Teaching Green Romanticism to Environmental Studies Majors

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Teaching Green Romanticism to Environmental Studies Majors

Tilar J. Mazzeo, Colby College


  1. This essay considers the complexities of teaching a course on literary Romanticism that is also part of an interdisciplinary Environmental Studies program. Part of the pragmatic challenge of leading cross-listed courses is that they involve teaching students and often a majority of students whose primary interests are not in literature but are in environmental science or social activism. As a matter of pedagogy, then, what does it mean to teach Romanticism outside the disciplinary boundaries of English studies?  How does one persuade students, many of whom are trained in the sciences, that poetry from a historically remote period is a vital and important part of their education?  Perhaps most simply, it is a matter of answering what has become an increasingly urgent question: How does Romanticism matter in the contemporary world?

  2. The course that I discuss at length in this essay is a fourteen-week cross-listed course recently taught as part of the Environmental Studies major at Colby College. Like all courses, this seminar has a genealogy that shapes its investments and the pedagogical approach that it reflects. The course has its origins in a general-education class on the personal essay and nature writing that I taught in Seattle at the University of Washington in 1999. As local events became world events that term, the World Trade Organization came to dominate much of our discussion for several weeks; among my students were several committed environmentalists and at least one self-professed anarchist. Ironically, however, the syllabus reflected—and continues to reflect, I think—my own ambivalence about teaching activism and about the problematic intersections of professorial authority and personal hypocrisy. (As a lapsed vegetarian, as a devotee of the senseless road trip, as one who finds sorting cans a tedious exercise in landfill futility, who am I to argue that you must change your life?)  This ambivalence was heightened in the second incarnation of this course, a class on Romanticism that engaged issues of environmentalism, which I taught in Corvallis at Oregon State University in 2000 to a positively dreamy group of politically enlightened and green-minded students. As satisfying as this was, we were perhaps carried away in that election year by a Shelleyean sense of the possible; far too many of us confessed afterward to voting for Nader, and I wondered once again about the wisdom of teaching environmentalism in a politicized context.

  3. The Environmental Studies focus of the course and the syllabus was formalized in 2002 when it was offered under the title "Green Romanticism" and was cross-listed on an on-going basis with the Environmental Studies major at the University of Wisconsin (Oshkosh), then headed by Bron Taylor. The course was offered again in the spring of 2005 at Colby College, also cross-listed with the Environmental Studies program. For better or for worse, I remain politically ambivalent about teaching what I have come to think of as environmentalism-as-social-critique. What I am hesitant about is an approach that asks students to locate the problems of environmental abuse "out there"—in corporate abuses, in a broken political system, in post-industrial American culture, in the choices of other people. As a result, it is probably necessary to observe that my course as presently configured focuses on the study of Romanticism and environmentalism as an intently introspective and self-reflective exercise. And I try to keep the emphasis on Romanticism rather than on environmentalism, even in this cross-disciplinary context; Environmental Studies majors, after all, are exposed to environmental issues in other places in the curriculum but are unlikely to take another course on British Romanticism. However, Romanticism has to seem relevant to them as well. Thus, the readings and assignments encourage students to think about how these texts and ideas intersect with their own experience and with they ways in which they choose to live in the world as individuals; this is Romanticism, then, as a personal accounting, as an opportunity to reflect on the history of environmentalism and on the role of the individual within it.

  4. In the absence of a directly activist pedagogy, I needed to find other ways to unify the course, and, as I have suggested, the focus of the syllabus is primarily historicist. In this class, we study the Romantic period as a moment in Western cultural history that was concerned with issues of the environment and ecological apocalypse, in order to consider how the literature of the period has shaped contemporary expectations regarding the nature and the development of environmental studies. The supplementary course readings are drawn from primarily historicist criticism or from cultural texts of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Because many of the students working in Environmental Studies are pursuing majors in Biology or the plant sciences, there is a particular emphasis in the course on the history of resource management, botany, and landscape production. However, while the course readings are historicist, the class assignments consistently ask students to reflect upon the ways in which Green Romanticism intersects with contemporary ecological issues or experiences. To this extent, there is also an emphasis on contemporary cultural incarnations of the Romantic inheritance.

  5. If a historicist emphasis structures the implied argument of the course, institutional realities also had an important effect on the construction of the syllabus. The course was taught on a fourteen-week semester system, and we met weekly for three hours in the late evening, from six to nine p.m. Scheduling the course as a night class was connected to the interdisciplinary focus on the seminar; science students routinely had lengthy laboratory sessions scheduled in the early afternoon, making it difficult for them to register for a humanities course offered at any reasonable hour or interval. As a matter of praxis, the three-hour class meeting meant having to schedule student presentations in the course; the idea of my talking for three hours, even in the capacity of vivaciously leading discussion, filled us all with horror. Since in designing the course I was committed to engaging the expertise and interest of students from beyond English studies and to making the course as genuinely interdisciplinary as possible given my own limited expertise, student presentations were not primarily literature based.

