movement embraced an intersectional mindset in recent years, acknowledging social justice issues as inherent to the complex web of sustainable ecology. I would have been eager to see practical examples of how environmental justice could enter the writing classroom, building on theoretical works by scholars such as Greta Gaard in her essay “Ecofeminism and Ecocomposition: Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Intersections,” and others who have incorporated intersectional theories of ecocomposition. There is still more experimentation to do in the field, but this collection takes important steps to demonstrate ways instructors have begun that work in their respective institutions.
It is exactly that experimentation which makes the collection so helpful for writing instructors interested in threading sustainability through their writing classrooms. For readers approaching this book, it may seem at first unintuitive why the composition course would be the right sandbox for exploring sustainable concepts. Yet the authors emphasize how writing instructors can embrace composition’s flexibility, reflectivity, and cross-disciplinary nature to confront some of the most imperative problems of our age. With practical solution-building in the composition classroom, these environmental problems don’t have to bog our students – or us – in anxious inaction; they can be opportunities to build up our students as problem solvers and active, hopeful participants in the complex web of modern society. As Lease notes, “[F]or educators the most critical question is: What can we do to help?” (1) To me, learning from what other creative, thoughtful instructors have done to answer that question in their own classrooms – and expanding that work into the realm of environmental justice – seems like a good place to start.
Coe, Richard M. “Eco-Logic for the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 26, no. 3, 1975, p. 232-37. doi.org/10.2307/356121.
Cooper, Marilyn M. “The Ecology of Writing.” College English, vol. 48, no. 4, 1986, p. 364. doi.org/10.2307/377264.
Gaard, Greta. “Ecofeminism and Ecocomposition: Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Intersections.” Weisser and Dobrin, pp. 163-78.
Lease, Joseph R., editor. Climate Consciousness and Environmental Activism in Composition: Writing to Save the World. Lexington Books, 2020.
Weisser, Christian, R, and Sidney L. Dobrin, editors. Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. SUNY P, 2001.