  6. These presentations were an important component of the course. Beginning in the third week of the semester, students were asked to prepare presentations that discussed the ways in which Romanticism continues to shape contemporary environmental issues. Students could work independently or as a group, according to their desire, with the understanding that the time allotted was ten minutes per member. (i.e. a group of three students needed to develop a unified thirty-minute presentation.)  To encourage rigorous and interesting presentations, students were required to advertise their presentation a week in advance to the rest of the class via email and were told that the function of this advertisement was to convince the rest of us that this was going to be fascinating. The dueling playbills that emerged were often quite funny and created a strong sense of community in the classroom, at the same time that they committed students in advance to impressing their peers with an intelligent and engaging presentation. To encourage good work, students were also required to submit on the evening of their presentation some prepared written or physical documentation—ranging from a typed outline or a Power Point presentation file to classroom handouts or, in more unusual instances that term, an audio CD or menu. Creativity in the service of conveying serious information was strongly encouraged, with some memorable results. Students talking about the history of vegetarianism and the legacy of Shelley's "Vindication of Natural Diet" in relation to contemporary meat production, for example, provided the class with a bibliography of remarkably grim "summer reading" and documentary films on the issue of animal production and slaughter, and, in conjunction with information on the scientific and evolutionary arguments for and against a raw food diet, talked about the relationship between environmentalism, the organic movement, and gourmet marketing. Another student paired Romantic-period landscape paintings with photographic images drawn from recent National Geographic and Outdoor Life magazines, in order to demonstrate that the iconography of the sublime continues to shape our aesthetic appreciation of the landscape and wilderness.  One student attempted unsuccessfully to build an Aeolian harp but did share a good deal of research into the history of the instrument and played for us instead on his guitar his musical rendition of Blake's introductory poem from Songs of Innocence, which, he observed, is about harps. And, of course, in addition to these whimsical highlights, there were the requisite presentations on the importance of strong forest management policy (paired with the readings on trees in week ten), on the perils of over-population in the world (paired with the readings on enclosure in week eleven), and on the changing conventions of botanical illustration, drawn from field notes of famous scientists (paired with the readings on Erasmus Darwin in week five).  These presentations were pedagogically successful in several respects—perhaps most importantly because they succeeded in engaging the students, in asking them to draw upon their own expertise in different disciplines, and in bringing energy to the more formal class discussion that followed.

  7. Typically, the student presentations occupied the first hour of the course period, and we dedicated the remaining two hours of class to discussing in detail the assigned texts on the syllabus. It is a fundamental problem in teaching Romantic poetry, in my experience, that few students—English majors included—are particularly confident readers of verse.  Environmental Studies majors, a number of whom had primary training in the sciences, were understandably apprehensive. As a result, when the class discussion focused on a poetic text, as it often did, we inevitably began with an exercise in paraphrase and close reading. As part of their preparation for class, students were asked to complete a paraphrase of the poem, which included looking up any of the words that they did not recognize and translating difficult passages of the poem into something resembling the contemporary vernacular. Most students encountered some difficulty in doing this successfully at the beginning, and we began discussion by making sure that everyone understood the rhetorical position of the text.

  8. From that point of departure, we would proceed by identifying and describing the environmental relationship defined by the text.  Studying Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," for example, we considered the personification of natural elements such as frost and fire in the poem, and then investigated how the metaphor of ministry amplified this comparison. What is the active element in the poem, we asked, the narrator or the natural world?  To what extent does the poem's final blessing offer the natural world up as an object to his babe?  Is the personification of the landscape actually a means of taking agency away from the environment by making it the site of psychological self-projection?  What are the environmental implications of the privileging of the rural over the urban for which the poem argues?  Or does it not argue that at all?  As a matter of practice at this point in the class session, my role was to provide a series of questions that are sufficiently open-ended and provocative enough to encourage students to go back and look at the text carefully again, something which applied as equally to prose works as to poetic texts. Thus, when we discussed Dorothy Wordsworth's travel narrative, Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, we considered how she described the natural and constructed environments around her, the institutions or experiences to which she compared that environment, and the way in which she positioned herself in relation to rural Scotland. A question of precisely this sort, circulated electronically, formed the basis for the periodic one-page response papers that students were asked to write in advance of class, as well.

  9. In these textual discussions, the theme of rural Romanticism recurred frequently over the course of the term; for many of the students, it was one of the most troubling aspects of Romanticism's relationship to the environment because the pastoral values in which these writers were invested seemed motivated by the underlying economic and cultural issues that we studied. However, because our campus was located in a rural area, we extended our discussion to the idea of place at a local level, and one of the insights that students came to in the course of discussion was the problem of referring derisively to rural areas—including the one in which we all lived—as "the middle of nowhere" or the "sticks."  By asking students to connect these poems with their own experience and with the metaphors they employed to describe their relationship to the landscape they inhabited, I wanted them to consider the extent to which they replicated a similar relationship to rural culture and defined value as a function of use. One of the questions that occupied us was the problem of what it means to say that a place is "nowhere," and we connected this to the larger context of the North American environmentalist movement, frontier utopianism, and the tendency of activist organizations to privilege as "somewhere" remote areas that conform to the aesthetics of the sublime.

  10. While the second hour of the class period was typically dedicated to textually generated issues of this sort, the final third of the class focused on placing these literary texts in relation to Romantic-period historical documents or on considering them through the critical lens of an interpretive essay. These readings placed a text such as Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in dialogue, for example, with post-colonial studies, and we discussed the ways in which imperialism intersects with environmental and ecological issues. In another session, drawing on essays by Buell and Paley, we considered the apocalyptic anxieties that public health crises produced for the Romantics and compared those to the recent millennialism of Y2K and to the environmental issues related to movements toward living "off the grid" in the face of this anticipated late twentieth-century crisis. Perhaps most importantly, as the semester came to a close, these secondary readings focused increasingly on arguments for the continued presence of Romanticism in the modern and post-modern era, an argument admirably assisted by the recent scholarship of Lowy and Sayre. Since part of the implied argument of the semester was to demonstrate to students the relevance of Romanticism for analyzing and understanding their engagement with Environmental Studies and their relationship to the world around them, this positioning was intended as a way of ending the semester forcefully, and the topic was the focus on their final examination essay.

  11. The essay topics for the midterm and final examinations reflect the larger themes and the progression of the course quite neatly, in fact. If the first part of the semester had a tendency to allow students to critique Romanticism—even while recognizing it as a radical and in many ways progressive philosophy—as equivocally environmentalist, the second part of the semester asked that students articulate the abiding presence of Romanticism in the contemporary world and in their own expectations regarding their relationship to the environment. To this end, the question for the midterm examination focused on the sublime. On this topic, I wrote:

    Edmund Burke has defined the sublime as 'Whatever either on good or upon bad grounds tends to raise a man in his own opinion, produces a sort of swelling and triumph that is extremely grateful to the human mind; and this swelling is never more perceived, nor operates with more force, than when without danger we are conversant with terrible objects, the mind always claiming to itself some part of the dignity and importance of the thing which it contemplates.'  This definition would seem to suggest that the sublime has little to do with the appreciation of natural objects per se and a great deal to do with egotism. The question is: Can the sublime (or the sublime cycle) ever be legitimately environmentalist? (And what would that be?) Or does the sublime always engage the landscape as a passive object for domination, use, or exploitation by humans and human culture? Respond in a one-page, single-spaced essay, considering the question in the context of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Mont Blanc" and/or Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

    This question asks students to consider one of the central ideas of the Romantic period—the sublime—in relation to two traditionally canonical poems. However, it also asks them to consider these elements in the context of their own thinking about environmentalism. The simple answer to the question, of course, is that the sublime does engage the landscape as a passive object for domination and use.  I do not recall a single student offering a paper that convincingly argued anything different, and to this extent the midterm requires students to be critical of the Romantic ideology. However, between this point in the term and the final examination, students also were generally persuaded that they evaluate landscapes in aesthetic terms that engage the sublime, and they were generally persuaded that Romanticism continues to influence their perceptions of the natural world, for better and for worse. For those who were not already persuaded, the final examination question asked them to make the argument. The final examination question posed was:

    Romanticism has been recently described as a philosophical and aesthetic attitude, internationalist in scope, originating in the late eighteenth century but continuing into the present. If Romanticism is an attitude, what are its attributes? What does it privilege? What might be the value of this attitude?  Compare one of the poems that you have read in class with one modern example of "Romanticism" in order to develop your argument. Contemporary Romanticism may be broadly defined, and you do not need to focus on a modern updating of a Romantic-period work; you are at liberty to find an otherwise unrelated example from which you can extrapolate similarities in attitude. You may consider examples that are written, visual, oral, musical, or otherwise multimedia.

    Unlike the midterm examination question, the final examination question requires students to do four things: to define Romanticism at the end of a course on the subject; to return one more time to a Romantic-period poem in order to construct a close reading of it; to identify and to reflect upon one example of Romanticism in the world around them and drawn from their own experience; and to do all this looking through the lens of Environmental Studies and ecological issues.

  12. As I said at the outset, this is Romanticism as self-accounting. From an overarching pedagogical perspective, the implicit condition of critiquing the Romantics early in the semester is that the students are asked at its close to reflect upon the ways in which, as self-identified environmentalists, they are inheritors of that tradition. What I hope students recognize in the final weeks of the term is the complexity of coming to judgment. Over the course of the semester, students are asked to critique Romanticism and then to identify with it in a personal manner, and what I hope that they will finally find themselves wondering, although one cannot proscribe it, is the degree to which they are any more successful at living according to ecological principles than the Romantics were. The point is not to discourage the effort. Quite the contrary, part of what I hope that Romanticism teaches them is that living your life as best you can by the principles to which you are most committed is a form of activism as well. This is typically not a hard sell. The advantage of teaching Romantic literature as part of an Environmental Studies program is that the students are generally quite willing to think about the relationship between texts and the material conditions of experience. Indeed, they frequently demand it. And while cross-listing Romanticism and teaching the subject outside the disciplinary boundaries of English studies brings with it a particular set of complexities regarding what one can expect students to know or, more importantly, to be interested in, it brings with in the very real pleasure of discovering that it is not such a difficult thing to believe that the period continues to matter in the world.

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[Go to Class Assignments]

Published @ RC

December 2006

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